The Bahamas was one of the few areas in the region in which the Arawak people were not displaced by the more warlike Caribs. When, in 1492, Christopher Columbus made his first landing in the New World in The Bahamas, the people who met him were Arawaks who, he wrote, ‘have opened their hearts to us. We have become great friends.’ Columbus is believed to have landed at Watling’s Island (Amerindian: Guanahani; Columbus’s designation: San Salvador). But within some 20 years, the Spaniards had enslaved or transported the Arawaks; some 40,000 were transported to Hispaniola where they died working in mines. British pirates also used the islands, and in 1629 the islands were given their first constitution as part of the Carolinas (USA). The first British settlers were refugees from religious persecution under Charles I, in Cigatoo in 1648. The island was renamed Eleuthera, meaning freedom. The settlers introduced the plantation economy and African slave labour.
An early form of democratic government, with a bicameral parliament and elected lower house, developed but was abolished in 1717, when the Crown resumed government. Although the other colonial powers did not formally dispute possession, the settlers were at times harassed by the French and Spanish as well as by pirates. Fortunes fluctuated. The population soared in the late 18th century with the arrival from America of Loyalist families and their slaves after the American Revolution. In 1783–84 the population was 4,058; by 1789, it was more than 11,000, with the white settlers forming a significant minority. The abolition of slavery in 1834 caused major economic changes as the islands had been used as a centre of slave-trading.
In 1861–65 the islands enjoyed prosperity as a depot for ships running the blockade against the Confederate States during the American Civil War. Decline followed, however, compounded by a severe hurricane in 1866.
Prosperity returned in the 20th century, when the islands became an entrepot for the American bootlegging trade during prohibition. More conventional industries also developed, supplying sisal, conch shells for cameo brooch-making, pineapples and sponges. The sponge industry reached a peak in 1901 during generally lean years but collapsed in 1939 as a result of fungal diseases. In the early 1950s the islands again prospered; the success of tourism, and later offshore banking, produced phenomenal growth. In 1953, the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) was founded to represent black interests in a system till then still dominated by whites.
In 1964, a new constitution set up a ministerial system of government, and the legislature was reformed to represent majority interests. After the subsequent general election in 1967, the United Bahamian Party (the so-called ‘Bay Street Boys’) was forced into opposition for the first time in the assembly’s history. Lynden Pindling, leader of the PLP, formed a government with the support of the Labour Party. The PLP won the next two general elections outright, and Pindling led The Bahamas to independence under a new constitution on 10 July 1973.