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Geography of the Bahamas


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Area (land) 1,509 square mile (3,870 square kilometer)

Population 297,477

Capital Nassau

Highest Point 208 foot (63 meter)

Lowest Point 0 m

GDP per capita $17,000

Primary Natural Resources timber, salt, aragonite.

THE ISLAND OF San Salvador is cited as the first landing spot in the New World by the explorer Christopher Columbus on October 12, 1492. The small, low-lying chain of islands and cays were then passed over by the Spanish in favor of larger islands and silver and gold on the mainland. Today, however, the independent nation of the Bahamas boasts 1 of the most prosperous economies and most stable governments in the region, thanks to tourism and its close location to the continental United States.

Lying just 90 mile (140 kilometer) off the coast of Florida, the chain includes over 700 islands—only 30 of which are inhabited—plus 2,000 cays. Stretching from northwest to southeast across 600 mile (968 kilometer), the islands have a total of 2,196 mile (3,542 kilometer) of coastline and form a total land area roughly equivalent to Jamaica. The islands are mostly long, flat coral formations with some low rounded hills.

The main island, New Providence, with the capital city of Nassau, is at the northern end of the chain, between the largest islands in the group, Andros, Eleuthera, Grand Bahama, and Great Abaco. Other main islands include Cat Island, Great Exuma, and Long Island in the center of the chain, and Great Inagua at the southern end. Great Inagua is roughly 62 mile (100 kilometer) from Cuba and 50 mile (81 kilometer) from Haiti. The Turks and Caicos islands geologically form a southern extension of the Bahamian archipelago but have mostly been administered separately and remain dependencies of the United Kingdom. The islands of New Providence and Grand Bahama have roughly four-fifths of the population. Most Bahamians live in towns (84 percent, 1 of the region’s highest), either in Nassau or in the other major towns, Freeport (on Grand Bahama) and Matthew Town (on Inagua).

The islands’ original inhabitants, the Lucayans (Arawaks), were completely removed to work plantations on Hispaniola and Cuba. Poor soil and few freshwater resources meant that the Bahamas were not developed as tobacco or sugar plantations like other Caribbean islands, so the islands remained sparsely populated. Settled by British pirates and traders from 1647 onward, the islands became a haven for the most notorious criminals of the Caribbean, notably Blackbeard. The English government tacitly supported raids against Spanish galleons heavily laden with gold bullion. After the abolition of slavery in British colonies in the 1830s, the Bahamas remained a point of slave smuggling and was also home to blockade runners during the U.S. Civil War. This sort of activity became prominent again in a different form in the 1920s and 1930s, when the Bahamas became a chief smuggling center for alcohol into the United States during Prohibition. The economy was again stimulated by the arrival of gambling after the casinos were closed in Havana during the Cuban Revolution (1959).

The Bahamas led the British West Indies in their move to independence, becoming independent in 1973, yet retaining full ties to the Commonwealth and the British crown. Since independence, the government has focused on expanding its industries, primarily in the spheres of tourism and related services, taking full advantage of the country’s pleasant, sunny climate, and proximity to the United States. An estimated 3 million tourists visit the islands each year, representing roughly 13 percent of all tourist spending in the Caribbean.

Small local manufacturing industries, including cement, salt, rum, and pharmaceuticals, along with oil refining and transshipment, provide many jobs, but the largest growth area is in development as an offshore financial center, drawing in over 150 major banks from North America and Europe through its specially structured tax and trust laws. Banking and e-commerce are now among the top revenue generators for the government, along with ship registrations (the fifth largest in the world). But the islands continue to maintain their reputation as a haven for illegal activity, becoming once again a center for smuggling into the United States, this time marijuana and cocaine from South America.

BIBLIOGRAPHY.

Brian W. Blouet and Olwyn M. Blouet, eds., Latin America and the Caribbean: A Systematic and Regional Survey (Wiley, 2002); David L. Clawson, Latin America and the Caribbean (Times Mirror Higher Education Group, 2004); Sarah Cameron, ed., Caribbean Islands Handbook (Footprint Handbooks, 1998).

JONATHAN SPANGLER

SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION

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