Out Islands History
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Discover the historical past of Out Islands, Bahamas.
The Out Islands, a loose grouping of the Bahamian islands other than Grand Bahama, New Providence and Paradise Island, remain today as they have most of their remarkable history—sparsely populated, largely undeveloped and naturally wondrous. Because of the Bahamas' proximity to vital New World shipping routes, all of the islands became a commercial crossroads, while smugglers, bootleggers, and pirates used the obscure cays and lagoons of the Out Islands as a base for a more disreputable trade. Not only were many of the Out Islands remote and uncharted, the deadly native reefs made the navigation treacherous, often resulting in the loss of lives and property. The difficult geography protected much of the Out Islands from commercial development, making them ideal for contemporary travelers looking to experience unspoiled ecosystems and world-class fishing, diving and sailing.
Before European influences firmly took hold in the early 16th Century, an Arawak people, known as the Lucayans, populated the islands. A migratory tribe who traversed the Caribbean from South America around the 9th Century AD, most of the Lucayans established villages on Grand Bahama Island and New Providence Island. However, archaeologists have discovered numerous relics on Abacos, Andros, as well as the other Out or "Family" Islands.
Lucayan dominance of the islands ended on October 12, 1492 with Christopher Columbus's landing at Rum's Bay on the island of San Salvador. His historic arrival changed the course of world history, opening the Americas to the era of exploration and conquest. Like so many other native tribes, a combination of slavery, disease, religious persecution and violence soon obliterated the Lucayan civilization.
By 1520 the Spanish began to mine silver and establish sugar plantations on Hispanola and Cuba, causing labor shortages. About 20,000 Lucayans were transported and forced into backbreaking, menial labor, leaving the Out Islands virtually uninhabited. Because of lethal reefs and difficult navigational conditions, the European powers hesitated in colonizing the area. Much to the delight of latter-day treasure hunters, a Spanish treasure fleet of 17 galleons was wrecked off the Abacos in 1595.
Despite the trying maritime conditions, in the early 17th Century the British attempted to undermine the Spanish foothold in the Caribbean by establishing settlements in Eleuthera, Grand Bahama, and Nassau. The Bahamas were even granted a constitution making them part of the Carolinas in 1629. Alas, the towns were soon considered a failure, as settlers would often be wrecked on the reefs attempting to get to them. As the small villages struggled to survive, fortune hunters and pirates took advantage of the natural defenses to form bases of operations. The English Crown even offered some these privateers, such as Sir Henry Morgan, land and title to commit piracy against the Spanish.
For the next few hundred years, the Bahamas and the Out Islands, in particular, stayed a haven for buccaneers. The entrepreneurs used the islands' natural cover to launch surprise attacks on fat Spanish galleons bringing spoils back to Europe. The pirates used small, shallow draft sloops to negotiate the reefs and encircle their bulkier foes to broadside them to pieces. Though the settlers of the islands were very poor at this time, the rampant privateering created trade throughout the Bahamas. Taverns and merchants began to cater to the buccaneers and their prized booty. However, the governments of Europe eventually began to wipe out the pirates, including the feared Blackbeard. By the early 18th Century came peace but a drought of prosperity.
Soon, the economy and survival of the Bahamas became completely dependent upon activities in North America. When nations were at war, the cays and small islands would be transformed into supply bases, bringing commerce to the impoverished nation. Conflicts like the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution would bring prosperity, only to see it fade away until the next fray.
Native residents, consisting by this time mostly of escaped and freed slaves, would live off wrecks, seafood, and the few indigenous fruits. In fact the Hope Town Lighthouse on Elbow Cay, off the Abacos, took years to build due to vandalism by locals. Residents feared that their profitable wrecking business would be ruined if ships could find their way at night. Until the lighthouse's completion in 1835, Abacoans even went so far as to intentionally cause shipwrecks by sending false signals to passing vessels. Artifacts and relics of the "Wrecker's Days" can be seen at Wyannie Malone Historical Museum in Hope Town.
The Out Islands saw their economy strengthen once again when the American Civil War broke out from 1861-1865. Confederate blockade-runners would tuck away their ships in the nooks and crannies along the coasts of the Abacos and Andros to evade the Union navy. Bahamian merchants, already benefiting from increased commerce, would additionally profit by letting the smugglers use their facilities as supply bases. The end of the war brought a deep recession to the Bahamas and wrecking returned as one of the primary industries.
When the United States enacted Prohibition in 1919, the Bahamas would again become the port-of-call for the nefarious. Bahamian Rum became the export of choice to the mainland, where liquors were now illegal. Bootleggers set up camp among the Biminis, only 50 miles from Miami, as well as smaller operations throughout the islands. Inns and taverns sprung up to gain patronage from the criminal element. After prohibition ended in 1933 and the United States fell into a depression, the Bahamas returned to a life of subsistence agriculture and fishing.
As America began to recover after the Great Depression and World War II, much of the population soon possessed enough extra income to afford vacations. This would mark the beginning of the first stable industry in the Bahamas—tourism. Resorts, restaurants, and shops sprung up to welcome the influx of visitors in the 1950s and 1960s. Though much of the development took place in Nassau and Freeport, the Out Islands also got their share of the bounty. They quickly gained a reputation for excellent sport fishing and natural splendor.
On July 10, 1973, the Bahamas gained its independence from Britain. Though the government got off to a shaky start, with leaders being accused of involvement in narcotics smuggling, the nation soon began to thrive and continued to develop its tourism economy.
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