by Larry Smith
The following is an excerpt from Bahamas Sketchbook: Islands in the Sun, a new hardcover picture book by acclaimed watercolour artist Graham Byfield, which launches next month. Published by Singapore-based Editions Didier Millet, the 72-page book captures the vernacular architecture of the islands in a series of graceful illustrations, with accompanying historical text by Bahamian journalist Larry Smith. Bahamas Sketchbook is a celebration of the built environment on several Bahamian islands, portraying classic scenes and architectural details on New Providence, Abaco, Eleuthera, Long Island and Cat Island.
"The island…was discovered by Capt. William Sayle, who was afterwards governor of Carolina. He was driven thither by a storm, as he was on a voyage to the continent (of America). From him it had the name of Sayle's Island…People went from England and the other colonies to settle there, and living a lewd, licentious sort of life, they were impatient of government." -- John Oldmixon, 1741
The name “Bahamas” first appears in the historical record a few years after Columbus’ accidental landfall in these islands just off the Florida coast. Thought to be a corruption of the Lucayan term for the island of Grand Bahama, the earliest English reference occurs in the account of a 1567 voyage, in which the “chanell and gulfe of Bahama, which is between the cape of Florida and the Ilandes of Lucayos” is mentioned.
The pre-Columbian Bahamians were known as Lucayans (a corruption of Lukku-Cairi, meaning island people). Over centuries they had migrated north from Venezuela to the greater Antilles, where they created the Taino culture, arriving at the end of their journey in the Bahamas about 600 AD. It is thought that some 40,000 Lucayans may have lived in the Bahamas at the time of their encounter with Columbus.
In search of riches, the Spaniards who followed Columbus had little interest in the poor Bahamian islands, but forced the hapless Lucayans into slavery in Hispaniola, where they died helping to establish the first European colony in the Americas. After 1500 the Bahamas was virtually deserted until English puritans from Bermuda arrived on the island of Eleuthera in the mid-1600s, led by a former Bermuda governor named William Sayle.
Some of these early colonists also settled on nearby New Providence, originally known as Sayle’s Island, and by 1670 Charles Town (as the settlement was then called) had a few hundred inhabitants. In 1695 the little town was formally laid out by Governor Nicholas Trott and rechristened Nassau in honour of the Dutch ruler, Prince William of Orange-Nassau, who had become king of England. Back then there were some 160 buildings hugging the harbour formed by the island now called Paradise.