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Bahamas, the (bəhäˈməz), officially Commonwealth of the Bahamas, independent nation (2020 est. pop. 393,248), 4,403 sq mi (11,404 sq km), in the Atlantic Ocean, consisting of some 700 islands and islets and about 2,400 cays, beginning c.50 mi (80 km) off SE Florida and extending c.600 mi (970 km) SE almost to Haiti. The country does not include the Turks and Caicos Islands, to the southeast, which, although geographically part of the archipelago, have been separately administered by Great Britain since 1848. The capital and principal city is Nassau, on New Providence island. Other chief islands are known as “out islands” or “family islands.”
Land and People
The islands, composed mainly of limestone and coral, rise from a vast submarine plateau. Most are generally low and flat, riverless, with many mangrove swamps, brackish lakes (connected with the ocean by underground passages), and coral reefs and shoals. Fresh water is obtained from rainfall and from desalinization. Navigation is hazardous, and many of the outer islands are uninhabited and undeveloped, although steps have been taken to improve transportation facilities. Hurricanes occasionally cause severe damage, but the climate is generally excellent. In addition to New Providence, other main islands are Grand Bahama (the site of Freeport, the second largest city), Great and Little Abaco (see Abaco Islands), the Biminis, Andros, Eleuthera, Cat Island, San Salvador, Great and Little Exuma (Exuma Cays), Long Island, Crooked Island, Acklins Island, Mayaguana, and Great and Little Inagua (see Inagua).
The population is primarily of African and mixed African and European descent; some 12% is of European heritage, with small minorities of Asian and Hispanic descent. More than three quarters of the people belong to one of several Protestant denominations and nearly 15% are Roman Catholic. English is the official language. The Bahamas have a relatively low illiteracy rate. The government provides free education through the secondary level; the College of the Bahamas was established in 1974, although most Bahamians who seek a higher education study in Jamaica or elsewhere.
Before the arrival of Europeans, the Bahamas were inhabited by the Lucayos, a group of Arawaks. Christopher Columbus first set foot in the New World in the Bahamas (1492), presumably at San Salvador, and claimed the islands for Spain. Although the Lucayos were not hostile, they were soon exterminated by the Spanish, who did not colonize the islands.
The first settlements were made in the mid-17th cent. by the English. In 1670 the islands were granted to the lords proprietors of Carolina, who did not relinquish their claim until 1787, although Woodes Rogers, the first royal governor, was appointed in 1717. Under Rogers the pirates and buccaneers, notably Blackbeard, who frequented the Bahama waters, were driven off. The Spanish attacked the islands several times, and an American force held Nassau for a short time in 1776. In 1781 the Spanish captured Nassau and took possession of the whole colony, but under the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1783) the islands were ceded to Great Britain.
After the American Revolution many Loyalists settled in the Bahamas, bringing with them black slaves to labor on cotton plantations. Plantation life gradually died out after the emancipation of slaves in 1834. Blockade-running into Southern ports in the U.S. Civil War enriched some of the islanders, and during the prohibition era in the United States the Bahamas became a base for rum-running.
The United States leased areas for bases in the Bahamas in World War II and in 1950 signed an agreement with Great Britain for the establishment of a proving ground and a tracking station for guided missiles. In 1955 a free trade area was established at the town of Freeport. It proved enormously successful in stimulating tourism and has attracted offshore banking.
In the 1950s black Bahamians, through the Progressive Liberal party (PLP), began to oppose successfully the ruling white-controlled United Bahamian party; but it was not until the 1967 elections that they were able to win control of the government. The Bahamas were granted limited self-government as a British crown colony in 1964, broadened (1969) through the efforts of Prime Minister Lynden O. Pindling. The PLP, campaigning on a platform of immediate independence, won an overwhelming victory in the 1972 elections and negotiations with Britain were begun.
On July 10, 1973, the Bahamas became a sovereign state within the Commonwealth of Nations. In 1992, after 25 years as prime minister and facing recurrent charges of corruption and ties to drug traffickers, Pindling was defeated by Hubert Ingraham of the Free National Movement (FNM). A feeble economy, mostly due to a decrease in tourism and the poor management of state-owned industries, was Ingraham's main policy concern. Ingraham was returned to office in 1997 with an ironclad majority, but lost power in 2002 when the PLP triumphed at the polls; PLP leader Perry Christie replaced Ingraham as prime minister. Concern over the government's readiness to accommodate the tourist industry contributed to the PLP's losses in the 2007 elections, and Ingraham and the FNM regained power. In the 2012 elections the FNM lost in a landslide to the PLP, primarily due to economic concerns, and Christie again became prime minister. Five years later, however, the PLP lost to the FNM in a landslide (and Christie lost his seat); Hubert Minnis became prime minister. Hurricane Dorian, a slow moving, extremely destructive storm, devastated Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands in 2019, and caused $3.4 billion in damages and other losses.
See H. P. Mitchell, Caribbean Patterns (2d ed. 1970); J. E. Moore, Pelican Guide to the Bahamas (1988).
Official name: Commonwealth of The Bahamas
Capital city: Nassau
Internet country code: .bs
Flag description: Three equal horizontal bands of aquamarine (top), gold, and aquamarine, with a black equilateral triangle based on the hoist side
National anthem: “March On Bahamaland” by Timothy Gibson
National motto: “Forward Upward Onward Together”
National bird: Flamingo
National fish: Blue marlin (Makaira nigricans)
National flower: Yellow elder
National song: “God Bless Our Sunny Clime,” lyrics by Rev. Philip Rahming, music by Timothy Gibson and Clement Bethel
National tree: Lignum vitae
Geographical description: Caribbean, chain of islands in the North Atlantic Ocean, southeast of Florida, northeast of Cuba
Total area: 5,382 sq. mi. (13,939 sq. km.)
Climate: Tropical marine; moderated by warm waters of Gulf Stream
Nationality: noun: Bahamian(s); adjective: Bahamian
Population: 305,655 (July 2007 CIA est.)
Ethnic groups: Black African 85%, white European 12%, Asian and Hispanic 3%
Languages spoken: English (official), Creole
Religions: Baptist 35.4%, Anglican 15.1%, Roman Catholic 13.5%, Pentecostal 8.1%, Chuch of God 4.8%, Methodist 4.2%, other Christian 15.2%, none or unspecified 2.9%, other 0.8%