LANGUAGE: English; Bahamian dialect
The Bahamas were the first islands to be sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Instead of settling the islands, the Spanish forced the native population there into slavery on neighboring islands. Within a quarter of a century, the Bahamas had been stripped of all their inhabitants. However, in the seventeenth century, British colonists began to arrive and settle there, bringing African slaves with them. By the end of the eighteenth century, there were twice as many Africans as Europeans on the islands.
The Bahamas remained economically backward throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. With the growth of commercial aviation, however, the islands' tourism industry began. By the late 1940s, tourism had become the main source of income. Today the country welcomes over three million tourists a year, most of them from the United States. In the 1960s, the Bahamas began to develop as a center for international banking as well.
The Bahamas attained full national independence in 1973.
The Bahamas are located in the Atlantic Ocean off Florida's southeastern coast. They form an archipelago (a group or chain of islands) consisting of approximately 700 islands, of which about thirty are inhabited. Their total land area is 5,380 square miles (13,934 square kilometers). This is slightly more than the combined areas of New Jersey and Connecticut.
The two main islands of the Bahamas are New Providence, where the capital city of Nassau is located, and Grand Bahama. The remaining islands are generally called either the "Family Islands" or the "out islands."
The Bahamas has an estimated population of about 272,000 people.
Standard English is the official language of the Bahamas. However, most of the population speaks an English-based dialect. An example of the Bahamian dialect can be found in the following verse from the poem "Islan' Life" by poet and playwright Susan J. Wallace:
Islan' life ain' no fun less ya treat errybody
like ya brudder, ya sister, or ya frien'
Love ya neighbour, play ya part, jes'
remember das de art,
For when ocean fen' ya in, all is kin.
The Bahamas are rich in myths and legends. There are two different legends about a woman named Pretty Molly Bay, who is said to haunt Little Exuma Island. In one, she is a drowned slave who roams the beaches at night; in the other, she is a young white woman turned into a mermaid. There are stories about creatures called "chickcharnies." These are three-toed sprites with red eyes. It is said that they hang upside down from trees on the island of Andros and can turn a person's head around to face backward.
Most Bahamians are Christian. Baptists account for about 33 percent of the population, and Roman Catholics and Anglicans account for about 20 percent each. It is not unusual for Bahamians to attend services at their own church and other churches also. On some of the islands, Christian beliefs are combined with ancient African superstitions.
Public holidays in the Bahamas include the major holy days of the Christian calendar. Secular holidays include Labor Day (the first Friday in June), Independence Day (July 10), Emancipation Day (the first Monday in August), and Discovery Day (October 12).
The best-known celebration on the islands is Junkanoo, held on both Christmas and New Year's. It is similar to the Carnival festivities in countries like Trinidad and Tobago. Crowds of merrymakers parade through the streets to the sounds of whistles and goatskin drums called goombays. Costumed groups compete for prizes.
Christian ceremonies such as baptism and confirmation mark the major passages from one stage of life to another.
Race relations in the Bahamas have changed since the 1950s and 1960s. Until then, economic opportunities for blacks were severely limited. Black Bahamians were barred from many theaters, hotels, shops, and other public places. Since then, government policies have improved educational and job opportunities. The situation of black Bahamians has improved, and a new, black middle class has been created on New Providence and Grand Bahama.
Urban living conditions on the main islands of New Providence and Grand Bahama differ from those on the smaller Family Islands. Inhabitants of the Family Islands have little contact with tourists and live a simple, traditional life. Most live in villages near the shore. Their houses are simple wooden structures, some without plumbing or electricity. Two out of three households in the Family Islands did not have running water in 1986.
Migration to the cities for better jobs has produced an urban housing shortage, especially in low-income areas.
Adult migration to the cities of Nassau and Freeport has left many families in the Family Islands headed by grandparents. There are also households headed by single parents. A child's primary caretaker is also the person in charge of discipline in the family. Adult children often give their mothers gifts or financial assistance. It is unusual for unmarried couples to live together.
Bahamians wear modern Western-style clothing. Colorful costumes of all kinds can be seen at the annual Junkanoo festivals in Nassau and other locations.
Seafood is the most important part of the Bahamian diet. The conch shellfish is a national favorite used in many dishes. Peas with rice, a dietary staple, consists of dried pigeon peas and rice prepared with thyme and other spices. Souses (dishes containing lightly pickled meats) also figure prominently in Bahamian cuisine. Served with cooked grits and johnny cake (a type of bread), they are a popular breakfast food.
The educational system of the Bahamas is modeled on that of Great Britain. Grade levels in secondary education are called "forms," and exams are required in order to attend college. Students must also take exams at the end of every school year in order to pass to the next grade. Education is mandatory between the ages of five and fourteen. However, most students continue their schooling until at least the age of sixteen.
The government-run College of the Bahamas opened in 1974. The Bahamas have also been home to a branch of the University of the West Indies since the 1960s.
Susan Wallace is the nation's best-known poet. She has also edited Back Home, an anthology of Bahamian literature. Playwright Winston Saunders is the director of the Dundas Theatre, which stages plays by Bahamian and other authors.
Well-known artist Alton Lowe captures many aspects of Bahamian life in his realistic paintings.
The Royal Bahamas Police Force Band performs at all major public events. Folk dance in the Bahamas ranges from European dances to the African-derived jump dance and the West Indian limbo.
Tourism and related fields provide jobs for 50 percent or more of the labor force. Agriculture and industry are much smaller contributors to the nation's economy and employ far fewer people. Farming and fishing are the traditional occupations on the Family Islands. Their residents also earn money producing crafts or through seasonal employment in resort areas. There is a shortage of salaried jobs in these areas, and many residents move to Nassau or Freeport to seek employment.
Softball is the most popular sport in the Bahamas. Other favorite sports include basketball, volleyball, and track and field. Water sports, including sailing, windsurfing, and fishing, are popular with Bahamians and tourists alike. Many islanders race in the Family Islands regatta, held every April.
In addition to the native Bahamian goombay (goatskin drum) music, calypso, soca, and reggae are also popular. Gospel music is performed in concert halls and on outdoor stages as well as in churches.
There is approximately one television for every four persons in the Bahamas. Programming includes American situation comedies, professional sports, and educational broadcasting.
Crafts include woodcarving, quilting, basketry, and shellwork. The straw handicrafts produced on the Family Islands are especially distinctive. Using palm fronds braided into long strips that are then sewn together, the island women make hats, baskets, purses, and other items, often decorating them with raffia paper and seashells.
The Bahamas have not traditionally had a violent society. In the past, serious crimes such as homicide were rare. However, in the 1990s, drug trafficking caused a major increase in crime. In New Providence the use of crack cocaine has led to frequent armed robberies.
Boultbee, Paul G. The Bahamas. Santa Barbara, CA: Clio Press, 1989.
Craton, Michael, and Gail Saunders. Islanders in the Stream: A History of the Bahamian People. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1992.
McCulla, Patricia. Bahamas. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.