The original inhabitants of the Bahamas were a tribe of Arawaks, the peaceful Lucayans, who arrived near the turn of the 9th century. Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492 and soon after the Spanish began shipping out the Lucayans as slaves.
Pirates such as Henry Jennings and ‘Blackbeard’ (Edward Teach), who terrorized his victims by wearing flaming fuses in his matted beard and hair, took over New Providence, establishing a pirates’ paradise that in 1666 was lined with brothels and taverns for ‘common cheats, thieves and lewd persons.’ With the aid of Woodes Rogers, the Bahamas’ first Royal Governor and a former privateer, the British finally established order and an administration answerable to the English crown in 1718. The Bahamas’ new motto was Expulsis Piratis – Restituta Commercia (Pirates Expelled – Commerce Restored).
Following the American Revolution, Loyalist refugees – many quite rich or entrepreneurial – began arriving, giving new vigor to the city. These wealthy landowners lived well and kept slaves until the British Empire abolished the slave trade in 1807. During the American Civil War the islands were an exchange center for blockade runners transferring munitions and supplies for Southern cotton.
While Nassauvians illicitly supplied liquor to the US during Prohibition, Yankees flocked to Nassau and her new casino. When Fidel Castro then spun Cuba into Soviet orbit in 1961, the subsequent US embargo forced revelers to seek their pleasures elsewhere; Nassau became the new hot spot.
Tourism and finance bloomed together. The government promoted the nascent banking industry, encouraging British investors escaping onerous taxes.
This upturn in fortunes coincided with the evolution of party politics and festering ethnic tensions, as the white elite and a growing black middle class reaped profits from the boom. Middle-class blacks’ aspirations for representation coalesced with the pent-up frustrations of their impoverished brothers, leading to the victory of the black-led Progressive Liberal party and leader Sir Linden Pindling in 1967. On July 10, 1973, the Bahamas officially became a new nation; the Independent Commonwealth of the Bahamas, ending 325 years of British rule.
In 1984 it was revealed that Colombian drug barons had corrupted the new Bahamian government at its highest levels and the country’s drug-heavy reputation tarnished its image abroad. Tourism and financial investment declined, so the government belatedly launched a crackdown led by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (US DEA). In response, the electorate voted in the conservative, business-focused Free National Movement (FNM) in 1992.
Devastating hurricanes ravaged various islands between 1999 and 2007, wreaking havoc on tourism. Despite these storms, the tourism juggernaut continues and massive resorts on New Providence, Grand Bahama and several Out Islands are chugging toward completion. Debates rage over whether these enclaves – many of them isolated from the primary settlements – will be a long-term boon or bust. Pick up a local paper on any island, flip to the editorials and you’ll read a passionate range of opinions.