The Bahamas comprise a coral archipelago consisting of about 700low-lying islands and over 1,000 cays. Some of the smaller ones areprivately owned; many remain uninhabited. Nassau, the capital, islocated on New Providence Island, which became a British colony in1666. Its first settlement was Charles Town, named for King Charles IIand later renamed Nassau after King William of Orange-Nassau. In the17th and early-18th centuries, the islands became a favored pirates'lair and a base for slave traders. During the American Civil War,Nassau was an ideal port for the new fast ships that were unable tocarry large cargoes and required a safe, neutral port within two orthree days' steaming. The end of the war provoked a severe andprolonged recession and Bahamians turned again to wrecking. This trendcame to a stop with the introduction of lighthouses and beacons.
Withthe advent of Prohibition, Nassau became a center of the illicit liquortrade. When Prohibition was revoked, the islands had little to fallback on and the 1930s ended in economic disaster. A disease in 1939killed off the sponges that had provided a livelihood for manyislanders. Following World War II, the Bahamas experienced a tremendousdevelopment in tourism. Independence was granted in 1973, with Nassauthe declared capital of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.
Anumber of old forts and charming pastel-colored buildings recallNassau's colonial past. Its old-style grand hotels, luxurious modernestablishments and diverse places of entertainment, from modern rumshops and calypso spots to the Casino with its glittering floor shows,all bear witness to the long tradition and continuing vigor of thetourist trade in this cosmopolitan town.