The Bahamas’ Dirty Little Secret
BAHAMIANS base their very survival and sense of self worth on preserving what is believed to be the quintessential Bahamian way of life. With a possessive, sometimes almost fanatical sense of pride, they stand unwavering in defence of this identity. Unfortunately, the concept of a Bahamian national identity is so problematic it essentially boils down to an evolving fantasy.
Just one generation ago, in the era of my father as a young child, Bahamians were British subjects with British travel documents. The first concept of ‘The Bahamas was formulated in the 1600s by the Eleutherian adventurers. The first Bahamian constitution was brought into being only in 1963.
The basis of the Bahamian national identity is the political framework established by the constitution. This legal document, inherited from the colonial era, defines who is and who is not a Bahamian.
The Bahamian national identity, in this sense, is a political identity that emerged by necessity, along with all other post-colonial nation-state identities, as a pragmatic way to construct modern constitutional democracies.
The matter becomes problematic when this political identity is mistaken for an actual cultural identity, because it was for similarly pragmatic reasons that the collective cultural expression of European and African descendants in the Bahamas became known as Bahamian culture. At best, the Bahamas as a cultural identity could be described as embryonic, but it would probably more accurately be described as a myth.
The cultural identity of people living in the Bahamas prior to the adoption of the nation-state identity was primarily African or European. The Yoruba in the Bahamas identified with their Yoruba cultural heritage. The same was true for the Kongos. This extended into the twentieth century, as Dr Cleveland W. Eneas documents in his autobiography, “Bain Town”.
At some point along the way, being African became irreconcilable with being Bahamian in the psyche of Bahamians of African descent. The mythological Bahamian identity was all they now accepted. This came at the expense of being disconnected from the deeply rooted cultural and genealogical connections to Africans across the colonial empire in the West and on the African continent. This leaves Bahamians of European descent at the same place Africans are, in need of reconnecting to their cultural heritage, before “The Bahamas”, which is the true source of their identity.
This explains why Bahamians feel no sense of kinship with Haitians, Jamaicans, Cubans or Africans; they are completely identified with their modern political identity and have little depth of character when it comes to cultural heritage. The perceived threat Haitians pose to the Bahamian identity is a farce, because culturally speaking the two countries share the same African heritage, even though the colonial experience produced diverse cultural expressions. Yoruba in the Bahamas, Santaria in Cuba and Voodoo in Haiti – all afro-religious retentions – are expressed differently, but the parallelism is unmistakable.
Perhaps the root of the hostility is the fact that Haiti is the Bahamas’ biggest secret. This secret is bigger than any news of any number of “outside” children; it is disruptive to the status quo. The Bahamas was populated by Haitians; at least, that is what Haitian elders say. They have a saying, “se Haitien ki peple naso”. To them, it is laughable that Bahamians are contemptuous towards Haitians, all the while being ignorant of their heritage, as if they are unable to recognize themselves in a mirror.
It is true that Haitians have been migrating to the Bahamas from at least as early as 1804. Bahamians already accuse Haitians of breeding like lionfish, so with more than two hundred years of migration it is not difficult to do the math. United Nations statistics from 2001 show the fertility rate of Haiti was 4.4 while the Bahamas was 2.6. Considering the population of the Bahamas just exceeds quarter of one million, one could expect the density of Haitian heritage to be high.
“We have had blood relationships for hundreds of years with Haitians and the rest of the Caribbean. About 17 per cent of Bahamians have direct blood relationships with the rest of the Caribbean. Amongst those blood relationships, the majority come form Haiti, starting from 1804. It is a historical fact for which there is documentation that there have always been Haitians coming to the Bahamas,” said Dr Eugene Newry, former Ambassador to Haiti. The large majority of the remaining 83 per cent have indirect relationships.
These Haitians were not simply of the breed many Bahamians picture today – economically depressed citizens sneaking in at the wee hours of night on questionably stable wooden sloops – these were middle and upper class Haitians. Some were free people of colour and some were light skinned mulattos, who fought with the French, among other categories. These were the men and women who started the nation building project that led to majority rule and the modern Bahamas.
Prominent men in the clergy, politics, judiciary and across society were Haitian born Bahamians or Bahamians of direct Haitian parentage. Goodman’s Bay is named after John Goodman, who by current Bahamian standards would be a Haitian. Stephen Dillet, the first man of colour to be elected to serve in the House of Assembly, would be by current Bahamian standards a Haitian. The same goes for Peter Laroda, who is also a former member of the House of Assembly. The three men were brothers.
Anglican priest Canon Cooper is reputed to be a direct descendent of King Henri Christophe of Haiti, the black ruler who built the famous World Heritage Site in Haiti, the Citadel. Sir Arthur Foulkes, Bahamian civil rights activist, has a Haitian mother. Fred Smith, recently appointed Queen’s Council, also has a Haitian mother.
