Migration is a global issue. All over the world vulnerable people leave their homeland in search of a better life. The Bahamas is no stranger to this issue, but, most of our knowledge involves persons migrating to The Bahamas, but we usually don’t examine our history as migrants. Perhaps because, like most of our history, it is an untold story nevertheless, it is one we must examine to help us better appreciate our struggles as a people. To put things into context, life a century ago was very hard and there was very little opportunity for gainful employment for black Bahamians so, many persons went to other countries in search of work. Some of these opportunities came in the form of employment contracts with foreign countries or companies.
Pictures of Bhamian Migrants selling pineapples and working in Florida
Industries such as wrecking provided employment for many especially in the Southern Bahamas but, the placement of lighthouses and the creation of charts for sailors led to the demise of this industry. The agricultural sector also faced challenges as farmers also had difficulty getting crops to market due to the archipelagic nature of the country. This resulted in spoilage and poor quality of crops which negatively impacted the export products such as pineapples, citrus and sisal. A series of hurricanes also destroyed the sponge beds so in the 1930s this industry also suffered dramatically. Relief however came for many Bahamians from the United States’ Farm Labour Programme commonly known as “The Contract” in 1943. Under this programme, Bahamians signed seasonal contracts to provide farm labour across America; the remittances earned boosted the economy of many islands.
The Contract is the best know migration story but, it is not the only one. Records show that Bahamians began migrating to Florida as early as 1890 for seasonal agricultural work and at one point; the exodus to Florida was so great that, from 1900 to 1920 one fifth of the Bahamian population went to Florida. They worked on farms and also got jobs at the resorts across the state. Bahamians also provided a heavy labour component for Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway in the 1900s. In fact, Herbert Wells, the first black hired by Florida East Coast was a Bahamian and at the time of his death he was hailed as a pioneer of Florida.
1900 to 1912 Bahamians were recruited to cut cane in the Dominican Republic
but, there was no great exodus this time as there were laws designed to restrict
“coloured immigration”. Prior to that
between 1895 and 1908 Bahamians went to Panama as West Indians were commissioned
to work on the construction of the ambitious Panama Canal. Unfortunately, exposure to diseases like
malaria and typhoid fever were high, the West Indians were also assigned the
more dangerous job of dynamiting. Complaints
were made to the British colonial authorities, but intervention came too late
for many. In addition to Panama, Bahamians were also contracted to work in
Costa Rica, Honduras and Guatemala on the United Fruit Company and the Atlantic
Fruit Company plantations, as well as the Cárdenas/Monterrey Division of the
National Railways of Mexico and the Mexican port of Tampico. The conditions in Central America were so
harsh and unfavourable that many returned in worse conditions than they left
suffering from disease and disability. In addition to their harsh treatment, their
contracts were sometimes not honoured, further, monies were not sent home
instead, wages were taken and passages home were denied. Bahamians therefore left seeking employment
opportunities in the United States but, while conditions were better, they
still faced danger and discrimination. To
their credit, it was said that when contracts were not honoured and employers
did not live up to expectations, Bahamians would leave in mass numbers. One of the primary reasons were, in many
countries, they faced a level of prejudice and discrimination that they were unaccustomed
to in the Bahamas. Bahamians therefore
opted to return home, preferring to be free and poor than to suffer injustices.
"I am not afraid to go the limit if your rights are challenged. The time is coming when we will have to go the limit simply because men who we put into positions in the House of Assembly have forgotten who put them there and are being used by your enemies for our own destruction. It is simple democracy that when representatives fail to do the people's wish that we the people have to whip them back into line." Excerpt from speech given on Windsor Park on August 8th, 1958."
Faith That Moved The Mountain
August 9, 1958 Randal Fawkes was arrested for sedition and accused of making a seditious speech during a union meeting on Windsor Park. This entire incident stemmed from activities which occurred during a visit to the Bahamas Lumber Company, Mastic Point, Andros by Randal Fawkes and L. Garth Wright. These gentlemen were there at the invitation of labourers who were happy to see them and receive words of encouragement.
at the camp were terrible. Fawkes and Wright witnessed persons with broken or
sawed off bleeding limbs. They also worked long hours for very low wages.
