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Bahamas, the(bəhä`məz), officially Commonwealth of the Bahamas, independent nation (2015 est. pop. 387,000), 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 IslandsTurks and Caicos Islands
, dependency of Great Britain (2015 est. pop. 34,000), 166 sq mi (430 sq km), West Indies. There are more than 30 cays and islands, of which eight are inhabited. Geographically, the islands are a southeastern continuation of the Bahamas.
..... Click the link for more information. , 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 NassauNassau
, city (1990 pop. 172,196), capital of the Bahamas. A port on New Providence island, it has a large and beautiful harbor and is the commercial and social center of the islands. Its warm, healthful climate and colorful atmosphere have made it a popular resort.
..... Click the link for more information. , 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 IslandsAbaco Islands
, island group, c.780 sq mi (2,020 sq km), most northerly of the Bahamas. Also known as Abaco and Cays, the Abacos include Great Abaco (the largest), Little Abaco, and the surrounding cays.
..... Click the link for more information. ), the BiminisBiminis
, island group in the Straits of Florida, forming the northwest section of the Bahamas. The group includes North Bimini, South Bimini, and surrounding cays. Exceptionally good fishing attracts many tourists.
..... Click the link for more information. , Andros, Eleuthera, Cat Island, San SalvadorSan Salvador,
island of the Bahamas, West Indies. Many historians believe that it was the first land sighted by Columbus in the New World in 1492. The indigenous population called it Guanahani, and it has also been named Watling or Watlings Island.
..... Click the link for more information. , Great and Little Exuma (Exuma Cays), Long Island, Crooked Island, Acklins Island, Mayaguana, and Great and Little Inagua (see InaguaInagua
, island group of the Bahamas. A virtually isolated cluster at the southern end of the archipelago, it includes Great Inagua, Little Inagua, and some islets. Matthew Town is the chief settlement of Inagua. Salt production is the primary economic activity.
..... Click the link for more information. ).
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.
The islands' vivid subtropical atmosphere—brilliant sky and sea, lush vegetation, flocks of bright-feathered birds, and submarine gardens where multicolored fish swim among white, rose, yellow, and purple coral—as well as rich local color and folklore, has made the Bahamas one of the most popular resorts in the hemisphere. The islands' many casinos are an additional attraction, and tourism is by far the country's most important industry, providing 60% of the gross domestic product and employing about half of the workforce. Financial services are the nation's other economic mainstay, although many international businesses left after new government regulations on the financial sector were imposed in late 2000. Salt, rum, aragonite, and pharmaceuticals are produced, and these, along with animal products and chemicals, are the chief exports. The Bahamas also possess facilities for the transshipment of petroleum. The country's main trading partners are the United States and Spain. Since the 1960s, the transport of illegal narcotic drugs has been a problem, as has the flow of illegal refugees from other islands.
The Bahamas are governed under the constitution of 1973 and have a parliamentary form of government. There is a bicameral legislature consisting of a 16-seat Senate and a 40-seat House of Assembly. The prime minister is the head of government, and the monarch of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, represented by an appointed governor-general, is the titular head of state. The nation is divided into 21 administrative districts.
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 RogersRogers, Woodes,
1679?–1732, British privateer and colonial administrator. A romantic figure, Rogers plundered (1708–9) Spanish commerce in the Pacific and rescued Alexander Selkirk from the Juan Fernández islands.
..... Click the link for more information. , the first royal governor, was appointed in 1717. Under Rogers the pirates and buccaneers, notably BlackbeardBlackbeard,
d. 1718, English pirate. His name was probably Edward Teach, Thatch, or Thach. He probably began as a privateer in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14), then turned pirate.
..... Click the link for more information. , 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. PindlingPindling, Sir Lynden Oscar,
1930–2000, prime minister of the Bahamas (1967–92). The son of a policeman, he received a law degree (1952) from London Univ. As leader of the Progressive Liberal party, he represented the large black majority in the Bahamas and became the
..... Click the link for more information. . 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 IngrahamIngraham, Hubert Alexander
, 1947–, Bahamian political leader, prime minister of the Bahamas (1992–2002, 2007–12), b. Cooper's Town, Abaco. A lawyer, Ingraham started his political career as a member of the Progressive Liberal party (PLP), becoming party
..... Click the link for more information. 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 ChristieChristie, Perry Gladstone,
1943–, Bahamian political leader. A member of the Progressive Liberal party, he practiced law for several years before serving (1977–2017; as an independent from 1987 to 1990) in Bahama's parliament.
..... Click the link for more information. 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).