The path to NATIONHOOD
For a group of young men inspired by independence movements in several British colonies across the globe in the 1950s and 1960s, the idea of sovereignty for The Bahamas was a fascinating goal.
While studying in England, men like Lynden Pindling, Arthur Hanna, Loftus Roker and others became increasingly intrigued by that revolution and the prospect of an end to colonial rule for these islands.
“We felt we were part of that revolution at that time, that we had a duty to move The Bahamas to independence,” said Hanna as he reflected on that period in a 2013 interview with us.
“Of course, I thought it was an easy route. Pindling said, ‘No, no boy’. He said, ‘Remember Bahamians are house slaves; they love their masters’.”
In 1957, Ghana was the first black African country to become independent, and Kwame Nkrumah was independent Ghana’s first leader.
Roker recalled that while he was a student, the first heads of government conference held after Ghana’s independence was in London.
“Kwame Nkrumah was living at the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane and a group of students, including about three or four Bahamians, went just to look at the Ghana flag,” he said.
Roker said they spent about two hours just looking at that flag flying outside the hotel.
“I felt proud because this is the first black head of government now who is going to attend the heads of government conference,” recalled Roker, who later became a member of Pindling’s Cabinet and attended the 1972 independence conference as part of the official delegation.
By then, a host of other colonies, including Caribbean ones like Jamaica and Barbados, had already attained independence.
Since 1947, no fewer than 36 territories Britain was responsible for had achieved independence. Their combined population was 900 million.
But the idea of Bahamian independence did not spring up in 1972, said Sir Arthur Foulkes, during an interview at Government House in 2013 while he was still governor general.
“It is a natural ambition for a colony, I think, to want to become independent at some stage,” Sir Arthur said. “The ‘when’ is the question.”
In 1966, seven years before Bahamian independence, the great labor leader, Randol Fawkes, rose to address the House of Assembly on an idea “whose time had come”, as he wrote in his memoirs “The Faith That Moved the Mountain”.
Fawkes moved for a select committee to consider “the advisability of our inviting the government of the United Kingdom to convene a constitutional conference to establish guidelines for the independence of The Bahama islands”.
“Mr. Speaker, all I ask is that we prepare our people for that which is inevitable,” said Fawkes, who was first elected to the House of Assembly in 1956.
Arthur Hanna, the former deputy prime minister, said it was not an easy road to the ‘72 talks.
He recalled the mood of the country when he returned to Nassau from university in 1954, one year after Pindling.
“The PLP was already formed at that time, but their goal was not independence,” Hanna said. “Their goal was to see if they could get recognition that was denied them through the process of discrimination, and so on, and they had problems with that.
“That is the group who formed the PLP. Pindling joined first and soon as I came back I joined. I just followed Pindling.”
The Progressive Liberal Party committed to building a country “in which every citizen can obtain a higher standard of living with the promise of greater social and political freedoms”.
Independence from Britain was not the immediate focus.
Roker said the first thing the new PLP government had to overcome in 1967 was this idea that somehow black people were second-class citizens in The Bahamas.
“That’s the first thing we had to overcome, because some of us believed that too,” he said.
“And so we had to take it a step at a time, even though in the back of our minds we always felt that we should be independent; but the question is when do you sell that idea to your supporters.”
As Michael Craton wrote in his book “Pindling: The life and times of the first prime minister of The Bahamas”, with all the problems with which it was beset at the beginning of the 1970s, the PLP government clearly needed an issue that would override all lesser concerns and identify it with a cause guaranteed to win another five-year mandate at the 1972 general election.
“Lynden Pindling realized that the country needed something that would raise its sights beyond mundane and temporary tribulations and provide a surge of national pride and purpose,” he wrote.
“The chosen issue, of course, was that of Bahamian independence.”
The official opposition thought the timing was all wrong, however.
Sir Orville Turnquest explained, “The position taken by the opposition was in fact the same position which the prime minister, Lynden Pindling, had taken immediately prior to the election.
“He changed that under pressure from his party.”
On this point, Roker said, “Sir Lynden would move at a time when he believed he had the majority with him, and no matter what he thought personally about independence, he wasn’t going to move until he was satisfied that the majority of us wanted independence.”
Speaking for the opposition, Sir Orville remembered, “Indeed, it was a unanimous feeling, but we also felt that so far as preparation to run the country was concerned, we weren’t quite there yet.”
At the ‘72 talks, then Senator Turnquest was an official opposition member of the delegation.
He told The Nassau Guardian, “Since we lost the election and we went to London as the opposition party we were united with the government on the position of independence.”
Sir Arthur added that it was not difficult for the opposition to unite with the government on the question of independence once the election was over.
“We believed in it, and we decided we would have to put aside our fears at that time and support independence,” said Sir Arthur, who was one of four opposition members of the official delegation at the independence talks.
“And you’d remember, we had a big problem in Abaco, but the opposition’s position was the people have spoken and some of us were quite happy, even though we had reservations.”
At the opening of the independence conference for The Bahamas at Marlborough House in London on Tuesday, December 12, 1972, Prime Minister Pindling declared that “our islands have graduated from all the schools of constitutional, economic and social philosophies” and pledged the reconstruction of The Bahamas so that “no man or woman or child shall ever again be slave or bondsman”.