Check any number of Bahamian names — Deveaux, Moncur, Bonimy, Bonamy, Godet, Benjamin, Paul, Dillet, Maynard, Martin, Darvel, Bethel, Nicolls — and you find they were originally Haitian names or have Haitian counterparts. The matter is further complicated because the British Empire forced immigrants from French colonies to anglicize their names. Many in the Lewis family, for example, were Louis.
Even the most internationally recognised cultural icon of the Bahamas, Sir Sidney Poitier, finds the notion of his Bahamian identity problematic. In his autobiography, “The measure of a Man”, he writes: “As a matter of fact it’s hard to tell where I came from, Poitier obviously is a French name. Given that we were in an English colonial possession and that Poitier in the Bahamas is associated only with black people, there is the strong implication that the bearers of that name came from Haiti, the nearest French colonial possession to the Bahamas.”
Sir Sidney assumes his ancestors left Haiti on their own accord, considering there is no record of a Poitier family of whites in the Bahamas, and Africans in Haiti were free from 1804. The other French colonial possessions in the Caribbean were Martinique, St Martin and Guadeloupe. Sir Sidney found it hard to believe blacks from those territories “way, way, way deep in the Caribbean” would have migrated into the Bahamas.
“The speculation is that the family originated in Haiti and moved by escape routes to the Bahamas, settling eventually on Cat Island. Now mind you, the French in Haiti supported slavery as did the British colonies so at the time of my family’s migration to the Bahamas, they were not coming from a slave state to a free state. But Cat Island was such an isolated place they probably had no difficulty in finding if not a family to work for then at least land that they could share crop and live on,” he stated.
With such a rich and proud history and culture, it would seem like an honour to be able to own the fighting spirit that is embodied by the Haitian. I was personally disappointed in my genealogical research to learn the Haitian matriarch of my family, Hester Argo, mother of Stephen Dillet, was not a Haitian after all, but an Indian priestess from South America, according to elders in my family. So far my efforts show Stephen Dillet to be my great-great-great-great-grandfather through his outside son John “Papa Johnny” Dillet.
Historians say the story of Hester Argo’s South American origin is a family myth that was probably propagated because of discriminatory attitudes towards Haitians. I say so at risk of fueling the fire within the family, which itself is a living case study of the battle between those trying to run away from their Haitian heritage and those trying to honour it. The records still show Stephen Dillet was born in Haiti to a Haitian mother.
An infusion of Haitian culture in the Bahamas does not have to be a threat; it could be an opportunity for the Bahamas to be enriched by the culture from which I dare same many if not most Bahamians came.
Here further is the dilemma of identity. I have Jamaican ancestry on the maternal side of my family. My mother and her descendants were Jamaican, but I know my great-great-great-great-grandmother was an African slave woman in Jamaica. There is barely any record of her name, which is still unknown to me, not to mention the village in Africa from which she came. She is buried in an unmarked grave beneath large white-stone boulders on family property in the hills of Westmoreland. The man who owned and impregnated her, Alexander Johnston, was a Scotsman. Who are we really as Bahamians?
Shea Edgecombe has done extensive research on her Haitian-Bahamian heritage, and her family roots in general, which stretch back to the Yoruba of West Africa. She is convinced that someone went to great lengths to deprive the Bahamian knowledge of self. She believes if Bahamians ever discovered who they really are, which can only be done through history in her view, their perspective on matters concerning Haiti and Haitians would change drastically, “guaranteed”.
“The conspiracy to suppress the Haitian connection in the Bahamas is so grand. It is as deep as it is wide. What happened was this, the European plantation owners in the Bahamas sought to demonize the Haitians and turn the Bahamians against them because they were afraid the free Haitians who were coming here would introduce the Bahamian slave workers of plantation owners to the concept of freedom. So this stems way back and it is still alive today,” said Mrs Edgecombe.
The research of Sean McWeeney, former attorney general, reinforces the insights of Mrs Edgecombe. Mr McWeeney did extensive research on the Bahamian reaction to the revolutionary upheaval in Haiti in the early nineteenth century. He documented how there was an intensification of racial control by the colonial government in order to suppress any chances of free people of colour and slaves from organizing to act out potential revolutionary sentiments.
“When the slaves of Saint Domingue rose up in 1791 on a scale wholly without precedent, slave owners everywhere trembled in fear that insurrectionism of similarly apocalyptic tendency might prove contagious. Perhaps nowhere was this more keenly felt than in The Bahamas itself. For one, the sheer closeness of the madding crowd exacerbated the sense of terror. But it was not close proximity alone that accounted for the dreadful foreboding among white Bahamians,” states Mr McWeeney.
