Growing up in The Bahamas, many Bahamians would have heard the song “Burma Road” by the late Ronnie Butler, giving us our first introduction to a piece of Bahamian history known as the Burma Road Riot, even without realizing it. Despite this, many young students in high schools across the nation would have been surprised to have learned in history class that Burma Road actually existed, and so did the riot that Ronnie sings about, let alone that he’s saying “Burma Road” instead of “Bernard Road.”
However, one may wonder where this historical landmark may be if it’s significant enough for someone considered to be the Godfather of Bahamian Music to sing about it – after all, there is no road in New Providence currently named “Burma Road”. So, after almost a century, what has happened to this piece of Bahamian history known as Burma Road, and why can’t it be spotted on a map?
The history of Burma Road encompasses not just the fight for workers’ rights but for human rights and is considered by Bahamian historians to be foundational to our very independence. In 1942, black Bahamian workers were contracted to build airfields for the US Army during World War 2 alongside white American workers at what is currently the Lynden Pindling International Airport. Upon finding out that they were being paid half as much as their white American counterparts, black Bahamian workers took their frustrations to their employers. Unfortunately, the Bahamian workers were given the option of “take it or leave it” in a racially motivated decision. Naturally, the Bahamian workers decided that they’d rather leave it.
On June 1, 1942, the Bahamian workers decided to peacefully protest and march from their Oakes Field base down to Bay Street. Over time, more people joined the march, with some even joining from western New Providence. However, the peaceful protest turned violent after police officers began waving their handguns around, thus creating the Burma Road Riot that we know today.
The Burma Road Riot is the sole event that started many black Bahamians down the path to independence, yet so many descendants of the Bahamians from that time don’t know where Burma Road is. Essentially, Burma Road was renamed to Blake Road and is located in western New Providence. Burma Road was the location near the US Army airfield where other workers marched to reach Bay Street in attempts to join the protest. The renaming to Blake Road came about after wealthy white people began building on the land around Burma Road. The erasure of this piece of Bahamian history has stripped newer generations of their past.
Without the Burma Road Riot and the fight for workers’ rights, there would be no Suffrage Movement, no formation of the PLP, and certainly no independent nation known as The Bahamas. Therefore, Blake Road should be renamed back to Burma Road so it can be memorialized in celebration of our Bahamian history and how far we’ve come as a nation.
Written by: Clement Butler