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The most northerly group of the West Indies, are a chain of coral islands lying between 21°42' and 27°34' N. lat., and 72°40' and 79°5' W. long., composed of twenty-five permanently inhabited islands and an immense number of cays and rocks. The group lies to the east of Southern Florida, and is separated from it by the Gulf Stream; and to the north of Cuba, from which it is separated by the Old Bahama Channel. As to the name, nothing definite seems to be known of the origin of Bahama. It is undoubtably of aboriginal origin, while Lucayos is evidently the Spanish Los Cayos, the Cays.
Of the total population, about 80 per cent are of African negro descent; less than ten per cent are whites, mostly of English and Scotch descent through Loyalists from the American Colonies; and the rest are coloured or mixed. Slavery was abolished, 1 August, 1834; the number of slaves was 10,086 and the owners received compensation at the rate of £12.14.4 per head. New Providence, on which Nassau, the capital, is situated, the only island having a safe harbour, with eighteen feet of water, is the principal island. Owing to its salubrious climate, Nassau is a favourite winter resort for American tourists. The average temperature for the four winter months is 71° F.
Political Status and Exports
Politically the Bahamas are a British Colony, being governed by a Governor and an Executive Council of eight members, a Legislative Council of nine members appointed by the Crown, and an elective legislative assembly of twenty-nine members. The islands are of coral formation, thus differing completely in their geological structure from the other West India Islands as well as from the adjacent mainland of Florida. Soil and vegetation are sparse. The chief exports are sponge, tortoise shell, ambergris, pink pearls, and shells gathered in the shallow waters of the Bahama Banks. Sisal fibre, pineapples, grapefruit, oranges, and various other tropical fruits, as well as precious woods, form the chief land products of export. The large bulk of the trade, both import and export, is with the United States.
Historically the islands are of interest, because one of them San Salvador (see SAN SALVADOR, THE LANDFALL OF COLUMBUS), was the first land of the New World discovered by Columbus, 12 October, 1492. The Spanish never made a permanent settlement in the Bahamas, but shortly after the discovery they carried off many aborigines to the mines of San Domingo, and ere long the whole population, never perhaps very large, seems to have disappeared. The statement made in some of the recent guide books, that 40,000 souls were supposed to have been carried to the mines of Hispaniola by the Spaniards, is evidently overdrawn. Had the Bahamas ever been so thickly populated, there would remain the evidence of ruins of buildings or of soil cultivation. There are few if any fruit trees whose introduction cannot be traced, and there are no food-animals on the islands. Whatever population there was, must, therefore, have subsisted on fish, corn, yams, and on a very few small wild fruits. There is nothing to warrant the supposition that the Bahamas ever had more than a very sparse aboriginal population. So little is known of the original inhabitants that they cannot be definitely classified. They may have been of Carib stock or of the race that inhabited the adjoining mainland of Florida. The brief description which Columbus gives of them, and the formation of the few skulls discovered, seem to favour the theory that they were either one with the aborigines of Florida, or a mixture of the latter with the Caribs of the West Indies. The fact that they were very mild-mannered, and not cannibalistic, favours the opinion that they were kin to the Seminoles of Florida. Excepting a few skulls, stone idols, and implements, a few of which are to be seen in the public library at Nassau, there are no aboriginal remains, and there are no ruins of any description, a fact which points to a North American, rather than to a West Indian, or Central American, origin.
In 1578 Queen Elizabeth conferred upon Sir Gilbert Humphrey all lands not already occupied by some Christian power, and finding the Bahamas neglected, he annexed them; but no settlement was established. The enmity existing between England and Spain afforded adventurers, chiefly English and French, an excuse to make them a vantage ground from which to make depredations on Spanish shipping to and from the New World, and the natural formation of the Bahamas furnished them an excellent hiding place. During the seventeenth century the islands were the rendezvous of the famous buccaneers. When, at the treaty of Riswick, in 1697, comparative peace was restored among the European nations, England withdrew her protection of the buccaneers, and some returned to more peaceful avocations (thus Morgan, a chief among them, retired to Jamaica, and subsequently was appointed governor of that island), while many others raised the black flag of piracy against all nations, and made the Bahamas a by-word for lawlessness and crime. In 1718, England began the extermination of piracy, and soon established law and order. Since then England has been in almost undisturbed possession. On 2 March, 1776, Captain Hopkins, in command of the first American Navy, took possession of Nassau, in quest of ammunition, and on 17 March departed, carrying with him Governor Brown. In 1781 the Spaniards took possession and organized a government. At the treaty of Paris, in 1783, the Bahamas reverted to England. During the early Spanish possession and depopulation nothing was done for religion, and the periods of buccaneer and pirate rule precluded religious activity. With English rule came gradually the Church of England, and in the first years of the nineteenth century, the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians made foundations in Nassau. In 1861 the Bahamas were made a bishopric of the Church of England. The inhabitants of the Bahamas are all nominally Christians, and claim allegiance to some one of the denominations named. The Baptists, served almost exclusively by native coloured preachers, are numerically the strongest. There are no reliable religious statistics.