The arrival of migrants in the advent of the Haitian revolution was a major concern. This was the first recorded wave of Haitians arriving to populate and develop the Bahamas. Middle and upper class Haitians fled the country, having been supporters of the French, and arrived in the Bahamas in droves with horror stories of the revolution. They arrived with Africans of every assortment: “Negroes, mulattos, mustees and other people of colour.”
In a coincidence of history, this was the same era the white Loyalists from North America arrived with their enslaved Africans. There was an unprecedented and dramatic shift in the racial composition of the Bahamas, with non-whites significantly outnumbering whites.
The colonial government moved swiftly to contain revolutionary sentiments. In 1793 a tax was levied on Haitian slaves and free people of colour. The importation of slaves from Haiti was later outlawed. Free people of colour from Haiti were later given a two month amnesty to leave the country or risk arrest and deportation at their own expense. The Night Patrol Act of 1795 was put in place in the wave of a foiled plot, allegedly spearheaded by “French Negroes” to burn down Nassau.
This is the colonial mentality that lingers in the Bahamas today. It is not simply a matter of national security or economics, which is the typical rational for the intolerance of Bahamians today. It is politics. It is history. It is mental slavery, alive and well. Bahamians who spew out unsubstantiated, derogatory and prejudiced claims about Haitians would be hesitant to believe that their hate is an evolution of the mentality of their very own slave masters.
It was always the African element of Haiti with which the European world had a problem, and today that remains true with the West, Bahamians included. The vitriol expressed for the practice of Voodoo, is just one example of how the intolerant Christianized mind of the modern Bahamian has been disconnected from its roots. In the nineteenth century, the colonial government in cahoots with the Anglicans and Presbyterians, implemented strict regulations to suppress the Methodist and Baptist churches to which Africans belonged. They were not “real religions”, in their view, and were prone to inciting insurrection and subversive behaviour, according to Mr McWeeney.
Today, the most venomous feelings towards Haitians are concentrated at the lowest end of the social ladder, according to some Bahamians and Haitians alike. Mr McWeeney said the United States has a similar problem, where the most radical and vocal critiques of progressive policies towards African Americans come from poor whites in the deep south, often labeled as “poor white trash.”
Unlike the original migrants from Haiti, the other significant wave began in the post 1957 environment; this was after the social, political and economic destruction created by the repressive Duvalier dynasty. Haitians arriving in the Bahamas from this time were primarily from the North. This group contained few mulattos, and few who could pass as middle class. They came, as they continue to come, in search of economic opportunity.
Since 1957, many Haitians have fully integrated into Bahamian society and are indistinguishable from Bahamians with no Haitian heritage. Over time, many of them steadily moved up the social ladder.
“There is a special type of prejudice reserved for Haitians. They assimilate as a survival mechanism,” said Mr McWeeney. He recalled that Sir Lynden Pindling’s Jamaican father never lost his Jamaican accent, after years of living in the Bahamas. He said Haitians ensure that they do, because there is so much pressure on them to assimilate.
Ten years ago, Jessica Robertson, a master’s student in international journalism at City University in London, wrote a thesis titled, “Haitians in the Bahamas – Burden or Contributors to Society.” Her thesis could very well be published in its entirety today and be passed off as current research.
“Most Haitians interviewed said the brunt of the prejudice they have experienced has been dealt out by members of the lower class Bahamian society. Poor and black, like the Haitians they resent, the dispossessed and marginalized Bahamians are closest on the feeding chain to the poor Haitian immigrant. They compete for the same jobs, the seats in public school classrooms, and care at the public health clinics. It follows that they feel most threatened by the growing Haitian community,” stated Ms Robertson in her thesis.
It is bad enough that so-called ‘Bahamians’ have no appetite for all things Haitian, but to deprive Haitian Bahamians of a sense of pride by failing to pay due respect to the contribution of Haitians in the Bahamian nation-building project is a recipe for ingrown hate and social upheaval.
For some time historians and social commentators have wondered in wait about when the generation of stateless Haitian Bahamians will rise and revolt in protest of their rights.
“We are facing the possibility of civil war or, at least, civil unrest; a threat to the domestic stability of the Bahamas,” wrote Alfred Sears, former Minister of Education, in a 1994 edition of the “Journal of the Bahamas Historical Society.” He was not speaking of an inherent violent streak in Haitian Bahamians, but rather their dispossession by the state and wider society.
Some people boast of their Bahamian credentials by saying this is where they “born and grow”, but that is entirely problematic for the group Mrs Edgecombe calls “ghost children.” Children “born and grow” in the Bahamas to a Haitian father, irrespective of the citizenship of their mother, are stateless for the most formative 18 years of their life. They have a one year window to obtain Bahamian citizenship, between ages 18 and 19, or else they are no longer entitled.
