Monday, May 25, 2009

Whitey Is Scared

The Bahamas' murder rate is alarming, and sadly this is not news for anyone reading this blog. The news outlets are keeping track of the year's murder count, personally, I don't. It's too high, but in my book, even one would be too high a number.

Today, I won't speculate as to what causes this small nation to suffer from such a high murder rate, rather I'd like to look at one particular murder that occurred on the island of New Providence last month. On Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009, Hywel Jones, a British expat banker, was shot, and later succumbed to his injuries.

Let me say this loud and clear: the murder of Hywel Jones is tragic, and killing a fellow human being is an atrocious crime. However, it was not just yours truly who lately got the impression that many in this community are outraged about this particular murder, that many in this community seem to think (and some even say so) that this particular murder is somehow "worse" than the dozens of other murders that occur all too frequently in our society.

One argument to support this notion is supposedly Mr. Jones' profession, as a banker he is - so they say - a member of the most "productive" section of our society. Ouch! Do you hear the slap in the face of nurses, teachers, and hard-working policemen, just to name a few. Granted, Mr. Jones' made more money than all those examples, but is he therefore a more valuable member of society? Who taught him his skills? Who cared for him when sick, and tried very hard to save his life after the shooting? And who is searching for the murderer to bring him to justice?

Sadly, as the title of today's column suggests, I think the outrage over Hywel Jones' murder is owed to the fact that most murder victims in this country are Black, and of these Blacks, most come from the lower strata of society. For too long, upper class Bahamians, particularly White Bahamians were complacent and thought that they were somehow immune to bullets, and that crime remained a problem only of certain segments of society. Now, Whitey is scared.

Now, White Bahamians realised that ever since 1967, they focused too much on their own economic well-being, but, as the economic elite of the country, participated too little in civic society. Once they could no longer control social and political development, many of them refused to even participate.

The crime wave we face today is not the result of the PLP's or FNM's actions in government, rather, it is the result of an unhealthy social construct with roots deep in the colonial era. For a change, it came to haunt the upper class. For a change, the victim was White. At this point it is irrelevant whether he was Bahamian or expat; Whitey is scared. Hopefully, this will serve as a wake up call for ALL Bahamians, and by that I do not just mean citizens, I mean residents, to work together to transform this society and bring about more civility.

May Hywel Jones rest in peace.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On Historical Myths III

Maybe this is symbolic of just how little we pay attention to what goes on around us, but contrary to popular belief, the reason why we get the day off from work on October 12th each year has nothing to do with national heroes and everything with what happened in 1492. However, it is not Columbus Day. Instead, it is Discovery Day.

Those names have really done it to us. One group of very influential persons in this society campaigns loudly for a so-called National Heroes Day, but I suggest to you that none in that group are very much concerned about National Heroes, rather this campaign is designed to rewrite and falsify Bahamian history, cleansing it of our less glorious colonial past. You cannot do that. Our past is the only past we've got!

The National Heroes Day folks now tell us, and they have thousands of Bahamians convinced, that the government has "changed 'Columbus Day' into 'National Heroes Day.'" Mistake #1: Columbus Day is a U.S. American holiday, in the Bahamas it is Discovery Day. Why, if the promoters of National Heroes Day in all their self-righteousness are supposedly trying so hard to promote national(ist) pride, can't they get their facts straight? "Columbus Day" is what they call it in the United States, in the Bahamas, October 12th has traditionally been called Discovery Day. Sounds like someone is a proud Americanized Bahamian, which is tragic, because the difference between Columbus Day and Discovery Day is indeed of fundamental importance. Calling it Columbus Day honours the man, calling it Discovery Day commemorates the event. Throughout the world, events are commemorated, even if they have negative connotations, because humankind can - or at least should - learn from its mistakes.

The next point that Discovery Day bashers make is that Columbus did not discover the Bahamas, but that he was lost. That's a valid point. But actually rather irrelevant. On October 12th, 1492, Columbus landed at San Salvador, sailed around the Caribbean some more, and returned to Spain, where he told the whole of Europe about his discovery of... of what? He thought he was in Asia, but Asia did not need discovering as far as Europeans were concerned. What Columbus discovered was that you could sail across the Atlantic Ocean and find land on the other side, that European ships were sturdy enough to last the journey, big enough to store enough food and water for the journey.

As news travels fast, soon the entire Old World (Africa, Asia, Europe) knew about Columbus' travels. Sure, it would take a little longer before the Old World realised that it had in fact found a New World that had previously existed without contact to the Old World (instead of a convenient route to Asia), but there can be no doubt that this event changed the course of history since. This discovery (or whatever term you prefer, but for the Old World, it was a discovery, and today, most people in the New World are descendants of Old World peoples) brought with it a lot of pain and suffering, such as the death and enslavement of countless Native Americans and Africans, but there were some positive aspects, too, such as the exchange of crops (maize, potato), which have alleviated the famines in the Old World and have saved many from starvation. Furthermore, the United States, for all its shortcomings and mistakes, has been an inspiration for millions, and has done much to promote democracy around the world. Who knows how World War II might have ended, had it not been for the involvement of the U.S., even before Pearl Harbor.

