1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bahamas

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BAHAMAS (Lucayos), an archipelago of the British West Indies. It is estimated to consist of 29 islands, 661 cays and 2387 rocks, and extends along a line from Florida on the north-west to Haiti on the south-east, between Cuba and the open Atlantic, over a distance of about 630 m., from 80° 50′ to 72° 50′ W., and 22° 25′ to 26° 40′ N. The total land area is estimated at 5450 sq. m., of which the main islands occupy 4424 sq. m., and the population was 43,521 in 1881 and 53,735 in 1901. Some 12,000 of these are whites, the remainder coloured. The main islands and groups, beginning from the north-west, are as follows: Little and Great Abaco, with Great Bahama to the west; Eleuthera (a name probably corrupted from the Spanish Isla de Tierra), Cat, Watling, or Guanahani, and Rum Cay on the outer line towards the open ocean, with New Providence, the Exuma chain and Long Island forming an inner line to the west, and still farther west Andros (named from Sir Edmund Andros, governor of Massachusetts, &c., at the close of the 17th century; often spoken of as one island, but actually divided into several by narrow straits); and finally the Crooked Islands, Mayaguana and Inagua. The Turks and Caicos islands continue the outer line, and belong geographically to the archipelago, but not politically. The surrounding seas are shallow for the most part, but there are three well-defined channels—the Florida or New Bahama channel, between the north-western islands and Florida, followed by the Gulf Stream, the Providence channels (north-east and north-west) from which a depression known as the Tongue of Ocean extends southward along the east side of Andros, and the Old Bahama channel, between the archipelago and Cuba. The Andros islands have a length of 95 m. and an area of 1600 sq. m.; Great Abaco is 70 m. long and its area is 680 sq. m.; Great Inagua is 34 m. long with an area of 530 sq. m., and Grand Bahama 66 m., with an area of 430 sq. m. But the most important island, as containing the capital, Nassau, is New Providence, which is only 193/8 m. in length, with an area of 85 sq. m. This island supported a population in 1901 of 12,534. In point of population the next most important island is Eleuthera (8733), followed by the Andros Islands (5347) and Cat Island (4658). The Abaco and Exuma groups and Long Island each support populations exceeding 3000, and there are smaller populations on Grand Bahama, the Crooked Islands, Inagua, Mayaguana, Watling, Rum Cay and the Biminis, though these last, which are two very small north-western islands, are relatively densely populated with 545 persons.

Physical Geography.—The islands are of coral formation and low-lying. The rock on 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, hardening on exposure to the atmosphere. The highest hill in the whole range of the islands (in Cat Island) is only 400 ft. high. 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. As a result of the porosity of the rock, many of the wells feel the influence of the sea and exhibit an ebb and flow. There is an extensive swampy lagoon in Eleuthera, the water of which is fresh or nearly so; and brackish lagoons also occur, as in Watling Island. An artificial lake in New Providence, constructed for the use of the turtle-catchers, is noted as exhibiting an extraordinary degree of phosphorescence. A remarkable natural phenomenon is that of the so-called “banana holes,” which frequently occur in the limestone. Their formation has been attributed to the effect of rotting vegetation on the rock, but without certainty. These holes are of various depths up to about 40 ft., and of curiously regular form. The Mermaid’s Pool in New Providence, which is deeper still, is partly filled with water.

Geology.—The Bahamas consist almost entirely of aeolian deposits (cf. Bermudas) and coral reefs. The aeolian deposits, which form the greater part of the islands, frequently rise in rounded hills and ridges to a height of 100 or 200 ft., and in Cat Island nearly 400 ft. They vary in texture from a fine-grained compact oolite to a coarse-grained rock composed of angular or rounded fragments, and they commonly exhibit strongly marked false bedding. The material is largely calcareous, and has probably been derived from the disintegration of the reefs, and from the shells of animals living in the shallows. When freshly exposed the rock is soft, but by the action of rain and sea it becomes covered with a hard crust. The surface is often remarkably honeycombed, and the rock weathers into pinnacles, pillars and arches of extraordinary shapes. On the island of Andros there is an extremely fine white marl almost resembling a chalky ooze. The coral reefs are of especial interest from their bearing on the general question of the formation of coral reefs.

