of the Bahamas Historical Society, Volume 14 (October 1992)
THE SETTLEMENT OF THE BAHAMAS BETWEEN 1492 AND 1648:
FACT OR FICTION
by George A. Aarons
Despite the continuing controversy over the actual landfall
island1 and consequently the route traversed thereafter, there appears
to be unanimity amongst the pundits2 that Columbus, whatever his origins3
did visit the Bahamian archipelago between October 12th and 26th of A.D.
1492. It is also clear that William Sayle did initiate a series of voyages
from Bermuda culminating in a colonizing expedition into the northern
islands of The Bahamas in the late 1640's4 which led to the first permanent
continuous settlement5 of the islands of The Bahamian archipelago in post-Columbian
Bellin whose late 18th century map of The Bahamas is here
shown, recorded the 1565 French settlement in Abaco. (Courtesy:
Ministry of Tourism Fort Charlotte Collection: Department
However, between the voyages of Columbus and Sayle, there
is a void of a century and a half of Bahamian history which seemingly
is filled only by the collapse, decline and last throes of the indigenous
Lucayan Taino population,6 the occasional incursions of Spanish, French
and English seafarers in search of Amerindian slave labour,7 "fountains
of youth"8 or some other mercurial or more material precious commodity,
in transit to or from the Greater Antilles or the mainland and Bermudian
mariners9 sailing south in search of "wracks", salt, ambergris
or some other harvest of the sea amongst the pearls of a necklace that
span over a 100,000 square miles of blue water in the North Atlantic.
Eminent authority has sought to prove that by the end of the first half
of the "siglo de oro" there was not a single Lucayan Taino left
in the entire archipelago and for approximately a century the islands
of the archipelago remained totally bereft of any permanent human population.10
On the surface, the above scenario appears to be highly
credible and well-documented, but is it really valid? A close examination
of a variety of largely secondary sources and the increasing evidence
of the archaeological record, has brought to the fore a number of fascinating
clues which may, in the fullness of time and after a great deal of methodical
research of archival primary sources and focussed archaeological field-work
begin to fill this aforementioned apparent void with a tapestry of personages
and events which uill link the archipelago with the pageant of contemporary
circum-Caribbean events unfolding around The Bahamas, thereby producing
a more complete record of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries in The Bahamas.
The first clues relate to the Amerindian pre-Columbian
population of The Bahamian archipelago. To date, it has been possible
to register11 over five hundred Amerindian find-spots and sites from within
the archipelago occurring on all the larger land masses and on many of
the smaller ones covering virtually the entire axis. It has been assumed
that the entire assemblage related to one population group,12 the Lucayan
Taino, with the exception of a minority of artifacts that griginated in
the Greater Antilles, being deposited in The Bahamian archipelago by virtue
of social congress of one kind or the other between the Lucayan Taino,
the Antillean Taino or the Antillean Carib, through the process of trade,
commercial exploitation or warfare.13
The historical record however, intermittently but persistently
points to some other, or at least another, Amerindian presence in The
Bahamian archipelago both prior and subsequent to Columbus' 1492 arrival.
On San Salvador in October 1492, Columbus noticed14 scars on the bodies
of his Guanahani Lucayan hosts and they indicated to him that these had
been made by other Amerindians who lived to the northwest.
Good summaries of the controversy itself and major points on the subject can be found in:
De Vorsey, Louis and Parker, John In The Wake of Columbus
Wayne State University Press and Terrae Incognitae
Vol. #XV. Detroit 1983 and Gerace, Donald T. ed. First
San Salvador Conference of Columbus and His World. Fort Lauderdale,
Fla. College Center of the Finger Lakes 1987.
A recent mention of it in the published Bahamian Literature is: Hoffman,
Charles A. A quick-look at Where Columbus was When. Journal
of the Bahamas Historical Society Vol. 12 #1, October 1990
pp. 25-30 Nassau.
||Juan de la Cosa
||Ponce de Leon
||Alonso de Chavez
||Fernandez Gonzales de Oviedo
||Antonio de Herrera
||Juan De Laet
||Juan Batista Munoz
||Martin Fernandez de Navarette
||Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen
||R. H. Major
||Gustavus V. Fox
||Gustavus V. Fox
||Rev. Chrysostom Schreiner
||Harvard Columbus Exhibition
||Edwin and Marion Link
||Wolper Landfall Exhibition
||Ramon J. Didier-Burgos
||James E. Kelley
||Rupert H. Power
||William F. Keegan
||Paolo Emilio Taviani
||Joseph Judge/Luis Marden
||Robert H. Fuson
||Phillip L. Richardson and Roger A. Goldsmith
|a. of map references, source or
b. being the current names of these
In Summary 10 different islands (island groups) have been named since
A.D. 1500 with the strongest most recent claims being made for San Salvador,
Cat Island, Samana Cay, Grand Turk and Egg Island coalescing into 3
basic hypotheses: a northern route: Egg Island; a central route: San
Salvador, Cat Island or Samana Cay; a southern route: Grand Turk. THe
overwhelming majority and the strongest cartographical, historical and
archaeological/anthropoligical logical evidence points to the former:
San Salvador. All, however, are to be found in The Bahamian archipelago.
