Over the centuries, our protected harbor – hidden among a tangle of Islands poised between the Atlantic and Caribbean, and only a few hundred miles from the United States’ southern coast – has sheltered religious dissenters, ship wreckers, pirates, freed slaves, blockade runners, rum smugglers and runaway lovers. Times are peaceful now, but we still cherish a tradition of people making their own rules under sunny skies.
Gateway to the New World
The Bahamian Island of Guanahani, traditionally identified as San Salvador, was Christopher Columbus’ first landfall in the New World. The original inhabitants of the Island were the Lucayans, described by Columbus as a peace-loving people, beautiful and generous of heart. Though Columbus claimed the Island for Spain, the lack of gold here led the Spaniards to focus on settlements elsewhere in the Caribbean. In 1629, Charles I of England laid claim to the Carolinas and threw The Bahamas in for good measure, a grand gesture that would weave together two of the major influences on The Bahamas’ development – England and the American South.
Spiritual Adventurers and Marauding Pirates
In 1648, William Sayles and his Eleutheran Adventurers (from the Greek word “Eleutheria,” or “freedom”) landed briefly in Nassau’s harbor during their search for a place to establish a Puritan colony. They then sailed south to today’s Eleuthera Island, where a reef called the Devil’s Backbone wrecked the Adventurers’ ship and chose their new home for them. The surviving Adventurers were the first English settlers in The Bahamas.
Back in Nassau (first established as Charles Town in 1666 and christened Nassau in 1695), wrecked ships became a livelihood for the city’s less religious-minded settlers. If bad weather and poor maps didn’t bring enough salvage ashore, the “citizens” of this outlaw settlement would put lights on the reefs to lure ships to their doom. None of this rogue activity was approved of by the faraway English government – but the English did put a seal of approval on the beginnings of piracy.
During the 17th century, England was constantly at war and the Royal Navy had its hands full, and so a Letter of Marque was given to sea captains called “privateers,” allowing them to attack enemy ships. Piracy quickly became rampant, and in Nassau a “Privateer’s Republic” was established.
Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, declared himself Nassau’s magistrate. Calico Jack Rackham, Anne Bonney and Mary Read were among many infamous pirates based here.
When England signed treaties with its enemies, the privateers (who had far exceeded the limits of their Letter of Marque) officially became outlaws. In 1718 their “republic” came to an end when England sent Governor Woodes Rogers to Nassau, armed with three warships and the motto Expulsis Piratis – Resituta Commercia (Pirates Expelled – Commerce Restored).
The Bahamas then became an English Royal Colony and during the American Revolution many Loyalists fled here, some of them bringing slaves from plantations in the Carolinas. But plantations never became an established way of life on the islands, and in 1807 when England’s Parliament banned the slave trade, many slave ships were intercepted by the Royal Navy and the captured West Africans were set free here. Nassau’s Over-the-Hill district was first established as a settlement for liberated West Africans. By the time Parliament declared general Emancipation in 1834, about three-quarters of the Bahamian population was from West Africa.
During the American Civil War, privateering had something of a resurgence. England and Nassau defied the North’s blockade and continued to trade with Southern states. In the famous Civil War novel Gone with the Wind, Rhett Butler is a well-known man about town in Nassau. Later, during Prohibition, Nassau defied the U.S. again and did a lively business smuggling liquor into Southern ports, until President Roosevelt repealed the “unfortunate amendment.”
In the 1940s, King Edward VIII gave up his throne to marry “the woman I love” and settled in Nassau. The new couple, known as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, began a new era of peaceful glamour here, attracting an ever increasing number of visitors and developers to our island.
In 1973 the nation became independent from England.