Up to age 18, who are they, if not Bahamian? The social implications of this statelessness are probably more real than the perceived negative social impact of the Haitian presence. Haitian Bahamians, for example, are made to pay international tuition rates when attending the college of the Bahamas. This is not likely to provoke the feared civil unrest, but it is still a significant reminder, not to mention financial strain, of that failure to belong experienced by many Haitian Bahamians.
“When the country you are born in does not want you. The country they claim you should go to has no knowledge of you. What positive attributes can a position like that manifest? What happens to children who have no sense of belonging? Aren’t these more likely than not the children who are going to gravitate toward gangs and so on? The Bahamas is not just for Bahamians. The Bahamas is for Bahamians and people who live here and make a contribution. That is what our history tells us,” said Mrs Edgecombe.
She recently staged an ambush on children at Stephen Dillet Primary School to ask if they knew who Stephen Dillet was and his contribution to the Bahamas. She said two out of three children in the group she spoke to were of Haitian heritage, and no one knew the answer.
When she informed them he was a famous Haitian-born Bahamian writer, orator and politician, the children were flabbergasted. They begged her to come back and tell the children in their class. The same happens when Haitians come to her husband’s barber shop. The same happened when she gave a talk at the Kemp Road Urban Renewal Centre on the topic of Haitians in the Bahamas. They were surprised to hear a Bahamian speaking positively about Haiti and they were thirsty for information.
“When I was done they were like can you please come back and tell us more. They are sceptical, because for their entire lives they have been ostracised, criticised, condemned, and ridiculed, because they are children of Haitian ancestry,” she said.
Aside from the political contributions to nation building in the Bahamas, and the genealogical connections, the Haitian impact was probably most profoundly felt in the area of agriculture and small business. Dr Newry said Haitians were always excellent farmers and builders, and some of their descendants still are.
“Haiti provided a significant contribution of food supplies to the Bahamas during World War II. That is significant. It is very interesting when Bahamians are now collecting food for Haiti (since they were struck by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake). That is what you call communal living and sharing,” said Dr Newry.
“Without the Haitian agricultural worker in the Bahamas there can be no agriculture. (It is) not because Bahamians are stupid, but because Bahamians have a different perspective on the social prestige of being a farmer than a Haitian does. If you had a magnet that could suck out all of the Haitians, the Bahamas would be in economic chaos if you did that. That is why they make the occasional raid, but they will never get rid of everyone because they are needed,” he said.
As far as the international community is concerned, Haiti also made history-shaping contributions. Haiti was the place of refuge for Simon Bolivar, who was the leader of the South American revolution. His direct actions are said to have resulted in independence for Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. Free blacks in Haiti, who had secured their freedom by conquering the French colonial empire militarily, financed and supported by other means the revolution to the south. Some say, Haiti will always be a friend of South America because of its instrumental role in supporting the fight for freedom there.
Haitians also fought in the American War of Independence. According to Ambassador Joseph, they sent soldiers to fight in Savannah, Georgia. Last year the city built a monument to commemorate the Haitian contribution to the war. The founder of the city of Chicago was Haitian born Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable.
It could really be “better in the Bahamas” if the country recognised its Haitian roots and the Haitian presence, truly representing its rich and diverse cultural heritage. Imagine the positive impact Haitian Bahamians could make if they felt truly accepted as Bahamians and proud to be Haitians; if they were confident enough to emerge from behind the shadows.
Haitians and Haitian Bahamians are not a contained social group that can be rounded up and excised from the country to prevent them from infiltrating. Frequent news of raids or mass deportations may have Bahamians believing so. The cat is already out of the bag. Haitians are fully integrated into Bahamian society at all levels of the social ladder. “They been here and they ain goin no where.”
“It is not true; it is not fair to say they are only employed in menial jobs. They are a part of the middle class. They are a part of the business sector. They do not mention that because now they are living as Bahamians, but if you go back you will realise they have Haitian origins and they contribute to this country,” said Louis Harold Joseph, Haitian Ambassador.
“Even though some people do not mention that, very quietly you find a lot of Haitians living here working in the public sector, private sector, in the banks. These are Bahamians of Haitian origin who contribute proudly to this country,” said Ambassador Joseph.
I know there are people who would prefer if the government based its policies on tactics from the Apartheid era. At a community forum hosted by psychiatrist Dr David Allen, a participant vocalized what some Bahamians feel privately that Haitians should carry a passbook.
I think it is fair to say, xenophobic policies and ignorant attitudes win out at the eventual peril of Bahamians. Those committed to the war against Haitians might as well keep banging their heads against the wall. What is needed is sensible and informed attitudes, behaviours and policies towards Haitian immigration and Haitian integration.
By NOELLE NICOLLS