Workers also suffered the indignity of the Truck and Tommy Shop System where
they received things like food, drink, rent and tools from the boss’ Commissary
Shop rather than actual wages. This was a little more than slavery, and just
another tool used to exploit workers and keep them under the bondage of their
oppressors. Further, the lumber camp was loud and filthy with mounds of sawdust
everywhere and toilets in the centre of the yard. There was no clean living
area for the families of the workers so they had to endure constant noise and
filth consequently, the children were often sick. A meeting was organized and the union activist
spoke out against the obvious exploitation which angered the boss, Mr. William
N. Russell. He then demanded that they leave, when they did not, he stormed out
of the meeting vowing to get them, and he was true to his word. Firstly, a few
days later, Richard Horton, a worker who befriended the activist, was fired and
asked to vacate the property by 6:00p.m. or face prosecution for trespassing,
he had no choice but to leave. This
however, was not the end, but the beginning of a showdown between Mr. Fawkes
and his adversaries.
returned to Nassau, Mr. Fawkes was charged with trespassing and disorderly behavior
in relation to his activities at the lumber camp. Magistrate Maxwell Thompson
gave him a suspended sentence and he was bound to keep the peace for 3 years
which meant that he could not hold any labour meetings, picket or involve
himself with labour organizing or activism. In response, Mr. Fawkes did the
unthinkable; he held a monster meeting at Windsor Park and spoke vehemently
against colonialism and the minority government, the following day he was
arrested for sedition. When asked to make a statement, Mr. Fawkes wrote, “The
Bahamas Government is the most corrupt system I have ever seen in my life”. The
paper was then snatched from his hand because this was obviously not the
statement they wanted. He was then formally charged but was granted bail on the
condition that he held no more mass meetings and or demonstrations. Brother
Fawkes was then released to the triumphant shout of the masses that walked to
the Bahamas Federation of Labour (BFofL) Office on Wulff Rd. where a mass
prayer meeting was planned.
Fawkes then began executing the plan for his defense appealing to Premier
Norman Manley of Jamaica because he was not on good terms with the Bar
Association. Mr. L. Garth Wright was also dispatched to New York to ask the
comrades overseas to apply pressure by keeping the sedition case before the
world press. Unfortunately, on the eve of the trail some of the members of the
BFofL broke ranks and formed the Bahamas Trade Union Congress and L. O.
Pindling, Milo Butler and Clarence Bain went abroad until the trail was over.
Fawkes was also tortured by the press, called profane names by the UBP and the
PLP labeled him a nut. The ordinary
workers remained steadfast contributing to the Fawkes Freedom Defense Fund.
was indeed, the trail of the century, with His Lordship, the Chief Justice Sir
Guy Henderson, Edward P. St. George Acting Solicitor General and Vivian O. S.
Blake, the youngest Queen’s Counsel in the British Empire as representative for
the defense. The entire jury, with the exception of one black juror was white;
the odds were clearly stacked against Mr. Fawkes. Mr. St. George was sure of
his victory but, young Mr. Blake was up to the challenge and this resulted in a
shocking turn of events.
Before the crown could prosecute Mr. Fawkes for Sedition, Mr. Blake challenged whether his actions on the night in question met the definition of sedition, placing the Crown’s case in a precarious position. Mr. St. George began his case confidently, but the strong and logical argument of Mr. Blake created a huge stumbling block, and he (Mr. St. George ) not only stumbled to argue his case, but to maintain his composure. Mr. Fawkes however, had no fear, when the case was adjourned for his Lordship to consider Mr. Blake’s argument, the BFoL poured concrete for the House of Labour.
When the case resumed, the court was packed with many refusing to work until the verdict was read and they were not to be disappointed, the Chief Justice verdict was that Mr. Fawkes had no case to answer. It was not the verdict the oppressors had expected but, one met with jubilation at the meeting at Windsor Park that night. Mr. Blake was received with a thunderous applause and urged the brothers and sisters not to harbour malice or hatred as it would impede the march to freedom. When Brother Fawkes spoke he was grateful and appreciative of the support he received from the common working man throughout his case. He then turned his sights towards a new battle, one for the security of employment for all, he promised to build Jerusalem. This was a generation ago, and today as I look out I tragically see no Jerusalem. New enemies have arisen from those who were once comrades, our people seem unsure of themselves and activism and unionism have become dirty words. Unions who were once strong and powerful, standing steadfast against our oppressors, have lost their thunder. The common working man who stood shoulder to shoulder with their labour leaders shutting down the country for 19 days during the General Strike are unable to demand the rights their forefathers fought for. The fire that ignited the Burma Road Riots is no more; we Bahamians have seemingly become prisoners of our own collective apathy and complacency, a shadow of the courageous people that existed a generation ago. The question I have is, if Randal Fawkes was our Moses, who will be our Joshua?
