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Bahamas, The, officially Commonwealth of the Bahamas, independent country, a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, in the West Indies. The Bahamas comprise an archipelago of about 700 islands and islets and nearly 2,400 cays (pronounced “keys”) and rocks, extending for about 800 km (about 500 mi) from a point southeast of Palm Beach, Florida, to a point off the eastern tip of Cuba. The Biminis, the westernmost of the group, are about 97 km (about 60 mi) east of Miami, Florida. About 30 of the islands are inhabited. New Providence is economically the most important of the group and contains more than half of the Bahamas’ total population. The other chief islands, all of which are low-lying, include Acklins, Andros, Cat, Crooked, Eleuthera, Grand Bahama, Abaco, Great Inagua, Harbour, Long, Mayaguana, and San Salvador (Watling).
Possessing a pleasant subtropical climate and splendid beaches, the Bahamas are one of the most popular year-round resorts in the Western Hemisphere. Tourism plays a central role in the country’s economy. Because of favorable tax laws, the Bahamas have become an international banking center. Industrial activity is limited; it includes the transshipment and refining of petroleum and the production of steel pipe, pharmaceuticals, salt, rum, and shellfish.
In 1492 Christopher Columbus made his first landing in the New World in the Bahamas, on an island then inhabited by Arawak people. He named the island San Salvador; some scientists now believe it to be Samana Cay. The first permanent European inhabitants were not the Spanish, however, but the British, who settled Eleuthera and New Providence in 1647. During its early years the settlement was repeatedly attacked by the Spanish. The islands were later the stronghold of buccaneers and pirates, notably the infamous Blackbeard. The Bahamas were ruled by the proprietary governors of the British colony of Carolina from 1670 to 1717, when the British crown assumed direct control of civilian and military affairs. In 1776, during the American Revolution, Nassau was held for a short time by American naval forces, and Spain held the islands in 1782 and 1783; they became a British colony in 1787. After slavery was abolished in 1833, the result was a decline in both the economy and the population. An epidemic of cholera in the middle of the century further reduced the population. Prosperity returned temporarily during the American Civil War (1861-1865), when the islands became a station for Confederate blockade-runners, and again during Prohibition (1920-1933), when rum-runners found them a convenient base.
In 1964 Britain granted the Bahamas internal autonomy. Some friction thereafter developed between white- and black-dominated political parties until the black Progressive Liberal party (PLP) won control of the government in general elections in 1967. Its leader, Lynden O. Pindling, then became prime minister. Independence was achieved on July 10, 1973. Pindling held power throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but chronic unemployment and allegations of government corruption eventually eroded his support.
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