Nassau.—The scenery of the islands is picturesque, gaining beauty from the fine colouring of the sea and the rich vegetation. Nassau is a winter health-resort for many visitors from the United States and Canada. The town lies on a safe harbour on the north shore of New Providence, sheltered by the small Hog Island. There is a depth of 14 ft. at low-water spring-tide on the bar. The town extends along the shore, and up a slightly elevated ridge behind it. It contains the principal public buildings, and some interesting old forts, dating from the middle and close of the 18th century, though the subterranean works below Fort Charlotte are attributed to an earlier period. From the same century dates the octagonal building which, formerly a gaol, now contains a good public library. The sea-bathing is excellent. The months of February and March are the principal season for visitors. There is direct connexion with New York by steamers, which make the journey in about four days; and there is also connexion with Miami in Florida.

Climate, Flora, Fauna.—The climate of the Bahamas adds to their attractions. The mean temperature of the hottest months (June to September) is 88° F., and that of the coldest (January to March) 66°. In a series of observations of winds about one half have been found to indicate a direction from north-east or east. Hurricanes occur from July to October, and May to October are reckoned as the rainy months. The rainfall recorded in 1901 at Nassau amounted to 63·32 in. Where a mantle of soil covers the rock it is generally thin but very fertile. A well-defined area in New Providence is known as the “pine barrens,” from the tree which principally grows in this rocky soil. Elsewhere three types of soil are distinguished—a black soil, of decayed vegetable matter, where the land is under forest, a reddish clay, and a white soil occurring along the shores. Andros Island and the Abaco Islands may be specially noted for their profusion of large timber, including mahogany, mastic, lignum vitae, iron and bullet woods, and many others. Unfortunately the want both of labour and of roads renders it impossible to turn much of this valuable timber to useful account, although attempts have been made to work it in Abaco. The fruits and spices of the Bahamas are very numerous, the fruit equalling any in the world. The produce of the islands includes tamarinds, olives, oranges, lemons, limes, citrons, pomegranates, pine-apples, figs, sapodillas, bananas, sour-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. But although oranges, pine-apples and some other fruits form important articles of commerce, it is only rarely that systematic and thorough methods of cultivation are prosecuted. Cotton has been found to suffer much from insect pests. Sisal is grown in increasing quantity. The Bahamas 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 little attention is paid to stock-rearing. There are many varieties of birds to be found in the woods of the Bahamas; they include flamingoes and the beautiful hummingbird, as well as wild geese, ducks, pigeons, hawks, green parrots and doves. The waters of the Bahamas swarm with fish; the turtle procured here is particularly fine, and the sponge fishery is of importance. In some islands there are rich salt ponds, but their working has decreased. The portion of Nassau harbour known as the Sea Gardens exhibits an extraordinarily beautiful development of marine organisms.

Government, Trade, &c.—The colony of the Bahamas is under a British governor, who is assisted by an executive council of nine members, partly official, partly unofficial; and by a legislative council of nine members nominated by the crown. There is also a legislative assembly of 29 members, representing 15 electoral districts; the franchise being extended to white and coloured men of 21 years of age at least, resident in the colony for not less than twelve months, and possessing land of a value of £5 or more, or being householders for six months at a rental not less than £2:18s. in New Providence, or £1:4s. in other islands. The members' qualification is the possession of real or personal estate to the value of £200. The average annual revenue and expenditure may be set down at about £75,000, expenditure somewhat exceeding revenue. There is a public debt of about £105,000. The average annual value of imports is somewhat over £300,000, and of exports £200,000. The average annual tonnage of shipping, entering and clearing, exceeds 1,000,000. The government supports elementary free schools, controlled by a nominated board of education, while committees partly elected exercise local supervision. There are higher schools and a Queen’s College in Nassau. Nassau is the seat of a bishopric of the Church of England created in 1861. The Bahamas are without railways, but there are good roads in New Providence, and a few elsewhere. A cable connects Nassau with West Jupiter in Florida.

History.—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.