The Cambridges arrived in the Bahamas on Thursday, the third and final stop of their Caribbean tour in honor of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.
Will and Kate are coming off of a turbulent few days in Jamaica, with the prime minister there making it clear his country intends to remove the Queen as head of state. That sentiment is present in the Bahamas, too, although it isn’t as prevalent; but the royal visit is being greeted by much of the same criticism over the family’s colonial past.
The Bahamas National Reparations Committee released a letter this week calling for reparations. “We are tired of paying literally with our lives for the maintenance of a paradigm in which we were exploited so others could be exalted,” the letter reads, according to Town & Country. “It is time now for reparatory justice. The time is now for reparations.”
Reuters reports a protest is slated for Friday “by Rastafarian groups to demand reparation payments by Great Britain and an apology for slavery.”
Below you will find a primer on the Bahamas, a tourism-dependent country that is struggling in the wake of the pandemic and Hurricane Dorian, as well as a look at its history with the British Royal Family. The Cambridges will return to the United Kingdom on Saturday.
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ICYMI: My newsletters on the protests in Jamaica and the purpose of (and problems with) the Commonwealth.
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The Bahamas is an archipelago of 700 islands and cays, 30 of which are inhabited. Located between Florida and Cuba, the Bahamas is something of a gateway to the Gulf of Mexico and Central America.
It is home to around 393,600 people (comparable to the size of Wichita, Kansas), according to UN Data. About 90% of its population is Black.
Roughly a third of Bahamian residents are age 24 or younger, according to the CIA World Factbook. More than 80% are under the age of 54.
The U.S. International Trade Administration says the Bahamas has “few natural resources and a limited industrial sector.” Its economy is highly dependent on tourism, which accounts for about 70% of its GDP and half of its employment. Before the pandemic, around 7 million tourists visited the Bahamas each year, mostly from the U.S.
The pandemic, and subsequent steep decline in travel, hit the Bahamas particularly hard. From the International Monetary Fund: “The economy is recovering from an unprecedented downturn. Growth in 2020 was -14.5%, among the lowest in the region, as tourism receipts fell by more than 75%.”
The toll of the pandemic came just months after the devastation of Hurricane Dorian. In the fall of 2019, the Category 5 storm did an estimated $3.4 billion worth of damage to the Bahamas’ infrastructure. Around 200 people lost their lives, according to the Orlando Sentinel, and roughly 76,000 people lost their homes on both Abaco and Grand Bahama. The BBC has pictures of the destruction.
Philip Davis was elected prime minister of the Bahamas last September.
The first inhabitants of the Bahamas arrived as early as 300 AD, coming from what is now known as Cuba, according to the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. From around 900 AD, it was home to the Lucayan people, who “enjoyed a peaceful way of life and had developed viable political, social and religious systems.”
Christopher Columbus arrived on the island of San Salvador in 1492. He described the region as “baja mar,” meaning shallow sea, which lead to the name “The Bahamas.” Within 25 years, the country’s 40,000 Lucayans perished due to “diseases, hardships and slavery endured,” according to the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism.
The first English settlers were Puritans seeking religious freedom. Arriving around 1649, they came to the island of Eleuthera and brought with them enslaved people.
The shallow waters around the Bahamas, coupled with the islands’ plentiful coves and inlets, made it a hotspot for pirates throughout the 1600s and 1700s. It attracted big names, including Blackbeard and Calico Jack. “Our close proximity to well-traveled shipping lanes made for the perfect spot to steal from merchant ships. There are rumors of hidden treasure that still exist today,” reads the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism.
King George I appointed a royal governor to the Bahamas in 1718 as pirates were looting cargo ships. “His job was to restore order. And he did,” reads the history on the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism: “He offered amnesty to those who surrendered. Those who resisted would be hanged. Three hundred pirates surrendered and the rest, including Blackbeard, fled.”
The population of enslaved people increased in the 1780s when more Americans with ties to Britain arrived on the island of Eleuthera. They attempted, unsuccessfully, to develop cotton plantations, according to Britannica. Slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, and full emancipation was granted in 1838.
The US Civil War was a boon for the Bahamas. “Britain's textile industry depended on Southern cotton; however, the Union blockaded British ships from reaching Southern ports,” according to the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. “So blockade runners from Charleston met British ships here and traded cotton for British goods. Upon their return, they sold their shipment for huge profits.
The Bahamas unsuccessfully attempted to grow a variety of crops, including pineapples, citrus fruits, tobacco and tomatoes. After WWII, the economy was centered squarely on tourism.
The Bahamas gained independence in 1973, two decades into Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, at which point it became a Commonwealth realm.
Her Majesty returned on tours in 1975 and 1977, as well as for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 1985. Her most recent trip was in 1994.
Prince Harry visited the Bahamas as part of his portion of the 2012 Diamond Jubilee tour. Princess Anne traveled there in 2015, and Prince Edward and his wife, Sophie, arrived the following year.
Former Attorney General Sean McWeeney said in September 2020 that a move to become a republic was “inevitable,” according to Eyewitness News of the Bahamas. His comments came shortly after Barbados’ announcement that it was removing the Queen as head of state. But at that time, McWeeney “noted there was no vast public appetite” for his country to do the same.
“Whether it happens in the next 10 years, or the next 20 years, or the next 100 years, I think it depends a lot on what priority the government of the day would attach to it,” McWeeney said in 2020, according to Eyewitness News. “Clearly the present government has no interest in it.”
Last December, in the wake of Barbados becoming a republic, Bahamian Director of Culture Dr. Nicolette Bethel opened the door once again. “I think that’s a direction in which we will all be heading,” she said, according to the Nassau Guardian, “because, while I believe that there is a global fondness for Queen Elizabeth, I’m not so sure that we are as interested and as invested in the rest of the British monarchy as we are in the queen. So, I think republican discussions are going to come up, whether we like it or not.”
Prince William’s comments on slavery Wednesday evening in Jamaica — he said, “I want to express my profound sorrow. Slavery was abhorrent. And it never should have happened” — did little in the eyes of Bahamian residents calling for reparations.
“We all know it was a horrible thing, but we need the full and formal apology in order for you to take responsibility and from that point reparations can ensue,” the Bahamas National Reparations Committee Chair Niambi Hall Campbell-Dean told Eyewitness News. “That’s the only thing we would accept at this point as being a genuine statement in regards to moving forward from the history that this family has.”
The Cambridges are due to visit “a number of islands” in their two-and-a-haf day stay in the Bahamas. The Express reports that the couple will “hear about how people in Abaco coped in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.”
The Cambridges will also participate in the Bahamas Platinum Jubilee Sailing Regatta at the Royal Sailing Club in Nassau. From Harper’s Bazaar: “The club was close to the heart of the late Prince Philip, who was an Honorary Commodore then Honorary Life Member of the sailing club.”
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