HISTORY OF BIMINI
Written by Ellie Richardson
There are over 700 cays, islands, and islets in the Bahamas with just less than thirty of them permanently inhabited today. The population of the Bahamas is nearly 400 000, and 70% of employment directly or indirectly relies on the success of tourism.
For many years, indigenous people inhabited the Caribbean and South-Easterly islands of the Bahamas. It is widely believed that the most recent inhabitants were the Lucayan-Arawakans (often referred to as the Lucayans) leading up to Christopher Columbus’ voyage. These people are thought to be ancestrally formed by the Caribs and the Ciboney.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus made his first landfall in the Americas. His voyage brought him to San Salvador (originally named Guanahani), one of the most Easterly islands of the Bahamas. After he observed the shallow seas surrounding the land, he referred to it as "baja mar" (which means "low water or sea"), thus the islands were eventually named The Bahamas, or "The Islands of the Shallow Sea."
Columbus’ voyage was just the first step in a huge shift in dynamic in the Bahamas. The Lucayans were known as a curious people, and so were eager to work together with the arriving Spanish. Columbus’ crew was led on tours around the Bahamas under the guiding hand of the Lucayans who were expert navigators, both understanding tides and currents.
After a period, polite formalities were halted (if there were indeed any to begin with) and exploitation was rife. A Spanish cleric, Bartolomé de Las Casas, published a document called History of the Indies outlining the monstrosities that the Lucayans faced at the hands of the Spanish in 1560. Not only were they exposed to new illnesses such as malaria, small pox, and measles but they forced into labour and taken as captives. Les Casas described Columbus’ tactic of taking men as enslaved people, and burning any who tried to escape. Freediving for conch and other wildlife, was just one of the physically strenuous tasks the Lucayans faced. This was the beginning of the same fate that indigenous groups all over the Americas would encounter as a result of the European explorers. Within 100 years of Columbus’ voyage, the Lucayans were completely eradicated with no living descendants in the Bahamas.
Shortly after arrival, the Spanish decided to move on to what is now recognised as Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, among other islands in the Caribbean. For most accounts, the Bahamas was left largely unoccupied until 1648.
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Meanwhile a gentleman volunteer named Ponce de Leon joined Columbus’ second expedition in 1493. He soon worked his way up the ranks to be declared Governor of Puerto Rico and grew wealthy from his plantations and mines. On losing his status to Diego Columbus (Columbus’ son), Ponce de Leon set sail on a voyage to follow and explore the rumours of the “fountain of youth” located in one of the Western islands of the Bahamas. His trip brought him to the relatively unexplored Bimini in 1513. He was soon after announced the first Governor of Bimini, but upon finding no such water hole, he continued his travels. After receiving authorisation from the Spanish King, Ponce de Leon went on to South-West Florida with the notion to establish a Spanish colony in the US. During this quest, he was fatally wounded in battle.
Come the late 13th century, and a movement of other European settlers arrived. Led by William Sayles, a small group of religious refugees, later known at the Eleutheran Adventurers, were shipwrecked and found shelter in Preacher’s Cave, located on the island of Eleuthera. These travellers had fled from Bermuda, in search of religious freedom to practice puritanism, and soon established Governor’s Bay after surviving their collision with Devil’s Backbone Reef just offshore.
The men were able to utilise the island’s resources to farm, and eventually trade. Soon they were able to connect with the British settlement in Virginia to seek help in further development. This relationship is effectively what led to the Bahamas becoming a British colony (officially declared part of the crown in 1718). By 1721, the population had grown to 1000 between the islands of New Providence, Harbour Island and Eleuthera.
In the years following the American War of Independence, the British Crown resettled thousands of partisans. Nearly 1600 loyalists were relocated to the Bahamas, and in turn were accompanied by over 7000 enslaved people. This made a huge impact on the Bahamas population and helped to promote the economic growth of the islands. The movement of the loyalists put the Bahamian population into a black majority for the first time.
The period following the war, is known as the Plantation Period or the African period, and persisted until the emancipation of slavery. During this time, the number of permanently inhabited islands expanded from three to twelve in order to accommodate its increasing population. In response to a growing demand in cotton worldwide, the Bahamas launched a large-scale commercial production effort. Other plantations included salt, sugar, and wood, which were all primarily worked by enslaved people.
Slavery was abolished in the British colonies in 1803, but many were not liberated until emancipation was officially declared in 1834, over thirty years later. Following this, many freed people experienced poverty and the Bahamian economy took a huge hit. As a result, the government put forward a suggestion that resulted in many former enslaved people settling on land provided by their former masters, in exchange for taking on their masters’ last name. Mr Rolle had over 300 enslaved people before the emancipation. This is just one of the surnames that is prevalent throughout the Bahamas today, as a result of this arrangement.
Fast forward a 100 years later, and the tourism industry is beginning to take off. Following World War II, an old war field in Nassau was renovated to create the Bahamas’ first international airport, making the islands accessible via both air and water. The idyllic scenery was appealing to a vast majority of visitors from the United States, who were further enticed by big game fishing opportunities and local cuisine. Since then, the tourism industry has continued to boom and bust, making it an unreliable source of income for many throughout the islands.
After nine years of internal autonomy, the Bahamas officially won independence from the UK in 1973. Lynden Pindling, was at the head of this campaign, and went on to serve at the Bahamas’ first Prime Minister (or Premier) for nearly 25 years and was thereafter known as the Father of the Nation.
The two main political parties of the Bahamas’ are the Progressive Liberal Party (founded by Lynden Pindling) and the Free National Movement. These parties have gone head to head in elections since 1992 to dominate the multi-party system. In 2017, the FNM won, electing Hubert Minnis as the Prime Minister of the Bahamas for the next five years.
Today Bimini is known as the “gateway to the Bahamas” acting as first stop on many tourist trips. Bimini, is one of the few islands to have maintained its Lucayan name which translates as “small islands,” and is located approximately 50 miles from mainland US. The Bimini as we know it today, was settled by former enslaved people - five families that moved from New Providence, making the population a grand total of 14 in 1835.The Bimini Islands are split into North and South Bimini, with an overall population of just under 2000 (figure from most recent census in 2010)
Over the years, Bimini has developed into a famed destination for travellers from around the world. Pulitzer prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway found his way here in 1935, and was so enthralled with Bimini, he supposedly used it as the inspiration for his classics "The Old Man & the Sea" and "Islands in the Stream". Referred to by many as the Big Game Fishing Capital of the World, the waters of Bimini have since been made world famous by anglers and divers. The Lost City of Atlantis and the Fountain of Youth are just some of the legends that are believed to exist in Bimini.
One renowned tourist spot in Bimini worth visiting, is the shipwreck of the SS Sapona. n the 1920s, a Bahamian man named Bruce Bethel purchased a World War I concrete Liberty ship, and brought it to Bimini. With the intention of setting it up as an operations base off the West side of the island, it was run a ground en route and to this day sits South of Bimini instead. While it served as a warehouse for a time, most notably during the prohibition for rum runners, it has gone on to serve many functions over the years. You can read stories about attempts to convert it into a nightclub, film adult movies, and it was even used as target practice for US navy pilots. Now a highly popular dive spot, it is a well-established artificial reef, home to an abundance of marine life found in the waters of Bimini.