1647 – The first European settlement of the Bahamas


To understand why the first British settlers came to the Bahamas, you have to understand a little bit more about what was happening in England before and around this time. Once, most of Europe was pretty much ROMAN CATHOLIC. It was the first major organised religion of England. However, as time went on, some started to question the wide influence of the church, and no one more so than the headstrong and very powerful King Henry VIII.

Henry, in his fury at the rejection of his petition to divorce his wife, by the Pope of Roman, created his own religion 1534 and named himself the head of a new British church, the Church of England. We know this religious today as the Anglican Church. As the new head of his own church, Henry VIII declared himself divorced and married again, and again, and again, and again, and again. In total, Henry VIII would have six wives. Another new religious movement was also taking hold in the decades before and after Henry, it was called PROTESTANTISM. The name grew out from the protestors that opposed the great influence of the Catholic Church across Europe.

PROTESTANTS believed in god like the Catholics did, only they didn’t think that all the pomp and pageantry of the church and the elaborate mass was necessary or that the Pope should be the head of everything. In fact, they didn’t even like the word mass or the Pope either. This was similar to the thinking of the new Church of England that Henry VIII had created. They wanted a more simple mass and less decoration in the churches and they wanted reverends and vicars not priests from Rome.

From Protestantism, sprang another new religious movement called PURITANISM and the followers were called, of course, PURITANS. Puritanism was a very strict religious movement, more strict than Protestantism. They believed in a quite austere and simple, no frills form of religion. They didn’t even like smiling much and having any sort of entertaining things like Christmas and presents, games, the theatre and even drinking was frowned upon. Attendance at service was mandatory and there was absolutely no decoration of any kind in church. They believed in wearing plain dress of mostly black. They believed in spending the day working hard and if you had free time, it should be spent studying the Bible. The Puritans weren’t much fun and no one really liked them very much. Puritans felt they were being persecuted for their beliefs and wanted to find a new land, away from England, where they could practice their religion freely.

By 1642, in England, was in the midst of a civil war between the King and Parliament. The war started in 1642 and ended in 1649.   Parliament was worried about the King’s spending and equally worrying was his increasing rulings that leaned more toward the Catholic Church than the Protestant Church. There was fear that he wanted England to become Catholic again. As a result of the turmoil in England, many had to worship in secret or, as some did, leave Europe altogether, to find religious freedom elsewhere, across the sea.

As thoughts of sailing across the sea came in, this is where the history of the Bahamas comes back into the forefront.

THE BAHAMAS 1517 – 1647

If you can imagine, standing anywhere in the Bahamas and seeing nothing but nature and the sea, seeing only a forest of trees, no roads and no paths, then you will get a really good idea of what the islands looked like during these 130 years.

AFTER Columbus, AFTER the demise of the Arawaks, the Bahamas was left UNINHABITED.

There were no natural resources discovered there that could have been important to Europe at the time. The one natural resource, the slave labour of the Arawaks, had been exhausted.

The islands, sat waiting for events in other parts of the world, to alter the course of its history once again.


This is where the New World and particularly the Bahamas comes back into history’s view. The Bahamas first becomes the haven for religious freedom.

In 1647, an investment of £100 would buy a membership in the Company of Eleutheran Adventurers, entitling a man to 300 acres to be then further divided later on into individual lots to which another 2,000 acres would be added. The Greek word eleutheros means free, The Adventurers finally settled in what is now Governour’s Harbour.

They settled an island the Arawaks called Cigatoo, changing the name to Eleuthera after the Greek word for freedom.   These first settlers would come to be known as the ELEUTHERAN ADVENTURERS.

William Sayle was a Puritan as was those who followed him. They wanted a land where they could practice their Puritan faith freely without the control of the king of England hanging over them. However, life was hard for the first English settlers as they were unaccustomed to farming the land and found it difficult to grow food.

They would go on to develop trading routes between Eleuthera and Florida, selling what little they could grow and buying needed supplies for building and developing the totally uninhabited island.