If you wish to learn more about Sir Randol Fawkes, The Father of Labour, please visit www.sirrandolfawkes.com, I also encourage you to read The Faith That Moved The Mountain by Sir Randol Fawkes.
Remarks by John Pinder, President of the Bahamas Public Services Union during the People's Movement Launch on 14th July, 2016. Members of this group are calling themselves the "Gatekeepers" and demanding “righteous governance". Many in the community are asking if this is the formation of a new political party. https://www.buzzsprout.com/admin/episodes/402202-john-pinder-14-july-2016-gatekeepers-wav
Remarks by Ali McIntosh during the People's Movement Launch on 14th July, 2016. Members of this group are calling themselves the "Gatekeepers" and demanding “righteous governance". Many in the community are asking if this is the formation of a new political party.
The following are some news articles that appeared in the Tribune Newspaper July 1973 (clippings gathered from http://ufdc.ufl.edu). It will give you an insight into the scale of the celebrations; I also found some of the advertisements interesting, especially the price of groceries in 1973 especially when compared to today’s prices. It’s a flashback for those who were there, and education for those who were not so read, share and enjoy. https://www.scribd.com/document/318252143/Tribune-Independence-July-1973-Articles
Chief Servant Leader, Ali McIntosh's remarks during the Bahamas Constitution Party's Candidate Launch on 10th May, 2016. http://www.buzzsprout.com/58318
Remarks by Mr. Clarence Williams, the Bahamas Constitution Party's candidate for South Beach during the party's Candidate Launch in 10 th May, 2016 at Stephen Dillet Primary School. http://www.buzzsprout.com/58318
Labour Day Has
Changed. In the past, Labour Day held
greater significance, you would see men, women and children smartly attired
their pride on full display. It was a
day of Freedom, when unions took their issues to the street . Despite the fun they surely had, the issues of the day, were foremost in
their minds. They were principled and
conscientious, today many of us are not as concerned with issues that are not
directly impacting us, but back them, they were unified and despite the risk,
they were prepared to speak out. Case in
point, in 1962, the workers of this nation stood in solidarity with those who
were unemployed in an unemployment march, today, the unemployment rate is 14.8%
(Department of Statistics 2015 Labour Force Survey), but
many of us who are employed, have little concern for the suffering of our
unemployed brothers and sisters.
Taxation without representation.
The plight of delinquent girls being taken to lightly.
The need for "Housing Schemes" and "Slum Clearance ".
Read and Share.
Commentary on the Ship of State, page 327 of "The Faith That Moved The Mountain, A Memorial Edition" by Sir Randol Fawkes.
All over the Bahamas there are ordinary Bahamians who are on the ground, fighting for their community. Their efforts do not make the headlines, but they are the ones who are in the midst of the struggle to save their community. I sat down with Ms. Sherryann Roberts-Johnson who gives us a glimpse into her daily battle to stand in the gap for many young men in Engleston. Engleston has had its share of challenges, but she believes that there is good in her community and despite what others may say, it is worth fighting for. Follow the link, listen to her interview and share it with others. http://www.buzzsprout.com/58318
Today foremost in people’s mind is the issue of rising crime, in the midst of this battle is Minister Alda Williams. Minister Williams is a leader in the Prayer Ministry of the Church of God of Prophecy and she also leads a Prison Outreach Programme at the Bahamas Prison Service (Her Majesty’s Prisons). In her interview, she speaks very openly about outreach and meeting the needs of persons in the community, those in prison and the role of the Church in helping people to mend their lives. Please follow link or listen and please share with others. You can listen on Everyday Bahamians on our website or on our podcasting site.
