When AFAR Experiences heads to The Bahamas on June 15 and 16, armchair historians will have opportunities to learn about the islands’ unique and colorful history. Varied cultural influences—Lucayan, Spanish, West African, British, and even the American South—as well as pirates, Puritans, and rumrunners have helped shape the culture of The Bahamas today.
The story starts more than 800 years ago, when the Lucayan people migrated here from the northern coast of South America. “They called themselves ‘the people of the small islands,’ and that’s who we are, too,” says Arlene Nash Ferguson, director of Educulture Bahamas Ltd. In 1492 Columbus wasted no time enslaving tens of thousands of the peaceful Lucayans. Most were shipped off to Hispaniola (the island that today includes the Dominican Republic and Haiti) to work in Spanish mines.
The Bahamas were then largely deserted until 1648, when a group of Puritans—the “Eleutheran Adventurers”—founded the first permanent European colony on the island of Eleuthera. During the same period, as commerce between the New and Old World increased, pirates who raided the rich shipping lanes found ideal hideouts among The Bahamas’ islands, atolls, and cays. Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Sir Henry Morgan, Anne Bonny, and Mary Read were among the legendary pirates who used The Bahamas as a base and treasure trove. In the early 1700s, Nassau—founded in part by wreckers and privateers—became known as the Republic of Pirates, governed by the loose collection of rules dubbed the “pirates code.”
A pardon offered to the pirates in 1717 helped secure British rule of The Bahamas, which lasted until independence in 1973. The tradition of serving hot cross buns at Easter, driving on the left, and raising a maypole for virtually any holiday are vestiges of colonial rule in The Bahamas—plus the English language, of course.
British immigrants from Bermuda and Barbados brought their African slaves to The Bahamas, and more slaves came with Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution. “Historically, we have more in common with the Southern United States than with the Caribbean,” Ferguson explains. Only in The Bahamas, for example, will you find grits right alongside the “peas and rice” common on nearby islands.
By the late 1800s black people had become the majority in The Bahamas—the ancestors of most Bahamians today. The British abolished slavery in 1834, making The Bahamas a beacon of hope for escaped slaves from the American South: 135 slaves were granted their freedom in The Bahamas in 1841 after commandeering a slave ship, for example. A settlement on the island of Andros was founded in the early 1800s by a group of mixed-race Black Seminoles who had fled Florida.
Somewhat ironically, The Bahamas later become a hideout for Confederate blockade runners during the U.S. Civil War. The islands’ long reputation as a haven for outlaws continued into the 20th century, when it served as a base for rumrunners during Prohibition.
Steamships began bringing the first tourists to The Bahamas in the late 1800s, and even more came when wealthy Americans sought a place in the sun free from the strictures of Prohibition. When Cuba was closed to U.S. tourists in the 1960s, the modern era of Bahamas tourism began, boosted in part by Nassau’s starring role in the 1965 James Bond film Thunderball.
Visitors today will find a rich culture informed by this diverse history—there’s a population of devout churchgoers but also a certain freewheeling American style. There are British police uniforms and afternoon tea services but there are also Junkanoo parades and goombay and rake-and-scrape music with direct ties to West Africa. A historic refuge for Puritans and a haven for pirates, it is now a favored escape for winter-chilled northerners and anyone seeking the simplicity and slower pace of island life.
If you are ready to dive into The Bahamas, both its colorful past and its exciting present, learn more at AFAR Experiences.