The Bahamas is currently mired in a rather hapless state of desolation following the ravages of Hurricane Dorian. As is often the case in these situations, international attention has quickly passed on to other issues and the Caribbean nation is left fighting a forlorn battle of reconstruction.
It can be very easy to draw a clear line between the pre-contact and post-contact histories of ‘New World’ states – in the main it is unavoidable – and suggest that this is where the good times ended and the bad began.
The Bahamas has the dubious honour of being the first ‘discovery’ that Christopher Columbus set foot on, when he triumphantly strode ashore one of its islands (the exact one is debated) on the 12th October 1492. His description of the initial encounter with the native peoples is typically naive:
They go as naked as when their mothers bore them…They are very well made with very handsome bodies, and very good countenances. Their hair is short and coarse, almost like the hairs of a horsetail. They wear the hairs brought down to the eyebrows except a few locks behind, which they wear long and never cut. They paint themselves black, and they are the color of the Canarians, neither black nor white…They neither care nor know anything of arms, for I showed them swords, and they took them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance.
Of course the people who are suffering in the wake of Dorian bear no resemblance to this ‘hairless’ race. 95% of Bahamian people are of African origin, descended from the slaves brought to the islands by the British in the 17th century.
The people Columbus encountered were Lucayans, a Taino sub-group. An estimated 40,000 of them inhabited The Bahamas at the time of the European arrival. A mixture of introduced disease and enslavement to work for pitiful quantities of gold on Hispaniola saw to their extinction.
Columbus’ portrayal of an Age of Innocence did not stop with the people. He described the landscape thus:
Rather large and very flat, with bright green trees, much water, and a very large lake in the centre, without any mountain, and the whole land so green that it is a pleasure to look on it.
Such a tranquil and pleasant land is the last thing most Bahamians would recognise at the moment, but it has certainly been long sought after by colonists and holidaymakers alike, the pristine beaches and brackish lagoons helping to reinforce a notion of paradisaical calm.
Another thing that has persisted from Columbus’ descriptions is the name; “baja mar” translating as shallow sea in Spanish.
With as many as 2,500 people still unaccounted for after Hurricane Dorian, the Bahamian government could be excused for not giving much thought to history. The international community, and the USA in particular, on the other hand, should be more mindful of the significance of this land.
Modern American history as we know it dates to Columbus’ first landing in October 1492, and a great play is often made about the ‘origins’ of modern American people. Naturally this overlooks the first people to actually inhabit these shores and the mark they have left on humanity.
But if the Columbian adventure means so much to people then it should be reflected in the present, in the land where it all began, and that necessitates providing as much material support to The Bahamas in its time of need as is possible. No conditions, no bureaucratic red tape. Just unfettered aid.
To return Columbus’ mirage of an innocent and idyllic paradise and, more importantly, ensure a future for the Bahamian people, will require far more than the generous donations of individuals and the tireless efforts of NGOs. Just ask Puerto Rico.