The History of Grand Bahama Island

7,000 years ago

The earliest settlers, the Siboney Indians, were a people who lived off the sea; the shells and jewelry they left behind form the majority of what we know about them. Their remains suggest that they were here as early as 7,000 years ago, but disappeared after another Caribbean group, the Lucayans, superseded them.

The Lucayans (also called Arawaks) were a broad group of tribes who worked their way up the Caribbean from South America’s Amazon between 5 and 7,000 years ago. When Christopher Columbus sighted San Salvador on his first crossing in 1492, there were an estimated 40,000 of them living in The Islands of The Bahamas, with a population of about 4,000 on Grand Bahama Island. Surprisingly little is known about the Lucayans, a fact that comes from their rapid extermination by the Spanish shortly after the arrival of Columbus. It is believed they had an advanced political and social structure, and lived in well-organized cities.

Claimed by the Spanish in 1492

After the Spanish claimed the island in 1492, there was barely a footprint to be seen on the beaches of Grand Bahama Island. The Lucayans were enslaved and transported to work the gold and silver mines of Hispaniola and Cuba, and the pearl fisheries of Margarita, near Trinidad. The conquerors gave the island the name “Gran Bajamar” – great shallows – a term that eventually became the basis for The Islands of The Bahamas themselves.
After they stole away its inhabitants, the Spanish seemed to have completely ignored Grand Bahama Island. Once in a great while, a ship would drop anchor, perhaps scavenge a few provisions, then sail off towards Europe or South America. More often than not, Grand Bahama Island was viewed as a perilous landfall, due to the treacherous shallow reefs surrounding it. So many ships would collide with the reefs that “wrecking” became a major livelihood of what few inhabitants there were, most of who lived at West End. In hard times it wasn’t unheard of for the townspeople to actually try and lure ships onto the reef with a well-placed lantern at night.

Claimed by the British in 1670

Great Britain claimed The Islands of The Bahamas in 1670, after British colonists left Bermuda for the island of Eleuthera, where they sought religious independence. More followed, and other ports and colonies gradually developed, bringing in their wake an army of pirates and privateers. Grand Bahama was probably well known to famous pirates like Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, and Henry Morgan, as its reefs would have been perfect for running aground vessels, a common pirate tactic. By 1720, the crown had successfully established control over the pirates, and the island probably saw a lot fewer visitors than it had during “the Golden Age of Piracy.” The sleepy colony lay largely undisturbed for another 200 years, when history finally caught up with it again.

The impact of the American Civil War

Up until the mid-nineteenth century, Grand Bahama Island had largely been left alone by the outside world. There were plenty of sails on the horizon as ships came and went through the Caribbean, but more often than not, they passed by. Records from 1836 show that the population of West End numbered only about 370, and many of those people abandoned the island for the greater opportunities in Nassau. In 1861, however, the flow of people reversed direction, and population of the town virtually doubled overnight. The reason was the American Civil War.

At the outbreak of the war, The Confederacy of Southern States, a mere 55 miles away, immediately fell under a strict Union blockade and embargo. Getting goods such as sugar, cotton, and weapons in and out of the Confederacy was essential to the war effort, and smugglers operating out of West End were able to command hefty prices from the South. As soon as the war ended, however, so did the boom, but the short burst of prosperity set an important precedent: from then on, the history of Grand Bahama Island was intimately tied to that of the United States.

Prohibition of alcohol

The next smuggling boom came from a much different (and much more sought after) banned good in the US: alcohol. If the residents of West End had known that the 14th Amendment would bring unheard of prosperity to their village, they probably would have lobbied for it themselves. Prohibition brought warehouses, distilleries, bars, supply stores, and inns to West End. The town’s smugglers had the system down to a science. They’d sail off at night, with ropes dragging huge cylinders of liquor behind them. If the American Coast Guard pursued, they would simply cut the ropes, wait for the patrol to leave, and then recover them. Just as it was during the Civil War, however, as soon the US solved its problem, the economy dove and people started fishing again. It was only with the rise of tourism that the economy gained more stability.

Freeport was born

In 1955, the second most populated city of The Bahamas was little more than a pine forest. There were no resorts, no flashing casino lights or jet-skiers zipping through the surf. Grand Bahama was one of least developed of The Islands of The Bahamas, a place where a few hundred people made their living off the sea, perhaps daydreaming of the days of Prohibition, when the island’s economy boomed from smuggling liquor to the United States. No one could have imagined then that the island would become the quintessential tropical Caribbean playground.

No one, perhaps, except a man named Wallace Groves. Groves was an American financier from the state of Virginia who had been on the island since the mid-1940s. He owned a lumber company at Pine Ridge, and was keen to the possibilities of the island as a tourist destination. Less than a hundred miles away was the United States and its thriving post-war economy. American vacationers were already streaming into Cuba by the tens of thousands, and beautiful Grand Bahama, thought Groves, could be an alternative to the overcrowded beaches and casinos of Havana. And so, in 1955, he approached the Bahamian government with his idea to build a town that catered to both industry and tourists. Shortly after, a famous document known as the Hawksbill Creek Agreement was signed, and Freeport was born.

The Agreement granted 50,000 acres of land to Groves’ company, The Grand Bahama Port Authority Ltd., with an option of adding an additional 50,000. To encourage investment, it also freed the Port Authority from paying taxes on income, capital gains, real estate and private property until 1985 – a provision that has since been extended to the year 2054. Soon after the Agreement was signed, Groves began to enact his vision. He convinced the shipping tycoon D.K. Ludwig to construct a harbour, and in 1962 he brought in Canadian Louis Chesler to develop the tourist center of Lucaya. Over 30 years later, the result is a community completely tailored to the getaway tourist, a premeditated paradise offering almost every kind of vacation activity imaginable.