In January 1981, the Bahamas Union of Teachers headed by Ellison K. Minnis (President) and Leonard Archer (Secretary General) lead a three-week strike for improved pay and better working conditions. It is estimated that about 2,000 teachers took part in the strike, before a settlement could be reached, there would be clashes with police and the arrest of several teachers.
Mr. Archer announced the strike on 5th January, 1981 and public schools across the country were brought to a standstill. This strike was by no means passive, but confrontational, the Nassau Guardian reported that the teachers, joined by students and members of the public “took Bay Street by storm”. The crowd paraded around the House of Assembly stating that “We Want Moses” at other times calling for “Judas”. It must have been a very tense environment with several Members of Parliament and Prime Minister Pindling himself, on one occasion not leaving during the lunch break at the usual time or taking an opportunity to face the crowd (Nassau Guardian 8th January, 1981).
This situation being made more heated by the knowledge that several teachers were arrested, namely Patricia Collins, Charles Wildgoose and Joan Carey (R. M. Bailey Senior High) and Leonard ‘Boston Blackie’ Miller, Elkanah Major, Philip Dorsette and Wade Taylor (Government High School) and later brought before the court. The Minister of Education and the Prime Minister both claimed that the Government simply did not have the funds to meet the teachers’ demands. Norman Solomon, leader of the Official Opposition however stated that the government “crowed about its projected 25-million-dollar surplus for 1981” “now that same government is saying we broke and cannot meet the teachers’ demands.”
The teacher’s returned to the classroom 26th January, 1981 but only to performed essential duties until a settlement could be reached. The union returned to the bargaining table 2nd February, 1981 and the strike ended 3rd February, 1981. The final settlement was $1,200.00 per annum salary increase for all teachers which amounted to the largest increase in the union’s history. The Union was also able to achieve Hardship Allowance for Family Island teachers, and Government commitment for a renovation scheme. Mr. Minnis stated that “never before in the history of the Union, has there been so much solidarity on the part of the Union,”. Mr. Minnis also said “It is the first time that any government department has taken strike action against the government.” Today, the Bahamas Union of Teachers remain one of the strongest unions in the country, but the financial security and benefits which teachers enjoy today, was achieve through the sacrifice, commitment and determination of teachers a generation ago.
When we look through the pages of Bahamian history, it’s hard to ignore the contributions of the trade union movement. From the Burma Road Riots, to Majority Rule, Independence, National Insurance etc. unions made a contribution to the development of this nation. The unions were not simply seeking to secure things such as better working conditions, they had an even more noble cause, the crafting of a better Bahamas. Many ordinary Bahamians stood in solidarity with men like Randolph Fawkes and Clifford Darling, and put their shoulders to the wheel and pushed this nation forward so that this generation would have a brighter day. The leaders had the support, trust and confidence of the membership, and members of the wider community. Their commitment toward national development transcended the trade union movement and made its leaders, national heroes.
Today’s trade union leaders no longer enjoy that level of support and strength, many say the fire has gone out and unions are now struggling to remain relevant. In some segments once legendary trade unions are fighting for their very existence. Those that are seemingly healthy are embroiled in court battles and internal disputes, they are shadows of their former selves, seemingly unable to mount a creditable defence without the support of government. Yet while we celebrate our once glorious history, we must also look to ourselves to see where we went wrong. This problem requires introspection and honesty and the leadership must be willing to humble itself and look within. Yet the level of humility that is necessary, is absent with many dismissing the crisis that stands before us but, many are overwhelmed and too prideful to ask for help. Others are also too small and lack the necessary resources to maintain the organisation so the membership suffers. If unions are to survive in the Bahamas, they must retool and reinvent themselves. Members must become more involved as the unions are not the sole responsibility of the leadership, everyone must use their skills and talents to advance the organization. Those that lead must allow others to be involved, listen to all members, and make everyone feel included, because people could easily become frustrated and leave. There must also be transparency, adherence to proper procedures and a willingness to serve, if we do not, unions in The Bahamas will continue to decline until, they are no more.
Lillian Wier-Coakley Library
Many times historic information cannot be found online, I encourage you to visit your local public library. I researched this topic at the Lillian Wier-Coakley Public Library on Baillou Hill Road at the foot of C. R. Walker Senior High School. I also wish to thank the staff, namely Shonley L. Cartwright, Flora Fernander and Genesta Stuart for their assistance.