The approbation “national treasure” is often promiscuously bandied about as much as the term “legend”.
But in the case of Dr. Dianne Gail Saunders, the nation’s preeminent historian, the distinction of national treasure is as deserved as is her appointment as a Member of the Order of Distinction in the 2019 National Honours. In a 2008 column, this columnist recommended her for damehood.
For just over half a century from 1967, the year of Majority Rule, to 2018, just five years short of our 50th anniversary of independence, Saunders served in a number of posts through which she graciously offered remarkable, unstinting and indefatigable public service.
Saunders was a part of a generation of public officers, like Rodney Bain, E. Clement Bethel, Lois Symonette and others, who helped to build the modern Bahamas by populating the public service and working through the service to help create the national institutions of a new nation state.
These fine Bahamians assimilated and utilized the systems of state as a basis for sustained national development.
Those shallow critics who breezily state that majority rule and independence are failed projects do not appreciate the sweat, tears and sacrifice of those who helped to make the modern Bahamas a generally successful country despite our failings and the work still to be done to build our country.
By example, while there is much to be done to improve education in both private schools and government-operated school systems, tens of thousands of Bahamians have been educated, including many with tertiary degrees and quite a number who have attained doctorates.
Unlike those less aware of how government works and those who often opine with little reason or intelligence on public affairs, individuals like Saunders and others, appreciated the important rituals and conventions of democracy as safeguards and instruments of change, and not as outdated norms, as some younger politicians and even some incurious and uninformed academics foolishly believe.
Born on March 10, 1944, Gail North was the daughter of Basil and Audrey North. She was a talented student and athlete who attended Queen’s College from 1955 to 1962.
She “obtained a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History (with honors) from the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, United Kingdom (1963-1966), and obtained a Doctorate Degree from the University of Waterloo, Canada”.
Her doctoral thesis is entitled: “The Social History of The Bahamas, 1890-1953”, foreshadowing her many books, articles and other writings, which have helped to provide Bahamians a greater sense of our historical origins and identity.
During her career, Saunders served as a history and physical education teacher at Government High School; public records officer and archivist in the Ministry of Education, and director of Heritage and Scholar-in-Residence at the University of The Bahamas.
She served as director of archives for many years and on numerous public boards related to her intellectual passions, which included chronicling our history and preserving historic documents, artifacts and historic sites.
Instead of tearing down our institutions and the contributions of others, she is a passionate nation builder, who combined her treasury of gifts and intellect with the fortitude, resilience and a long-term vision required to make an indelible and lasting impact on a society and a country.
Gail Saunders is an exemplary counterpoint to the shallow intellectualism of those who reside in their ever crumbling ivory towers which unsteadily rest on a shaky foundation of intellectual conceit and risible ignorance.
Unlike those who indulge in hyperbolic and asinine rhetoric and schemes such as recommending that citizens should spoil their general election ballots, Saunders understood the genius of our political system as well as the need for ongoing and intelligent reform.
She appreciated that it is systems which help to move history and that reform and change must be institutionalized within systems such as our parliamentary democracy.
Saunders is an intellectually mature, deep reader, who was never prone to getting substantive facts wrong, which is anathema to genuine thinkers but not to those with intellectual pretensions who are ignorant of basic constitutional facts. She has traveled extensively, especially in the region, presenting on Bahamian history.
Unlike some, including one academic who arrogantly and nastily talked down The Bahamas at an event at an international lending institution, Saunders celebrated The Bahamas even as she acknowledged the road ahead for developing states such as ours.
It is galling to listen to those who were unable to successfully work in government, even for a stint, and who blamed others for their failures, offering their tut-tuts and looking their snobbish and smug noses down on those who elect to serve for a period of time under any administration.
It is to the country’s enduring benefit that Saunders worked in government for 50 years, making a singular contribution to our national life.
Some years ago, after returning home from a trip to a sister Caribbean country, a former prime minister enthused that he had learned during his visit overseas of what a wonderful talent we have in such a world-renowned historian as Saunders.
Saunders was already a scholar celebrated regionally and internationally. Her prodigious work at the Department of Archives over many decades helped to preserve and catalogue invaluable archival material.
Decades before the Clifton heritage site seized the popular imagination and became a political battleground, Saunders was working to study and protect its ruins and artifacts.
Saunders’ books include: “Sources of Bahamian History”, London (with Philip Cash and Shirley Gordon); “Islanders in the Stream — A History of the Bahamian People” Volumes I and II (with Michael Craton); “Slavery in The Bahamas 1648-1838” Nassau; “Bahamian Loyalists and Their Slaves” London, U.K. and “Bahamian Society After Emancipation; Essays in Nineteenth Early Twentieth Century Bahamian History” Nassau, Bahamas, republished by Ian Randle Publishers, Kingston, Jamaica, 1993.
Both a historian and archivist at heart, she helped establish the Bahamas National Archives in 1971. She “served as president of the Caribbean Regional Branch of the International Council on Archives (CARBICA) – (1975 -1979); supervised the establishment of the Pompey Museum (1992) and assisted the Central Bank in establishing Balcony House Museum.”
Saunders also “assisted in the establishment of the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corporation; assisted in the establishment of the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas; served as vice president, Association of Caribbean Historians (1998), and served as president of the Bahamas Historical Society for a decade from 1989-1999”.
Saunders began her career with a passion to celebrate and to preserve our history. She has done so brilliantly and against a number of odds, even amidst a lack of general historical awareness and indifference by many Bahamians.
Scholars, writers and students will rely on the archives and artifacts she helped preserve during her tenure at the Department of Archives.
Unborn generations will more deeply cherish our heritage because of her contributions as director general of heritage and as one of the driving forces behind the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas.
Because of her extraordinary research efforts and writing, including the two-volume “Islanders in the Stream”, co-authored with Michael Craton, all of us will better understand our place as islanders in the stream of Bahamian history.
To date, these volumes are the most comprehensive single record of our history from aboriginal times to the 20th century.
Her love of country and community is exemplified in her lifelong love of guiding. She has “served as president of The Bahamas Girl Guides Association in which she remains active as a council member.”
Gail Saunders has offered The Bahamas some of the greatest gifts any citizen may give: a sense of who we are, a sense of our history and why we owe our country a full measure of devotion and respect even as we work to make ours a better and more inclusive homeland.
We owe her an eternal debt of gratitude. The best way we may thank her is to follow her example of service, of graciousness and of patriotism.
Thank you, Dr. Saunders.