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Bahamas History: The peaceful Lucayans and the Spanish arrival

When Christopher Columbus and his crew struck land on the island of San Salvador in 1492 they found out that there were already plenty of human being living in the islands we call today The Bahamas.

The Lucayans, Amerindians lived on the islands longer than 500 years. Lucayans means 'Island People'. The Lucayans never developed the art of writing. The history of their ancestors was memorized from generation to generation and when the entire people died their history died with them. Therefore our knowledge is very limited. The most often mentioned hypothesis is that the Lucayans originated on the northern coast of South America. They fled north because of the deadly attacks of the Caribs, another Indian tribe which were dreaded warriors and cannibals. The Caribs lived on the islands of the Lesser Antilles.

The Lucayans shared the same language, used the same tools and weapons and the had same customs than the Arawak, another major Caribbean tribe which inhabited the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica). The Lucayans were described as gentle, peaceful, happy and handsome people. They ate a well balanced diet consisting of fish and other seafood, corn, manioc and sweet potato.

The Lucayans build their houses in a very solid way of wood and leaves which could withstand destructive winds. Their villages were small. Fifteen houses were considered as a large settlement, the majority was much smaller. They were very skilled in crafting articles of wood such as canoes, spears, bowls and chairs. Modern archaeological discoveries indicate that the Lucayans were ceramic-using people. Fragments of their pottery were found on several islands.

When the Spanish arrived in 1492 the Lucayans were very friendly, greeted them as gods and offered all kinds of gifts. The Spanish were not interested in the small and mostly barren islands. They hurried further on their search for gold. The bad luck for the Lucayans was their proximity to Hispaniola, where the Spanish established gold mines.

The native workers were quickly exhausted and died. So the Spanish came back and took the Lucayans to work in the mines and plantation. But a great many died on the sea crossing, on European diseases and the rest died from homesickness and overwork. Within 25 years, the Lucayans - once perhaps 40,000 strong - were gone.

The English and the Pirates

Several hundred years after Christopher Columbus discovered the Bahamas and the Lucayans were eradicated not much happened on the islands until in 1629 the English nation proclaimed the island group.

A few years later the first settlers arrived in Eleuthera, but more by accident. Some 70 Puritans, who were in religious dispute with the main English Anglican church, searched for a land where they can practice their religion in liberty. They sailed from Bermuda and get shipwrecked off the north coast of Eleuthera. They lost all their supplies but they managed to survive with fish and fruits. Life was hard in Eleuthera, because the soil was not very good for farming, so some sailed back to Bermuda but other Puritans came to their aid and raised a large sum of money and supplies to support them.

At the same time the English king granted proprietary rights of the Bahamas to several lords. The appointed a governor to run the small settlement in Nassau. Whereas Eleuthera sprung from high-minded principles of religious freedom, Nassau seems to have been developed with a complete lack of principle and law.

For most, the way of earning a living was the salvaging of wrecked ships. Thousands of ships of all sizes went down in the tricky waters of the Bahamas and were an easy target for the locals to salvage. Stories have even been told of wreckers deliberately misplacing shore lights to lure hapless boats onto the rocks.

There is only a small step to wrecking, when the boat is not in trouble, which we call piracy. Much of the Caribbean at the time was a pirate refuge, including Nassau. Edward Teach (also known as Blackbeard), Mary Read and Anne Bonney (notorious female pirates) were the most famous ones which lived in Nassau. Piracy against ships of hostile nations, like the Spanish was even legal at that time. The Spanish lost many gold-laden ships. But Nassau was sacked four times in 25 years but after each attack, the town filled again with criminals and solid citizens.

But things changed when Woodes Rogers, the royal governor, arrived in Nassau in 1718. He cleaned Nassau from the Pirates either by offering pardons to them or by public hanging. He strengthened Nassau's fortification and was able to fight back the Spanish.

Big events like the American Independence declaration from Britain throw their shadow on the Bahamas as well. American loyalist gained influence in Nassau. They built huge plantations with hundreds of enslaved women and men. Within a decade, however, most of the plantations had failed but as a result the number of African people increased significantly on the islands. After the British prohibited the slave trades, many enslaved people became freeman and found a home in the Bahamas.

The 19th Century and the way to Independence

After the wild 17th century, more quite times arrived in The Bahamas islands. The quiet times were only interrupted by short boom times like in the years of the American Civil War. The North could block a lot of ports of the South and the Bahamians made a fortune by smuggling all kind of goods to the South. But then the war was over, so was the boom for The Bahamas and the quiet times came back.

The smuggling era had a revival in the times of the Prohibition in the 1920s. The islands became the hub for alcohol smuggling to the U.S. New hotels, clubs and casinos were build which attracted gangsters and society dandies for their winter holidays. But this boom time was over with the Great Depression and later World War II.

After World War II, the Bahamas was more actively promoted to North Americans as a vacation spot. Tremendous advertising, the opening of new hotels and year-round tourism put the Bahamas on the tourism map. Tourism grew to the most important industry.

On July 10, 1973, after 250 years as a British colony, the new nation of the Bahamas was born. The transition was very smooth and peaceful. All government systems were long in place.

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