The Bahamas (pronounced /ðə bəˈhɑːməz/), officially the Commonwealth of The Bahamas, is an English-speaking country consisting of 29 islands, 661 cays, and 2,387 islets (rocks). It is located in the Atlantic Ocean north of Cuba and Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti), northwest of the Turks and Caicos Islands, and southeast of the United States of America (nearest to the state of Florida). Its total land area is 13,939 km² (5,382 sq. mi.; slightly larger than the US states Connecticut and Rhode Island combined), with an estimated population of 330,000. Its capital is Nassau. Geographically, the Bahamas lie in the same island chain as Cuba, Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti) and Turks and Caicos Islands, the designation of the Bahamas refers normally to the commonwealth and not the geographic chain.
Originally inhabited by Arawakan Taino people, The Bahamas were the site of Columbus’ first landfall in the New World in 1492. Although the Spanish never colonised The Bahamas, they shipped the native Lucayans (as the Bahamian Taino settlers referred to themselves) to slavery in Hispaniola. The islands were mostly deserted from 1513 to 1650, when British colonists from Bermuda settled on the island of Eleuthera.
The Bahamas became a Crown Colony in 1718 when the British clamped down on piracy. Following the American War of Independence, thousands of pro-British loyalists and enslaved Africans moved to The Bahamas and set up a plantation economy. The slave trade was abolished in the British Empire in 1807 and many Africans liberated from slave ships by the Royal Navy were settled in The Bahamas during the 19th century. Slavery itself was abolished in 1834 and the descendants of enslaved and liberated Africans form the bulk of The Bahamas’s population today.
The origin of the name “Bahamas” is unclear. It may derive from the Spanish baja mar (“shallow seas”) or the Lucayan word for Grand Bahama Island, ba-ha-ma (“large upper middle land”).
In the less developed outer islands, handicrafts include basketry made from palm fronds. This material, commonly called “straw”, is plaited into hats and bags that are popular tourist items. Another use is for so-called “Voodoo dolls,” even though such dolls are the result of the American imagination and not based on historic fact.
Although not practised by native Bahamians, a form of folk magic obeah derived from West African origins, is practiced in some Family Islands (out-islands) of the Bahamas due to Haitian migration. The practice of obeah is however illegal in the Bahamas and punishable by law. Junkanoo is a traditional African street parade of music, dance, and art held in Nassau (and a few other settlements) every Boxing Day, New Year’s Day. Junkanoo is also used to celebrate other holidays and events such as Emancipation Day.
The islands’ vivid subtropical atmosphere-brilliant sky and sea, lush vegetation, flocks of bright-feathered birds, and submarine gardens where multicolored fish swim among white, rose, yellow, and purple coral-as well as rich local color and folklore, has made the Bahamas one of the most popular resorts in the hemisphere. The islands’ many casinos are an additional attraction, and tourism is by far the country’s most important industry, providing 60% of the gross domestic product and employing about half of the workforce. Financial services are the nation’s other economic mainstay, although many international businesses left after new government regulations on the financial sector were imposed in late 2000.
Salt, rum, aragonite, and pharmaceuticals are produced, and these, along with animal products and chemicals, are the chief exports. The Bahamas also possess facilities for the transshipment of petroleum. The country’s main trading partners are the United States and Spain. Since the 1960s, the transport of illegal narcotic drugs has been a problem, as has the flow of illegal refugees from other islands.