My point is simple. October 12th, 1492, is of fundamental importance to Bahamian AND World History. Therefore, it should be recognised. It is now, even if you may not believe me and the National Heroes Day crowd has you fooled. Don't believe me? Check the Government's own website:!OpenDocument&Highlight=0,holidays (this document was last updated 25/02/2009)

In all likelihood, it does look like sooner or later October 12th will indeed become National Heroes Day. This strikes me as short sighted "negative" nationalism, i.e. a nationalism that defines itself by what it is NOT... NOT European, NOT colonial. And while these may no longer be our present, they sure are our past. A more "positive" nationalism, however, would find ways to celebrate the new Bahamas, without rejecting its history.

A 2007 article in the Bahama Journal raises some interesting points: Then-Director of Culture Nicolette Bethell points out that it still needs to be decided whether National Heroes Day, even if it is on October 12th, will replace and thus abolish Discovery Day, or whether National Heroes Day will be an addition to the date, meaning the two would coexist. Moreover, a minority report to the House of Assembly recommended to keep October 12th as a day to commemorate the above mentioned important event in our history, but to rename it Encounter Day, which would indeed be an good way to solve the apprehension caused by the word "discovery." For National Heroes Day, the report recommends the creation of a new holiday, which might be considered fitting, as one could question how honoured a national hero might feel if awarded a recycled holiday. The report stated, "that January 10, the anniversary of majority rule, be named National Heroes Day." Another fitting candidate for National Heroes Day could be April 27th, also known as Black Tuesday. Fred Mitchell once recommended making it a holiday, I agree with him - for once. ;-)

Monday, May 11, 2009

On Historical Myths II

Last month, I attended the grand opening of the Clifton Heritage National Park, and I was appalled at how brazenly a politically motivated clique uses this historic site to distort and falsify our history. In typical Bahamian fashion, the ceremony was very church-heavy, even though I fail to see what religion has to do with a heritage site, and, in typical Bahamian fashion, the ceremony was being monopolised by politicians.

On the podium sat: Patty Roker (as MC), C. B. Moss, Jacinta Higgs, Kendal Wright, Perry Christie, Charles T. Maynard, Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, Earl Deveaux, and Arthur D. Hanna. Except for the MC all politicians (remember, C. B. Moss did run in Bain Town). What surprised me, is that the park's Board of Directors has two professional historians on it, Keith Tinker and Gail Saunders, who were relegated to the audience. There were at least two other historians in the audience, both lecturers at COB. No speech time was granted to any of them.

Instead, we were being lectured on Bahamian history by politicians; even Earl Deveaux, Minister of the Environment, whose stake in Clifton should be the environmental aspects of the park, chose to talk about history instead. Sadly, none of these folks did their homework, and butchered Bahamian history, getting lots of crucial facts wrong. The least worst of the lot was probably Perry Christie, whose historical speech was alright, though not flawless, but who then used the majority of his time to promote his own agenda. For instance, he "encouraged" (to put it politely) the historians in the audience to write history books about great Bahamians... such as... Perry Christie. Oh, the modesty! Vanderpool-Wallace's speech was also free of mistakes, but that is hardly surprising as the Minister of Tourism avoided facts altogether.

At some point halfway through the almost two-hour ceremony, the Governor-General was asleep on the stage. I wish I could have joined him in the Land of Nod, but I was getting too annoyed at the instrumentalisation of our history to suit political agendas. I was also getting annoyed at the butchering of history due to ignorance or negligence. The programme booklet of the event is full of mistakes - spelling, grammar, and historical fact - and some of these mistakes clearly accommodate a certain agenda, whereas others just prove once more that no government agency in this country uses due diligence when producing such a document.

About the Lucayans, the booklet writes, "Thousands of years before Columbus arrived in the Bahamian archipelago, Native American peoples thrived on these islands." Every child remembers that Columbus first came here in 1492, and while historians and archaeologists do not all agree as to when exactly the Lucayans first came to the Bahamas, estimates put it at 900-600 years prior to Columbus, not "thousands of years."

Furthermore, the Lucayans are called a "highly developed culture," and while this may be polite and politically correct, the Lucayans were, even compared to many other Native American peoples, technologically rather primitive. The booklet also perpetuates the myth that the Lucayans were a "peaceful," almost passive people. This has been debunked by archaeologists, amongst them Michael Pateman, who works for the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corporation of the Bahamas (AMMC), a government agency. They should therefore, know better.

