A Modest Proposal towards a Truer Emancipation and a Truer Independence

First Published: 2013-10-15

The Keva Marie Bethel Distinguished Lecture

The College of The Bahamas

August 21, 2013

This timely lecture is posted here with the kind permission of the author.

Every year in The Bahamas we support significant celebrations of two versions of liberty—Emancipation Day and Independence Day and, indeed, we have much to celebrate. Few countries have emerged from a culture of bondage, whether based on race or ethnicity, without that emergence being underwritten by ethnic cleansing, genocide, holocaust, or whatever expressions we employ in the effort to contain the horror of mass bloodletting. The Bahamas can celebrate the fact that its people threw off the chains of slavery without bloodshed and the descendants of the enslaved and the masters have lived in remarkable peace since then.

Similarly, few of the sovereign nations that arose from the sunset of the British Empire can claim an emergence from colonial bondage that was not attended by armed conflict and, in some cases, horrific human rights abuses and subsequent, periodic outbursts of unrest as the newly liberated struggled to come to terms with freedom and leadership. Many former colonial subjects learned, to their cost, that new oppression often follows closely on the heels of the purported liberation. The only difference between oppressors was that the new ones tended to share phenotype with the re-enslaved.

In The Bahamas, the bloodier chapters of decolonization have not been our experience to date; but then, decolonization, first cousin of emancipation and independence, is also a process and one of long duration.
In celebration of our 40th anniversary of Independence, this country took on an air of the belle époque, which characterized European societies, especially those of France and Austria, between 1871 and 1914. It has been fertile period bringing an outpouring of art exhibitions, musical concerts, new book launches, award presentations, a plethora of sporting events, junkanoo and general revelry.

There was a darker aspect to this brief moment of splendor that we enjoyed. Beneath all the gaiety were growing cancers of mistrust, increasing poverty, mushrooming crime, greed for wealth and power and twisted obligations imposed by political affiliations, which are rupturing the peace of The Bahamas and dangerously impeding national progress. The contention of this presentation is that, in this second decade of the 21st century, Bahamians are not truly free and neither is The Bahamas truly independent, despite our three constitutions and various amendments; despite all the documentation filled with words signaling autonomy and self-direction.

While Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 conferred legal freedom to enslaved Bahamians, laws, no matter how well-intentioned, are only as good as their acceptance, interpretation and enforcement. Although the chafing of iron chains and the cutting of the whip were removed, the Act could not remove the bondage of racial, political and economic discrimination and the political, legal and pseudo-Christian machinations that supported them. Those who held the economic and governmental reins in our islands did not give sufficient practical substance to the intent of the law. As a result, up to the 1960s, any real progress in education and enfranchisement, the main pillars of liberty, came only with the periodic interventions of the imperial power.  This country attained universal suffrage only in 1961 and equitable majority representation only in 1967, 127 and 133 years, respectively, after the Abolition Act became effective in 1834.

What took place forty years ago in July 1973 was a purchase at a fire sale, not independence. The British Empire was burning down and, no doubt, it seemed propitious to let go of unprofitable territories before disengagement became costly in terms of lives and property, as it had in India and the African colonies. It was a nunc dimittis we celebrated on July 10, 1973, not independence. It would have been entirely in keeping with the true import of the occasion, if The Bahamas’ first prime minister, Lynden Pindling had repeated Simeon’s Canticle to Prince Charles, who represented the British Monarchy:  “Ruler of all, now dost thou let thy servant go in peace, according to thy word.”

Our new flag and the instruments of sovereignty that Prince Charles delivered to Lynden Pindling indicated to the world our right to pursue national independence and popular freedom. Independence and the Independence Constitution were twin infants—Babes to be loved, nourished, to be guided and shaped, to have their nappies changed when soiled, to be corrected when straying from the path of righteousness.

Although emancipation/freedom and independence are often conflated in writing and speech, they are not synonymous and not represented as such for the purposes of this presentation. A wise monk expressed what seems to be a conundrum—Many people who are independent are not free, and many who are dependent are free.

With his clarification, the truth of his statement is unmistakable:

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