The first inhabitants of The Bahamas, officially, the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, were the Siboney (also spelled Ciboney), a people who lived off of conch and fish. The shells and jewelry they left behind indicate that they may have lived in the Bahamas as long as 7,000 years ago. The Siboney disappeared and were replaced by the Lucayans—the “island people”—around 900 C.E. The Lucayans, who were related to the Taino, left the Lesser Antilles to avoid their enemies, the Caribs. They were a peaceful people, farmers who lived in thatch huts and used stone tools. There may have been as many as 50,000 Lucayans when Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) arrived (it is believed he landed at San Salvador, although some historians think he landed at Cat Island.) But they had been completely annihilated by 1520 (1507, according to some accounts) because the Spanish slave traders had shipped them to Hispaniola to work in the gold mines. It is largely the descendants of the freed slaves, taken from Africa to replace the enslaved indigenous people, who make up the population of The Bahamas today. Europeans and others compose a small percentage of Bahamians.
In 1647 a group of Bermudan religious refugees arrived at the islands. The next year Puritans from England (the “Eleutheran Adventurers”) were shipwrecked off Eleuthera, settled on it, and named it from the Spanish word for “freedom.” The Bahamas became a British Crown Colony in 1717. Groups of settlers escaping persecution and war—first, British Loyalists from the American Revolution (1775–83), and then later expatriates from the American Civil War (1861–65)— arrived. The United Kingdom outlawed slave ships in 1807, and the Royal Navy abandoned the slaves it freed on The Bahamas, making them the last group of refugees from persecution to make their home there.
The sea routes, islands, and the gold on Spanish ships attracted pirates to The Bahamas, including the more notorious ones such as Blackbeard. However, they were not the only ones plundering Spanish galleons carrying gold to Spain. There were the privateers as well, who worked under the aegis of the British Crown, complete with a Letter of Marquee that effectively authorized their plundering. They soon found British Navy ships as profitable as the merchant vessels. Interestingly it was a former pirate Woodes Rogers (?1679–1732) who became the royal governor in 1718 and cleaned up the islands by granting amnesty to his reformed peers and by hunting down the more recalcitrant ones like Blackbeard and Charles Vane, who escaped. Blackbeard was killed in 1718 in a sea battle.
When the U.S. Civil War ended in 1865, so did The Bahamas’ prosperity. In 1919, however, when the United States ratified the 14th amendment banning alcoholic beverages, smuggling became lucrative. So great was the flow of alcohol from The Bahamas to the United States, especially Scotch whisky, that the British government enlarged Prince George Wharf in Nassau to accommodate the smugglers. When Prohibition ended, the Bahama islands went into an economic slump that lasted until World War II, when an air and naval base was built, bringing jobs for many people.
In 1961 when Fidel Castro (b. 1926) took over Cuba and closed its casinos to U.S. tourists, The Bahamas’s economic future brightened once more, and tourist dollars began to flow again. In 1964 Great Britain granted the islands limited self-government, and in 1969 The Bahamas joined the Commonwealth. On July 10, 1973, The Bahamas became an independent nation.

The Commonwealth of the Bahamas, or The Bahamas, as the country is popularly known, is located in the North Atlantic Ocean. Composed of about 700 islands and 2,000 cays (pronounced “keys”), the archipelago is situated northeast of Cuba and southeast of Florida. Nassau, the capital city, is located on New Providence Island. This and Grand Bahama are the largest islands in the archipelago. The climate is tropical—hot, sunny, and humid—with waters warmed by the Gulf Stream.

The scarcity of natural resources that frustrated Spanish settlers has been a major factor in the country’s reliance on tourism. There has been a steady shift from the traditional livelihood of fishing to tourism. With its independence secured on July 10, 1973, the country developed into one of the most sought-after tourist destinations in the Caribbean. The Hawksbill Creek Agreement in 1955 established a duty-free zone at Freeport, and the Bahamian Parliament passed legislation in 1993 to extend many of the tax and duty exemptions until 2054. After 1955 free trade flourished. Its banks are well known for accepting the accounts of wealthy individuals and corporations seeking to hide their profits where tax authorities cannot get to them. The Bahamas also became notorious for smuggling, organized crime, and gambling. In 1980 the Bahamian government sought help from the United States to enforce antidrug trafficking regulations in the country, and the crime rate has since dropped.

