Commonwealth of the Bahamas
Sea star arm

"The beauty of these islands surpasses that of any other and as much as the day surpasses the night in splendour."

From the journal of Christopher Columbus

Lying less than 50 miles off the East Coast of Florida, this island archipelago has a history reflecting both the discovery and expansion of Europe into the New World, and Bahamas archipelagothe bitter civil and international conflicts of the past three centuries. The Bahamas is where Christopher Columbus made landfall in the New World on October 12, 1492, on the island of San Salvador. Believing he had landed in the East Indies, he named the Indians of the island Arawak. The Indians called themselves the Lukku-cairi, and became known as the Lucayans. These native Bahamians had established themselves on the islands for around 500 years before Columbus made landfall, probably journeying across the Caribbean from South America.

And so began the fateful history of the spread of disease through contact, in both Worlds, the enslavement and decimation of Lucayans, the deportation of African slaves to the New World, pirateering, rum running . . . before the country reformulated as a modern, democratic parliament with a thriving tourist industry. Tourism does in fact make up the largest sector of the economy, and oil refineries, pharmaceuticals, and agriculture help to diversify the country's wealth.

Today the Bahamas is known for its inviting setting, tropical and semitropical islands surrounded by coral reefs, clear warm water, and miles upon miles of sandy beaches. Although the islands are low-lying and flat, the island Low-lying Bahamian islandarchipelago is really a group of mountainous plateaus that emerged from the Atlantic hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years ago. The once flat shallow-water area now has many deep-water troughs, canyons, and steep-sided undersea mountains. Drilling operations reveal a shallow-water carbonate platform underlying the island group. The platform, which the islands have accreted onto, dates to the age of dinosaurs, and it is one indication that both sea level and landform elevations fluctuate over time. The carbonate composition of the rock comes from the mineral remains of marine invertebrates. Corals in particular account for much of the carbonate rock, and the Bahamas are rich in corals, so much so that the area holds nearly 5% of all coral reefs on the planet. In fact, Andros Barrier Reef is the third largest in the world. Altogether, the 700 islands and cays making up the Bahamas are slightly larger in area than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. That is approximately 13,940 km2, or 5,400 mi2. While this may seem like a small area of land, the islands cover more than 100,000 mi2 of ocean.

With only 5% of the 700 islands inhabited, the country is truly a a great ecological reserve. There are 12 National Parks and another 58 sites identified for future development into National Parks. Typical of small islands which are relatively isolated from any continent, few mammals are native to the Bahamas. Actually, just two are known to be indigenous, the raccoon and the hutia, a rodent somewhat resembling a nutria, or tropical guinea pig. Island birds are colorful and numerous, such as the West Indian flamingo, and some are uniquely Bahamian, such as the Abaco parrot, a bird with the unusual habit of nesting in limestone cavities on the ground. Reptiles are also common and include rock iguanas, terrapins and turtles. The very common casuarina pine, wild grape, figs, bromeliads, and the edibles, tamarind and pigeon plum trees, are typical plants of the region.

The population numbers around 280,000 and the people are known as Bahamians. They are largely of West African heritage (85%), their ancestors were enslaved and brought to the islands to cultivate cotton. Many of the whites are the descendants of British settlers and American Loyalists who left the United States during the American Revolution. The mix of culture and heritage is expressed in one of the two languages commonly spoken, Bahamas Creole English. The other language is English.

Music, dance, food and religion are other expressions of the rich cultural heritage. In the music, Bahamian Goombay suggests African rhythms; English folk songs reflect the music carried by the British when they emigrated from Bermuda, and; Calypso music anchors Bahamians to the Caribbean. Religion is another important facet of the cultural fabric of the country, having roots in the British Puritans who moved to the Bahamas to gain religious freedom. The easygoing nature of the people, their lively music, devotion to religion, and paradisical setting all contribute to a place worth visiting.

"We are met by the soft balmy smell of the trees and flowers ashore, the sweetest fragrance in the world . . . . There are flocks of parrots so big that they darken the sun and birds of an amazing variety."

From the journal of Christopher Columbus

Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History