Ghosts of Independence 1973

Abaco Secessionist Movement Raises Its Ugly Head Again

On 16 July 2018 in the Letters to the Editor section of The Tribune, one of my homeland’s leading newspapers, I read a submission that saddened me deeply. A scant six days had passed since the country broke out in flags, buntings, ceremonies, junkanoo, regattas and other happy celebrations. Even greater cause for despondency was the fact that the nation had just celebrated its 45th anniversary. We were just five years short of the golden anniversary and with a record that most former British West Indian colonies could envy. Although 45 years ago Errington Watkins, a Member of Parliament and former policeman predicted civil war, if the British government approved independence for The Bahamas, without sanctioning Abaco’s secession, no such monster had arisen.

Yet, after four and half decades, here was a letter writer or writers signing themselves “Freedom for Abaco”. He/she/they were no poorly educated malcontent—no such unfortunate could have written such a well-developed document that was basically a manifesto. So well developed, in fact, that the mind immediately flew to questioning the authorship—white foreign nationals who are slavering over and wish to control the rich potential of the sub-archipelago that Abaco and its cays represent? Or was it, in contrast, the members of a home-grown political party still licking its wounds from a recent bitter election defeat and pursuing payback, no matter the cost to national well-being? Or, was it that segment of the Bahamian population whose centuries-long, silent apartheid was once again finding voice?

The shocking central goal of the letter is contained in the following paragraph:

“We propose the Abaco islands take advantage of the European re-organisation and re-adopt the legal parentage of its founder, the United Kingdom, with the status of a new “internationalised” British Overseas Territory. Our entire land area would be as a designated multi-ethnic, international, tax-free/customs-free Free Trade Area (FTA), with the US dollar as its currency.”

Encapsulated in this simple declaration is either monumental stupidity or malicious desire to create unrest or blissful ignorance of the warnings of history, or of the present concerning evolution that is taking place in the United Kingdom and the United States. The other fearful possibility is an equally monumental and grotesque desire to deceive in order to accomplish anything but the common good.

In response to the desire to reunite with the former colonial power, does “Freedom for Abaco” not realize that Britain is fighting over “Brexit”, its own, still unresolved secession from the European Union? Do they not see that British Prime Minister Theresa May is contending for her political life over this issue, which has divided the citizens of the United Kingdom? One has to be gormless or extraordinarily ego-driven to suppose that Britain would welcome another burdensome appendage in the midst of its fight to emerge intact from EU severance.

We will consider what might be Britain’s view on these issues in greater depth later, it is first worth considering the merits of that extensive “Freedom for Abaco” declaration. There are some claims for the proposed independent state that would be admirable—if adhered to. I note particularly the following:

  1. A commitment to the creation of “a multi-ethnic society free of discrimination, or even any form of political action, on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, or other characteristic, would be entirely illegal.”
  2. It is proposed that a sovereign Abaco “would aim to deliberately and constitutionally constrain and restrict any form of government involvement whatsoever from day one, save for essential regulation to prevent abuse. Officials would actually be legally forbidden to interfere or legislate without consensus or proven necessity.” An end to malfeasance, contract and influence peddling in public office and downright thievery—I most definitely subscribe to that.
  3. “No approvals, permits, licenses, quasi-government entities (e.g. OPM, BIA, CBOB), or any form of process potentially-abusable by officials…”
  4. Let’s not forget the environmental promises: “a federated network of solar micro-grids,” “our power would no longer be failing overhead cable, but localised subnets resistant at a suburban level…”

These are most praiseworthy sentiments on paper, but history tells of the deep pitfalls that await to scuttle the realization of them.

As to the motives of “Freedom”, the following seemingly simple lines in the copy speak volumes. Consider the allusion to Freeport. The writer notes: “We would adopt all the characteristics that fuelled Freeport’s rise, give financial safe-harbour to its disaffected investors, and legally protect against what destroyed it (government interference and racial nationalism…” Shades of Wallace Groves and the Bahamas Government of the 1950s, who enshrined and locked into the 1955 Hawksbill Creek agreement megalomaniac and prejudicial provisions for Grand Bahama that could have led to pre-emancipation conditions in our northernmost island.

Was the intent of Groves and fellow super-wealthy investors not racial nationalism for the benefit of whites only? Was not the establishment of dormitory settlements like Eight Mile Rock and Hunters clear indicators of this desire? These purpose-grown habitations kept black Bahamians close enough to be of service, but excluded them from the “Magic City” after dark. Apartheid, South Africa style, was most definitely in the cards for Grand Bahama, if the then prime minister Lynden Pindling had not taken his “bend or break” stance.

Clearly, for the success of his/her/their destabilizing intent, “Freedom for Abaco” is relying on the fact that Bahamians appear generally to care nothing for history or the common good, but have set personal gain as their guiding star—“What do I care if the nation bites the dust, as long as I get mine? What do I care, if, in gathering my juicy plums, I break off the limbs and destroy the roots of the life-giving tree?”