Much has been written about William Sayle and the Eleutheran Adventurers. However, for all that has been made the stuff of legendary folklore and numerous history books, the truth is his contribution to the islands would be a brief one, just a mere 10 years. Sayle had other ambitions and finding little in the way of any business that could be created in the islands at the time, he would leave. The truth is, he had no real commitment to the Bahamas.

While the primary reason for settling Eleuthera was something quite bold at the time, when there was no longer the need to seek religious refuge, he would leave. Many of the original Eleutheran settlers would also leave. Sayle left the new colony in 1657 to make his way back to Bermuda. He was something of a career administrator and politician and went on to be governor of Bermuda once more and then governor of South Carolina in 1663.


Across the Atlantic Ocean, back in England, the country’s civil war had been won, but not by the king. In 1649, the then King Charles I was beheaded and Oliver Cromwell, a staunch Puritan was installed as Lord Protector over England and its new colonies. One of those colonies was of course, the Bahamas.

For the next 11 years, England would have no king or queen. Puritanism was spreading, not just in England but in the New World and the Bahamas as well.

With a beheaded king and a Puritan in charge of England, Puritanism was no longer an outside religion. It was now becoming a dominate religion in England. This would have been one of reasons William Sayle no longer needed to maintain a presence in Eleuthera now that his religion was protected by the new Lord Protector of England.


The Eleutheran Adventurers would bring another lasting legacy on their journey; they would bring the first black slaves to the islands.

There were about 28 slaves that came with the Adventurers. Who they were and what they contributed to this period in history is unknown. However, we can imagine that they would have worked very hard to build settlements, farm the land and fish the waters for the survival of the group called the Eleutheran Adventurers.

Historical Footnote:

There is evidence that before the arrival of the Eleutheran Adventurers, the French had attempted to settle the Bahamas not once, but twice. Rene de Laudonniere, a Frenchman, attempted to establish a colony in Abaco in 1565, but was unsuccessful. Again, in the year 1633, Cardinal Richelieu, granted some four islands to Guillaume de Caen, but plans failed when it was proposed that only French Catholics were going to be allowed to move there.[i]Britain took formal possession of the Bahama Islands in 1629. This would have been the first formal act of possession by England. The Bahama Islands were granted to a man named Sir Robert Heath who also managed to get the Carolinas in the Americas for himself as well.

Because of the English Civil War in 1642, Heath did not attempt the islands immediately. But, Heath was not a good businessman and not very effective at creating new settlements in the New World, so his grants were eventually withdrawn.

William Sayle would become the first of many appointed Governors to the Bahama Island. Their influences would be sometimes good, sometimes bad; some would mete out harsh punishments to ensure order was maintained in the islands and others would let anarchy and pirates from different periods in the Bahamas story reign free.

What is a Governor and what did they do in the Bahamas?

For the Bahamas, a GOVERNOR is a top political official who would represent England, also known as the Crown, in its colonies. For a long time, they would be the only authority in the islands.

A governor would form the local administration of the colony. They would have the power to appoint important officials to help run the government.

Governors would be in constant communication with England about important administrative matters like taxes and distribution of crown land as well as any problems that need resolving including matters of law and order.

For the Bahamas, most of the appointed governors, would be career administrators and would be politicians from England or the new Americas.

Appointed posts would see them in the Bahamas for a specified period of time, and then they would move on to other posts in other colonies. Beginning in the 18th century, the governor would share the administrative role with a created assembly of elected persons who would act as representatives for various areas in the islands. They would first be known as the Assembly and then the House of Assembly.

Eventually, in the Bahamas, the duties of Governor would become less of a law-making and administrative role and more of a symbolic almost an ambassadorial one.

The law making and administrative role would, in the 20th century be taken on by a Premiere and a House of Assembly called Parliament. Further on in history, the role of Premier would become Prime Minister.

[i] Johnson, H. (1996) The Bahamas from Slavery to Servitude, 1783-1933. University Press of Florida. Gainesville, FL. p.3

Picture of William Sayle courtesy of Wikipedia