Who are Bahamians & what is their culture?
So who are Bahamians really? Where they came from to the islands of Bahamas? Are they tourist friendly? What kind of Bahamian life, food and traditions can you expect here in the islands?
Well, while many might just summarize Bahamians as people who are friendly, helpful and love to live a laid back style of life enjoying seafood, meat, fresh fruits & vegetables... the real answer actually lies deep in the history of Bahamas ... why they are the way they are and what is their real culture.
Most would start the Bahamian history from the year 1492 when Christopher Columbus made his first ever landing in the New World ... that was in San Salvador - a Bahamian island. He found a friendly tribe community here known as Lucayans (also known as Taino Arawak Indians). But actually the Lucayans were living in these islands since the year 1,000.
While the Lucayans didn't last for long as the Spanish exploited them and sent them to Haiti and Dominican Republic as slaves where most died out of disease, it was in 1648 when a group of English puritans arrived from Bermuda and started the first permanent settlement in Bahamas in an island which they named Eluthera (meaning 'freedom').
Subsequently between late 1600s and early 1700s Bahamas became a haven for notorious pirates who looted the Spanish and French merchant ships passing through the nearby waters. In fact the sheltered harbor of Nassau became a hiding place for the pirates from where they intercepted the merchant ships passing by, attacked them and looted then of the precious cargo. Finally in 1718 Governor Woodes Rogers arrived from Britain with his seven battleship and put an end to wide-scale piracy in Bahamas, and the British Crown Colony was established in Bahamas.
People & Culture
But the real people of Bahamas who were instrumental for the culture & tradition that developed in the islands over the years were yet to arrive.
In late 1700s during and after the American Revolutionary War many British Loyalists (over 7,000) fled from North America (mostly from Southern US). British Government gave them lands in Bahamas to initiate British settlement. Those days slavery was legal and rampant in both British occupied lands as well as in the USA. So the British Loyalists brought in large number of slaves (mostly from West Africa) to cultivate cotton plantations in the various islands of Bahamas.
However due to thin and poor soil conditions, cotton plantations failed and so did commercialization of pineapple and sisal plantations, as well as ocean sponge fishing. In 1834 the slavery was eventually abolished in the entire British empire and the freed slaves were given lands for farming. Over the years the blacks easily outnumbered the British whites.
Other than the British loyalists, the settlers and the African slaves, there were large influx of people in Bahamas from two other sources...
1) In 1820s during the Seminole War in Florida, large number of American slaves and African Seminoles fled from Florida to Bahamas and largely settled in the north-western part of Andros Island ... they have created the village there known as Red Bay.
2) Since many years Bahamas has continued to face the problems of illegal immigration from Haiti (a nearby island south of Bahamas). These refugees are mostly uneducated, make about 20% of the total population and generally belong to the lowest strata of the society. But they too continue to influence the social behaviors, although negatively as most Bahamians so believe.
In 1973, Bahamas became an independent nation with parliamentary democracy while keeping the British monarch as the Head of State represented by the Governor General. However the executive power lies with the elected Prime Minister. Bahamas joined the Commonwealth in the same year.
So as you can see... there are so many factors that have been responsible for the overall development of culture and traditions in Bahamas. The British were mainly responsible for establishing English as the state language, economy, Protestant Christianity (about 80% are Protestants.... mainly Anglican and Baptists, and the remaining are Roman Catholic), while the African blacks with their large majority had significant influence on the family lifestyles, religious practices, music & dance etc.
An obvious example of African influence is 'Junkanoo' ... a Mardi Gras like carnival celebration which involves bright costumes, expressive dance and musical performances that have been derived from African culture. Junkanoo in Bahamas is performed on public holidays and made into a spectacular event that draws thousands of visitors.
Nassau in New Providence Island is the capital of Bahamas and the most developed city (along with its satellite Paradise Island). Freeport in Grand Bahama is the next most important city and rest are all settlements, villages and small townships that are scattered across various islands of Bahamas.
Overall Bahamas has about 400,000 residents and 70% of them are in Nassau alone mainly because of the developed hospitality sector here. About 90% of the total population are blacks who are mostly descendants of the slaves. Out of the balance 10%, most are whites being descendants of early settlers and some even relate to the original British loyalists. There are some Asian mix in the population as well.
Other aspects of Bahamian life
Tourism is the major economic driver accounting for over 60% of GDP and more than half of the population are engaged in this sector. So you can easily imagine that a sector like tourism won't flourish just on beautiful beaches and landscapes... it requires the local people to be more than hospitable, friendly and helpful... which most Bahamians are.