About the Europeans, the booklet seems to suggest - even though it does not do this explicitly, but only by omission - that they first came to the Bahamas after the American War of Independence in 1783. However, the Loyalists were of course not the first Europeans to arrive in the Bahamas. I will give the Clifton people that much credit though, and admit that the Clifton site certainly only became important during the Loyalist era.

About the Africans, the booklet goes over the top, and informs us that enslaved Africans settled in the Bahamas "from the early 1500's." Considering that historians such as Gail Saunders reject the idea that the Spanish ever settled here (though some historians suggest that they did at one point create a settlement on Cat Island, maybe even Long Island), and that the first lasting colonial effort began with the Eleutheran Adventurers in 1648, this suggestion is ludicrous.

All these blunders are probably genuine screw-ups, mistakes made by people who don't know any better. The big falsification of history at Clifton, the creation of yet another historical myth, concerns two rock structures in the area. First, there is a set of steps carved into the rock, leading to the ocean. Despite being aware of evidence to the contrary, the park authorities perpetuate the story that these steps were carved by slaves into the rock, that the area at the bottom of the stairs was used as a harbour, even during times of piracy a century prior to the settlement of Clifton by the Loyalists, and that slaves were landed there who had come straight from Africa to be sold at the market in Nassau. (Whatever happened to Nassau's fine harbour, the primary reason why Nassau became the capital in the first place?)

Furthermore, as an act of passive resistance, so were are made to believe, the slaves shaped the gap, the opening in the rock, to match the shape of the continent of Africa. Given the slaves access to education, it is highly unlikely that they would have been familiar with the shape of any continent. Furthermore, most slaves identified with their particular part of Africa, not with the continent as a whole. The idea of Pan-Africanism is a much newer concept made possible only by the destruction of these individual, particular identities through generations of enslavement and colonial rule.

The steps in question were in fact carved in the early part of the twentieth century, about 80 years after Emancipation. They were carved for a movie production of Jule Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." When they were carved, they did not even lead to the ocean, rather they led down into a cave (known as "Jane Gail's Cave" after the female star of the film), and some time during the last century, the cave then collapsed so that these days the steps do indeed lead to the ocean.

If you don't believe me, I recommend a trip to the National Archives on Mackey Street. You can read all about it in the 1924 Tribune Handbook, the predecessor of the modern-day Bahamas Handbook.

The second stupid myth that is being perpetuated at Clifton concerns a pool carved into the rock right by the waterfront. We are made to believe that this served as a "bath" where William Whylly force-washed slaves who had just arrived from Africa and were filthy due to the horrible conditions on the slave ships that ran the Middle Passage. In fact, the pool served as a pen where turtles were kept alive (and thus fresh) after being caught. Furthermore, Whylly, who purchased the Clifton plantation some time between 1812 and 1815 (exact date unknown) could not have received new slaves from Africa, for the trans-Atlantic slave trade was abolished some years earlier, in 1807.

The people who run Clifton know this. However, a good story and a nationalist sentiment are obviously more important to them than the truth. Clifton, we are told, was taken away from greedy developers in the 1990s, and saved for the people. Sadly, the powers that be must have felt that the people cannot be allowed to have the true Clifton, so they have (re-/mis-)interpreted it for us instead. I don't want this Clifton.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

On Historical Myths

"A people without the knowledge of their past history,
origin and culture is like a tree without roots."

- Marcus Garvey

Some might argue, that the above quote illustrates the importance of history to a people's identity, however, the keyword is not history but KNOWLEDGE. Garvey may have advocated that Black people from the Americas should move back to Africa, but that was nearly a century ago, and especially the Caribbean, and for the purpose of today's blog entry, we shall extend that to include the Bahamas, was still in the firm grip of European colonialism. Nowadays, however, the Caribbean is made up of a large number of - de jure - sovereign states, with only a small number of islands still under colonial status. The question begs to be asked, are former colonies turned sovereign states identical with nations? Is there a Bahamian nation?

Ernest Renan, a French philosopher of the 19th century, attempted to find a definition for the concept of a nation in his famous lecture at the Sorbonne in 1882, because nations "are something fairly new in history." Renan views the modern nation as the "historical result brought about by a series of convergent facts" which created UNITY, and he gives examples of the different factors contributing to the shaping of unity in various nations, but concludes that there is no such thing as a generic toolkit for nation creation: "A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form."

Maybe this is what Garvey meant above. I will not argue that Bahamians display a "desire to live together," though I frequently get the impression that this is owed more to an obvious lack of alternatives, but do we as Bahamians possess - in common - "a rich legacy of memories"? And if we do, are we aware of it, do we KNOW about it? If we don't, we are "like a tree without roots." A tree without roots is a weak tree. Are we a weak nation?

