Grand Bahama Island Bahamas Online Travel Guide

Pre-Columbian History

The first inhabitants of Grand Bahama were probably the Siboneys, a fishing people thought to have ventured onto the islands from the nearby coast of Florida. Though it is difficult to make any definite claims about a people who knew neither stone nor wood carving, from what scanty remains the Siboneys have left behind, they likely made Grand Bahama their home around 7,000 years ago. Their fate on the island is undetermined.

Only slightly more is known of the island's second inhabitants, the Lucayans. Cousins of the more widespread Arawaks, the Lucayans originally migrated to the Caribbean from the jungles of the Amazon via canoe. They arrived in the Bahamas sometime between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. When first encountered by Columbus, there were an estimated 40,000 in the Bahamas, perhaps 4,000 residing on Grand Bahama. Within a short amount of time almost all had disappeared: Those who did not fall prey to European diseases or massacre at the hands of the conquistadors were enslaved by the Spanish and sent to the gold and silver mines of Hispaniola and Cuba or the fisheries of Margarita. Though it is conjectured that the Lucayans had a somewhat advanced society, this utter annihilation has largely denied us access to their cultural history.

The Spanish

The Spanish were the first Europeans to arrive on Grand Bahama. They claimed the island in 1492, naming it "Gran Bajamar", or great shallows, after the abundance of adjoining shallow reefs (it is from this that the whole chain of islands derives its English name, "the Bahamas" ). Yet, having depopulated Grand Bahama, they largely ignored it; probably for fear of the same treacherous reefs that earned the island its name. What few inhabitants there were on Grand Bahama often took to a practice known as "wrecking" - gathering goods off ships wrecked on the reefs, sometimes going so far as to lure the ships towards the reefs themselves with a misguiding lantern.

The British

In 1670, while a wave of British colonists emigrated from Bermuda to Eleuthera in search of religious freedom, Grand Bermuda was claimed for the British crown. During the early period of British dominion, though its population remained small, the island probably served as a haven for pirates, who preyed on passing cargo vessels; their tactics, such as luring ships into reefs, would have been well suited for the island.

Upon arrival at Grand Bahama, the British set up a plantation system. After the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834, this system fell apart, leaving the island economically decimating and with a population of newly freed West Africans. Several of Grand Bahama's towns-Pinder's Point, Russell Town, and Williams Town-were established by these former Bahamian slaves; and to this day, a majority of the residents of Grand Bahama are of West African decent. The island's ethnic diversity stands as a chief legacy of British imperialism.

Smuggler’s Island

Prior to the latter half of the twentieth century Grand Bahama remained sparsely populated and economically depressed-save, that is, for two boom periods. In true local fashion, given a history of "wrecking" and pirating, these were brought about by the opportunity to smuggle goods to the American mainland.

The first boom came during the U.S. Civil war. In response to the Confederacy's secession, the Union blockaded southern ports and imposed an embargo. In order to take advantage of the resulting extravagant prices to be had on southern markets, Bahamians flocked to West End, from whence they smuggled tons of sugar, cotton, and weapons across the 55 miles of Gulf Stream to Florida. In 1861 the population of the town doubled. However, with the end of the war came the end of Grand Bahama's short-lived economic prosperity. As had been before, fishing returned as the chief industry.

A few decades later internal tensions in the U.S. once again provided Bahamian smugglers with a ripe and ready market. This occasion was Prohibition. In December, 1919 Congress implemented the eighteenth amendment, declaring it illegal to manufacture, import, or sell intoxicating liquors. This government measure hardly reducing the thirst of Americans, and the market for illegally imported liquor stateside was tremendous. Bootleggers crowded the streets of West End eager to satisfy this new demand. Warehouses, distilleries, and bars were constructed, and ships set sail daily for Florida or the "Rum Row" off the coast of the northeastern U.S. Satisfied with the share it received in import tariffs, the Bahamian government made no effort to condemn the illicit trade. But, as with the ending of the civil war, when Franklin Roosevelt put an end to Prohibition in 1933, Grand Bahama's economy again faltered.


Since 1960, tourism has completely reshaped both the physical and economic landscape of Grand Bahama, transforming the island from a desolate place of pine barrens and impoverished fishing villages, to a desirable and luxurious resort destination, concentrated at the entirely premeditated city of Freeport, now second largest in the Bahamas. This transformation was enacted largely on the strength of the vision of a single man, Wallace Groves.

Groves, a Virginian who had owned and managed a lumber company on Grand Bahama since 1946, imagined a vast touristic metropolis arising from the pine barrens and mangrove swamps where his company operated; he dreamed this city would not only supersede West End as Grand Bahama's largest , but, as he declared publicly, would double the population of the entire Bahamas. In 1955 he approached the Bahamian government with his ambition. The result was the Hawksbill Creek Agreement, signed August 4, 1955, by which the Bahamian government granted Groves's new company, the Grand Bahama Port Authority, 50,000 acres of land for the construction of a "Port Area", with an option of a further 50,000 acre expansion (the final provision reached 160,000 acres). Later in that same year, in order to encourage investment, the GBPA was freed from all taxes on income, capital gains, real estate, and private property until 1985 (since extended to 2054).

Freeport, the appropriately named result of these allotments, was already well underway by 1956, with the construction of its deepwater port. In 1962 the Lucayan Beach became the first of the many resorts soon to be built on the island. By the mid 60s Groves claimed that there was more than $400,000,000 invested in the city.

In its early days, Groves's model city generated a great deal of publicity abroad, not the least of which surrounded a shopping center known as the International Bazaar. Opening in 1966 this 10 acre open air mall, conceived by a special effects designer, was a direct, though often forgotten, forerunner of EPCOT center, launched in Orlando, Florida more than a decade later. A conglomeration of international architectural styles, it offered the eager tourist access to luxury goods from every corner of the globe, and was a breakthrough of resort engineering.

Though Freeport inevitably failed to live up to all of Groves's lavish imaginings, it did set a precedent for premeditated resort communities that has had a substantial effect on the tourist industry worldwide. Today Grand Bahama ranks as the second most popular tourist destination in the Bahamas, and Freeport regularly hosts more than a million visitors annually.

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