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|Posted by:||May 15th 2003, 05:01:25 pm|
|Fig Tree News Team||What It Means
To Be A Bahamian
A Distinguished Lecture by
The Honourable Fred Mitchell B.A., M.P.A., LL B
Minister of Foreign Affairs & The Public Service
THE SIR LYNDEN O. PINDLING FOUNDATION
DISTINGUISHED LECTURE SERIES
DUNDAS CENTRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS
NASSAU, THE BAHAMAS
Monday 5th May 2003
“What it means to be Bahamian”
I wish to say at the outset what an honour it is for me to have been asked to deliver this distinguished lecture. I express my thanks to the Sir Lynden O. Pindling Foundation in particular the widow of Sir Lynden, Lady Marguerite Pindling. I wish also to thank the Chairman, Council and President of the College of The Bahamas for this opportunity. I would like in particular to thank my friend Felix Bethel, now a lecturer in politics at the College of The Bahamas and head of the Social Science Division of the College. We have both come a long way since those days when we used to share in the purchase price of the Sunday New York Times, almost thirty years ago.
I need to say that this lecture affords me the third draft for a book that I am producing to mark my 50th birthday that I will celebrate on 5th October this year. I had hoped to do a lecture tour around the country to mark this my 50th year and to present various aspects of my life as I have seen them. The first installment can be seen on the World Wide Web. It was written shortly after the death of Sir Lynden Pindling in 2000 and delivered at the College of The Bahamas in September 2000. It can be found on the website fredmitchelluncensored.com and is called ‘Pindling and Me’.
The second segment is unpublished and undelivered but I hope to get a venue soon. Today’s notes will form the third of these drafts.
I also want to say that in many cases, I am speaking frankly about events that are of extreme sensitivity to many Bahamians. These remarks may be controversial in some quarters. But this is a College of The Bahamas forum and so I say these things in an academic setting and they should be accepted in that light. This is not public policy of The Bahamas, and one hopes that my address is discussed in that light. And I hope that what I say here is respected in the light of a frank discussion on the subject and not as some kind of political fodder. I do not pretend that the analysis is scientific. It is clearly impressionistic but I think nevertheless instructive.
In 1972, a man named Robert Keen who was the public relations representative for the Bahamas Government arranged with my then boss the late William Kalis for me to spend one academic year in London working at the agency Infoplan Ltd. while I attended a special programme of Antioch College, my then university at the University of London. I arrived in London in 1972 shortly after the General Elections of September were held in The Bahamas that decided the issue of independence. I joined my flat mates Anthony Kikivarakis, David and Allan Pinder in a small flat in north London in Woodgreen at 47 Granville Road.
One of my first jobs at Infoplan was to proof read the White Paper on Independence for The Bahamas. In it was the blue print of the then Progressive Liberal Party government, headed by Sir Lynden Pindling for the country’s future. My contribution to the effort was to change all the spelling of the words that ended in “i-z-e” to the spelling “i-s-e”.. I was proud of that job and felt when I was doing it that one day I would get to repeat that story to a forum such as this.
The Hon. Darrell Rolle was then the Minister for Transport and one of the members of the delegation negotiating the Independence of The Bahamas with the British. Somehow during the talks, I met up with Mr. Rolle and happened to take a taxi ride with him to a train station from the Dorchester Hotel while he went on to Lancaster House where the talks were coming to an end. I remember him saying to me that the Government had put forward a proposal that would effectively prevent the children of illegal immigrants from claiming the citizenship of the new state to be known as the Commonwealth of The Bahamas.