Combined with it you get delicious local cuisine of seafood like conch fritters & salads (by the way conch and rice & peas are the two national dishes here), lobsters and more. Bahamians love to eat seafood, meat, rice, bread, fresh fruits and vegetables.
Other than tourism, the two other most important sectors in Bahamian economy are the International Financial Services & Banking sector (about 15% of GDP) and agriculture (about 6-7%... the farming produce includes onions, tomato, cucumber, oranges, grapefruit, sugar cane etc). Note that almost all other consumer food and goods are imported which is reflected in the price.
The islands other than New Providence (where Nassau is located) are known as Out Islands as they are mostly out of the regular touristy map... they are fondly known as 'Family Islands' to the locals because most have their families rooted at the out islands while they come to Nassau for work. They do go back and meet their families periodically.
Family members in the out islands mostly remain engaged in fishing, little bit of farming and some tourism. It is also common that husband and wife moving out from out islands to city area like Nassau or Freeport leaving their children behind with grandparents.
The official language in Bahamas is English which all Bahamians speak, although many (mostly from the lower class) speak accented English known locally as Bahamian dialect (or English based Creole). Such dialect is widely prevailing in the out islands and less in Nassau and Freeport.
Overall life is laid back in Bahamas ... there is no hurry in life. Locals would say that peace and enjoyment are all they live for. And this is more so in the Out Islands... you can walk for hours along a pristine beach or coastline and see not a single soul to disturb you... tranquility and peace are the only way of life here. The eateries are more like huts with straw roofs mostly selling seafood and local cuisine... you can just walk in, get friendly with the owner in no time and start chatting. In several out islands, the only transport on roads are battery operated carts which you rent and self drive as you enjoy the small pastel houses lining the streets and the swaying palms.
However like most other places in the world, there are certain cross sections of people that you may like to avoid, particularly in Nassau. There are three different classes of people clearly visible in Nassau area... the rich or the elite class, middle class, and the poor or unemployed. You can see plush villas and executive condos of the rich as well as the slums where the poor and refugees dwell.
As a tourist it would be advisable not to stray and venture into the deep pockets (in other words the shady areas) where some untoward incidents can take place like mugging. Remember that the 30-year long piracy period and prolonged ongoing illegal immigration from neighboring states like Haiti have brought in their own issues in Bahamas.
Some times on public beaches and popular tourist places, you may not always like the local vendors continuously pestering you to buy something, or the taxi driver quoting a higher fare ... sometimes you might feel you are scammed. But if you know how to deal with it, you will quickly realize that they are not representative of true Bahamians and their culture... those are mostly aberrations.
Having been through British colonial rule for a prolonged period, Bahamians by culture are more conservative than some of the western countries. For example.... nudity is not allowed on any beaches in Bahamas, most restaurants won't allow swim wares while dining although the dress code may say casual (which would typically mean shorts and T-shirts).
The musical extravaganza that accompanies every Bahamian holiday was formerly tied up to some special occasions like Boxing Da, new year’s day etc. parades, lively dances and grand celebrations happened during such occasions. There were many musical groups like Baha Men and individuals like Ronnie Butler and Bodie Kirkland who are now hugely popular in Japan, USA and other countries. Bahamas has produced some of the best guitarists on the planet and they are all mostly self-taught with homemade guitars.
Bahamian music is strongly tied up to Junkanoo…a grand celebration that happens on Boxing Day. This kind of celebration is practiced in full swing in Belize, Bermuda and Jamaica. Goombay (a particular type of percussion music) along with rake and scrape music are commonly used in the Bahamas and so is Ripsaw music (surprisingly a saw is used as the major source of music).
Soca, calypso and reggae arrived from other places like Trinidad, Jamaica ad Cuba and are now a part of Bahamian music. The Bahamian Quadrille and heel toe polka dance forms accompany the rake and scrape music. If you are deeply interested in culture you will be able to pinpoint the musical sensibilities of Europe and Africa that have fused together beautifully in the Bahamas.
Another fascinating kind of music found in the Bahamas is their special version of sacred music. You will mostly find this kind of music being played by standalone singers near Churches. Creole slaves in the American Revolution era first started playing this kind of music and now this is pretty popular. Any random church service you appear for in the Bahamas will expose you to afro American Gospels and conventional European hymns sung together. A good understanding of the music of Bahamas will allow you to enjoy its nuances as you explore the islands.
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