The Bahamas were actually part of the first landfall by Christopher Columbus on discovering the New World in 1492. However, despite land claims by Columbus and the Papal Bull of 1493, the Spanish made no attempt to settle these islands. English interest in the islands was first made apparent in 1629 when Charles I granted Sir Robert Heath (the Attorney General of England) "Bahama and all other Isles and Islands lying southerly there or neare upon the foresay'd continent". However, he made no known attempt to form or organise a settlement there. A French claim by Cardinal Richelieu in 1633 went similarly unpursued.
It was not until the English Civil War period that English settlement began on the islands. Religious differences in England had open into warfare. In 1644, two ships of religious dissidents left Bermuda to survey the islands to see if it would make a suitable base for a new settlement where they could worship as they please. One ship was wrecked, but the other ship returned to Bermuda with enthusiastic reports about the suitability of the islands for settlement. In 1647, the Company of Eleutherian Adventurers was formed in London "for the plantation of the Islands of Eleutheria, formerly called Buhama (sic) in America, and adjacent islands." Captain William Sayle arranged to leave Bermuda in 1648 with about 70 prospective settlers.
They landed at a place they called Eleuthera then known as Cigatoo. The strict protestants were keen on establishing an egalitarian constitution that would not allow a monarch to reimpose its control over them. Consequently it reduced the role of the governor of the island itself and of the company back in London. It gave the vote, freedom of conscience and access to land and natural resources. Although political advancement was tied to financial commitment to the colony.
The first settlers found it difficult though, although they were joined by further co-religionists in 1649 when Charles was executed - Royalist sentiment on Bermuda made Parliamentarians feel uncomfortable and unwanted. There was some disagreement among the colonists on the new site, mainly over freedom of conscience - it was interpreted by some to mean that they did not have to heed the constitutional arrangements of the new colony! The dispute led to a splinter colony being formed - although disaster struck this as one of the ships moving the colonists was shipwrecked whilst crossing a reef to the new location. Only one person died, but the loss of supplies and equipment would undermine the viability of the colony.
With the Protestant government of Englard reasserting control over Bermuda, there was less of an imperative for the Adventurers to remain in the Bahamas. They began to trickle back to Bermuda - with William Sayle himself returning there in 1656. A few of the original Adventurer settlers stayed on but would be joined by many of the less desirable elements (as they saw it) from Bermuda. Various persons convicted of misdemeanours were exiled there. Likewise, a number of free blacks or ex-slaves were 'encouraged' to leave Bermuda for the islands.
By 1670, the population may have reached a thousand settlers - two thirds of them being white. They were spread out over the islands and found it difficult to make any significant sources of wealth. It was soon realised that an island to the West of Northern Eleuthera would make a much better harbour and base. It would be named New Providence in honour of an earlier Puritan settler colony that had tried to establish a Protestant colony off the coast of Nicaragua.
Sayle himself was able to survive the political transition back in England that saw the Stuarts returned to the throne. After being the governor of Bermuda once more, he was asked to be the new governor of South Carolina in 1663. Whilst operating in that capacity, he convinced some of the lord proprietors there of the opportunities in the Bahamas. The Duke of Albemarle and five others petitioned King Charles for a grant over the lands which was granted in 1670. This formally ended the old consitutional arrangements of the Adventurers of Eleuthera - although they had effectively ceased long before that.
Proprietory government was supposed to instill a new sense of law and order, but it did little to achieve these goals. The first and foremost priority for the owners was to make a profit. Consequently, the governors and agents were directed to maximise all commercial opportunities and the islands moved into a period of laissez-faire 'anything goes' period of economic development. This included scavanging on Spanish and French wrecks on the islands and even into launching attacks on their Catholic neighbours to try and seize assets. Inevitably, these brought reprisals, and the The French and Spanish frequently attacked and razed various settlements on the islands. The escalation of tension made the islands an ideal base for Pirates/Privateers to try their luck. This was best personified by the actions of a certain Blackbeard. King Charles tried to outlaw Piracy on the islands in 1684 but to little effect.
The area became renowned for anarchy which made regular trade almost impossible. As a consequence, merchants throughout the Caribbean petitioned the new Hanoverian kings to pacify and rein in the pirates and privateers. In 1717, the Crown arranged to remove responsibility for the administration and law and order from the proprietors. The British sent a military governor, Captain Woodes Rogers, to the islands with a troop of soldiers and a one time offer of a pardon to all pirates for previous crimes. 1,000 took the offer whilst 8 who did not were publicly hanged. The change of regime and hardlines policies was so successful that by 1728 the islands were able to adopt the motto expulsis piratis restituta commercia.
With the arrival of peace, Governor Rogers was able to consider implementing a general assembly which he did in 1729. Some economic progress could be attempted in the forthcoming years - but most crops struggled in the exposed islands and hurricanes frequently reduced crops completely. Slavery was not unknown on the island, but it was not the economic imperative that was on some of the other Caribbean islands. This would all change thanks to the American War of Independence.
The islands themselves were captured briefly in 1776 by the Americans and then again in 1781/2 by the Spanish but they were recaptured by Colonel Andrew Devaux in an impressive military campaign. As it was, the Treaty of Versailles of 1783 was to see the islands returned to Britain anyway. This return to the Crown would also be joined by thousands of American loyalists fleeing the mainland looking for British protection. Many of these loyalists were slave owning Southerners who brought their slaves with them. This would transform the ethnicity of the islands and bring in significant tensions and problems of their own. Many Bahamians were resentful of the preferential terms and conditions offered to the loyalists by the British government. These slave owners would try to cultivate the crops they were most familiar with. At first, it appeared that Cotton would succeed as a viable crop. However, disease would strike and the Cotton experiment would peter out by 1800.
In 1787, the British Crown formally paid off the Lords Proprietors for their remaining rights in order to fully secure ownership over the islands. There was concern for the islands' security once more during the Napoleonic Wars. As a result the Turks Islands were placed under the control of the governor of the Bahamas in 1804. Although the British victory at Trafalgar in the following year meant that the strategic threat had passed. The Turks Islands were returned to the control of Jamaica in 1848.
The opening decades of the nineteenth century would see battles between the assembly and the executive over the rights of slaves on the islands. The British appointed executive found itself against the entrenched economic desires of the slave owners who wished to restrict their treatment of slaves as much as possible. The banning of the Slave Trade in 1807 had actually made these battles worse and they would not be resolved until the Emancipation Act which came into force in 1834. Even then, it was the slave owners who received the compensation, not the slaves. A legislative Council was established in 1841.
The islands would become involved in the American Civil War as a useful terminal for Southern Cessionists to attempt to run the Union blockade. Nassau became a hugely important port with smugglers and merchants attempting to profit from the escalating prices of commodities. A similar economic windfall occurred in the 1920s during the prohibition period in America. Otherwise, economic activity was singularly unsuccessful - subsistence farming was about all that could be achieved - the islands were virtually devoid of a monetary system - barter was the standard way of acquiring goods. There was some boost in the post Second World War period when tourism began to make an impact.
The islands became independent in 1971.