That meant that in fulfilling the words of the white paper that citizenship was the most important issue, the Government had decided and the Opposition at the time agreed that citizenship of The Bahamas would be defined more narrowly than the concept had been understood up to July 10 1973. Now birth alone was no longer going to be the criterion for citizenship of The Bahamas. With the coming of the new constitution citizenship would be defined as birth, plus ancestry. In other words, you had to have Bahamian ancestry in order to claim Bahamian citizenship. That ancestry had to come through the father, if you were married to the mother of the child and through the mother if the child was born to a single woman. This changed the formulation that existed before 1973 where if you were born in The Bahamas you were a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies at birth. And all those who were in that category at Independence Day were qualified for the new citizenship of The Bahamas.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but few people would have predicted the absolute public policy nightmare that the definition created. On a practical level, many have argued that today, we have thousands of cases of persons who were born in the country to illegal immigrants, who have known no other country but unless they apply before their nineteenth birthdays, they have no claim or entitlement to Bahamian citizenship. And in the meantime we have neither the capacity nor the willingness to expel them or their parents from the country. And further some of our social scientists and economists are arguing that we risk the collapse of our economy if we do expel them from the country.
And so we have many, many cases today where families are divided by the definition. For example, a family of foreign persons had five children, three born before independence and two afterwards. The children born before to the same parents and in the same circumstances are Bahamians, but the two who were born after independence to the same parents and in the same circumstances are not.
It is also interesting to note that many of the leaders who defined what a Bahamian is in legal terms , would not have been Bahamian citizens, if you accept the theory of citizenship and domicile current in 1973 as passing through the male line and take out the factor of marriage. And it is also curious that the concept of what is Bahamian was defined by persons in the Government who had themselves at least one foreign parent, and so in a sense were first generation Bahamians.
And so it is curious to me that the concept legally of who is a Bahamian is certainly a recent concept in that it is just about 30 years old. But that legal definition actually differs not only from the qualifying legal concept before Independence but also from what was considered Bahamian in the social and cultural sense and in our common understanding both prior to and after independence. What we commonly understand to be Bahamian in the cultural and social sense is someone born and raised in The Bahamas.
It can be argued that the new legal definition has in fact made it harder not easier to deal with the question of who belongs to The Bahamas. And it is a difficult public policy problem to solve because of the emotional sensitivity of the subject, and the fact that many Bahamians, however defined, want to expel the Haitian immigrants and their children born here from The Bahamas and send them back ‘home’.
The singer Smokey 007 used to sing a song with the chorus: ‘You born there! You born there!’ And if you listen to the words of the song, it is clear that the popular definition of Bahamian is simply someone born in The Bahamas. But that of course does not wash with the law. And it creates hard public policy.
About three months ago, I met a young man 24 years old who was born and raised in The Bahamas who at the age of 22 was refused citizenship of The Bahamas. His accent is indistinguishable from any Bahamian’s. He stopped me in the street and asked me if it was fair for him to be punished because of what his parents did. He argued that he was not born in The Bahamas because of his choosing. He took out his passport. It was a Haitian passport. He claimed he had paid $10,000 to get permanent residence. He pointed at the Haitian passport and asked me what had that to do with him. He said he had never been to Haiti in his life, and then he started to cry. At that point all I could do was to tell him to hang on that I was certain that it would eventually be solved. But there are some to whom I have told that story who whose reaction is: “Too bad. He is Haitian and he should go home to Haiti.”
One of the paradoxes of the legal position on citizenship and the fact that you cannot acquire it by the simple act of birth is the fact that many Bahamians have for deliberate and other reasons had their children born in the United States of America, where the simple act of birth on US soil makes you a US citizen. Bahamians see nothing wrong with that but they to a large extent seem not to want the same approach in Bahamian law. The argument is that The Bahamas is too small a country to withstand citizenship by birth alone.
CARLTON FRANCIS IS SEARCHED
On 24th January 1972, the Nassau Guardian published the following statement from the Government of The Bahamas:
A statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs early Sunday read:
“On Friday, January 21, 1972 the Honourable Carlton E. Francis and Mrs. Francis left Nassau on a private trip to Miami on Pan American Airways flight 410 and arrived in Miami about 6:30 p.m. On arrival in Miami Mr. And Mrs. Francis passed through the United States Immigration Authorities without incident. At the United States Customs checkpoint they surrendered their Customs Declaration in the usual manner and were cleared through. On their way to the exit from the Custom Hall they were stopped by Mr. J. E. Penner, a United States Customs Enforcement Officer and Mr. A. Hoffman a United States Special Agent who requested the Minister to show him his passport and accompany him to some place where a personal search could be conducted.
