I’d wager that “Local” is hardly the first word that comes to mind when you think “Nassau.” The capital of the Bahamas lures hordes of visitors, but for most that translates to an all-inclusive hotel on Paradise Island, a pristine beach and one too many Bahama Mamas.
A great shame that is. New Providence—Nassau is actually not an island but the capital city of New Providence—has long been one of my Caribbean loves because I’m awed by the way it’s submerged in American culture (and, frankly, Americans) yet still so staunchly Bahamian. The local lives here, proud and strong and beautiful. Here’s how to luxuriate in it.
The name Bahamas derives from the Spanish baja (“shallow”) and mar (“sea”). Within the country, a distinction is made between the capital of Nassau on New Providence Island and the out islands of the archipelago. Bahamians recognize their distinctive national culture but emphasize minor differences in speech and customs among the islands. Foreign-born residents from the United Kingdom, the United States, Haiti, Canada, and other countries are referred to by their original nationalities regardless of citizenship or assimilation.
Location and Geography. The Bahamas lie in the Atlantic off the eastern coast of Florida and extend for over seven-hundred miles, roughly parallel to Cuba. The archipelago consists of approximately seven hundred islands and cays, plus nearly 2,400 reefs and rock formations. The land area is 5,382 square miles (13,940 square kilometers). There are fourteen island groupings. The climate is subtropical, with a hurricane season from June through November. Flooding is a problem because the islands are low outcrops of limestone, with most settlements barely above sea level. Farming has been practiced since pre–Columbian times, but the soil is thin, sandy, and not fertile. Few of the islands have ground water. The islands are ringed by sandy beaches and surrounded by shallow seas.
Demography. Population estimates range from 275,000 to 325,000, with tens of thousands of illegal economic refugees from Haiti who account for 20 to 25 percent of the population. About 85 percent of Bahamians are of African ancestry, and most of the remainder are of European descent. People of Asian ancestry constitute a very small segment of the population. Some racial mixing has occurred. Approximately 60 percent of the population is urban, a proportion that is growing rapidly as young adults migrate from out-island settlements to the urban areas of Nassau and Freeport.
Linguistic Affiliation. English is the primary and official language. Regional and class-related dialects vary from “Standard English” among the urban elite to “Bahamian English” among the poorer people. There are finely nuanced differences in vocabulary and pronunciation from island to island. “French Creole” is spoken by immigrants from Haiti. Those immigrants often are able to converse in heavily accented English, but few have been formally educated in the language.
Symbolism. Residents sometimes use the term “family islands” to symbolize the desired unity of the scattered population and the image of small, cohesive out-island communities. One of the most familiar symbols is the national flag, which was introduced in 1973. The left side consists of a black triangle with a horizontal yellow stripe flanked by two bright blue stripes. Yellow symbolizes the sunny climate, and blue symbolizes the sea. Many people assert that black symbolizes the African heritage of the people. “Junkanoo” is a Mardi Gras-like celebration that is held on several secular holidays. Both the term and form of the celebration probably come from West Africa. The celebrations combine music, costume, dance, revelry, pride in the African cultural heritage, recognition of slave resistance to authority, and the unity of the people. Junkanoo “gangs” compete for prestige and cash prizes. Tourism officials have transformed these ceremonies into events that draw thousands of visitors. Organizers, scholars, and participants refer to Junkanoo as a social institution that binds the people to each other and to their past.