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History of the Burma Road Riot

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    The Burma Road Riot “The 1942 riot in Nassau was a short-lived spontaneous outburst by a group of disgruntled labourers, and occurred against a background of narrow socio-economic and political policies. ” Quoted from “The 1942 riot in Nassau: A demand for Change? ” by Gail Saunders. “The construction project promised a relative bonanza for the local unemployed, a chance to sell their labor for something like the rates they knew were normal on the mainland …

    Unknown to them, however, the Bahamas government had agreed to peg local wages for unskilled labor at the rates established in 1936. Quoted from Islanders in the Stream: A History of the Bahamian People (From the Ending of Slavery to the Twenty-First Century) by Michael Craton and Gail Saunders. Causes of the Riot “The June 1st 1942 labor action that began outside the city centre but culminated in a riot on Bay Street was an important event in the country’s history. It spoke to the growing dissatisfaction of the Bahamas’ black majority with the (very real if relatively mild) system of apartheid that hemmed them in politically, economically and socially.

    It demonstrated the willingness of the hitherto silent black majority to stand up to their colonial masters and the local ruling white oligarchy. It signaled the beginning of the end of second class citizenship for blacks in the Bahamas. Therefore, this riot continues to occupy a unique place in the Bahamian imagination and has helped to cement Bay Street as the important center in the Bahamas. ” Quoted from “Bay Street and the 1942 Riot: Social Space and Identity Work in the Bahamas” by Nona Patara Martin and Virgil Henry Storr.

    The fledgling Bahamas Federation of Labour chose Dr Claudius R. Walker to meet with the Duke of Windsor on behalf of the workers following the riots: “The underlying causes for this social unrest are manifold,” he told the ex-king of England. “We are in the majority but we have minority problems. We are poorly housed, poorly fed and poorly educated. Truth to tell, we are the wretched of the earth. ” What Happened? The crowd of workers, now buttressed by women and children from the black over-the-hill neighborhoods, gathered outside of the government buildings at

    Public Square. Attorney General Eric Hallinan addressed the workers from the steps of the Colonial Secretary’s office hoping to mollify them. … He warned them to be careful “not spoil the good impression that they had made. ” … Although there were reports that some of the laborers threw their sticks in a heap and went home when they heard this news, for the most part, the crowd became even more incensed. Mr. Christie, Captain Sears and a number of others tried to convince the mob to go home but to no avail.

    Eventually, a group of men broke off from the main assemblage, tired of listening to what they must have thought was cheap talk. They headed down Bay Street, “smashing as they went. ”” Quoted from “Bay Street and the 1942 Riot: Social Space and Identity Work in the Bahamas” by Nona Patara Martin and Virgil Henry Storr. Consequences of Burma Road Riot Project workers received a 25 per cent increase in pay plus free lunches. And a few weeks after that a House of Assembly committee led by Stafford Sands recommended compensation for the (mostly white) merchants whose stores had been damaged.

    After the riot, the Duke appointed a commission of inquiry composed of a non-resident Englishman and two white Bahamians. At the end of November 1942, the commission called for wide-ranging social and political reforms, including modern labour laws and trade unions, more local government for the Out Islands, reducing the life of parliament from seven to five years, raising taxes to make the wealthy contribute more to the cost of running of the country, and introducing a one man, one vote ballot. The 1958 Strike in The Bahamas Prelude to the Strike

    In the year 1958 in The Bahamas the classic battle lines were drawn between an unyielding authoritarian regime controlled by a monopolistic business elite (who happened to be white), and a majority of deprived citizens who yearned for democracy and social change (who happened to be black). Fifty years ago the Bahamas had just begun its development as a tourist playground and offshore financial centre. In fact, only a few years before, the colony had been on the verge of bankruptcy with little prospect of economic advancement. But air travel was making a big difference, and the government began spending heavily on tourist promotion.

    In 1957, a new international airport opened at the wartime Windsor Field air base, and about 194,000 tourists arrived, many staying at the dozen or so hotels that had sprung up in lil’ ole Nassau. Airlift was pretty good back then. BOAC flew in from Jamaica, Bermuda, New York, Miami and Havana. Pan Am linked Nassau with New York and Miami, while Mackey Airlines serviced other Florida cities and Air Canada’s predecessor ran flights from Montreal, Toronto, Tampa and Jamaica. A bevy of tour companies had set up shop to service the visitors these airlines brought in.

    They included Philip Brown Tours, Howard Johnson Tours, Playtours, Nassau Tours, Bahama Holidays and Dan Knowles Tours. And the country’s proto Ministry of Tourism – known as the Development Board – realised it was sitting on a gold mine. But things were not as calm as they seemed on the surface. The British governor at the time described the ruling elite (which later constituted itself as the United Bahamian Party) as “recalcitrant, stubborn and politically obtuse… not very numerous, but extremely powerful in the material sense and pretty unscrupulous. “

    They maintained their control over the electorate by bribery, intimidation and restriction of the franchise. Women could not vote, but property owners – many of whom were white – certainly could. As another London newspaper account quoted in Sir Clifford’s book (A Bahamian Life Story) put it: “The American-tourist dominated Bahamian islands represent the most Gilbertian picture in the empire… The trouble is the absence of any genuine democracy… As a consequence, the majority of members are elected by the business community, which uses its political power for its own commercial ends. Causes of the Strike Black Bahamians had been operating taxis since the 1930s, picking up cruise passengers from Prince George Wharf and air passengers from Oakes Field.

    As tourism began to grow in the 1950s and new hotels came on stream, a conflict developed over how this business would be shared between the white-owned tour companies and the independent taxi drivers who had their own union. The opening of Nassau’s international airport in November 1957 was a significant event – but it was accompanied by an even more significant display of greed and political stupidity.