“Mr. Francis accompanied the men but refused to be searched. He requested information as to why a personal search of himself was being requested; he pointed out that he had already cleared customs in the normal manner; and he demanded the usual courtesies as a Minister of the Bahamas Government.
“The United States officers asked Mr. Francis to prove that he was a Minister. In addition to the forms of identification offered to but refused by the Officers as unsatisfactory, Mr. Francis telephoned British Vice Consul, Mr. R. J. Barkley and requested him to come to the airport, Mr. Francis, however, was not allowed to make a long distance call to Nassau.
“While waiting for the Vice Consul to arrive, the United States Officers informed Mr. Francis that there was a protrusion from his trousers and that they had apprehended several persons carrying contraband and prohibited goods in their crotch. The Minister explained the cause of the protrusion but this too was unacceptable to the Officers.
“The Vice Consul arrived, identified Mr. Francis and reinforced the identification with a listing from the Bahamas Official Gazette. Even this was not sufficient to satisfy the United States Officers who insisted on the search taking place.
“After some two hours had gone by, the senior Agent informed Mr. Francis that Washington had to be contacted for the final word. Later the Agent claimed that word had indeed come from Washington that the search had to be made. At the request of the British Vice Consul, who Mr. Francis had asked to call Washington and Nassau, the United States Officers promised that they would await his return to the room before proceeding with the search.
“While the Vice Consul was out of the room, however, two officers held the Minister, each one twisting an arm behind his back. Another loosened the Minister’s trousers. The search was completed about 10:30 p.m.
“The Vice Consul returned to the room after the search had been completed. He apologized for not having returned to personally tell the Minister the results of his telephone calls but admitted having given the information to the United States Customs Agent Mr. Hoffman.
“Some time after 11:00 p.m. the Minister enquired why he was still being detained. He was then informed that as there appeared to have been no customs violation on his part he was free to leave. The Minister did not in fact leave the airport until after 1:00 a.m. the next morning.”
On the night of those events, I was in Nassau at home on break from University in the United States working with J. Vibart Wills at what was then the Public Affairs Division of The Bahamas Information Services. What had been done to the Minister had caused quite a stir and in the debates of the day, it was argued that this illegal search was not something that could have happened if The Bahamas was an independent country. We would be able to defend ourselves and the immunity that would have been afforded to a Bahamian minister would have protected him from a search to which he did not agree.
And that story goes through my mind each time a Minister of The Bahamas Government who by force of circumstances must travel through airports are almost strip-searched passing through on their way to their final destinations. Ministers of The Bahamas Government passing through airports have been made to take off their belts, their shoes, their watches and chains and rings and to have their luggage opened and rifled because of the measures to protect against terrorism. The same practice happens to Bahamian Ministers traveling in their own country.
The constitution of The Bahamas prohibits the arbitrary search of a person, except with his consent. It also allows the arrest or detention or the search of a person in cases where there is a reasonable suspicion of his or her having committed an offence, of being about to commit one or in the process of committing one. None of these criteria apply to Ministers of the Government passing through airports. One remembers a successful case by Fred Smith, the Freeport attorney, who was stopped at a roadblock in Freeport and challenged the legality of the process in the courts. The then Chief Justice Telford Georges ruled that you cannot have a reasonable suspicion of everyone stopped in the roadblock; that in itself is unreasonable. No doubt there are some who would argue that the exception in the constitution ‘in the interest of public safety’ applies at airports in that there is a real likelihood that if the searches did not take place on everyone there might be an incident of terror on the plane and that risks outweigh any constitutional concerns about unreasonable searches.
But I recall the words of a former Governor of the state of Oklahoma in the United States who said recently that his country was not serious on safety at airports when it was searching 83 year old ladies and making them take their shoes off.
Clearly sovereignty and independence have not brought those protections. And it begs the question of what does sovereignty and independence mean. And what does being Bahamian mean as opposed to being the national of another country? What protection does The Bahamas government offer to citizens of The Bahamas both at home and abroad? What protection can it afford? What protection should it afford?
