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The US Prohibition & The Bahamas

A pirate ship sails towards the horizon.

The Prohibition Era in the United States was a unique time in history, not only for the country but for the impact that it had on surrounding nations, The Bahamas included. The Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was passed in 1920, which began a nationwide ban on the sale, import, production, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. With strong demand for liquor remaining, a new opportunity arose, illegally transporting alcohol to the US from nearby countries such as Mexico, Canada, Cuba, and most notoriously, The Bahamas. Bootlegging or rum-running, as it became known, had far-reaching and long-lasting effects that can still be seen today.

Where Did It All Begin?

Campaigning for the ban of alcohol in the US existed long before Prohibition took effect. Religious groups frequently argued against the proliferation of liquor consumption, citing aggressive, hypersexualized, delinquent attitudes. During the First World War, a law was proposed to ban the production of alcohol that exceeded 1.28% in alcohol content. Although intended as a way to save grain for the war effort, the Act wasn’t passed until November 1918, one week after the fighting had ended. The Eighteenth Amendment was introduced in December 1917 and ratified as a part of the Constitution just over a year later. In accordance with the law, Prohibition began on January 17, 1920. Many argue that the ban provided little benefit to US society but instead, began widespread crime and corruption. Others suggest that the ban had positive health impacts, reducing rates of alcoholism and cirrhosis, although the eventual rise of the black market and rum-running saw a return to pre-Prohibition rates at the end of the 1920s.

Bootlegging in The Bahamas

Bootlegging, also known as rum-running, is the process of illegally transporting alcohol. Thanks to its proximity to the US, The Bahamas became a key distributor of liquor during this time. Bill McCoy became an infamous trader, bringing alcohol from Bimini, Nassau, Grand Bahama, and other Bahamian islands. He was known for not adding water to the spirits he imported, unlike many other traders (this is also believed to be one of the reasons “the real McCoy” became a popular phrase). Eventually, the Coast Guard caught on and began introducing stricter enforcement measurements. To combat this, McCoy would anchor his ship just outside the US territory line where his buyers would meet him, this, in turn, was dubbed Rum Row. The US then extended its water border by an additional nine miles in an attempt to prevent this from occurring in the mid-1920s but it failed to have much of an impact.

It is difficult to quantify the extent of the rum-running trade during the Prohibition Era, however, there are a few statistics that highlight that it was significant. An article from the Guardian in 1923 notes that in 1917, Nassau had cleared 37,821 gallons of liquor and by 1922, this had soared to 1,340,443 gallons. Although not stated to have continued to the US, it is safe to assume that most of it made its way through Florida. Another insight into the demand is that doctors made $40 million in 1928 by writing whiskey prescriptions. This is a small hint at the economic prosperity that US Prohibition brought to The Bahamas but what of its longer-lasting impacts?

Post Prohibition

At the beginning of the Prohibition era, The Bahamian government increased tax on imported alcohol, allowing them to profit from the black market trade without limiting it. West End on Grand Bahama Island became a key trading port due to it being one of the closest points to the US. In Nassau, the main trading point of The Bahamas, two hotels were built, the harbor was deepened, a wharf was constructed, and other infrastructure was modernized with the economic boom. Many Americans also settled on the islands, initially to take part in the underground market but many remained after. The end of Prohibition in 1933 meant that The Bahamas’ economy returned to normalcy, with agriculture once more becoming the core industry.

Relive The 1920s

Come to The Bahamas today and experience firsthand, the history of this unique time period on a Bahamas tour. At Taste of the Bahamas, we provide historical, cultural, and cuisine tours throughout Grand Bahama Island and love sharing our home. Many of our tours start or run at Grum Ma’s House Cultural Center, a space created to showcase traditional stories and people from The Bahamas. Join us today or get in touch if you have any questions, we are always happy to chat!

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