As noted in the December 13, 1972 edition of The Nassau Guardian, Opposition Leader Kendal Isaacs emphasized: “If independence for The Bahamas is indeed now at hand, then we say that there is a grave responsibility for each of our delegations so to co-operate in a spirit of give and take that the Bahamian people will thereby gain as much as possible.”
But Errington Watkins, a member of the Free National Movement and MP for Marsh Harbour, told British newsmen he had come to campaign against independence. He also claimed to be the official spokesman for the 8,000 people of Abaco.
“We are citizens of the United Kingdom and colonies,” Watkins said.
“We think the Pindling government is ready to fall apart economically, and we fear a second Uganda or Cuba.”
Watkins’ reference was to Uganda’s Idi Amin, who had only recently seized power in a military coup which ousted Socialist leader Milton Obote, signaling the opening of a bloody chapter in the history of Uganda, which led to the deaths of approximately 500,000 Ugandans.
In Cuba, the Cuban Missile Crisis had dragged the world to the brink of another world war after U.S. President John F. Kennedy demanded that the Soviets withdraw their missiles from Cuba, which were within striking distance of the United States.
In The Bahamas in 1972 there were talks of a threat by Abaco to secede from The Bahamas, should it attain independence.
A petition to secede by Abaco loyalists was also submitted to the British government in late 1971; but it was then rejected.
At the opening of the talks, Sir Alec Douglas-Home said it was the intention of the British not to delay independence for colonies that wanted it.
Pindling pledged that the quest would be unrelenting, and the delegates of the conference had been singled out to be the instruments through which and by which long-lost sovereignty would be regained.
Isaacs noted that The Bahamas had developed a model of the British parliamentary system of democracy, which was one of the most treasured possessions of the islands’ peoples.
The Bahamian Parliament ranked among the oldest in the commonwealth and among the most honorable as well.
Pindling, Isaacs and others are not here to observe the 45th anniversary of our independence.
But when they sat down at separate times with The Nassau Guardian back in 2013, as we observed our 40th anniversary, the six living members of the 1972 delegation all recalled with fondness the display of unity presented by the Bahamian delegation.
As the British sought to protect their interests, so too did the Bahamian delegation fight to protect the interests of Bahamians everywhere.
“I think everyone who attended that conference was fully aware of the importance of that event in the history of The Bahamas,” Sir Arthur said.
“Each one of us was fully aware that we were playing a part in a great drama that would chart the direction of our country for the future.
“The sense of occasion, the sense of history and the idea of these particular people being there at that moment to do this, I felt very proud to be a part of that.”
The talks took Roker back to his days as a student in London when he felt a part of the revolution that had formed. He recalled that among the contentious issues at the conference was the question of citizenship.
“We were primarily interested in attaining independence, ironing out the question about who would have a right to claim citizenship,” added George Smith, the youngest member of the delegation who at the time was the prime minister’s parliamentary secretary.
Smith turned 30 while attending the conference.
“I must say, to the credit of Mr. Isaacs, Sir Arthur… Sir Orville Turnquest and Norman Solomon, they joined with the government delegation and we were one on the question of who would have a right to claim Bahamian citizenship.”
Sir Arthur recalled, “The glorious moment was when opposition and government got together on the question of citizenship, and it was the Bahamian delegation against the British government, not PLP and FNM, because the British had their ideas about Bahamian citizenship… On that issue, we were, as we say, solid as a rock.
“We thought that Bahamians should decide who would become Bahamians in the future.”
Sir Orville also remembered, “Some of the items that we agreed upon were a halfway mark between what we wanted and what the British wanted, and so we had to compromise.”
While the Bahamian delegation did not get all it wanted, it was satisfied with the outcome.
It emerged with a constitution that has served us well in the last 45 years. For members of the delegation, being a part of that moment in history was a fulfilling life experience.
When the delegation reached a final agreement with the British and the signing of the constitutional documents took place just before Christmas 1972, it was cause for jubilation.
The agreement was signed with Pindling’s gold fountain pen, which sits today in a glass case at Government House.
It is a cherished memento, which, though today inkless, serves as a symbol of an important and historic moment for The Bahamas.
Speaking of the emotions that accompanied the signing, former Governor’s Harbour MP Philip Bethel told The Nassau Guardian, “I was overwhelmed.”
Bethel was just 32 years old when he attended the talks as a member of the official delegation.
He has long retired back to his beloved Eleuthera as a preacher, but still fondly remembers the feeling of pride he and his colleagues shared.
Speaking of Sir Lynden, he said, “I believe he had vision and he knew those people along with him who had a similar outlook on what a future Bahamas should look like, what it should be, what it should comprise and I was overwhelmed, and I’m still grateful to be one of those who was chosen.”
On December 20, 1972 the British government agreed to recommend to its Parliament, in the form of a white paper, that The Bahamas “should become an independent nation on July 10, 1973”.
On May 22, 1973, The Bahamas Independence Bill passed in the House of Commons by a vote of 74 to four.
And on July 10, independence was formally achieved. The Abaco issue was dead.
A new nation was born, and with it the joys and challenges of nation building.
Despite the many challenges, Sir Arthur said, “I am proud of the progress we have made, and I keep saying this to young people: self-criticism is good… but self-criticism should not descend into self-abuse.
“It is good for a country to be critical of itself, but also you have to take time out to look at the good things.”
This article was written based on interviews conducted in 2013 with the six living signatories to the Bahamas constitution as the country observed 40 years of independence. The details about the path to independence are, of course, unchanged, but the story has been updated.