These are not just casual questions for a Minister of Foreign Affairs since it is that Minister’s responsibility to provide consular assistance to Bahamians abroad. Central to what a Foreign Minister does is standing up for the people that define themselves and have been accepted in that definition by the world as Bahamians. That Foreign Minister as an agent of the Government of The Bahamas seeks to offer protections to Bahamian citizens abroad. It is certainly not a military protection. It is a protection under the rule of law. Yet some would argue that what is happening around the world where power appears to be the only fact that counts is that moral protection, that of the rule of law is in fact being eroded and means little.
And in fact there are some in the country who would argue that there is no point to independence and sovereignty if the result is poverty and hunger. Indeed in many of the arguments that have been made on the subject by editorial writers in The Bahamas it has been said that there is no point to a Foreign Minister of The Bahamas seeking to publicly defend The Bahamas in the face of a superior power. The argument (and I am paraphrasing here) appears to be that because we are small, not rich and an unimportant player in the world, we ought to keep our heads down as a country and do exactly as we are told to do by those who are the bigger players in the world.
While this finds some resonance with many Bahamians, there are equally fierce arguments on the other side that the country’s sovereignty means something and it ought to be defended vigorously no matter the price. The Government has to weigh carefully both opinions and most government’s - this Government included - has chosen to defend the country’s integrity but not to pick unnecessary fights because such fights do not serve the larger interests of the country.
The matter is a serious one that Bahamian Governments have to face. This Government, for example, will shortly be called upon to make a decision with regard to whether or not the proposals to supply natural gas through underwater pipelines to Florida should be allowed. Some would argue that if the powerful commercial interests in another country demand this, there is no way The Bahamas can say no, even if we find out that the facilities will be detrimental to the environment of The Bahamas.
But I believe and I take this point to the public policy in which I am involved that this country has survived effectively as a separate jurisdiction for almost four centuries and that we have the skill to continue to survive as a separate jurisdiction; that we have a way of life that is different from any other and which I think ought to be defended. That defence must come whether it is against a threat from military might and wealth or from poor migrants threatening to swamp our shores.
I have argued that the separateness of this jurisdiction, our independence has beyond a social or cultural component to it. It also has an economic component. The success of this country’s economy is in fact predicated on the separateness of this jurisdiction and the laws which protect privacy and private wealth. There is a tourist sector that in fact thrives because this is a foreign country in the eyes of those who come here; a foreign country that has a different way of life. The policies of successive administrations to defend our laws and our way of life have produced a good way of life for the people of this country. There is therefore a need to defend that way of life. This is uppermost in the mind of any Foreign Minister of The Bahamas.
In 1897, the Anglican Church of St. Agnes was established in Miami, Florida. The church is still there today. It has some 3000 members, most of them of Bahamian descent. The church was founded by Bahamians who had emigrated to South Florida seeking opportunity and a better way of life. Just as the Haitians formed an inexpensive labour pool for us, we formed such a pool for many cities in the United States. And it appears that the group that emigrated was a relatively skilled group.
Canon Richard Marquess Barry who is a descendant of Eleuthera is the rector of St. Agnes in Miami today. And he tells the story of the church’s founding when an English priest was visiting a white family in Miami and he heard the black washerwoman singing the hymn ‘The Church is One Foundation’. The priest knew that this was an Anglican hymn, not normally associated with black people in the United States. He inquired of the woman where she had learned the hymn. She told him that she was member of St. Agnes Church in Nassau but that there was no place of worship for blacks who were Anglicans in Miami, having regard to segregation in the south. The conversation led to the founding of the church. And all of its rectors except a few have been connected in some way to The Bahamas by descent or birth.
Today, as Canon Barry prepares to retire, he has told the congregation that he hopes that whomever they choose, that person ought to be able to cook and eat peas and rice.
If you attended St. Agnes in Miami today, you would find a church with a service that very much resembles and feels like the service in St. Agnes in Nassau. The interesting thing about this for me is that the sense of what is Bahamian for these Bahamians overseas has been defined in terms of the Anglican Church that is really English. But in embracing the Anglican Church abroad, they were able to feel close to their roots at home in The Bahamas.
