1902 Encyclopedia > Bahamas

Bahamas




BAHAMAS, or LUCAVAS, a very numerous group of islands, cays, rocks, and reefs, comprising an area of 3021 square miles, lying between 21° 42' and 27° 34' N. lat. and 72° 40' and 79° 5' W. long. They encircle and almost enclose the Gulf of Mexico, stretching more than 600 miles from the eastern coast of Florida to the northern coast of St Domingo, and are traversed by only three navigable channels—1st, the Florida Channel to the N., which runs along the coast of the United States and lies to the westward of the whole Bahama group; 2d, the Providence Channels, passing through the group to the N., and separating the Great and Little Banks; and 3d, the old Bahama Channel, which passes to the S. of the Great Bahama Bank, between it and Cuba. The islands he for the most part on the windward edge of the Great and Little Banks, or of the ocean sounds or tongues which pierce them. The total number of islands is 29, while the cays are reckoned at 661, and the rocks at 2387. The principal islands are New Providence (which contains the capital Nassau), Abaco, Harbour Island, Eleuthera, Inagua, Mayaguana, St Salva-dor, Andros Island, Great Bahama, Ragged Island, Rum Cay, Exuma, Long Island, Crooked Island, Acklin Island, Long Cay, Watling Island, the Berry Islands, and the Biminis. Turk's Island and the Caicos, which be-long geographically to the Bahama group, were separated politically in 1848. The formation of all the islands is the same,—calcareous rocks of coral and shell hardened into limestone, honeycombed and perforated with innumerable cavities, without a trace of primitive or volcanic rock ; the surface is as hard as flint, but underneath it gradually softens and furnishes an admirable stone for building, which can be sawn into blocks of any size, these hardening on exposure to the atmosphere. The shores are generally low, the highest hill in the whole range of the islands being only 230 feet high. The soil, although very thin, is very fertile. On Andros Island and on Abaco there is much large timber, including mahogany, mastic, lignum vitee, iron, and bullet woods, and many others. Unfortu-nately the want both of labour and of roads renders it im-possible to turn this valuable timber to useful account. The fruits and spices of the Bahamas are very numerous,—the fruit equalling any in the world. The produce of the islands includes tamarinds, sops, melons, yams, potatoes, gourds, cucumbers, pepper, cassava, prickly pears, sugar cane, ginger* coffee, indigo, Guinea corn and pease. Tobacco and cascarilla bark also flourish; and cotton is indigenous, and was woven into cloth by the aborigines.

It is a remarkable fact that except in the island of Andros, no streams of running water are to be found in the whole group. The inhabitants derive their water supply from wells, the rain-water in which appears to have some con-nection with the sea, as the contents of the wells rise and fall with the tide upon the neighbouring shore. The Baha-mas are far poorer in their fauna than in their flora. It is said that the aborigines had a breed of dogs which did not bark, and a small coney is also mentioned. The guana also is indigenous to the islands. Oxen, sheep, horses, and other live stock introduced from Europe, thrive well, but of late years very little attention has been paid to stock rearing, and Nassau has been dependent upon Cuba for its beef, and on the United States or Nova Scotia for its mutton. There are many varieties of birds to be found in the woods of the Bahamas ; they include flamingoes and the beautiful humming-bird, as well as wild geese, ducks, pigeons, hawks, green parrots, and doves. The waters of the Bahamas swarm with fish, and the turtle pro-cured here is particularly fine. In the southerly islands there are salt ponds of great value.

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 feet, has always been the seat of Government, when it was not the headquarters of lawless villainy. St Salvador (Cat Island, or as some sup-pose, Watling Island), however, claims historical precedence as the landfall of Columbus on his memorable voyage. He 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 con-versation 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, who had exhausted the labour of that island, turned his thoughts to the Bahamas, and in 1509 Ferdinand authorised him to procure labourers from these islands. It is said that reverence and love for their departed rela-tives was a marked feature in the character of the abori-gines, 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 colonisation of New Providence by the English, 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."