Catholic Church in the Bahamas
Though there existed a tradition of ruins of "religious" buildings being still visible in 1803 on Cat Island (probably dating from the temporary Spanish occupation of 1781-83), there is no evidence of any Catholic priest ever having visited the Bahamas until 1845, when a Father Duquesney, on a voyage from Jamaica to Charleston, S. C., U. S. A. made a stay of six weeks at Nassau, and held services in a private house with perhaps a few Catholic Cubans or Haitians present. In 1863 Rev. J. W. Cummings of New York, and in 1865 a Rev. T. Byrne spent each a few weeks in Nassau, and conducted services. Beginning with 1866, the Rev. Dr. Nelligan of Charleston made several visits, and the Bahamas were recognized in the public prints as belonging ecclesiastically to Charleston, S.C. In 1883 Bishop H.P. Northrop of that diocese paid a short visit. At his request the Propaganda, in a letter dated 28 July, 1885, requested the Archbishop of New York to look after the spiritual interests of the Bahamas, and since that date they have been under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of New York.
In February, 1885, the Rev. C. G. O'Keeffe of New York, while visiting Nassau, organized the few Catholics, with the result that on 25 August, 1885, the cornerstone of the first Catholic Church in the Bahamas was laid by Georgina Ayde-Curran, wife of Surgeon Major Ayde-Curran of the British Army. On 13 February, 1887, it was dedicated under the patronage of St. Francis Xavier, by Archbishop M. A. Corrigan of New York. Father O'Keeffe, to whom belongs the honour of establishing the first Catholic Church in the Bahamas, remained in charge till 1889. In October, 1889, Rev. D. P. O'Flynn came to Nassau with four Sisters of Charity from Mount St. Vincent, New York, who at once opened a free school for coloured children, and a select school. In June, 1890, Rev. D. P. O'Flynn was succeeded by Rev. B. J. Reilly. In February, 1891, the Rev. Chrysostom Schreiner, O. S. B., of St. John's Abbey, Minnesota, took charge of the mission, and since 1894, two other Benedictine Fathers have been associated with him in the work. In 1893 a new mission was opened at Salvador Point, Andros Island, and in 1897, the Sacred Heart mission was opened in the eastern portion of the city of Nassau. There are therefore, at present St. Francis Xavier's Church, and Sacred Heart Chapel in Nassau, with each of which is connected a free school, taught by the Sisters of Charity, and an Academy by the same sisters. At St. Saviour's Mission, Andros Island, there is a free school taught by a lay teacher. The statistics of the mission for 1906 are as follows: 1 church and 2 chapels; 3 Benedictine Fathers, the superior of the mission bearing the title of Vicar Forane of the Bahamas; 9 Sisters of Charity; 1 academy; 3 free schools with an attendance of 470 pupils. Total Catholic population 360.
Turks and Caicos Islands, situated to the north of Haiti, belonging geographically to the Bahama group, were separated from the other Bahamas in 1848, and made a political dependency of Jamaica. There is no Catholic population. Grand Turk, whose one industry is salt-raking, is the seat of the commissioner. It is occasionally visited by priests from Jamaica.
Colonial Office List; Memoirs of Peter H. Bruce (London, 1782); CATESBY, Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahamas (London, 1770); McKINNON, Tour in the West Indies (London, 1804); IVES, The Isles of Summer (New Haven, Conn., 1880); POWLES, The Land of the Pink Pearl (London, 1888); STARK, History and Guide to the Bahamas (Boston, 1891); NORTHCROFT, Sketches of Summerland (Nassau, 1906). The last named is the most complete and reliable; LESTER, In Sunny Isles, (1897).