Let’s take a walk down history lane to see how dangerous, the “Freedom for Abaco” separatist proposal is.

The Bahamas marked its first day as an independent country on 10 July 1973, a sovereign nation comprising the 17 major islands of the archipelago: Abaco, Acklins, Andros, Berry Islands, Bimini, Cat Island, Crooked Island, Eleuthera, Exuma, Grand Bahama, Harbour Island, Inagua, Long Island, Mayaguana, New Providence (where the capital, Nassau, is located), Ragged Island, Rum Cay, San Salvador and Spanish Wells.

It was an impressive feat for the former colony—independence achieved without bloodshed. There was additional piece of good fortune. European imperialism had caused the great archipelago on the eastern side of the Caribbean Sea to emerge as a series of tiny nations that have for long years tried for federation and failed, except for the constantly struggling union called CARICOM. On the other hand, Bahamians had been blessed with the divine gift of the great chain of islands on the northwestern border of the Caribbean Sea retained as a single unit.

It was a near thing, however.  Following the first-time installation of a majority government in 1967, centuries-long white tribalism began to make an appearance as salient as a wart on the tip of a human nose. It is not surprising that it rose virulently in Abaco, where Cherokee Sound and “Cay” settlements such as Man O’ War, Guana, Elbow and Green Turtle put to shame the paltry efforts of communities such as Roses, Long Island and Pompey Bay, Acklins to preserve whiteness.

Rumblings of an Abaco separatist movement manifested as early as 1971, when Prime Minister Pindling gave clear indication that he would seek independence for The Bahamas from the United Kingdom. In July of that year the Greater Abaco Council (GAC) was formed, comprising black and white Abaconians, who soon advised the British governor of their desire to remain under the British crown, presenting a petition to that effect.

It should have been clear that to these shortsighted and history-denying Bahamians of four decades past and the present-day Abaco “freedom” supporters that the only colonies, for which the British spilled blood to retain were the fabulously rich South Africa, fully sovereign in 1931, with India following in 1947. “Freedom also ignored the fact that the retention of The Falklands are the only possession the British have fought to keep.

Back in the 1970s the GAC, in like manner, closed the windows of their minds to shut out the winds of change that were sweeping the egregious pink from world maps that once signaled British global political dominance. Everything in the Caribbean region was basically deadweight following the decline of the supremacy of cane sugar that built many a lordly estate in the British Isles and other imperialist nations funded by the toil of African slaves and Asian indentured workers, who were only marginally separated from slavery. With Jamaica going first in 1962, Britain shrugged off its West Indian colonies with feigned resistance in the form of “negotiations” with parliamentary delegations from our region. The “West Indies” were discarded, one after the other, with indecent haste and a “see what yinna could do for yersef.”

In the person of Lord Balniel, Minister of State for the Colonies, the British gave a firm “no” to the GAC petition to sever Abaco politically from the Bahamas. The GAC dissolved. Yet, in frequently disavowed Caucasian bigotry and African delusory “Britishness”, a group calling themselves “The Council for a Free Abaco” (CFA) was formed. Despite this and other indications of a writing on the wall bolder than the mene mene tekel upharsin that frightened the hell out of the Babylonian king Belshazzar and the guests at his great feast, the CFA pressed on. The opposition to Bahamian unity then evolved into the Abaco Independence Movement (AIM).

In retrospect, we should not blame the GAC, the CFA or the AIM for their persistence in seeking separation. Although their motives may have been flawed, our claim of democracy supports lobbying for rights within the law. And their petitions and visits to Britain did get some traction among the Conservative faction in the British Parliament. MP Ronald Bell proposed the following amendment to the Independence for The Bahamas Bill:

Greater Abaco shall continue to be a colonial dependency of the Crown under the name of the Colony of Abaco, and shall be governed in accordance with the provisions of any Order in Council which may be made by Her Majesty.

According to a Nassau Institute publication, a transcript from the House of Commons Hansard (vol 857 cc 393-428) records that Bell cited several cases of political victimization against Abaconians.[1]

Nevertheless, as evidenced by an article in The Tribune of Friday, 8 June, 1973, the British thoroughly doused the flame of secession. Under the headline “The UK Government will not grant independent crown colony status to Abaco,” the details of the denial seemed to hammer a final nail into the coffin of Abaco’s hope to remain under British jurisdiction. As reported in the article:

Lady Tweedsmuir, Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, reaffirmed in the debate on the Bahamas Independence Bill in the House of Lords yesterday that the British Government would not grant special independence Crown Colony status to Abaco. 

She said that there was a risk of such fragmentation in the Caribbean if Abaco were allowed to secede.

“I do not believe the threats that have been made from Abaco of physical resistance will be carried out but quite clearly if any violence occurs it will be the duty of Her Majesty’s government to support the Bahamian government,” said Lord Brockway.

Lord Brockway was right when he expressed the belief that the threats physical resistance would not be carried out, but there were some among the dramatis personae of the staging who were well positioned and inclined to mount armed conflict. And here is where the author of the newest push for Abaco’s separation from the Bahamas and reunification with the UK would do well to take a sober look.

