The European War began in 1939. The Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII of the United Kingdom and Dominions and Emperor of India, arrived in Nassau in 1940 to take up office as governor. The British Government had sent him here because it was a relatively safe place for him, away from the war, as the Americans were intimately involved in his protection along with the presence of armed British soldiers.
The Americans and the British had agreed on improving Oakes airfield and building a new, longer military enabled airstrip in the west of New Providence in support of the war effort. This was a welcomed opportunity for jobs during the wartime recession. After the project started, Bahamian workers discovered that the American workers were being paid twice what they were being paid for doing the same work during the same hours. It does not matter who made the decision to pay Bahamians less.
Complaints by workers to the power structure resulted in no action for remediation. Their frustration at being ignored led to a decision to march to the center of local power, Bay Street, to make known their complaint and to encourage positive consideration.
There was no riot on Bay Street on June 1 and 2, 1942.
With your kind forbearance, I will attempt to clarify.
When insurgents are defeated, they are generally described by the winners as rioters or some such other ugly and derogatory term.
When the insurrectionists win, they get to write the official history and their members become revolutionary heroes. In their narrative, they free themselves from the might of the overlord.
On this first of June 2021, we may finally free ourselves from false narratives of grandparents and great-grandparents being “criminal rioters”, as they were labelled by the colonial authorities and their local partners.
Contrary to the colonial narrative for that day, “going down Burma Road” was, in fact, participation in a noble “March for Justice”. That was but another brave act by patriots seeking to achieve their rights despite armed British soldiers supporting the authorities.
It followed on the example set by the enslaved population rebelling against their enslavers and subsequent demonstrations against colonialism. It was succeeded by heightened trade union and political activism culminating in the General Strike of 1958 and the concurrent fight for universal adult suffrage as well as achieving Majority Government in 1967 and Independence in 1973.
What our forebears achieved in the fight for dignity and freedom, with their heroic actions before, during and after 1942, was against great odds, yet they persevered. We do them great dishonor if we move haltingly to demand our rights.
Consider that, when you hear Americans talk about the 1773 incident in the harbor of Boston, Massachusetts, it is not described as a criminal and riotous event but rather as the “Boston Tea Party” and recognized as a revolutionary act leading to war with, and eventual independence from, Britain. In contrast, Britain pronounced it a riot.
Frenchmen speak honorably of revolutionary acts by peasants in 1789, when they entered the property of the nobility and the king and carted off property and even the nobles themselves for trial and subsequent execution.
Both narratives resonate because the actors in these cases belonged to the groups, which eventually won the day – the revolutionaries defeated the abusive power structure.
British King George III had to accept the loss of the American colonies and the reality of the United States of America as an independent state.
French King Louis XVI lost both his throne and his head. The coalition of peasants, merchants and intellectuals created a republic.
To the victor goes the spoils and the narrative.
Except in The Bahamas and similar former colonies, which still suffer from obeisance to the colonial narrative. We have been an independent state for half a century but, in far too many Bahamian minds, it is the English narrative on historical events that matters.
The colonial authorities decided that the 1942 “March for Justice” was a riot because Black Bahamians dared demand equality in pay for the same work as being done by white Americans.
Bahamian workers were killed; others were imprisoned. I do not dispute that physical damage was done to buildings on Bay Street and in other communities during those two days. I do not seek to overturn accurate and objective reportage of the events of the day, the following weeks, months and years.
BUT I also recognize the March for Justice as a seminal dramatic major step on the road to freedom and independence. The men and women on that march were not rioters! They were freedom fighters engaged in a revolutionary act for liberation and freedom!
They deserve being honored as heroes of our eventual freedom from the bestial crime of slavery as we succeed in our fight for reparations from the enslavers and the British slave state, the combination of which held our ancestors in horrific bondage for generations upon generations and for the ongoing negative mental, social, physical, and psychological damage through to our generations.
Their names should be enshrined along with Mr. Pompey of Exuma and all the other enslaved persons who fought to destroy the criminal enterprise of slavery, as well as the women and men through to our time who fought for our freedom.
Long live the heroes of the Burma Road March for Justice!
• The above is a transcript of a talk offered by the former chair of the Bahamas Reparations Committee during a memorial honoring the late former committee member, Priest Philip Blyden, on June 1, 2021.