The March to Majority Rule, Part II
By PHILIP C. GALANIS
History is for human self-knowledge... the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is. - R.G. Collingwood
As we noted last week in Part I of this series, the march to Majority Rule in The Bahamas is a story of a sustained struggle.
On Friday past, we observed the first public holiday to commemorate the day that Majority Rule came to The Bahamas on January 10, 1967. It was a life-changing event that catapulted the lives of many thousands to unimaginable heights. Last week, we highlight two important events that helped to create the framework for the achievement of Majority Rule. This week and for the remaining weeks in January, we would like to continue to Consider This…what were some of the milestones along the centuries-long march to Majority Rule?
This week we will consider three important milestones, namely the by-election of 1938, the Burma Road Riot of 1942, and the Contract beginning in 1943.
The by-election of 1938
In July 1938, shopkeeper Milo Butler decided to contest a by-election that was called for the Western New Providence seat, facing multi-millionaire, Harry Oakes who was not even in The Bahamas for the election, allowing Kenneth Solomon to manage his campaign.
The Bay Street Boys worked hard to derail Butler’s campaign, even getting his credit stopped at the Royal Bank of Canada. At the polls, in front of police who were stationed there, Oakes’ representatives flagrantly distributed money and liquor to buy votes.
When Butler realized he was going to lose his deposit, he announced he would lodge a protest against the bribery and, the day after the election, he and his supporters went to the Colonial Secretary’s Office to voice his grievances. Butler drafted a petition to the governor calling for the enactment of the secret ballot, the creation of an election court of appeal and a fairer representation of the black population on all public boards and in the civil service.
Although rumors about a major riot proved to be false, Governor Dundas took the threat very seriously and became convinced that the secret ballot was the very least that should be done to defuse the situation. Taking the governor at his word when he announced that he would dissolve the House of Assembly and call a general election where the secret ballot would be the central issue, the House immediately addressed the issue.
In June 1939 an act was passed for a five-year trial period for the secret ballot in New Providence. However, the ‘Out Islands’, where one-third of the voters resided, returned two-thirds of the members of the House and the Bay Street Boys didn’t want to tamper with that winning situation, so the secret ballot did not come to the Islands until 1949.
The Burma Road Riot
By 1942, the majority of Bahamians, most of whom were black, suffered under tremendous social, economic and political conditions. A miniscule minority of white Bahamians were engaged in the retail and wholesale trade, the real estate industry and the professions. The sponge industry had recently collapsed and tourism in the islands, albeit in its infancy, and the construction industry were adversely affected by the beginning of World War II. These combined factors significantly contributed to the abject poverty in which the vast majority of Bahamians lived.
When the United States entered the war in 1941, the British and American governments decided, in order to aid in the war effort, to enhance the existing Oakes Field Airport in New Providence and also to build a new one in the western Pine Barrens of New Providence, later called Windsor Field that would evolve into today’s Lynden Pindling International Airport. Both airports were worked on by the American firm, Pleasantville Incorporated, providing jobs for Bahamians, who worked alongside American workers.
The British Governor of The Bahamas, the Duke of Windsor, and the American government had secretly agreed that Bahamian workers would be paid at local rates, four shillings per day, while their American counterparts earned more than twice as much. Although Pleasantville Incorporated was willing to pay higher wages to Bahamians, this was done because the Duke was concerned that Bahamian workers should not get used to such high wages since local employers would not be able to match that kind of salary once this job ended. Bahamian workers resented this untenable situation but did not have a formal vehicle to redress the wages and working conditions disparities.
The Bahamian laborers complained to Charles Rodriguez who headed the Labour Union and the Federation of Labour. Notwithstanding his efforts to address the disparities, because they were not resolved in a timely manner, Bahamian laborers assembled on May 31, 1942, demanding equal treatment. On June 1, they congregated at the main Oakes Field office of Pleasantville and, armed with cutlasses and clubs, marched to the Colonial Secretary’s Office. Failing to obtain satisfaction, they rioted up and down on Bay Street, damaging and looting stores there. A curfew was established but the riot continued the following day. By the time the riot ended, five persons were killed and many more were wounded.
In the aftermath of the riot, the Duke of Windsor appointed the Russell Commission, which, along with a committee appointed by the House of Assembly, determined that the riots resulted from the inequitable disparity of wages between the Bahamian and American workers. The Russell Commission also determined that the riots were sparked by the absence of social legislation as well as economic difficulties and political inequities.
Burma Road is not a street in The Bahamas. The Burma Road Riot was named after a place Bahamians knew from the newsreels of the day: the 717-mile mountainous Burma Road that linked Burma (now called Myanmar) with the southwest of China. Built by 200,000 Burmese and Chinese laborers and completed by 1938, during World War II, the British used Burma Road to transport materiel to China before Japan was at war with the British. In 1940, the British government yielded to Japanese diplomatic pressure to close down the Burma Road for a short period. After the Japanese overran Burma in 1942, the Allies were forced to supply Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalist Chinese by air.
Following the Burma Road riot and the layoffs after the completion of the airbases, the Duke of Windsor, worried about further unrest, negotiated with the American government for Bahamian laborers to work in Florida to alleviate the rampant unemployment here and to fill the United States’ manpower shortage that resulted from the war. The 1943 agreement became known as “the Contract” or “the Project”.
Individual contracts were executed for each worker, and stipulated the terms of employment, including a deduction for amounts to be sent back to their families in The Bahamas and an agreement not to be discriminated against on the basis of their color, race, religious persuasion or national origin.
While the 5,000 Bahamian laborers, mostly unskilled males, initially worked on farms and plantations in Florida, given the severe manpower shortages in other states, many Bahamians were transferred as far north as New York and as far west as Indiana. Generally, workers spent six to nine months in the United States and then returned The Bahamas. Some abandoned their contracts and others never returned to The Bahamas, sending for their families to join them in the United States, thereby accounting for the presence of many Bahamians who still live in the United States.
The Contract was transformative in many ways, primarily exposing Bahamians to overt, institutionalized racism in America. The workers returned with an unwavering determination that racism and discrimination like that would have no place in their Bahamas.
Next week, we will review the roles played by the formation of the PLP in 1953, the 1956 Resolution on Racial Discrimination in the House of Assembly and the 1958 General Strike, all of which fuelled the march to Majority Rule.
• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis & Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
January 13, 2013