Monday, March 21, 2016

A Woefully Brief History of the Bahamas

It’s hard to explain to folks who have never looked at a map of The Bahamas (like me, for example, until a few months ago) where they are and that they are NOT part of the Caribbean Islands.  The Bahamian Islands do not lie within the Caribbean Sea.  However, that information eluded me until the last year prior to moving onto our sailboat when I began to take more notice of The Bahamas. 
Bordered by Florida to the west and Cuba to the south, lie the Bahamas. (map taken from The Cruising Guide to Abaco Bahamas 2016)

The Bahamas are a group of approximately 700 islands, our closest foreign neighbors off the coast of the eastern U.S.  Many of the islands are tiny, little more than rocks protruding from the water and those are uninhabited.  Many of them, thirty, are inhabited and have been so since about 400 A.D. 
Statue of a Lucayan, also referred to as the Taino,

The first known inhabitants of the islands we now call The Bahamas were the Lucayans, an Arawakan speaking group who were a very peaceful people living off the ocean’s harvest. They came from the land we now call Cuba.   
Pottery from era of Lucayan or Carib.

Some time later, they were invaded by a warlike people that sailed across the water from the south, perhaps from the area of Venezuela or thereabouts.  These invaders were called Caribs from which the word “cannibal” is derived. When the Caribs came, the Lucayans essentially disappeared, probably by the women being kidnapped and raped and by the murder and perhaps cannibalization of the men. There can be no darker moment in history for a people like the Lucayans who are now, no more.

One of the early maps, this one drawn by French navigators/explorers.

The next invaders were the Spaniards.  History books refer to them as the Conquistadores.  They came with their horses and armor and European diseases which in effect wiped out large populations of the natives, even before many of them had even seen a white person.  Columbus first landed on the island of Hispaniola (shared by the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic in 1492.  He established a church there to prove to Queen Isabella who funded his ventures that he was establishing a Christian settlement there.  For good measure, he abducted a few natives to bring back with him to Europe to prove his point. Columbus referred to the area as "the baja mar" (Spanish pro. 'ba'ha mar') which means shallow sea and the name stuck -- The Bahamas.  
The Bahamas population is about 330,000.  Most Bahamians are of West African descent.  Many Haitians have migrated to the Bahamas as well, over the past few decades. 

By the 1600’s, the Spaniards were spreading over many of the islands of the Caribbean and into some of the islands of The Bahamas.  Naturally, the white settlers goal was to establish commerce on the islands and if they could find gold or a fountain of youth while doing it, so much the better.  Commerce required slaves, as it turned out, and for a couple hundred years, the Spaniards (and folks from other enterprising European countries as well) bought or stole hundreds of thousands of black slaves from the African continent to the Caribbean Islands and into The Bahamas as well.
Bahamian teens swimming off the dock in Marsh Harbour on a warm Saturday in March, 2016.

Commerce included attempts at growing crops like pineapples, coconut and sugar cane—all crops that required hard labor in extreme heat.  The white entrepreneurs believed that the slaves were more resilient to the heat than their white counterparts and found that they were immune to some of the diseases that came along with the mosquitoes which were inadvertently imported from Africa as well.  White soldiers, property owners, businessmen and priests died by the thousands, while the people stolen from the African continent died in proportionately smaller numbers, but there were so many slaves brought into these islands that their numbers continued to increase, regardless.  
Gravestones resemble early New England/English markers.  Graves appear to be more hallow however.

With the search for religious freedom as the impetus, a group of English Puritans settled in The Bahamas along about 1649.  They may have found that, but they also found they did not have enough to eat.  The Massachusetts Bay Colony actually helped them out with a shipload of food and the Bahama Puritans repaid the Colony with brasileto wood.  It must have fetched a handsome price because Massachusetts used that money to put toward land for a school, Harvard.
Stories abound about pirates hiding their treasure around the islands.

It must have been easy pickins to be a pirate in the Bahamas in the 1600 and 1700's.  Shipping lanes to the American colonies were nearby.  With its' shallow water and reefs that snatched unsuspecting ships loaded with booty,  
Statue commemorating the Loyalists who fled to the Bahamas.  New Plymouth, Green Turtle Cay, Abacos, Bahamas. 

Another group of invaders came into the Bahamas much later, in the 1780's.  Those were the Loyalists to the British Crown.  While the American Revolution was in full swing in New England, the Loyalists escaped to The Bahamas, many with only the clothes on their backs.  Those Loyalist communities on some of the Bahamian Islands still resemble the New England villages that they fled.  
Princess Margaret.  The Bahamas were a British colony until 1973.    

The descendants of those Loyalists are still here in the islands.  They are of English, Scottish and Irish heritage.  They tend  therefore, to have blonde or reddish hair, blue eyes and fair skin.  They have names like Lowe, Curry and Roberts.  When they speak, their Bahamian accents lead me to ask for repetition as often as I do for any Bahamian of color.   Linguistically speaking, this is an interesting place, and I would like to learn more about that—a 200 year old English speaking population that has stirred up that language with folks of African heritage in communities isolated from the influence of any major populations, at least until more recently.  It’s unlike any spoken language I have previously heard.  When two Bahamians are speaking to each other, it may be virtually impossible for me to glean even the topic of their conversation.   
The Bahamas are an independent member of the British Commonwealth.


To further confuse the reader, the Bahamas are divided into different groups of islands.  The northernmost group of islands closest to the U.S. are the Abacos.   The Abacos’ largest islands are Grand Bahama Island, Great Abaco Island and Andros.  None of them are heavily populated. 
Pineapple coconut jam.  Coconut grows naturally. 

Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas is on the tiny island of New Providence.  The Bahamas also includes the Bimini Islands, the Berry Islands, and the long string of little reef islands that border the Atlantic which we have begun to visit beginning with Green Turtle Cay, Manjack Cay and now Guana Cay.  Further southeast are Man o' War, Elbow Cay, Eleuthera, then the Exumas, followed by the Turks and Caicos.  By the time one has passed through the Caicos, you may safely say you are in the Caribbean.  The Caribbean is yet another 7000 islands representing 28 different countries.  Fascinating stuff, huh?
The Bahamas extend about 550 miles across the waters north of Cuba and east toward Hispaniola. 

No comments: