Thursday, July 4, 2013

Bahamian History: The Bahamas / Bahamian Independence History

Sir Arthur Addresses Rotaract on Independence History

By Eric Rose

NASSAU, The Bahamas – While giving a brief and personal account of Bahamian history, as it relates to Bahamian Independence, Governor-General Sir Arthur Foulkes said that there is “hardly a single event in our history that has had such a profound influence on the future of The Bahamas as the establishment of the House of Assembly ”.

“This institution and its eventual assimilation by Bahamians have contributed mightily to our history of political stability,” Sir Arthur said, while speaking at the Rotaract Club of East Nassau meeting on the topic “On Independence and the Way Forward”, on July 1, 2013, at the British Colonial Hilton.

”The House gave to the residents of these islands a measure of control over their affairs even though the imperial power, Great Britain, retained ultimate responsibility right up to the 10th of July 1973,” Sir Arthur added. “So the Bahamas had what was described as representative but not responsible government.”

Sir Arthur noted that, to be sure, the House, established in 1729, did not confer the status of a modern democracy on The Bahamas.

“That was a long way off;” he said; “but the population, including the black descendants of slaves, recognised the possibilities that this institution offered, and that is why it became, and remains, the ultimate objective of political activity.”

That is why, too, Sir Arthur continued, a racial minority with “varying degrees of support by the British” made access to it difficult for the majority.

“Prior to the 1962 elections when Bahamians for the first time enjoyed universal adult suffrage, voting rights were limited over the years by an array of what were termed qualifications but which were, in fact, obstacles,” Sir Arthur said.

"One had to be male to register to vote. One had to own or rent property of a certain value. One male could vote in every constituency in which he owned or rented property. There was open voting, and open buying of votes. A lawyer could cast a vote for each of the companies registered at his office.”

Elections, Sir Arthur pointed out, were held on different days to accommodate what Sir Etienne Dupuch called “an armada of vessels”: well provisioned with rum and flour, descending on one island after another.

“And, of course, there was gross inequality in the population of constituencies,” Sir Arthur said.

"Out of the white minority had evolved a classical oligarchy (a government by a few, usually privileged) that came to be known as the Bay Street Boys,” he added.

They were the ones, Sir Arthur said, who commanded the armadas of which Sir Etienne (Dupuch) complained, and they dominated Bahamian politics and commerce.

Sir Arthur said that there was, of course, throughout the years, agitation against racism, and for fair treatment of workers, for education and for reform of the political system to make the House of Assembly more representative of the people.

He said that in the 1920s and 1930s there was a group called the Ballot Party, which included a Barbadian tailor named R. M. Bailey and Bahamian politicians C. C. Sweeting and S. C. McPherson. In the 1940s there were others, including Dr. C. R. Walker, Bert Cambridge and Milo Butler.

"Then there was Etienne Dupuch who took over a struggling newspaper, The Nassau Daily Tribune, after World War I and became for many decades a towering figure in Bahamian journalism as well as a politician,” Sir Arthur said.

"Sir Etienne wielded a prolific and acerbic pen,” Sir Arthur stated. “He railed against racism and corruption, against the intransigence (inflexibility) of the oligarchy and the complacency of the British Government. One British newspaper branded him ‘Rebel in the Caribbean’.

“Sir Etienne and his newspaper did more than anybody else during those critical years to foster political consciousness among the Bahamian masses.”

Sir Arthur said that progress was slow; but there was some reform, including the introduction of the secret ballot for New Providence in 1939. One early notable achievement, he added, was the establishment of the Government High School in 1925. Labour unrest continued and exploded in the 1942 riot, Sir Arthur noted.

Sir Arthur said that a “most significant” change took place in the political arena in 1953, when a group of mostly “near-white” Bahamians founded what was to become the first national political party in the country, the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP).

"It was the brainchild of William Cartwright but most of the hard work of organising the party throughout the islands was undertaken by its first Chairman Sir Henry Taylor,” Sir Arthur stated. “Both were members of the House of Assembly having been elected in 1949. Cyril Stevenson was Secretary General and also the flamboyant editor of ‘The Herald’.

"The Bay Street Boys responded by founding the United Bahamian Party (UBP), and the era of party politics came to The Bahamas. In 1956 the PLP gained a foothold in the House with the election of the Magnificent Six: Lynden Pindling, Randol Fawkes, Milo Butler, Cyril Stevenson, Clarence Bain and Sammy Isaacs.”

Almost immediately upon its formation, Sir Arthur said, a group of young black men saw the PLP as a vehicle for the achievement of a full progressive agenda for The Bahamas including the defeat of the UBP, an end to racism, economic and social justice and, ultimately, independence for the country.

They joined the PLP, formed themselves into the National Committee for Positive Action (NCPA) and supported the leadership of Sir Lynden Pindling, he added.

"For the first time since the Eleutheran Adventurers, there was serious talk of independence for these islands, but it had not yet become a popular idea,” Sir Arthur said. “When the NCPA held a debate on independence at St. Agnes Auditorium in 1959, they were publicly rebuked by the chairman of the party.”

Sir Arthur said that the general strike in 1958 galvanised the progressive movement in the Bahamas; but the unfair delimitation of constituencies remained and accounted for the PLP’s defeat in 1962, when that party got a majority of the votes cast but still lost the election.

"The UBP still refused to budge on this issue,” he stated. “The report of their Boundaries Commission in April 1965 was the catalyst for the Black Tuesday demonstration, when Sir Lynden threw the Speaker’s mace out of the window of the House of Assembly, and Sir Milo did likewise with the hour glasses the Speaker used to time his speeches.

"Finally, the PLP and Randol Fawkes, representing his Labour Party, succeeded in overthrowing the UBP in January 1967 when Sir Alvin Braynen threw in his lot with them.”

“I regard January 10th 1967, as the most significant date in Bahamian history since Emancipation.”

Sir Arthur said he and Sir Cecil Wallace Whitfield raised the issue of independence on the floor of the House in 1967, after the nerve gas incident.

“The Americans had secured the agreement of the British Government to drop canisters of nerve gas in Bahamian waters despite our objections,” Sir Arthur said.

"The Americans had refused to talk directly to us; but Sir Cecil was included in a British delegation that talked with them in Washington,” Sir Arthur pointed out. “When the Americans assured the delegation that it was safe to drop the nerve gas canisters in Bahamian waters, Sir Cecil responded: ‘If it’s so safe, why don’t you drop them in the Hudson River?’”

"Sir Cecil was so infuriated that he suggested in the House of Assembly that we should consider making a unilateral declaration of independence, so we could have immediate control of our own affairs and our territorial waters,” Sir Arthur said.

Sir Arthur noted that just weeks before the Government announced in 1972 that it would proceed to independence after the upcoming election, Sir Lynden was in London and told a British newspaper that his government was not thinking about independence at that time.

“I suspect the about-face was due to pressure from the Hon. A. D. Hanna who had been a consistent advocate of independence,” Sir Arthur said. “It is one of the ironies of history and politics that some of those who were the most ardent advocates of independence found themselves in opposition in 1972 and opposing independence under the leadership of Sir Lynden.”

"A veritable flood of water – and a little blood -- had gone under the political bridge between 1967 and 1972,” he said.

There was a split in the progressive movement, the formation of a new opposition – the Free National Movement – and some “very tense moments including physical attacks on Sir Cecil and others”, Sir Arthur said.

“But that is history for another day,” he added.

The PLP won the 1972 election and, in December of that year, a Bahamian delegation of Government and Opposition met with representatives of the British Government at Marlborough House in London to agree an independence constitution for The Bahamas, Sir Arthur said.

"There were divisions between the Bahamas Government and Opposition on several issues including rustication, the right to leave one’s country, and equality for women,” Sir Arthur said. “On the latter, the British sided with the Government and the issue of equality for women was lost. That, in my view, remains a flaw in our Constitution 40 years later.”

However, he noted that a “shining moment” was when the Bahamian delegation – Government and Opposition – opposed a British Government proposal to give Bahamian citizenship to a category of persons registered in The Bahamas as citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies.

“It is worth noting that the dismantling of the old colonial system of government started in 1964, when the Bahamas got its first codified Constitution with ministerial government under the UBP,” Sir Arthur said. “Our second Constitution was in 1969, when further responsibilities were granted to the Bahamas Government under the PLP.”

Sir Arthur said that, of those Bahamians who participated in that historic meeting, the following are still alive: A. D. Hanna, George Smith, Loftus Roker, Philip Bethel, Sir Orville Turnquest and himself.

"The Bahamas has the Constitution of a modern parliamentary democracy, which has served us well for 40 years and will, I believe, serve us well for the next 40 and beyond,” Sir Arthur said.

"Our history and our culture contains positive as well as negative influences and characteristics and today we are facing some severe challenges as a result of our own mistakes and the impact of negative influences from outside.”

"The Constitution provides us rights as citizens, and with the framework and rules for the conduct of our affairs,” he added. “The challenges we face can be successfully met with the sustained involvement of all of us as patriotic contributing citizens.”

July 03, 2013