Bahamian culture is like no other. It has embraced a panorama of native customs of the indigenous “Indian” people who populated The Islands Of The Bahamas over the eons. Then Bahamian culture suddenly underwent an abrupt change beginning in 1648 when English Puritans settled on the island of Eleuthera. It has further evolved over the past four centuries, witnessing the arrival of Bermudan slaves and free blacks, British Loyalists (accompanied by slaves) fleeing America after the War of Independence, freed Africans from slave ships, Black Seminoles from Florida, people from other Caribbean islands, as well as Chinese, Syrian and Greek immigrants.
Geography played a part in Bahamian history. In 1492, Christopher Columbus made his first landfall in the New World on the island of San Salvador in the eastern Bahamas. After observing the shallow sea around the islands, he said “baja mar” (low water or sea), and effectively named the area The Bahamas, or The Islands of the Shallow Sea.
Non-Arawak people — perhaps from Cuba — lived in The Islands Of The Bahamas as early as 300 to 400 AD. They were later followed by Lucayan Indians. Neither group of people left a written history, but what they did leave — drawings, pottery, tools and bones — gives insight into their daily lives. There were about 40,000 Lucayans when Columbus arrived, but this population soon dwindled to nothing after being enslaved.
In 1648, a group of dissident English Puritans (known as the “Eleutheran Adventurers”) arrived here in their quest for religious freedom. Although the adventurers gave the island its name, the island didn’t give much back.
Piracy was at its height from the late 1600s to the early 1700s. The Islands Of The Bahamas was a popular “stopping off” point for many of the world’s most infamous pirates.
Smuggling brought prosperity to The Islands Of The Bahamas. The influx of traders from the American Civil War (1861-1865) and Prohibition (1918-1934) increased the demand for food, lodging and other items.
Although virtually any type of international food can be found in The Islands Of The Bahamas, it would be a mistake to miss an opportunity to sample the local cuisine. No matter where you are, you won’t have any difficulty finding plenty of restaurants serving Bahamian cuisine and fresh local seafood at reasonable prices.
Seafood is the staple of the Bahamian diet. Conch (pronounced “konk”) is a large type of ocean mollusk that has firm, white, peach-fringed meat. Fresh, uncooked conch is delicious; the conch meat is scored with a knife, and lime juice and spices are sprinkled over the meat. It can also be deep-fried (called “cracked conch”), steamed, added to soups, salads and stews or made into conch chowder and conch fritters. The Bahamian “rock lobster” is a spiny variety without claws that is served broiled, minced or used in salads. Other delicacies include boiled or baked land crabs, which can be seen, before they are cooked, running across the roads after dark.
Fresh fish also plays a major role in the cooking of The Islands Of The Bahamas — a popular brunch is boiled fish served with grits, and when done right, is often the most flavourful way to enjoy the taste of a fresh catch. Stew fish, made with celery, onions, tomatoes and various spices, is another local specialty. Many dishes are accompanied by pigeon peas and rice (the infamous peas ‘n’ rice served throughout the Caribbean), with spices, tomatoes and onions.
To experience Bahamian culture and art, you should make plans to attend Junkanoo. The Bahamian festival of Junkanoo is an energetic, colourful parade of brightly costumed people gyrating and dancing to the rhythmic accompaniment of cowbells, drums and whistles. The celebration occurs on December 26 and January 1 — beginning in the early hours of the morning (2:00 a.m.) and ending at dawn.
Junkanoo is reminiscent of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras and Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival, but it is distinctly Bahamian and exists nowhere else. Parade participants — arranged in groups of up to 1,000 — are organised around a particular theme. Their costumes, dance and music reflect this theme. At the end of the Junkanoo procession, judges award cash prizes. The three main categories for the awards are: best music, best costume and best overall group presentation.
The most spectacular Junkanoo parade occurs in Nassau. However, you can also experience it on Grand Bahama, Eleuthera, Bimini and Abaco. It’s held on Boxing Day (December 26) and New Year’s Day (January 1) from 2:00 a.m. until 8:00 a.m.