In 1973, like predators to vulnerable creatures or vultures to carrion, a bunch of questionable characters descended on the contested isles declaring their willingness to underwrite Abaco’s freedom.

The most notable was the Scottish Colonel Colin Campbell Mitchell, who, in 1967, led a troupe of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders into the British colony of Aden to quell a native uprising there. It was during that engagement that he gained the nickname “Mad Mitch” and, seemingly, with justification. Allegations arose that he and his soldiers had committed atrocities there. In 2007, Brian Barron, a BBC correspondent who had covered the Aden campaign, made a comment that lent support to those claims:

Once we stood together in Crater watching the Argylls stacking, as in a butcher’s shop, the bodies of four Arab militants they had just shot and Mad Mitch said: “It was like shooting grouse, a brace here and a brace there. [2]

The Abaco Independence Movement attracted even more questionable offers of partnership. It is alleged that wealthy American Norwell Gordon, a libertarian, promised financial support in exchange for leeway to set up a libertarian commune in Abaco. Then support came from yet another quadrant that seemed to signal the potential for armed insurrection. Another American, Mitchell WerBell, a known arms dealer headquartered in the State of Georgia, entered the fray. Here was a man who had set up a base in Haiti intent of invading Castro’s Cuba. Hardly a character to sue for peaceful settlements.

Then, the reaction from the Bahamas government side was not rosy. The Nassau Institute publication cited earlier spoke of “statements by Bahamian cabinet ministers characterizing black supporters of the CFA as traitors and white supporters as racists.” [3]

Those who live in glass house should not throw stones. The Progressive Liberal Party has every right to be proud that they secured majority rule in The Bahamas and broke the power of a centuries-old white oligarchy, which had indeed long denied all but a modicum of opportunities for their black countrymen. Over time, however, the Party descended from those Olympian heights to form its own oligarchy, oppressing whites and blacks. Their repressive behaviour proved more damaging to their racial brethren than to whites, however, as the latter still held economic supremacy, which continues to present.

Sadly, the PLP engendered a black nationalism, not to right imbalances forged by white nationalism, not to protect the rights of Bahamians of African descent, but to ensure for themselves the stranglehold that the white oligarchy once held.

In retrospect, we should not blame the GAC, the CFA or the AIM for their persistence in seeking separation; there was good reason to fear in the light of the bloodbath that Kenya’s Mau Mau Uprising (1952 to 1964) and Rhodesia’s journey to independent Zimbabwe engendered (1964 to 1979).

There is far less generosity of feeling towards “Freedom for Abaco” and a host of other Bahamians of various skin colour gradations and ethnicities whose motives and hands are not clean—the Members of Parliament whose only thought is of self and not service to the people or salvation for the nation; the venality of local religious leaders; the Bahamians who are as corrupt as the politicians they condemn in plundering the coffers of the state, and those who steal their employers time and money. And we dare not give a free pass to those of unrelenting criminality, who rape and murder.

While reminding them that Abaco needs to own up to the contributions made to its prosperity by many who were not of “the soil” or not “Loyalist”, I do thank “Freedom for Abaco” for bringing to light some of the fissures in the body politic that, in true Bahamian style, are often hidden by pretense and downright hypocrisy. Out in the open, there is a possibility of airing, identifying and healing the root causes, rather than addressing the symptoms only.

One must ask at this point, are there any Bahamians who can justly point fingers? Yes, a tenuous, but growing cadre, who honour their obligations to family, neighbour and state, who don’t believe in recriminations, but desire only to create a truer “One Bahamas”, a prosperous, peace-loving nation, where there is a free justice system, gender equality, freedom of information and economic opportunities are open to all.

A commentary from St Paul in the Book of Romans on “oneness” could be used as a guide for Bahamians, who claim belief in Christ and profess a desire for national unity. 

We, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift… is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

Many citizens of the United States of America stray far from the laudable intent of their constitution’s beautiful Preamble. Still, the noble sentiments of that piece of writing provide a useful guide for the secular members of the Bahamian population who long for a truly unified nation: “We the people… in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity …” It is the people, of all stations, working together, not those, like “Freedom for Abaco” who seems to want to extend Mr. Trump’s wall to The Bahamas, down the Northwest Providence Channel and along the Northeast Providence.

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[1] Lowe, Rick. Larry Smith, ed. (October 12, 2010) “Forgotten Dreams: A people’s desire to chart their own course in Abaco, Bahamas”, a Nassau Institute Publication.

[2] “Return to Aden, without Mad Mitch”. BBC News Online. 1 December 2007.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/7120629.stm Retrieved 2 July 2018.

[3] Op cit.

1 comments

Thanks for reminding us of our historical journey to independence. I hope that Bahamians would take the time to read this well research article, especially those who continue to lament that Bahamian history is not taught in our schools. Thanks again for this.informatve work.

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