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The Bahamas (/bəˈhɑːməz/ (About this soundlisten)), known officially as the Commonwealth of The Bahamas, is a country within the Lucayan Archipelago. The archipelagic state consists of more than 700 islands, cays, and islets in the Atlantic Ocean, and is located north of Cuba and Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), northwest of the Turks and Caicos Islands, southeast of the United States state of Florida, and east of the Florida Keys. The capital is Nassau on the island of New Providence. The designation of "the Bahamas" can refer either to the country or to the larger island chain that it shares with the Turks and Caicos Islands. The Royal Bahamas Defence Force describes the Bahamas territory as encompassing 470,000 km2 (180,000 sq mi) of ocean space.
The Bahamas is the site of Columbus's first landfall in the New World in 1492. At that time, the islands were inhabited by the Lucayan, a branch of the Arawakan-speaking Taino people. Although the Spanish never colonised The Bahamas, they shipped the native Lucayans to slavery in Hispaniola. The islands were mostly deserted from 1513 until 1648, when English colonists from Bermuda settled on the island of Eleuthera.
The Bahamas became a British crown colony in 1718, when the British clamped down on piracy. After the American War of Independence, the Crown resettled thousands of American Loyalists in the Bahamas; they brought their slaves with them and established plantations on land grants. Africans constituted the majority of the population from this period. The slave trade was abolished by the British in 1807; slavery in the Bahamas was abolished in 1834. Subsequently, the Bahamas became a haven for freed African slaves; the Royal Navy resettled Africans there liberated from illegal slave ships, North American slaves and Seminoles escaped here from Florida, and the government freed slaves carried on US domestic ships that had reached the Bahamas due to weather. Today, Afro-Bahamians make up nearly 90% of the population.
The Bahamas became an independent Commonwealth realm in 1973, retaining the British monarch, then and currently Queen Elizabeth II, as its head of state. In terms of gross domestic product per capita, The Bahamas is one of the richest countries in the Americas (following the United States and Canada), with an economy based on tourism and finance.
The name Bahamas is most likely derived from either the Taíno ba ha ma ("big upper middle land"), which was a term for the region used by the indigenous Native Americans, or possibly from the Spanish baja mar ("shallow water or sea" or "low tide") reflecting the shallow waters of the area. Alternatively, it may originate from Guanahani, a local name of unclear meaning.
A peculiarity of the name is that the word The is a formal part of the abbreviated name and is, therefore, capitalised. So in contrast to "the Congo" and "the United Kingdom", it is proper to write "The Bahamas".
Taino people moved into the uninhabited southern Bahamas from Hispaniola and Cuba around the 11th century, having migrated there from South America. They came to be known as the Lucayan people. An estimated 30,000 Lucayan inhabited the Bahamas at the time of Christopher Columbus's arrival in 1492.
Columbus's first landfall in the New World was on an island he named San Salvador (known to the Lucayan as Guanahani). Some researchers believe this site to be present-day San Salvador Island (formerly known as Watling's Island), situated in the southeastern Bahamas. An alternative theory holds that Columbus landed to the southeast on Samana Cay, according to calculations made in 1986 by National Geographicwriter and editor Joseph Judge, based on Columbus's log. Evidence in support of this remains inconclusive. On the landfall island, Columbus made first contact with the Lucayan and exchanged goods with them.
The Spanish forced much of the Lucayan population to Hispaniola for use as forced labour. The slaves suffered from harsh conditions and most died from contracting diseases to which they had no immunity; half of the Taino died from smallpox alone. The population of the Bahamas was severely diminished.
In 1648, the Eleutherian Adventurers, led by William Sayle, migrated from Bermuda. These English Puritans established the first permanent European settlement on an island which they named Eleuthera—the name derives from the Greek word for freedom. They later settled New Providence, naming it Sayle's Island after one of their leaders. To survive, the settlers salvaged goods from wrecks.
In 1670, King Charles II granted the islands to the Lords Proprietors of the Carolinas in North America. They rented the islands from the king with rights of trading, tax, appointing governors, and administering the country. In 1684 Spanish corsair Juan de Alcon raided the capital, Charles Town (later renamed Nassau). In 1703, a joint Franco-Spanish expedition briefly occupied the Bahamian capital during the War of the Spanish Succession.
During proprietary rule, the Bahamas became a haven for pirates, including the infamous Blackbeard (circa1680–1718). To put an end to the 'Pirates' republic' and restore orderly government, Great Britain made the Bahamas a crown colony in 1718 under the royal governorship of Woodes Rogers. After a difficult struggle, he succeeded in suppressing piracy. In 1720, Rogers led local militia to drive off a Spanish attack.
