The islands, composed mainly of limestone and coral, rise from a vast submarine plateau. Most are generally low and flat, riverless, with many mangrove swamps, brackish lakes (connected with the ocean by underground passages), and coral reefs and shoals. Fresh water is obtained from rainfall and from desalinization. Navigation is hazardous, and many of the outer islands are uninhabited and undeveloped, although steps have been taken to improve transportation facilities. Hurricanes occasionally cause severe damage, but the climate is generally excellent. In addition to New Providence, other main islands are Grand Bahama, Great and Little Abaco (see Abaco and Cays), the Biminis, Andros, Eleuthera, Cat Island, San Salvador, Great and Little Exuma (Exuma and Cays), Long Island, Crooked Island, Acklins Island, Mayaguana, and Great and Little Inagua (see Inagua).
The population is primarily of African and mixed African and European descent; some 12% is of European heritage, with small minorities of Asian and Hispanic descent. More than three quarters of the people belong to one of several Protestant denominations and nearly 15% are Roman Catholic. English is the official language. The Bahamas have a relatively low illiteracy rate. The government provides free education through the secondary level; the College of the Bahamas was established in 1974, although most Bahamians who seek a higher education study in Jamaica or elsewhere.
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.
The Bahamas are governed under the constitution of 1973 and have a parliamentary form of government. There is a bicameral legislature consisting of a 16-seat Senate and a 40-seat House of Assembly. The prime minister is the head of government, and the monarch of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, represented by an appointed governor-general, is the titular head of state. The nation is divided into 21 administrative districts.
Before the arrival of Europeans, the Bahamas were inhabited by the Lucayos, a group of Arawaks. Christopher Columbus first set foot in the New World in the Bahamas (1492), presumably at San Salvador, and claimed the islands for Spain. Although the Lucayos were not hostile, they were soon exterminated by the Spanish, who did not in fact colonize the islands.
The first settlements were made in the mid-17th cent. by the English. In 1670 the islands were granted to the lords proprietors of Carolina, who did not relinquish their claim until 1787, although Woodes Rogers, the first royal governor, was appointed in 1717. Under Rogers the pirates and buccaneers, notably Blackbeard, who frequented the Bahama waters, were driven off. The Spanish attacked the islands several times, and an American force held Nassau for a short time in 1776. In 1781 the Spanish captured Nassau and took possession of the whole colony, but under the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1783) the islands were ceded to Great Britain.
After the American Revolution many Loyalists settled in the Bahamas, bringing with them black slaves to labor on cotton plantations. Plantation life gradually died out after the emancipation of slaves in 1834. Blockade-running into Southern ports in the U.S. Civil War enriched some of the islanders, and during the prohibition era in the United States the Bahamas became a base for rum-running.
The United States leased areas for bases in the Bahamas in World War II and in 1950 signed an agreement with Great Britain for the establishment of a proving ground and a tracking station for guided missiles. In 1955 a free trade area was established at the town of Freeport. It proved enormously successful in stimulating tourism and has attracted offshore banking.
In the 1950s black Bahamians, through the Progressive Liberal party (PLP), began to oppose successfully the ruling white-controlled United Bahamian party; but it was not until the 1967 elections that they were able to win control of the government. The Bahamas were granted limited self-government as a British crown colony in 1964, broadened (1969) through the efforts of Prime Minister Lynden O. Pindling. The PLP, campaigning on a platform of immediate independence, won an overwhelming victory in the 1972 elections and negotiations with Britain were begun.
On July 10, 1973, the Bahamas became a sovereign state within the Commonwealth of Nations. In 1992, after 25 years as prime minister and facing recurrent charges of corruption and ties to drug traffickers, Pindling was defeated by Hubert Ingraham of the Free National Movement (FNM). A feeble economy, mostly due to a decrease in tourism and the poor management of state-owned industries, was Ingraham's main policy concern. Ingraham was returned to office in 1997 with an ironclad majority, but lost power in 2002 when the PLP triumphed at the polls and PLP leader Perry Christie replaced Ingraham as prime minister. Concern over the government's readiness to accommodate the tourist industry contributed to the PLP's losses in the 2007 elections, and Ingraham and the FNM regained power.
See H. P. Mitchell, Caribbean Patterns (2d ed. 1970); J. E. Moore, Pelican Guide to the Bahamas (1988).