Timothy Baycroft, a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Sheffield, wrote an interesting book entitled, Nationalism in Europe, 1789-1945, in which he outlines how various European nations were constructed: "A key element ... is the role of history in the formation of the national image. Every nation ... has a strong identification with the past. ... The first point to note is that national sentiment and nationalism do not arise instantaneously; they must be cultivated and encouraged until they gain widespread acceptance by the mass of the population. ... This process requires a great deal of time, using a carefully edited version of the history of the nation which highlights certain key episodes and events and downplays or ignores others. The creation of such a national image requires a selection and interpretation of historical facts, sometimes even a distortion of these facts." (p. 24.) The selection made represents "the way the promoters of the nation wish the nation to be seen and thought of." (p. 28.)

If Renan argued that unity is an important factor in the genesis of a nation, and if Garvey argued that knowledge is what gives it a firm hold, then I would argue that we know too little of our history, and what we *think* we know often results in divisiveness rather than in unity. There are many examples to illustrate this point, but the first one that comes to my mind is what I tend to think of as the Bahamas' biggest historical myth: the story of Collins Wall, which most schoolchildren in Nassau are still being taught today, and which surfaces every so often in the public debate.

On April 22, 2009, the Tribune published a letter by Aaron Roberts, who tells us that Mr Collins built a wall around his property because he was a racist, along the lines of the common fairy tale that he built the wall to separate the Black folk in Bain and Grants Town from the White folk in Centreville. Roberts wrote, "Whatever his intentions, the fact is that a white man put up a wall which was viewed by black people as a means of segregation. ... Find something of interest to write about please and stop trying to make heroes out of racists."

The problem is, that when the wall was built, Centreville was not a white subdivision, rather it was the private estate of Mr. Collins, and Collins wall was an enormous backyard fence. Would this, according to Mr. Robert's logic, make everyone a racist who has a fenced in property and whose neighbours are of a different race? When the wall was built, the Bahamas was undergoing some tough economic times, as the bootlegging trade was coming to an end, and the Great Depression had brought down the overall economy, too, and the Bahamas had been hit by a very serious hurricane, which had even turned the sturdy old Fort Montagu into a pile of rubble.

So, indeed, one might acknowledge that the construction of a large backyard fence creates some sorely needed jobs for Bahamians, and, he didn't just build a wall. A part of the property, which stretched from Shirley Street almost to Wulff Road, was turned into an orchard to grow produce for the local market, which created even more jobs. Is, according to Mr. Robert's logic, everyone a racist who builds a wall around his business and whose neighbours are of a different race?

So why is it that the story of a man building a barrier around his property was turned into a story of racial segregation? Collins died in 1946, and in 1950, his property was sold off. An article in the Nassau Guardian (August 10, 2004) by Stephen B. Aranha informs us:

On the largest portion of his estate, Centreville Subdivision was created. ... the western portion of the wall was not removed. This decision was deliberate, and this time the motivation must indeed have been to deny easy access to the Over-the-Hill population. ...
Still, the motivation was most likely not racist, as some might think; white and black Bahamians alike bought lots in the subdivision and lived there. The decision to preserve the wall was more of an "elitist," status-driven effort, as it would prevent too much traffic in the area, making it more attractive for its residents, and suggest a sense of safety. However, defying the plans of the developers, ladders were put up all along the wall. This enabled Over-the-Hill people to enter Centreville without having to go via East Street. Especially people who lived Over-the-Hill but worked in Centreville, many of them as maids, appreciated this "shortcut" on their way home.
... On March 29, 1963, The Guardian reported: "Collins Wall was again broken through by the Public Works Department yesterday. The break, the third since the wall was breached, was made at Seventh Terrace and will join Frith Lane and Toothe Shop Corner with Collins Avenue in the East. Two more breaks will follow in a few days ... Decision to make the through roads followed closely upon announcement of a petition signed by 110 persons who live nearby."

... Collins Wall, which "had divided some (residents) from their work, children from school, and customers from shops," was breached, and one of the most outspoken protagonists bringing about this development in 1963, was a young politician, who would eventually break down many more barriers: Lynden O. Pindling.

There is no use in denying a long history of racism in the Bahamas, but Pindling himself not only broke down barriers, but created new ones, too - mental barriers this time around. These are strong and have lasted decades now, as we saw during the recent controversy about John Marquis' "Insight" columns in the Tribune. Protesters were incapable of articulating any criticism about WHAT Mr. Marquis had written, they simply took offense THAT he - as a "foreigner" no less - dared to say ANYTHING about the "Father of the Nation" that wasn't complimentary.

Black and White Bahamians must enter into a dialogue about racism in the Bahamas past and present if they want to move forward and create a true Bahamian nation, but for the sake of unity and knowledge, let us put myths such as the one about Collins Wall to rest.