Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

"I'se a Man": Political Awakening and the 1942 Riot in the Bahamas1

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

"I'se a Man": Political Awakening and the 1942 Riot in the Bahamas1

Article excerpt

Introduction

At the beginning of the Second World War, the British and American governments made arrangements to build training bases on several islands in the British West Indies. Two of these bases were scheduled to be built on New Providence Island, the economic hub of the Bahamas: one in Oaks Field known as Main Field and one in the western end of the island known as Satellite Field. The Project, as it was called, would employ over two thousand Bahamians. When the news about this employment opportunity was publicized, many men from the outlying Bahamian islands flocked to New Providence, joining the already large labour pool that looked forward to the high wages that such foreign projects historically brought. The wages offered were not only lower than was expected but there was a difference of pay between American and Bahamian labourers employed at the same jobs. The men were dissatisfied but neither management nor government took any real steps to reconcile the wage dispute. What started as low grumbling among the men at work exploded into two days of rioting that left six men dead, several people injured and Bay Street, the island's principal commercial district, and parts of Grant's Town, where many of the labourers resided, in shambles.

Dame Doris Johnson, noted Bahamian politician, has argued that the 1942 riot was a watershed event in Bahamian political and racial history. She argued that the disturbances on 1 and 2 June were emblematic of a growing political consciousness within the Bahamian majority Black community and were the explosive start of what would ultimately be a relatively quiet revolution to usher in Black rule and independence in the former British colony. As a consequence of the riot, Johnson suggests, "the first awakenings of a new political awareness began to be felt in the hearts of black people . . . time . . . and the remarkable foresight, courage, and initiative of a few dedicated members of that majority were all that were required to crystallize this awareness into a mighty political force".2 Sir Randol Fawkes, labour leader and parliamentarian, has concurred.3 As they rightly point out, the riot was the first major collective labour action in the Bahamas with political overtones.

However, Colin Hughes, political scientist, has questioned its significance. While accepting it as a precursor, he views it more as a symbol that was profitably mythologized and rallied around once the popular movement actually found its feet. According to Hughes, the riot was "a momentary outburst of raw energy" that "provided martyrs and a heroic moment" to Bahamian Blacks "once a political movement had finally started".4 Agreeing with Hughes, Gail Saunders sees it as a "short-lived spontaneous outburst" after which "the black masses slept on".5 Both deny any direct link to the dramatic socio-political developments in the 1960s, pointing out that nothing much happened in response to the riot and that no real push for political power or majority rule could be said to exist in the Bahamas for more than a decade after the riot. They also point out that nothing like this ever happened again in the Bahamas, making this event an anomaly.

The riot, however, was more than an isolated act of venting. And, although a powerful symbol of Black agency that has been referenced again and again in the political struggles of Bahamian Blacks, the riot was more than a symbol. The riot had real effects. Following Johnson, it is our contention that the riot is rightfully considered as the first shot in the battle for political change in the Bahamas. The riot also kindled the development of a pro-Black consciousness in the colony, a necessary precursor to Black rule and independence. At the time of the riot, political and economic life in the colony was controlled by a small group of White merchants who were headquartered on Bay Street. As Johnson describes, on the day of the riot "the usually docile and cheerful Bahamian workers" marched towards Bay Street, the space of White wealth, "in an angry and belligerent mood". …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.