The Revolving Door of Bahamian Bondage: Time to Jam a Shoe to Halt the Spin

Midsummer in The Bahamas is hallmarked by celebrations of freedom from two kinds of bondage. On the first Monday in August annually in The Bahamas, it is our custom to mark the anniversary of the end of an insidious form of bondage—chattel slavery in our islands and throughout the British Empire, the 184th occasion in 2018.  Since 1973, Just short weeks earlier, we have been observing the end of the British colonial era.

As always, it is good to reflect on the various forms of bondage The Bahamas and its people have suffered in one form or other from the beginning of recorded history. It should not be a reflection founded on bitterness or thoughts of revenge for ancient wrongs. Far better to encourage a thoughtfulness geared towards recognizing and suppressing the monster in whatever form it should raise its foul head. Rather, each passing season of celebration should be crowned with evidence of new growth of, and increased protection for freedom.

Our school lessons taught us that our islands were first populated by a Taino people we know as Lucayans. These forerunners became the first to endure uninvited bondage in this land. When Christopher Columbus came along, they thought him a god and welcomed him warmly. The “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” did little to disabuse their minds of what they supposed to be his benevolent intent. As he raised his hands to the heavens and seemed to be worshiping the same sky gods as they did, they fell easy prey to enslavement. For them, bondage led to erasure of an entire people and most of their culture except for a few precious words, artefacts and the reports of their conquerors, many which were often of doubtful or of self-serving veracity. For the Lucayans, enslavement bore a woeful price. There are no Lucayan descendants in The Bahamas today.

There followed the bondage of colonial status, the nefarious reign of pirates, ongoing raids of the Spanish and the French. The Spanish never accepted the British purloining of a piece of the half-world which the Pope had assigned them, so they continued to invade Bahamian territory from the 17th century up the times in the 19th century when armed vessels from Spanish-held Cuba, sailed boldly into our waters and seized what they considered “enemy vessels and crews”.

At the conclusion of the American War of Independence, the British had to find new homes for those American colonists who had remained loyal to and fought for the Crown. Thousands of these “loyalists” were resettled in The Bahamas, many accompanied by enslaved Africans, with whose labour the whites hoped to establish plantations such as they knew in the continental colonies.

With this influx, bondage took on a new and terrible face—an internal colonialism ruled by racism, whereby European heritage and phenotype determined and guaranteed right to rule, while African heritage, even in the smallest degree consigned men, women and children to debasement.

Supposedly, chattel slavery ended with the Emancipation Act of 1833, which was brought into force in 1834, and completely ended in 1838. Were the Bahamian people truly liberated back then? Far from it, as an intelligent examination will reveal. Following emancipation, Bahamians of African descent were no longer held captive by whip and chains, but by economic and social bonds more restrictive than any physical hobbles at keeping subjugated those deemed unworthy of rising.

Full franchise and a voice in governance — the right to stand for election to parliament and to vote in a general election were fought for, long and hard. The first non-white Bahamians were seated in those august chambers for the first time in the Emancipation year. It would take 127 years more before The Bahamas could claim full suffrage, for it was only in 1962 that women could cast ballots in a parliamentary contest.

From the beginning of the world, bondage has featured all too heavily in interactions among human beings across the globe from early Britons to Australia’s Aborigines and Maoris. For this reason, freedom has always been a contested concept and possession. The term has been subject to many interpretations, far too many of which have sanctioned loss of rights for the vulnerable, the betrayed, the defeated.

During the advent of the 184th Emancipation Day, Bahamians would do well to spare a moment or two to express thanks for how much we have achieved on the freedom journey and decry how many milestones on the road to democracy we have yet to claim.

Under a Free National Movement (FNM) administration, in a referendum held on 27 February 2002, Bahamians were given the opportunity to hit five homeruns for freedom. Voters could say “yes” or “no” to the following five items:

  • Removal of gender discrimination from the Bahamas Constitution
  • Creation of a national commission to monitor the standards of teachers
  • Creation of an independent parliamentary commissioner
  • Creation of an independent election boundaries commission
  • Extension of the retirement ages of judges from 60 to 65 (or 68 to 72 for appellate judges)

An astounding 70.9 per cent of voting Bahamians rattled the chains and consigned all this promised enlightenment to the trash.

On 8 June 2016, the ruling Progressive Liberal Party presented registered voters with another opportunity to show the world how Bahamians had matured democratically. The government even sweetened the pot with a “Vote Yes” campaign on four bills in a referendum designed to bring about gender equality. On the ballot were four bills seeking to

  • Allow children born abroad to obtain Bahamian citizenship in cases where one parent is a Bahamian citizen (male or female) and the other parent is not;
  • Enable a Bahamian woman married to a non-Bahamian man to convey to him the right to apply for Bahamian citizenship;
  • Secure for an unmarried Bahamian man the right to pass on citizenship to his child born of a non-Bahamian woman (with DNA evidence of his fatherhood);
  • Make it unconstitutional for Parliament to pass any laws that discriminate based on gender.

No bill reached first base. And with good reason, the bigots rose in deafening chorus to fund their own campaign, rigorously pursued, claiming that they had approval from divine sources to defeat that new work of either Satan or feminism. And with lips smacking in satisfaction, they declared that the Almighty had spoken when the votes had been counted and victory for bigotry had once again been assured. And new manacles snapped shut.

In The Bahamas, 184 years from the proclamation of Emancipation, 45 years after majority rule, chains of bondage continue to clang

  • With each passing examination season, when the national average continues to entrench itself at D+;
  • Each time a student graduates from high school without functional literacy;
  • Every time a Bahamian is swallowed up in some body and self-respect-consuming addiction;
  • Each time we fail to pass into law a freedom of information bill;
  • Each occasion when a woman is sexually brutalized by her husband and pastor and some equally benighted male or female declares that a man cannot rape his wife;
  • With each insult offered to a person who is laughed at, denied a right, a job, or a courtesy because of creed, colour, physical or mental disability or sexual orientation;
  • Each year that a person charged with a criminal offense is denied a speedy trial, represented by a competent attorney, who can and does prepare a proper defence and turns up each time the court is called into session;
  • Every year that passes when prisoners in our correctional system must still defecate in buckets and we do not yet have a true rehabilitation programme for prisoners;
  • Every time we drain more of our home planet’s lifeblood with our neglect of environmental conservation and protection through insouciance or greed;
  • Each time an incompetent, with no sense of community is installed in Parliament, each time one of them awards an undeserved public contract, each time he or she drains the public purse through stupidity or malfeasance.

By all means, Bahamians should celebrate the first Monday in August and July 10 each year, but my fellow Bahamas, let’s pledge to allow at least one more mile to be gained in the contest for democracy—each year until time passes into eternity.