During the US War of Independence in the late 18th century, the islands became a target for US naval forces under the command of Commodore Esek Hopkins. US Marines occupied the capital of Nassau for a fortnight.
In 1782, following the British defeat at Yorktown, a Spanish fleet appeared off the coast of Nassau. The city surrendered without a fight. Spain returned possession of the Bahamas to Great Britain the following year, under the terms of the Treaty of Paris. Before the news was received, however, the islands were recaptured by a small British force led by Andrew Deveaux.
After US independence, the British resettled some 7,300 Loyalists with their slaves in the Bahamas, including two thousand from New York and at least 1,033 whites, 2,214 blacks and a few Creeks from East Florida. Most of the refugees resettled from New York had fled from other colonies, including West Florida, which the Spanish captured during the war.The government granted land to the planters to help compensate for losses on the continent. These Loyalists, who included Deveaux, established plantations on several islands and became a political force in the capital. European Americans were outnumbered by the African-American slaves they brought with them, and ethnic Europeans remained a minority in the territory.
In 1807, the British abolished the slave trade, followed by the United States the next year. During the following decades, the Royal Navy intercepted the trade; they resettled in the Bahamas thousands of Africans liberated from slave ships.
In the 1820s during the period of the Seminole Wars in Florida, hundreds of North American slaves and African Seminoles escaped from Cape Florida to the Bahamas. They settled mostly on northwest Andros Island, where they developed the village of Red Bays. From eyewitness accounts, 300 escaped in a mass flight in 1823, aided by Bahamians in 27 sloops, with others using canoes for the journey. This was commemorated in 2004 by a large sign at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. Some of their descendants in Red Bays continue African Seminole traditions in basket making and grave marking.
The United States' National Park Service, which administers the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, is working with the African Bahamian Museum and Research Center (ABAC) in Nassau on development to identify Red Bays as a site related to North American slaves' search for freedom. The museum has researched and documented the African Seminoles' escape from southern Florida. It plans to develop interpretive programs at historical sites in Red Bay associated with the period of their settlement in the Bahamas.
In 1818, the Home Office in London had ruled that "any slave brought to the Bahamas from outside the British West Indies would be manumitted."
This led to a total of nearly 300 slaves owned by US nationals being freed from 1830 to 1835. The American slave ships Cometand Encomium used in the United States domestic coastwise slave trade, were wrecked off Abaco Island in December 1830 and February 1834, respectively. When wreckers took the masters, passengers and slaves into Nassau, customs officers seized the slaves and British colonial officials freed them, over the protests of the Americans. There were 165 slaves on the Comet and 48 on the Encomium. The United Kingdom finally paid an indemnity to the United States in those two cases in 1855, under the Treaty of Claims of 1853, which settled several compensation cases between the two countries.
Slavery was abolished in the British Empire on 1 August 1834. After that British colonial officials freed 78 North American slaves from the Enterprise, which went into Bermuda in 1835; and 38 from the Hermosa, which wrecked off Abaco Island in 1840. The most notable case was that of the Creole in 1841: as a result of a slave revolt on board, the leaders ordered the US brig to Nassau. It was carrying 135 slaves from Virginia destined for sale in New Orleans. The Bahamian officials freed the 128 slaves who chose to stay in the islands. The Creole casehas been described as the "most successful slave revolt in U.S. history".
These incidents, in which a total of 447 slaves belonging to US nationals were freed from 1830 to 1842, increased tension between the United States and the United Kingdom. They had been co-operating in patrols to suppress the international slave trade. However, worried about the stability of its large domestic slave trade and its value, the United States argued that the United Kingdom should not treat its domestic ships that came to its colonial ports under duress, as part of the international trade. The United States worried that the success of the Creole slaves in gaining freedom would encourage more slave revolts on merchant ships.
In August 1940, the Duke of Windsor was appointed Governor of the Bahamas. He arrived in the colony with his wife, the Duchess. Although disheartened at the condition of Government House, they "tried to make the best of a bad situation". He did not enjoy the position, and referred to the islands as "a third-class British colony".
He opened the small local parliament on 29 October 1940. The couple visited the "Out Islands" that November, on Axel Wenner-Gren's yacht, which caused controversy; the British Foreign Office strenuously objected because they had been advised (mistakenly) by United States intelligence that Wenner-Gren was a close friend of the Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring of Nazi Germany.
The Duke was praised at the time for his efforts to combat poverty on the islands. A 1991 biography by Philip Ziegler, however, described him as contemptuous of the Bahamians and other non-European peoples of the Empire. He was praised for his resolution of civil unrest over low wages in Nassau in June 1942, when there was a "full-scale riot". Ziegler said that the Duke blamed the trouble on "mischief makers – communists" and "men of Central European Jewish descent, who had secured jobs as a pretext for obtaining a deferment of draft".
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