The deserted islands were first visited by the English in 1629, and a settlement formed in New Providence, which they held till 1641, when the Spaniards expelled them but made no attempt to settle there themselves. The English again took possession in 1667, and in 1680 Charles II. made a grant of the islands to George, Duke of Albemarle; William, Lord Craven; Sir George Carteret; John, Lord Berkeley; Anthony, Lord Ashley; and Sir Peter Colleton. Governors were appointed by the lords proprie-tors, and there are very copious records in the state papers of the attempts made to develop the resources of the island ; but the repeated attacks of the Spaniards, and the tyranny and mismanagement of the governors, proved great obstacles to success. 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 the Havannah; and 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 soon, however, became the resort of pirates, and the names of many of the worst of these ruffians is associated with New Provi-dence, the notorious Blackbeard 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 Woods Bogers 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 Woods Bogers. At this time the pine-apple was introduced as an article of cultivation at Eleuthera; and a few years subse-quently, 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 pre-vailed; the red bug destroyed the cotton crops in 1788, and again in 1794, and by the year 1800 cotton cultiva-tion 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, aban-doned it as untenable, but in 1782 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, Colonel Deveaux, of the South Carolina militia, in June 1783. In 1787, the descendants of the old lords proprietors received each a grant of £2000 in satisfaction of their claims, 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, con-sequent 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 former year the imports were £234,029, and the exports £157,350, while in the latter year the imports were £5,346,112, and the exports, £4,672,398. The excite ment, 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. There was an increase, however, in the production of salt. The exports as a whole fell off. Those of native produce, which in 1866 had been £77,604, were reduced in 1867 to £71,117, and the remaining exports of 1866, amounting to £184,372, were, in 1867, £156,131. The depression has continued almost to the present time (1875). The public debt paid off during the days of the blockade-running swelled again to a sum of £54,161,13s. 2d., and the revenue until very lately was steadily on the decline. It was £47,530 in 1870, while the expenditure was £48,598, and in 1872 there was a further decrease of revenue to £37,574, with an expenditure of £39,000. In 1873 there was, however, an improvement. The revenue rose to £44,053, the ex-penditure being only £42,737. The improvement in the finances is due principally, it would seem, to the readjust-ment of the customs' duties. In a recent Blue Booh it is stated that the Government in 1873 increased the duties on ale, brandy, gin, rum, and whisky by 50 per cent.; on cigars and tobacco, by 100 per cent.; and on wine by 200 per cent. As regards other articles the Assembly at the same time relieved the general consumer by reducing the 25 per cent, ad valorem duties to 15 per cent. They abolished the export duty on vessels in distress, and they reduced the tonnage and wharfage dues. They also abolished a licence fee, payable hitherto by the men employed as wreckers, and they repealed a special income-tax levied upon public officers. The last colonial report expresses a hope and a belief that the sound financial con-dition to which the colony has been restored will continue. The hope, however, hardly seems justified at present by the commercial progress of the Bahamas. In 1870 the imports were of the value of £283,970. In 1872 they had fallen to £201,051, and in 1873 they had increased to £226,306. In like manner the exports of 1873 con-trasted favourably with those of 1872, having increased from £136,224 to £156,613. But the increase in exports is due to the development of trade in articles, such as pine-apples and oranges, the production of which is uncertain, since a season's crop may perish in a hurricane. The sponge trade is not so prosperous as it should be, the Spanish authori-ties, it appears, interfering with the spongers working on the reefs near Cuba; while the excessive duty levied in the United States on salt has almost paralysed the salt-making trade of the Bahamas. The total number of pine-apples exported to the United States and England in 1873 was 422,994 dozen, valued at £38,767. To this must be added the tinned fruit, a branch of industry introduced in 1872. Pine-apples in tins were exported in the follow-ing year to the number of 69,165 dozen, valued at £13,018, and cases of pine-apples from the same establish-ment to the value of £1712. The exportation of other fruit was—of oranges, 2,252,000, valued at £3822; of Bananas, 7172 bunches, valued at £346 ; and about £700 worth of grape-fruit, shaddocks, lemons, limes, and melons. One great and profitable business at the Bahamas has decreased, and is not likely to flourish again. There has been of late years a marked diminution in the number of marine casualties, which in past times threw into the ports of the colony a large amount of valuable property, of which a great part was frequently exported. The erection of lighthouses, the diversion of trade from the southern ports of America, and the increased use of steam, have all tended to this decline of the wreckers' trade, and it is said that the people of Harbour Island, at one time the great stronghold of the wreckers, have now all turned their attention to the cultivation of pine-apples. In 1864 the number of wrecks reported was, including complete and partial, 67, while in 1871 it was but 39.





