The story of the Bahamas is a singular one, and bears principally upon the fortunes of New Providence, which, from the fact that it alone possesses a perfectly safe harbour for vessels drawing more than 9 ft., has always been the seat of government when it was not the headquarters of lawlessness. San Salvador, however, claims historical precedence as the landfall of Columbus on his memorable voyage. Cat Island was long supposed to be the island first reached by Columbus (12th October 1492) and named by him San Salvador. Then the distinction was successively transferred to the neighbouring Watling, Great Turk, and Mariguana; but in 1880 the American marine surveyor, G. V. Fox, identified San Salvador, on seemingly good grounds, with Samana (Atwood Cay), which lies about midway between Watling and Mariguana. The chief difficulty is its size, for, if Samana is the true San Salvador, it must have been considerably larger then than now. Watling Island is generally accepted as the landfall.
Columbus passed through the islands, and in one of his letters to Ferdinand and Isabella he said, "This country excels all others as far as the day surpasses the night in splendour; the natives love their neighbours as themselves; their conversation is the sweetest imaginable; their faces always smiling; and so gentle and so affectionate are they, that I swear to your highness there is not a better people in the world." But the natives, innocent as they appeared, were doomed to utter destruction. Ovando, the governor of Hispaniola (Haiti), who had exhausted the labour of that island, turned his thoughts to the Bahamas, and in 1509 Ferdinand authorized him to procure labourers from these islands. It is said that reverence and love for their departed relatives was a marked feature in the character of the aborigines, and that the Spaniards made use of this as a bait to trap the unhappy natives. They promised to convey the ignorant savages in their ships to the "heavenly shores" where their departed friends now dwelt, and about 40,000 were transported to Hispaniola to perish miserably in the mines.
From that date, until after the colonization of New Providence by the British, there is no record of a Spanish visit to the Bahamas, with the exception of the extraordinary cruise of Juan Ponce de Leon, the conqueror of Porto Rico, who passed months searching the islands for Bimini, which was reported to contain the miraculous "Fountain of Youth." This is in South Bimini, and has still a local reputation for healing powers.
It is commonly stated that in 1629 the British formed a settlement in New Providence, which they held till 1641, when the Spaniards expelled them. This, however, refers to the Providence Island off the Mosquito Coast; it was only in 1646 that Eleuthera was colonized, and in 1666 New Providence, by settlers from the Bermudas. In 1670 Charles II. made a grant of the islands to Christopher, duke of Albemarle, and others. Governors were appointed by the lords proprietors, and there are copious records in the state papers of the attempts made to develop the resources of the islands. But the buccaneers or pirates who had made their retreat here offered heavy opposition; in 1680 there was an attack by the Spaniards, and in July 1703 the French and Spaniards made a descent on New Providence, blew up the fort, spiked the guns, burnt the church and carried off the governor, with the principal inhabitants, to Havana. In October the Spaniards made a second descent and completed the work of destruction. It is said that when the last of the governors appointed by the lords proprietors, in ignorance of the Spanish raid, arrived in New Providence, he found the island without an inhabitant.
It again, however, became the resort of pirates, and the names of many of the worst of these ruffians are associated with New Providence; the notorious Edward Teach, called Blackbeard, who was afterwards killed in action against two American ships in 1718, being chief among the number.
At last matters became so intolerable that the merchants of London and Bristol petitioned the crown to take possession and restore order, and Captain Woodes Rogers was sent out as the first crown governor and arrived at New Providence in 1718. Many families of good character now settled at the Bahamas, and some progress was made in developing the resources of the colony, although this was interrupted by the tyrannical conduct of some of the governors who succeeded Captain Woodes Rogers. At this time the pine-apple was introduced as an article of cultivation at Eleuthera; and a few years subsequently, during the American war of independence, colonists arrived in great numbers, bringing with them wealth and also slave labour. Cotton cultivation was now attempted on a large scale. In 1783, at Long Island, 800 slaves were at work, and nearly 4000 acres of land under cultivation. But the usual bad luck of the Bahamas prevailed; the red bug destroyed the cotton crops in 1788 and again in 1794, and by the year 1800 cotton cultivation was almost abandoned. There were also other causes that tended to retard the progress of the colony.
In 1776 Commodore Hopkins, of the American navy, took the island of New Providence; he soon, however, abandoned it as untenable, but in 1781 it was retaken by the Spanish governor of Cuba. The Spaniards retained nominal possession of the Bahamas until 1783, but before peace was notified New Providence was recaptured by a loyalist, Lieutenant-Colonel Deveaux, of the South Carolina militia, in June 1783.
In 1784 and 1786 sums were voted in parliament to indemnify the descendants of the old lords proprietors, and the islands were formally reconveyed to the crown. The Bahamas began again to make a little progress, until the separation of Turks and Caicos Islands in 1848, which had been hitherto the most productive of the salt-producing islands, unfavourably affected the finances. Probably the abolition of the slave-trade in 1834 was not without its effect upon the fortunes of the landed proprietors. The next event of importance in the history of the Bahamas was the rise of the blockade-running trade, consequent on the closing of the southern ports of America by the Federals in 1861. At the commencement of 1865 this trade was at its highest point. In January and February 1865 no less than 20 steamers arrived at Nassau, importing 14,182 bales of cotton, valued at £554,675. The extraordinary difference between the normal trade of the islands and that due to blockade-running will be seen by comparing the imports and exports before the closing of the southern ports in 1860 with those of 1864. In the first year the imports were £234,029, and the exports £157,350, while in the second year the imports were £5,346,112, and the exports £4,672,398. The excitement, extravagance and waste existing at Nassau during the days of blockade-running exceed belief.
Individuals may have profited largely, but the Bahamas probably benefited little. The government managed to pay its debt amounting to £43,786, but crime increased and sickness became very prevalent. The cessation of the trade was marked, however, by hardly any disturbance; there were no local failures, and in a few months the steamers and their crews departed, and New Providence subsided into its usual state of quietude. This, however, was not fated to last long, for in October 1866 a most violent hurricane passed over the island, injuring the orchards, destroying the fruit-trees, and damaging the sponges, which had proved hitherto a source of profit. The hurricane, too, was followed by repeated droughts, and the inhabitants of the out-islands were reduced to indigence and want, a condition which is still, in some measure, in evidence.
See the valuable General Descriptive Report on the Bahama Islands, by Sir G. T. Carter (governor, 1898-1904), issued in place of the ordinary annual report by the Colonial Office, London, 1902; also Governor R. W. Rawson's Report, 1866; Stark's History and Guide to the Bahama Islands (Boston, Mass., 1891); Bahama Islands (Geog. Soc. of Baltimore), ed. G. B. Shattuck (New York, 1905). For geology see A. Agassiz, "A Reconnaissance of the Bahamas and of the Elevated Reefs of Cuba in the steam yacht 'Wild Duck,' January to April 1893," Bull. Mus. Comp. Zool. Harvard, vol. xxvi. no. 1, 1894.