It should be pointed out that it is because of stories like the one of St. Agnes, Miami, the settlement of Bahamians at Key West, Florida and the fact that we are the only grits eating population in the Caribbean, having brought the food with the slaves who came from the Carolinas after the war of 1776, that The Bahamas is in fact a sub culture of the culture of the United States of America.
The stories also say something about us as a people beyond the legal concept of who we are. And I have so far throughout this discourse sought to distinguish between the legal concept of who is Bahamian and the social or cultural concept. And I would argue here that we must try as we move forward to ensure that the legal definition of who is a Bahamian comes as close as possible to the social or cultural definition of who is a Bahamian. My argument is that this is in the best interest of our country as we move forward in this century. It is in my view in the best interests of the sovereignty and independence of this country to be inclusive in our legal definition as Bahamians, not exclusive, in the same way that for example the state of Israel or the United Kingdom is. I would be interested to hear the responses on this.
The difficulty is that social and cultural definitions tend to change over time, so they have to be rooted in some fixed concepts. One of them I believe should be birth, the other ought to be ancestry but I do not believe that these (birth and ancestry) ought to be necessarily joined together. They can be separate legal bases for the claim of citizenship. In other words, you ought to get to Bahamian citizenship either by birth or by ancestry, whether married or not and whether through the male or female lines.
Indeed one of the other causes of confusion in the changing Bahamas where 70 per cent of the births are out of wedlock, is the child of a Bahamian father who is born out of wedlock cannot claim citizenship of The Bahamas unless that child was actually born in the Bahamas. If he were born in The Bahamas he can apply at age 18, which means he does not get it automatically. If he were born abroad, he cannot qualify for it at all. We enter here into the realm of morality and whether or not the children of unions outside the bonds of marriage should be recognized at all as legitimate or whether we ought to continue to ignore the realities on the ground and in our discussions after this that is something I would like to hear more about.
And so beside births, what other elements are there involved in the social or cultural definition of who is Bahamian? First there is ethnicity, then there is place of national origin, then there are class elements. I would wish to discuss each of these in turn and then seek to hear your views in the discussion period afterward.
First race and ethnicity: Colin Hughes has written what is perhaps the most authoritative study of the subject in his book Race and Politics in The Bahamas, now out of print. The work was published in 1977 and it seeks to trace the effect of race as the most important cleavage in the politics of The Bahamas. The Bahamas has since the politics of the 20th century largely defined itself as a black nation. Mr. Hughes seems to argue that race is the most important political cleavage in The Bahamas. It is clear from recent public discussions about one of the candidates for political leadership that it still enters the discussion but last year’s referendum and general election was thought by many to be the first time where race played less of an issue than the issues themselves. It seemed that the races crossed the traditional party lines in an unusual alliance. But traditionally, when one thinks of a Bahamian, most people including Bahamians would think of a person of African descent.
This was reinforced in the events of 1942 and the Burma Road Riots and in the popular song of the day, which included the line: “Burma Road declare war on the conchy joe”. It was further reinforced by the proclaiming of Majority Rule in 1967 on 10th January when Sir Lynden assumed the office of Premier. Sir Lynden’s Government replaced the Bay Street, all white oligarchy that controlled the country up to that day.
In later years, in a politically correct attempt to be all inclusive, some pundits have suggested that Majority Rule Day be adapted to include a wider meaning, that of all Bahamians experiencing for the first time the full effects of one man, one vote, since there was in 1967 universal adult suffrage and single member constituencies for the first time. But most people still think of Majority Rule day as the day that marked the ascendancy of the African descendants in The Bahamas to Government.
My own thought is that the more inclusive definition is more compelling in today’s Bahamas but the historic position should not be dismissed.
The interesting thing is that if one were to examine ethnicity in its purest sense, one would discover that the situation is not as clear cut as all that. The question can be asked within the Bahamian context - and this is not exclusive to The Bahamas - who is white and who is black? And there are clear demarcations in both communities in The Bahamas, notwithstanding the appearance or what used to be on the birth certificate.