As a result of extended Spanish and British presence, most Bahamians are Christian; a majority belong to the Baptist sect. The country has the largest number of churches per capita in the world. While most Bahamians observe strictly Christian customs, others follow both Christian and indigenous ways. Thus, some priests mix Obeah, a mixture of African and folk traditions, with conventional Christian practices. The cultural infusion into the islands has resulted in a tremendous diversity of customs and traditions. This richness is celebrated in all parts of The Bahamas and in all aspects of Bahamian life. Music is deeply entrenched in the Bahamian heart. Goombah (pronounced “goombay”) beats (a blend of African music and the European accordion), and the traditional African rhythms played on drums, whistles, and cowbells can be heard at festivals throughout the year. Masquerades— particularly the Junkanoo—and carnivals are enjoyed by young and old alike, with colorful clothes, singing, and dancing. Boxing Day and New Year’s Day are two of the most popular and enthusiastically celebrated holidays in The Bahamas. The oral storytelling tradition is an ancient one and is as popular among children, as is dancing to both English folk songs and Caribbean calypso.

Bahamian cuisine includes a variety of excellent dishes made from the bounty of the sea and land and features fresh seafood and fruit, especially conch and coconut. The conch (an ocean mollusk with a firm white flesh edged with pink) can be steamed, deep fried (called “cracked conch”), or eaten raw (just add lime juice and spices), and it turns up in chowders, salads, fritters, and stews. If conch is not available, lobster can always be substituted. The same is true for the many species of fish abundant in the surrounding waters. Steamed, grilled, fried, or curried, seafood figures prominently in the Bahamian diet. A favorite for brunches is boiled fish with grits, and another local specialty is “stew fish,” made with tomatoes, celery, onions, and spices.
Coconuts are another main ingredient, because they are not only plentiful, but the sweet white flesh is versatile and is found in many desserts—tarts, pies, cakes, custards, trifles, candies, and ice cream; it can also be shredded to add its flavor to almost any dish. The island dessert menu is rich and varied. Fruit figures prominently in local specialties such as banana breads and puddings, carrot cake, and guava turnovers. Almost anything can be tossed into the many soups and chowders, but one delicious soup found only in the Caribbean is called souse. Its only ingredients are water, onions, celery, peppers, lime juice, and meat, usually chicken, sheep’s tongue, oxtail, or pig’s feet.
Never bland or boring, the food is spicy and perfectly complemented by the national beer Kalik, which can be found only in the Bahamas. Citrus fruits and rum are the featured ingredients in iced drinks such as the Bahama Mama (made with coconut, coffee liqueurs, and pineapple juice added to the rum), and rum punch, for which just about every restaurant and bar has a special recipe. A unique citrus drink, Switcher, is made from local limes.

In The Bahamas, a priestess (babalawo) arrives as soon as the expectant mother goes into labor and remains with her until after the birth. The priestess will return to the house seven days after the birth of a boy or nine days after the birth of a girl. To protect the mother and newborn, a cock and hen are sacrificed, palm wine is sprinkled on their entrails, and the dead animals are removed from the premises. A purification ceremony follows the sacrifice.
Earthen vessels containing water are placed before the altar or images/depictions of God. The earthen pots are taken to the house, and the water is poured over the roof. As it drips from the eaves, mother and baby pass under it three times in succession for luck and protection. Purified water is also used for the naming ceremony of the baby. The infant’s head is bathed, while the selected name is uttered three times. During this ceremony, the baby is held so that he or she touches the ground. After these ceremonies, new coal is brought to replace the older coal in the homes.

Marriage in The Bahamas is not just between individuals, but is also an understanding between the families. Wedding customs are similar on all the islands. People gather on the streets to see the bride and groom on their way to the church. These onlookers are not hesitant to speak their minds if the couple seems mismatched. Once inside the church, the bride is escorted down the aisle by either parent or even both, her face covered until the groom lifts the veil. Traditionally the bridal gown and the bridesmaids’ dresses are handmade, never store-bought. To reinforce the fact, the seamstress carries the bride’s train down the aisle. After the ceremony the couple collects the wedding certificate from the church or rectory and then proceeds to the reception.
A small bridal doll, resembling the bride in her wedding dress, is placed on the center table with small gifts placed on the dress. At the reception, the bride and groom walk up to each guest and thank them for attending. Each guest receives a gift from the bridal doll and some, in turn, pin a dollar to the doll’s dress.

The body of the deceased is placed on a pedestal to ensure sufficient air and space. Next the body is washed with rum or herbal oils and dressed in beautiful clothes. The thumbs and toes are tied together.
If the deceased is male, the head is shaved, and the hair wrapped in a piece of white cotton. This is buried in the earth alongside the house. If the deceased is female, the exposed parts of the body are painted red with dye made from tree bark. The next stage involves wrapping the body (male or female) in native attire over the clothes already worn and placing it on a mat by the door. Mourners pay their respects, and occasionally professional mourners are hired to mourn and sing.