    A group of major hotels proposed to sign an exclusive agreement with a new taxi company set up by Bobby Symonette, the son of government leader Roland Symonette. The 200 taxi drivers were understandably outraged. So on November 2 and 3 they blocked the airport with their cars, forcing airlines to cancel flights. The blockade was supported by airport workers who were part of the Bahamas Federation of Labour. But according to Sir Clifford, who directed the action as leader of the taxi union, “the blockade had nothing to do with politics or race. It was a share business deal. And, he added, “All of us were ready to go to jail if that’s what it took. ” After police failed to break the blockade, the authorities gave way and a two-month truce was declared to hammer out a long-term settlement. Over 30 drivers were prosecuted for assault and obstruction and given minor sentences by Magistrate Edward St George – an expatriate lawyer who later became the kingpin of Freeport. Although agreement was eventually reached to share the airport business, the talks deadlocked over a single crucial point. The tour companies rejected a call-up system to transport surplus visitors, preferring to use taxis of their own choice.

    And then they tried to reopen points that had already been agreed. This set the stage for a new confrontation, and the taxi union called on other workers for support. The Strike At an overflow meeting on Wulff Road on the evening of Sunday, January 12 1958, Fawkes wrote that a motion was unanimously carried that the BFL “should call a general strike to aid the taxi union and to dramatize the fight of all Bahamians for greater dignity and self-respect on the jobsite through decent wages and better working conditions. ” This time the politicians did get involved.

    Sir Randol records the dramatic start of the strike in his book: “At about 7am January 13, 1958, Brother Pindling and I entered the Emerald Beach Hotel; rested our hands on the right shoulder of Saul Campbell, chief shop steward of the Hotel Workers Union and whispered, ‘NOW! ‘ This password re-echoed throughout the length and breadth of New Providence as our comrades performed similar ceremonies in other hotels. ” Hundreds of hotel and electricity workers, garbage collectors, construction workers, longshoremen, civil servants, airline and restaurant staff walked off their jobs to the slogan “not a sweat”.

    Bay Street shops were boycotted, and within days the hotels closed and the city came to a standstill. The governor called for a warship and British troops arrived from Jamaica to reinforce the 300 policemen, whose loyalty could not be guaranteed. “The power structure just did not see that the strike was something the people were ready for and did not have to be forced into,” Sir Clifford wrote. “I believe that everyone, in every sector, had finally had enough and wanted things to change. ” In Sir Randol’s words, “We knew that we were witnessing the birth of a new Bahamian working together with other Bahamians for a new Bahamas. And although Tribune publisher Sir Etienne Dupuch took a characteristically middle of the road approach, he was clear about the real cause: “The tragedy of it is that all this unnatural hatred has been produced by the greed and avarice of a few men in the community. ” The strikers received moral support from the British Trades Union Congress, the American AFL-CIO and from Jamaican Chief Minister Norman Manley. Demands for a commission of inquiry were rejected by the authorities, but the strike was finally called off on January 30, following the governor’s promise to set up a transport authority to resolve the dispute.

    Despite the lack of an immediate clear-cut victory, the strikers had set the stage for a major shake-up of the colony’s social, economic and political relations. According to Fawkes, their action marked “the beginning of the end of British colonialism…white supremacy and racial discrimination. ” Effects of the Strike In Sir Clifford’s words: “Little did I know on that Sunday morning in January 1958 that the stunning and unexpected aftermath of the general strike would pave the way for the turbulent decade of the sixties, ultimately leading to the freedom of majority rule for all Bahamians. The aftermath he referred to included international pressure on the Bay Street regime to democratise the country. Within three months a senior British cabinet minister was in Nassau pushing for constitutional reforms, and that October, legislation was passed to set up a labour department and a process for industrial conciliation. The following year saw abolition of the company vote, extension of the franchise to all men over 21, and the creation of four new parliamentary seats (all of which were won by the PLP).

    According to the government’s annual report for 1958-59: “The transition from threatened violence and unrest to tranquillity and prosperity marks a period which must be regarded as one of the most momentous in the colony’s recent history. The effects of the general strike were far-reaching. The tourist industry received a severe set-back and financial loss was heavy. “But these two years are outstanding not so much for the high level of prosperity as for the far-reaching constitutional and legislative changes which were brought about… hich the general strike had shown to be vital to the progressive development of the colony. ” By all accounts, public support for the strike was overwhelming. It is likely that in 1958 a great number of Bahamians would have been prepared to see the challenge through if tempers had flared. In fact, there were several arson attacks and bombings after the strike ended (including the Nassau Guardian plant and areas where British troops were housed), but no violence occurred during the strike itself, and no-one was hurt.

    The aftermath also featured a split in the ranks of the progressive movement that foreshadowed things to come. As Fawkes put it: “lurking in the wings were two strangely sinister and divisive forces: the UBP and the top brass of the PLP; the one, terribly afraid of the power I wielded as president of the Bahamas Federation of Labour; the other, envious of the free trade unions’ national and international acclaim as the spark-plug of the quiet revolution. “

    The more radical and eccentric Fawkes left the PLP to form the Labour Party, while PLP-inclined unions broke away from Fawkes’ BFL to form the Bahamas Trades Union Congress, which still exists today. But the Labour Party had little impact until the historic general election of 1967, when Fawkes – as the party’s only parliamentarian – joined with the white representative of Eleuthera, Alvin Braynen, to break a deadlock between the PLP and the UBP, which had each won 18 seats. Braynen became speaker of the House while Fawkes was named minister of labour in a new PLP government.

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