For example, when I was born in 1953, my birth certificate has on it the designations of race. ‘A’ for African, ‘E’ for European and ‘M’ for mixed. Cyril Stevenson who was the Editor of the PLP's newspaper The Herald used this to some effect when he discovered that a Parliamentarian now deceased who would generally be considered white had a birth certificate that had ‘M’ or mixed on it. The Herald proclaimed in one of its headlines words to the effect that the Parliamentarian was a black man. Presumably that was the ultimate political insult of the day for anyone who thought of themselves as white and lived in a white world.
Colin Hughes, whose last name is found in the law firm McKinney Bancroft and Hughes, laid out certain classifications in his book and sought to define how race played itself out in terms of the definitions in The Bahamas.
He describes several categories. One is phenotypical colour; that is the one we all know. In other words, if you look at me, you will see an African Bahamian and describe me as a black man. If you looked at Brent Symonette, you would say he is a white man. But Mr. Hughes also describes other kinds of colour - associational colour, cultural colour. And it is these latter categories that explain in The Bahamas a situation, which is not as simple as black and white. So one finds that in The Bahamas, people of mixed ancestry who were light skinned could often cling to one side or the other, and typically they chose because of the power relationships in the society to be white.
This is separate from the question of biracialism, which arises today in the international arena as other countries grapple with definitions of race.
But historically in The Bahamas, people of mixed ancestry who were light skinned, as if to reinforce their choice to be white, enforced a more rigid segregation than the whites themselves, even for example in several well known cases shunning darker brothers and sisters in the same families. The late C.W.F. Bethell, the former Government Minister in the UBP, for example, whose ancestry was clearly European admitted once in an interview with The Tribune that his father had several children born out of wedlock with black women who could not be patrons at the Savoy because of their colour. He said he regretted it.
And then there was the famous candy store, on the site of what is now a popular restaurant in town, which was owned by a mixed family but one that did not allow blacks to be served. And it is still a point of awkwardness today when you speak to many of the families in that category when it comes to what colour they are. The matter is so sensitive that I will not call the names of the families even today. They tend to describe themselves not as white, because they believe they will be challenged by the black community or rejected by the white community but they at best describe themselves as people of colour or as I heard one family describe themselves as “not being black”…
There are even some who are dark skinned that fall into that category. The fact is that they grew up in the neighborhoods in New Providence that were largely segregated, and lived amongst the white people. They had the habits of white Bahamians and hung out in spots that mainly white Bahamians did, so notwithstanding their ethnic group or heritage they by reason of association and choice were white people.
If you examine the white community, of course, you have two historic bodies and in the twentieth century perhaps a third. One is descendants of the group that originally settled these islands with their small group of slaves. Those whites were called “Conchs” and no doubt that expression is the beginning of today’s “Conchy Joe”
Then Michael Craton points out with Gail Saunders that following the revolution in the United States in 1776, loyalists and their slaves came to The Bahamas. The loyalists revolutionized life in the islands. Reorganized the economy, and brought a different ethnic mix to the country. For the first time in the history of the islands, it appears that the black population outnumbered the white population. Thus began what in hindsight was the inexorable march toward the ascendancy of the African as the primary political force in the country.
But notwithstanding the numbers, the power equation was clearly dominated by Europe. The language, the formal structures, the Government, the church, the technology were all dominated by Europe. There was such a strong overlay that some called it suppression of that which was African but there was always the undercurrent of Africa that only now finds its fullest expression in the society.
So the question might still be asked today when one talks about a Bahamian under both the legal and the social and cultural definitions, what ethnic group and their cultural influences are we talking aboutwhite or black? And further, when we talk about Bahamians, it would seem the answer is that we are a heterogeneous or diverse society, and the success of the country is the acceptance of that heterogeneity because in many ways the white Bahamas is a different one from the black Bahamas. Although, it is argued that in recent years, as the degree of the differential of wealth has decreased and colour no longer marks exclusively social class, the distinction between the two Bahamases has markedly declined.
