History of Nassau

Mother Earth Travel > Bahamas > Nassau > History

The Nassau/Paradise Island of today'steel-drum music, take-it-easy attitude, to-die-for conch dishes cooked by both world-class chefs and the working folks the travellers never see is a far cry from the Nassau that preceded it.

Like other areas of the Caribbean, it has a romantic history - both centuries-old and decades-old of foreign intervention, foreign occupation, piracy, slavery and smuggling. But Nassau's rich history is really the history of the Bahamas as a whole one of resilience, one of pride. It all culminated in 1973, when the islands gained their independence from England, although they remain a part of the British Commonwealth, not unlike Puerto Rico, remaining a part of the United States, but with autonomy.

Until 1492, yes, that 1492, when Columbus "discovered" America, Bahamians lived a life so uncomplicated and straightforward, relying for sustenance on the bountiful fish the sea virtually washed to their shores. Mix that with a healthy diet of fruits and berries, and you had an organic diet that some would consider oh-so-trendy in this, the third millennium. Theirs was a life, quite simply, that was quite simple.

But not all was idyllic for this island paradise.

Go back to 300 or 400 AD, which drawings and other artifacts indicate the Bahamians date back to. It was a life of living off the island land, and not much else. And it was a life destroyed when the Spanish decided they had found a slave-labor force easily put to work. This led to the near-depopulation of the islands, in the mid 1500s.

Now fast-forward to the early and mid 1600s, long after Columbus discovered the sun-drenched cays. English settlers in other Caribbean Islands realized that Nassau's proximity to the recently settled New World provided opportunities never before seen in terms of shipping and trade, as well as an escape from England's religious persecution.

However, the unfortunate time of piracy reared its ugly head around the same time, and lasted for more than a century. With numerous hiding places in the remote and densely vegetated islands, the buccaneers had found a crime-friendly place few of them could have dreamed. The proximity to mainland North America was the primary reason.

In 1756, the Seven Years War broke out and trade - not only illegal but legal, as well positively flourished. The war pitted France, Austria, Russia and Sweden against Great Britain, Prussia and Hanover. Issues were colonists from North America and India. The fighting led to prosperity in trading on Nassau. But peace, as it often does today, flattened the economy, black-market and otherwise - when it was achieved in 1763. Piracy again became the primary economic market for those who were successful at it, Blackbeard perhaps the most famous. For those who weren't, it was a life so tough and difficult.

Then the slave trade was discovered, in the 1800s, and Nassau/Paradise Island and other islands were used as weigh stations for ships transporting slaves to North America. The large ships not only for slaves but cargo, as well -- could steam or sail only for only a few days at a time. This made Nassau a perfect stopover to the United States. That meant Nassau's maritime workers flourished. But the end of the Civil War in the United States came, and with it the end, again, of prosperity for Nassau. Residents turned to working the wrecks from the fleets that sank decades and centuries earlier.

Nassau's economy was unwittingly revived due to the US Congress, which enacted Prohibition in 1919. Born was a lively and profitable liquor bootlegging industry. But Prohibition was deemed a failure largely due to the bootlegging and Nassau's prosperity came to an end with the end of the liquor ban in the US At the time, bootlegging was a major industry in Nassau, and island residents were left somewhat impoverished when Prohibition came to an end in 1933.

But Nassau, always able to rebound from adversity, did so again. And like its pirate, slave-trading, bootlegging past, it did so through illicit means as a stop-off point for drug runners and for setting up offshore corporations so illegally gotten gains could be hidden.

But that is only part of the story. Following independence in 1973, Bahamians in general and in Nassau especially - Nassau holds the majority of the nation's residents'realized the jewel they live on, and exploited it. No longer would the islands rely on shipping - legal and otherwise alone. They could rely, they reasoned collectively, on the millions of people curious about this most beautiful collection of Caribbean Islands.

They would accept and cater to, in large part - the tourists.

Yes, the Bahamas are still an attraction to the smuggler. Downed DC-3s litter the waters surrounding the islands, remnants of cocaine shipments gone bad in the 1970s and 1980s. But now they are attractions, wrecks to explore for the scuba divers who want to get up close and personal with the tropical fish, the coral.

But that's not all. The United States, Monaco and other nations may have their gambling palaces, but there are few places where those willing to wager cash on the turn of a card, the roll of a ball, the fall of the dice can do so where they can bask in the sun of the tropics by day while fulfilling their passions for betting at night. That, they can do in Nassau. Of course, shopping, a fun nightlife and the rest of the trappings of an island paradise await, as well.

With a thriving tourism economy - and a government that recognizes that environmental protection is crucial to that economy - the Bahamians generally and Nassau residents specifically - may have finally discovered that their islands' natural beauty is attraction enough.