We discovered that The Bahamas is a more fascinating country than the tourist brochures advertise. We were especially impressed with how closely intertwined were the histories of The Bahamas and the USA. America has had and is having a much bigger impact on The Bahamas than we realized.
The Country: On July 10, 1973, after 325 years of peaceful rule by Britain, this British colony was led by Lynden Pindling, "The Father of the Nation", to independence, becoming The Commonwealth of The Bahamas. It remained a member of the British Commonwealth and retained a Constitutional Monarchy and Parliamentary Democracy similar to those of other Commonwealth countries. Most of the country's residents live in Nassau, the capital city, on the island of New Providence. It is considered one of the most politically-stable countries in the world.
The Economy: The Bahamas has no personal income tax, corporate tax, inheritance tax, or capital gains tax. Most government revenue comes from duties on imported goods and a "Stamp Tax" collected from businesses which import goods for resale. A National Insurance tax is collected as a way to provide income to retired citizens.
Most of the country's GDP comes from (1) Tourism (2) International Banking (3) Investment Management Accounts. The Film Industry contributes as well. Because of its tax-free benefits and proximity to the USA, film and TV producers having been taking advantage of the tropical settings since 1942, including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Flipper, many James Bond movies and Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean series.
The Military: The Bahamian Navy (Air Wings and Marines) makes up the entire Royal Bahamas Defence Force. The country does not have an Army or an Air Force. Mandatory conscription ended in 2012. Bahamians aged 18 or older may voluntarily join the Navy. Their mandate is to defend the country's territorial holdings, patrol the waters and provide disaster aid.
The Environment: The waters around The Bahamas are some of the clearest anywhere in the world. The water clarity was measured by looking for specific algae that require light to live. Those algae were found at 200 feet below the surface, lower than at any other location measured in the Caribbean.
The 3rd-largest barrier reef is in The Bahamas and 5% of the world's coral is in The Bahamas. On land, The Bahamas hosts over 100 breeding bird species each year. (So glad we bought that biodegradable sunblock!)
As of 2011 there were 36 power plants throughout the Bahamas. Three were wind generation plants, one was a gas turbine plant and the remaining 32 were diesel generation plants. An economical method of recycling has not yet found its way to The Bahamas, although many people would like to have that service.
There are only limited potable water aquifers in the country. Rain water collects in thin layers or "lenses" in the porous limestone only 5 feet or so underground, sitting on top of the sea water below it. As fresh water is removed from the aquifers sea water can seep in, making the water unusable for drinking. Until 2011 drinking water was being removed from aquifers under Andros Island to ship around the country. Since then, desalinization plants have been brought online to provide drinking water.
The Geography: The Bahamas is a group of 700 islands and about 2400 cays (coral reefs) which are scattered for 760 miles in the Atlantic Ocean from Bimini, 80km from Florida, to near Haiti. In total land mass Bahamas is a little smaller than Connecticut in the USA but in overall length it covers the same distance as from the northern tip of Scotland to the southern tip of England. The "Out Islands" (all of the archipelago except New Providence), make up 84% of the country's landmass.
There are no rivers in the country. Fresh water from rain can accumulate in underground aquifers, eventually forming caves. The longest and oldest underwater cave and cavern system is in the Lucayan National Park on the island of Grand Bahama. The shallow aquifers store enough water for the native vegetation but are a precious and sensitive resource.
Geology: The basement rock on which The Bahamas sits was formed when Pangea, the super-continent, pulled apart forming the North Atlantic Basin. The result of the Pangea rift was a subduction of the North American plate under the Caribbean plate. The layer above the basement rock is a bank of calcium carbonates, typically formed under shallow water. Above that are limestones and other sedimentary rock that probably were the result of evaporation during the ice ages, when the sea level was much lower. The beautiful turquoise colour of the ocean around the islands shows where the limestone is sitting on the carbonate banks. At 63 meters, Mt. Alvernia on Cat Island is the highest point in the country. The porous substructure and low elevation make the country vulnerable to rising sea levels.
History: Lucayans, a tribe of the Arawakan-speaking Taino Indians, were inhabiting the islands when Christopher Columbus, the first European visitor, landed on San Salvador in 1492. In fact, the country's name was derived from the Spanish "baja mar", or "shallow sea", referring to the carbonate banks and coral heads around the islands. The Spanish didn't consider the islands worth inhabiting but they did capture the Lucayans to work as slaves on Hispaniola. By 1513 the islands were almost entirely deserted.
English colonists in search of religious freedom migrated from Bermuda in 1648 to settle on Eleuthera. Out of gratitude for help from the colonists of Massachusetts the Eleuthera settlers sent a shipment of valuable Brasiletto wood to Boston. With the proceeds of the wood sales Boston was able to purchase the land on which to build Harvard College, now Harvard University.
British privateers recognized the strategic importance of The Bahamas along the Caribbean trading routes. The privateers regularly preyed on Spanish ships, despite a 1670 peace treaty between England and Spain. In 1684 the Spanish burned down Charles Town on the island of New Providence. The privateers rebuilt the town in 1695, naming it Nassau after Prince William of Orange-Nassau who became King William III. This was a colourful period in the formation of The Bahamas, since piracy generated much revenue. Blackbeard, Calico Jack and even women privateers like Anne Bonny and Mary Read used the treacherously shallow waters to their advantage. The treasures of William Catt and Sir Henry Morgan may still be buried on Cat and other islands.
In 1718 Britain claimed the islands and cays of the archipelago as a colony of the British Crown and attempted to rid the area of pirates. Britain appointed Woodes Rogers, a former pirate himself, to be the new colony's first Royal Governor. Rogers offered amnesty to pirates who surrendered and death to those who did not. 300 surrendered. Blackbeard and many others did not.
After the American War of Independence in 1776 thousands of American colonists loyal to Britain, aka British Loyalists, were given land grants in The Bahamas. The American immigrants brought their slaves and established plantations. By 1788 The Bahamas was exporting more than 400 tons of cotton a year to Britain.
After 1776 people of African descent made up the majority of the population, as slaves from Florida escaped and the British Royal Navy resettled Africans from captured slave ships and slaves on US domestic ships were freed if their ships blew ashore in bad weather. In 1834 slavery was abolished in The Bahamas.
Later, during the American Civil War between 1861 to 1865, The Bahamas saw another spike in their economy. British textile traders were blocked from reaching the southern US but US blockade runners from Charleston, SC would meet British ships in The Bahamas, sell their cotton and smuggle British goods into the US for a good price.
In 1898 the Hotel and Steam Ship Service Act officially promoted Nassau as a fashionable winter escape resort. The Act provided government support for hotel construction and subsidized Steam Ship services. With tourist facilities in place Americans have boosted the economy of The Bahamas with policies ranging from Prohibition to the barring of travel to Cuba. In 1919, when the US government passed the 18th Amendment banning alcohol, the British colony expanded Nassau's Prince George Wharf to accommodate the increased flow of alcohol and New Providence became a modern pirate sanctuary for rum runners making a dash to the USA. The colony lost huge revenues when the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1934.