This controversy is well discussed in: Taviani,
Paolo Emilio: Christopher Columbus: The Grand Design, London.
Orbis Publishing 1985.
Craton, Michael. A History of the Bahamas,
San Salvador Press 3rd edtn. 2nd imp. 1987 pp. 54-9,
Probably mid-1648: Paul Albury says that Sayle
et al left Bermuda "perhaps in the early part of 1648" (The
Story of The Bahamas. MacMillan. London, rpt. 1976 p. 42);
Craton says that Sayle "set sail for The Bahamas in the Summer
of 1648" (op. cit. N. 4 p., 57); Gail Saunders
says they "arrived in Eleuthera in about 1648." (Slavery
in The Bahamas: 1648-1838), Nassau Guardian, 1985, p. 1)
and in 1648 (The Bahamas: A Family of Islands,) MacMillan,
London 1988 p. 17); Sandra Riley says "some time between the
Spring of 1646 and the Fall of 1648 William Sayle set out ... (from
Bermuda) [Homeward Found: A History of the Bahama Islands
to 1850, Island Research, Miami, Florida 1983 p. 29]; Steve
Dodge says they "left Bermuda in 1648" [The Complaet
Guide to Nassau, White Sound Press, Decatur, Illinois, 1987
This is described by Julian Granberry in three
articles each entitled "Spanish Slave Trade in The Bahamas: 1509-30.
An Aspect of the Caribbean Pearl Industry. Journal of the
Bahamas Historical Society Vol. 1 31 pp. 14-15, (1979); Vol.
2 #1 pp. 15-17 (1980) and Vol. 3 #1 pp. 17-19 (1981).
Such as that described op. cit. N. 6. above and
in Irene A. Wright "The Early History of Cuba: 1492-1558,
New York 1916 pp. 79 et seq The well-known voyages of John
Rut in 1527, Palmier de Gonneville in 1522 and William Hawkins in
1543 may have traversed The Bahamas with such intent: op.
cit. N 4 pp. 46-7 for Rut and Hawkins and op.
cit. N 54 (Aarons) page 3 for all 3.
This was the main purpose of Ponce de Loen's 1513
sail through the archipelago to Florida: Molander, Arne B. Ponce de
Leon belongs to The Bahamas: Journal of the Bahamas Historical
Society Vol. 6 #1 October 1984 pp. 40-7 and Peck, Douglas
T. Reconstruction and Analysis of the 1513 Discovery Voyage of Juan
Ponce de Leon. Privately published: Bradenton, Florida 1990 present
differing versions of the same peregrination.
Such is described by George Gardyner in his "Description
of the New World" (1651) as quoted in Craton op.
cit. N. 4 p. 55 but written by the former in the early
Op. cit. N.6 This was
being stated emphatically as early as 1645 by Gardyner: op. cit.
N.4 p. 55. Castell's work is "A Short Discourse of the Coasts
and Continents of America", London.
Aarons, George A. Register of National Archaeological
Sites: Prehistoric Sites in The Bahamian Archipelago: Interim Conclusions
July, 1990 unpbl. ms. DOA Nassau and Map: Lucayan Sites and Find Spots
in the Bahamian Archipelago and Data Sheets 13 August, 1990 unpubl.
ms. 13 August, 1990, DOA, Nassau. As at the 30 June, 1991, there were
538 Lucayan open-air and cave sites and "find spots" for
The Bahamian archipelago with 25 duho finds and 33 individual Lucayan
burial sites in with 92 individuals: cf. N. 6 p. 13 ms. "Reconstructing
a Canaye": An exercise in Experimental Archaeology: Article for
the Journal of the Bahamas Historical Society October
1991/1992 (10 June, 1991), also by the present author.
See for example Keegan, William F. New Directions
in Bahamian Archaeology. Journal of the Bahamas Historical
Society Vol. 10 No. 1 October 1988 pp. 3-8.
Op. cit. N. 12.
This is referred to in all the versions of the
"Diarioa Bordo." The Department of Archives, Nassau has
inter alia sections of "D. Ferdinand Columbus" The History
of the Life and Actions of Adm. Christopher Columbus and His Discovery
of the West Indies call'd The New World Now in Possession of his Catholick
Majesty Vol.Ii, 1974 p. 586 column 1.