Within the black community, the historic African community appears to be made up of the blacks who are descendants of the slaves brought with the loyalists but what appears more and more to be true and this will require some study is the fact that in the late nineteenth century following the revolution in Haiti, and the twentieth century with the demand for labour in the public service and the skilled trades, the Black populations swelled as a result of immigration from Haiti and the West Indies. It is in large part that latter group, which eventually defined in a legal sense what a Bahamian is today. They framed the nation we have today, and they ensured whether consciously or not that when Bahamian was defined in a legal sense it included them born in The Bahamas with at least one parent who was Bahamian, and in most of those cases that was the mother.
One must also remember that Sean McWeeney writes in his essay on the subject that Stephen Dillette, the first Black Member of Parliament, was a French African. In the language of his day that translates today to mean he was Haitian and there are several families with similar origins now prominent and unquestioned in The Bahamas.
I now turn to the question of National Origin. One of the ways that you can attempt to insult the ‘real’ Bahamian or the ‘true’ Bahamian is to call someone a Haitian. To a lesser extent, calling someone Jamaican has the same effect. It is easy in the lexicon of the day to accuse one family or the next of not being Bahamian. Indeed at one of the civil society consults that we had at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when I asked the question about the nature of Bahamianess, Geoffrey Brown, a white Bahamian, answered that his family had been in The Bahamas for seven generations. Not many families can boast of that in this country. One black family that can is the Forbes family in Driggs Hill, Andros who claim that their ancestors have been in The Bahamas since 1790.
The fact is that we have all come from somewhere else. The indigenous inhabitants of the island were all but wiped out within fifty years of the arrival of Columbus and none of us resembles them today. So it is true that all of us came here on a boat, more recently on a plane and it is just a question of how long ago we came.
If you take Mr. Brown’s comment, you become Bahamian then not just by your being born here, not by your father or mother being a Bahamian citizen but also by the length of time that your family has been in the country. And so what we see is an assertion of a greater claim to Bahamianess if your family arrived before the 20th century. So it is doubly interesting that those who defined what Bahamian is in a legal sense were in fact in many cases -the first generation of their families born in The Bahamas, their ancestors having come to The Bahamas within the last one hundred years. That was sufficient for their purposes to be included as Bahamian.
Now could that be because as I have posited before in this piece that they were the real founders and crafters of the state we now know as the Commonwealth of The Bahamas? During the 20th Century, men and women from Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba, Greece, Guyana, Turks and Caicos Islands, Britain, Canada, Ireland, the United States and most certainly Haiti migrated to The Bahamas mated and intermarried with the Bahamians they met here and became Bahamians themselves.
In fact, it is often argued that without the votes and the economic support of the sons and daughters of the West Indians who came here, and the émigrés themselves, The Bahamas would not have had the political changes that came to the country.
Someone ought to do a census of various countries of national origin that had their citizens settle here and their descendants. It was once said by a Trinidadian that Bahamians sounded to him like Barbadians with an American accent.
I would also commend to you the book by Dawn Marshall, ‘The Haitian Problem’, together with Sean McWeeney’s piece on Haitian migration in the 19th century. If you travel to Port-au-Prince, and look at the people there, they bear an uncanny physical resemblance to the masses of people you find in The Bahamas, just the physical look of them, or phenotypical colour in the language of the ethnicologists.
It is argued that many of the names that we accept as English names are in fact Anglicized French or Creole names that have come over the centuries to be Bahamian. That too is something that ought to be traced and studied.
The end result appears to be that The Bahamas and Bahamian as they are defined today are very much a country and a people of immigration. The country developed on the strength of immigration, despite the antipathy to immigrants in the country. As the economy continued to grow, the civil service, the skilled trades, the common labourers, the professional classes were all augmented by labour from the southern Caribbean. The nation then is replete with the descendants of those nationalities. It should be instructive to the Government as it plans the public policy of our new economic and political relationships in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA).
The continued immigration into the country from the south has a number of effects. One is that it keeps the population black. We have no census data on the ethnic make up of the country but the impression is that net emigration; that is outwards, is proportionally more significant in the white population that maintains its ethnic integrity by marrying whites from abroad and then moving abroad. And there is a relatively larger immigration; that is an inflow to the country, amongst the black populations of the Caribbean and more particularly Haiti. We need to have the data on this.