The colony is divided into 13 parishes, although the division is now used for civil purposes only. An Act to amend the ecclesiastical laws of the colony was assented to on the 1st of June 1869, and confirmed on the 7th of October 1869, and the Church of England at the Bahamas disestablished. The population of the islands taken at the census of 1871 was 39,162 (being an increase in the decennial period since 1861 of 3875), of whom 19,349 were males, and 19,813 females. With regard to race, it may be said that the native and coloured inhabitants now enormously outnumber the white colonists. The last return showing the varieties of race was published in 1826 ; the population was 16,033, of whom 4588 were white, 2259 coloured, and 9186 black; since then the proportion of coloured and black to white has increased. The health of the colony has been improving of late years; the death-rate of 1872 was only 179 in 1000. The total births were 1475 against 704 deaths. The climate of the Bahamas has always borne a reputation for salubrity. The mean of a series of daily observations of temperature for 10 years is as follows :—

Height of Thermometer in Degrees Fahr. at 9 A. it.
Mai. Med. Min.
January 75 70 66
February 76 71 66
March 78 72 66
April 81 75 68
May 84 78 71
June 88 81 74
July 88 82 75
August 88 81 75
September 86 81 75
October 82 77 73
November 79 74 70
December 77 73 69

The rainfall is heavy from May to October. During the winter months it is small, and from the month of Novem-ber up to April the climate of New Providence is most agreeable. Advantage has been taken of this for many years by the inhabitants of the mainland of America, who can escape by a four days' voyage from the icy winter of New York to the perpetual summer of the Bahamas. New Providence has gained a name as a resort for the consumptive, and perhaps justly so far as the Anglo-Saxon race is concerned, but the Africans and coloured races suffer greatly from diseases of the lungs, and the black troops stationed at Nassau have always been notorious for the proportion of men invalided from con-sumptive disease. The principal religious denominations are the Wesleyan, Baptist, Church of England, and Presbyterian. The following figures represent approxi-mately the number of persons generally attending the churches and chapels of the several denominations:— Wesleyan, 7370; Baptist, 7971; Church of England, 4250; Presbyterian, 300. There is no Roman Catholic place of worship in the islands, and the members of that church are very few in number. The constitution of the Bahamas consists of a governor, aided by an executive council of 9 members, a legislative council of 9 members, and a representative assembly of 28 members. The qualifications of electors are full age, a residence of twelve months, six of which must have been as a freeholder, or a resi-dence of six months and a payment of duties to the amount of £26, Os. lOd. The qualification of members is possession of an estate of real or personal property to the value of £500. The executive is composed partly of official and partly of unofficial members; the latter have usually a seat in one of the branches of the legislature. There are 35 Government schools in the Bahamas, 5 of which are in New Providence, and 30 in the out islands. These schools are managed by an education board composed of 5 or more members, with the governor as president. The legislative grant for educational purposes is £2200 a year, exclusive of the salary of the inspector of schools, who is borne upon the civil establishment on a salary of £200. The number of children on the books is about 3006, and there are 1200 in addition attending schools in connection with the Church of England. It is calculated that about 55 per cent, of the children between 5 and 15 attend school The isolation of the settlements, the low salaries of the teachers, and the indifference of parents, are great obstacles to the spread of sound education in the Bahamas.

There are numerous lighthouses in the group, the princi- pal being at Gun Cay, Abaco, Cay Sal, Great Isaacks, Cay Lobos, Stirrups Cay, Elbow Cay, Castle Island, Hoy Island, and Athol Island. The chief institutions of the Bahamas are to be found in New Providence. They include a savings' bank, a public library, a well-conducted newspaper press, the Agricultural Society, Bahama Institute, Fire Brigade, the New Providence Asylum, Public Dispensary, St Andrew's Charitable Society, a provincial grand lodge of freemasons, <fec There are also libraries at Dunmore Town, in Harbour Island, at Matthew Town, Inagua, at New Plymouth, at Abaco, &c. (J. T. w. B.)




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