Front Porch | A brief history: transforming New Providence
On December 21, 2011, at the official opening of the new Straw Market downtown Nassau, then Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham, under the theme “A Celebration of Bahamian Imagination and Ingenuity”, noted the history of the City of Nassau: “Fittingly, today’s ceremony comes some weeks after celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of the official establishment of the City of Nassau. It was over 300 years ago in the late 17th century that Governor Nicholas Trott renamed Charles Town as Nassau, formally laying out the township for the first time.”
Charles Town was named after King Charles II, who reigned from 1660-1685. Situated on the north-central coast of New Providence, it was renamed Nassau after William III of Orange-Nassau, who became King of England.
While the city was initially known by other names, the name Nassau stuck. The city’s development began in the mid-1660s.
The name Nassau has Germanic and Dutch roots. William III of England was of the House of Orange-Nassau of the Netherlands. The name is also partly derived from Nassau, Germany, which is located in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in Western Germany.
The monarchies of Europe were intertwined by geography, history, marriage and incestuous necessity. The House of Orange-Nassau remains a branch of the European House of Nassau.
Speaking a few weeks after a fire damaged the Pompey Museum at historic Vendue House, a former site of slave auctions, Ingraham also noted at the official opening: “We are a resilient people. We will not be daunted in our efforts to restore and revitalize historic Nassau inclusive of modern amenities and infrastructure which will make it one of the more attractive and viable cities in the Caribbean.”
In terms of amenities, livability, road networks, restaurants, entertainment and other features of a modernizing urban center, New Providence is atop the list of better cities in the Caribbean and is outstripping Port of Spain, Trinidad; Bridgetown, Barbados; Kingston, Jamaica, and a host of cities in the region.
With the ongoing redevelopment of Nassau Harbour, the proposal for a new cruise port and the continued transformation of downtown Nassau, alongside Lynden Pindling International Airport, New Providence will enjoy a complement of two of the best international transport facilities in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Back to history. After the influx of thousands of American Loyalists and their slaves to The Bahamas in the aftermath of the American War of Independence in the late 18th century, the modern growth of the City of Nassau began to unfold.
The influx of the Loyalists and their slaves reordered the demographics of New Providence and significantly boosted the Bahamas’ slave population. Several thousand Loyalists relocated to The Bahamas. Between 1783 and 1789 the number of slaves tripled in the colony.
The Loyalists were responsible for the hardening of the racial lines between blacks and whites. One example of this was an act passed that was titled: “An act for regulating and policing the town of Nassau and the suburbs thereof.”
The act described where Negroes were expected to live outside of the City of Nassau. It also regulated that blacks were not allowed to enter Nassau after sundown.
Because of its natural, safe harbor and central location in the archipelago, New Providence was deemed by some as a good location for the capital of the Bahama Colony.
Still, because of the economic vibrancy of the Southern Bahamas, including as a transhipment area, some, like Royal Governor George B. Mathew, who served from 1844 to 1849 and after whom Mathew Town, Inagua, is named, toyed with the idea of that southern town becoming the capital of the colony.
Those who visit our southernmost island quickly note that it is laid out in city blocks. Nassau and New Providence were for long periods more ramshackle enterprises and less cosmopolitan, with initially little city or urban planning.
In the early 19th century after the abolition of the slave trade by Britain, thousands of slaves liberated from slave ships were resettled on New Providence, including at Fox Hill, Gambier and Adelaide.
But most of the liberated Africans were resettled Over-the-Hill in Grant’s Town and Bain Town, areas which became the fulcrum of enterprise and new possibilities for the descendants of slaves, who were now seeking new providence and greater freedom.
The geographic, economic, political and sociological contours of New Providence were taking shape.
Amidst harsh economic and social discrimination, these black Bahamians developed vital and vibrant communities Over-the-Hill and in other settlements of freed slaves.
Over time, the familial, social, political and economic networks of these communities included churches, shops, restaurants, burial societies, lodges, nightclubs and a host of other black-owned enterprises.
The struggle for freedom and equality and the entrepreneurial zeal of many talented black Bahamians, including political and civic leaders and business people, were nurtured in this social milieu through a quilt of associations, societies and eventually political parties.
After Ingraham and the Free National Movement (FNM) first came to office in 1992, urban planning became a priority following years of poor city and national administration by the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), which did undertake some urban planning and urban development during its initial years in government.
But more extensive plans for redeveloping Over-the-Hill were largely abandoned by successive Pindling administrations, which began to take Over-the-Hill voters for granted.
After 25 years of PLP rule and the drug nightmare of the late 1970s and early 1980s, large swaths of Over-the-Hill were in a state of urban squalor, ruin and decay. There were still many outside toilets, inadequate plumbing and scores of dilapidated homes.
Despite the great promises of the PLP to poorer Bahamians and despite the promise of Sir Lynden Pindling to famously launch a social revolution, partly inspired by the visit of Pope John Paul II to The Bahamas in January 1979, the PLP largely abandoned the poor and Over-the-Hill.
The United Bahamian Party (UBP), the party of the white oligarchy, commissioned Columbia University to produce what became known as the Columbia Urban Renewal Study.
It was a master plan for the urban redevelopment of Over-the-Hill to bring relief and modern amenities for the residents of those communities, the descendants of slaves.
Sir Lynden and the PLP largely, tragically neglected the plan, leaving thousands of Bahamians in dire conditions. It was left to the FNM to fulfill many of the earlier promises of the PLP in the area of urban development.
Under FNM administrations, extensive work was done to improve basic infrastructure throughout New Providence and to address poverty and social inequality.
The FNM began a large scale home-building program. Houses and businesses were numbered. Ambitious new waterworks and roads were undertaken, which set the pace and the conditions to transform New Providence into a modern urban center.
Ingraham and the FNM understood the need to coordinate and to transform in tandem Over-the-Hill, the southern rim of New Providence, the City of Nassau and the various suburbs of the city.
Under the FNM, new town centers with basic government facilities like police stations, clinics, libraries and other amenities were developed. Absent the FNM’s program of urban development, New Providence would be an urban backwater.
During the official opening of the downtown Straw Market, Ingraham stressed: “Every generation of Bahamians has a national summons to preserve the essence and, yes, the magic of traditional and historic Nassau while modernizing its infrastructure, amenities and basic utilities.
“Bahamians carry a love for Nassau in their hearts, and in our mind’s eye and imagination we have a vision of what we want a modern City of Nassau to feel and look like.”
The FNM moved the downtown port to Arawak Cay and ensured that thousands of Bahamians were able to purchase shares in the new port.
Senior officials in the PLP were aggressively pushing for its relocation to Clifton. There remain questions as to whether proposals for the Clifton location were going to benefit certain chieftains and PLP fat cats.
Whether through all manner of deal making or incompetence or indifference, the ongoing modernization of New Providence mostly stalled under the PLP.
By stark contrast, in his recent third national report, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis laid out more of the FNM’s vision for the ongoing transformation of New Providence into a smart urban center alongside a modern digital government infrastructure, more of which next week.