I now turn to the question of social class. The social construct that Michael Craton and Gail Saunders have written about since the time that this country was settled by the English had the whites from England that ran the colony and represented the imperial power at the top with whites of Bahamian ancestry next followed by the mulattoes or brown skins with the great masses of black people at the bottom. While this has changed somewhat in the last fifty years, that construct still applies. The response of most people today would still put most whites in The Bahamas in the upper classes and relatively more wealthy than blacks as a whole. When I grew up in New Providence it was said to be conventional wisdom that unlike Jamaica we did not have a rigid class structure in The Bahamas but we did have racial segregation. They said what Jamaica had was not segregation but a rigid class structure. In fact both in both countries seem to the causal observer to coincide.
Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison once said when speaking of the importance of language that the person who chooses what you call something is the one who has power. And so when one asks the question what is The Bahamas and who are Bahamians one has to look also through the glasses of social class.
All Parliamentarians were asked to attend the funeral of the late Charles Bethell (generally the whites spelt Bethell with two ls and the blacks with one), former Minister of the Government and Member of Parliament. Few of us knew him, most had never even heard about him but when one read the obituary, it was clear that this was an important man in The Bahamas up to 1967. If one asked the question who was Bahamian and what was The Bahamas and you used the construct of Toni Morrison, you would certainly say that The Bahamas was that of Charles Bethell and his group, those whites at the top of the society. Their Bahamas did not resemble in any way The Bahamas in which I grew up.
Their lives were made up of shop keeping, running the Government, money making, fishing, hunting and foreign vacations back in their ancestral homes or so it appears. This was completely alien to anything in my experience and something that as an African Bahamian living in New Providence, I could only read about in newspapers. We lived in the same country but our countries were in fact different. While writing this I added African Bahamians living in New Providence because in talking to many of my compatriots in the family islands, they do have the fishing and hunting experience.
Throughout the 20th century, with the political revolution that took place and the inclusion of blacks in the upper echelons of the Government and increasingly in the economy, the complexion of the upper classes changed in the country, the children of immigrants became the leaders in the country. If you accept what Toni Morrison has said this phenomenon must necessarily redefine what being Bahamian means.
Many Bahamians seem to be sensitive about the development of class distinctions in the society. And we still argue that we do not have a rigid social class structure in this country, so that social mobility is quite fluid in The Bahamas. The experience of the generation to which I belong is that it is possible in one generation to move from one class to another. Indeed within our own time, it is possible to move from one class to another. From a public policy point of view this is a continued desirable objective. And it seems to me that when we define this question of who is Bahamian, what being Bahamian means and in fact ask the more profound question whose Bahamas is it anyway; we ought to bear that objective in mind.
The interesting thing about this is that the social mobility has also applied to immigrant families as well. Although anecdotally you hear some resentment from the Bahamian by birth who argues that the well educated immigrants coming into the country are able to marry into Bahamian families and get right to the top of the ladder, this has not yet reached the point where serious public policy attention has been paid to it. As a Minister of the Government one inevitably hears this pressure coming from Bahamians to be applied through a work permit policy that seeks to protect Bahamianization and also chauvinistic in that the reason often given is to protect our women. Of course Bahamianization continues to be an objective of the Government.
This then sets the basis for our discussions this evening. In summary, we have looked at the various definitions of Bahamian, including racial, national origin and class components. We have looked at the legal definitions. We have argued that perhaps it is time to change the legal definition so that it more accurately reflects the social and cultural notions of what is Bahamian and is more inclusive than exclusive. We have argued in favour of continued social mobility in the society. We have argued that the Bahamian way of life is deserving of protection and defence, while we recognize it as a dynamic state not static. We have argued that The Bahamas is a diverse and heterogeneous society that quite apart from a legal definition encompasses many different races, shades, national origin and cultures that is continuing to evolve.
This dialogue with you will be instructive for me as the Minister of Foreign Affairs and indeed as Minister for the Public Service as I seek to assist in the development of public policy with regard to our country. I look forward to the dialogue with you.
Thank you very much indeed.
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