Sir Randol F. Fawkes': The First Labour Day

The First Labour Day

by

 

Sir Randol F. Fawkes

 

 

 

 

 

During the time of World War 11, Edward, Duke of Windsor served as governor of the Bahama Islands. It was during his term of office that the Burma Road Riot occurred. This event was destined to change the social, economic and political fabric of life in The Bahamas.

 

In this article, Sir Randol F. Fawkes (1924-2000), better known as the Father of Labour in The Bahamas, gives an eyewitness account of the day he saw “hundreds of ragged, black workers moving downhill towards us.  I thought all the gates of hell hand opened and the demons let loose.”

 

Sir Randol Francis Fawkes was knighted by her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth 11 for the contribution he made to the development of trade unionism in The Bahamas. Sir Randol Fawkes, elder statesman, attorney-at-law, free trade unionist, civil rights activist, sportsman, author and musician, changed the course of Bahamian history when he helped to usher in majority rule in the country in 1967.




          In August 1940, by a strange set of circumstances, the former Liege Lord, Edward the Eighth by the Grace of God, of Great Britain and Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas, King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India, etc., etc., etc., became the fifty-fifth Governor of The Bahama Islands. 

          This was the second exile for the embattled Duke of Windsor.  On December 10th, 1936, this uncrowned Monarch, having abdicated the British throne for the woman he loved, adopted France as his new home rather than return to England and be pushed into the bottom drawer by the high society of Buckingham Palace.

           Later, when France collapsed under the muddy heels of Germany’s storm troopers, Winston Churchill offered and the Duke accepted the post of Governor of The Bahamas.  The Duke’s regime in The Bahamas was the best advertisement the Colony ever had.  Many an American tourist came to our shores to get a glimpse of His Royal Highness and his Duchess in their island kingdom.

 



Bahamians welcome the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to The Bahamas



The Bahamians welcome the Duke and Duchess of Windsor

 

          Shortly after the Duke’s arrival news came to The Bahamas from the West Indies of the people’s demand for universal suffrage and a larger voice in the government of their home affairs.  The Duke of Windsor was caught in the crossfire of Churchill’s imperialism and Roosevelt’s idealism:  the one, advocated, with some pain and anguish, self-government for the Colonies within the British Commonwealth; the other, espoused a world of peace without spheres of influence or regional balances of power.  Added to these problems was the extreme conservatism of Bahamian white oligarchy and the awakened masses ready to shed their chains.

On May 24th, 1942, approximately two years after his arrival in Nassau, the Duke of Windsor reflected this change in the British colonial policy as he addressed school children and teachers on Empire Day.  “When you say Rule Britannia, you say, ‘Britons never, never shall be slaves’, these are not mere words but a very definite challenge which has been upheld by the bravery and devotion of generations that have gone before.”  There was an effective pause to prepare teachers and children for what was to follow.  “This heritage of freedom now is in the very course of being contested again and when handed down to you, as surely it will be, we should look to you with confidence for its safekeeping.”

 

America’s entry into World War 11 in Europe and the Far East created a shortage of manpower on its farms.  Therefore on May 27th, 1942, the Duke flew to Washington to negotiate with President Roosevelt for the recruitment of Bahamian farm labor and to arrange for the further involvement of The Bahamas in the total war effort.  A few days after the Duke’s departure, a social upheaval erupted in New Providence the rumblings of which are still heard today.

 

On June 1st, 1942 at about 8:30 a.m. a crowd of workers threw down their tools at Oakes Field job site, then called the Burma Road Project, and marched toward the City of Nassau. Armed with sticks, clubs, and machetes they sang:

 

Burma Road declare war on the Conchie Joe,

Do Nigger don't you lick nobody, don't you lick nobody"

 

Their purpose was to stage a demonstration before the Bay Street merchants and Government officials. They wanted these ruling powers to know that the labouring masses were no longer content to suffer economic injustices on the job-sites and social inequalities that sapped their self respect and prevented them from attaining their full status as citizens.

 

All the deputations, letters, appeals and arguments for higher wages sent and made on the workers' behalf had gone unheeded. It was hoped that this forceful demonstration would cause the authorities to take the workingman's pleas seriously.

 

When that mob marched on that early June morning, they took upon their shoulders the common burdens of all Bahamians -those who protested, those who were silent, and those who did not even realize the indignity of their status. This teaming mass of workers marched for all of them, and, in doing so, they marched themselves straight into history.

 

 

 

The Labouring Masses

 

 

 

In other West Indian islands such as Barbados, Jamaica, and Trinidad, there had already been recorded violent upheavals in the late thirties and early forties. But in the traditionally quiet Bahamas, the emphasis was only on a little bread for the masses, tuxedo and tails among the parliamentary upper crust, and mute acquiescence between the professional and middle classes.

 

What then were the underlying causes of this social unrest, the echoes of which are still resounding? For answers we must look into the Bahamian past.

 

The Bahama Islands are an archipelago of some seven hundred sprawling low-Iying islands and over two thousand reefs and cays stretching in maize of sapphire sea from the southeast coast of Florida to the northeast of Cuba. New Providence, although not one of the large islands is the most important, as it contains the capital, Nassau. In 1942 the people of New Providence constituted approximately one third of the total population.

 

The sapphire Caribbean Sea into which these islands have been scattered, had figured prominently in regional as well as global history. It has been called the Mediterranean on the New World and, like that island sea, it has an epic of its own. It was in the Caribbean that Spain, France, Holland, and England grappled with one another for mastery of these waters, well knowing that ownership brought not only international prestige but also vast economic wealth stemming from an active interest in Negro slave trade.

 

Of legend and romance the Caribbean is full. In the eighteenth century these waters were the rendezvous of pirates and wreckers, blockade-runners and bootleggers swaggering behind the banner of no lesser characters than Blackbeard, Mary Read, Anne Bonney, and Charles Vane.

 

But, the Caribbean also tells the story of an African people uprooted from their economic and cultural surroundings, finding themselves established in a strange land searching for a national identity among institutions - such as slavery – which have long outlived their usefulness.

 

Seventy percent of the population of the Bahamas are descendents of African slaves. Twenty percent are Caucasians. Between these two extremes, intermarriage has produced every possible combination. There was the Mulatto - the white and the black; the Sambo - the black and the Mulatto; the Octoroon – the white and the quadroon, and the Conchie Joe (the Bahamian white).

 

At the top of the Bahamian masses in 1942 was a small but clever band of British officials. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries their ancestors sought only souls to save and bodies to enslave. In 1942 they held more than half the land in their hands, solely for speculative purposes. One Negro in a conversation with his spiritual adviser was heard to remark, "Father, I noticed that when you first came here to work among us you had the Bible and we had the land. Today, Father," he continued, "we have the Bible and you have the land."

         

For many years through manoeuvres arbitrarily arranged in England, the sons and daughters of these Anglo Saxons occupied all the top positions in Church and State. The social pyramid broadened as it descended to include the professional class who for the King's birthday honours and a Knighthood sold their less fortunate brothers and sisters into perpetual poverty and ignorance. The merchant class followed but their high prices and stringent monopolies played havoc with the poor farmer and common labourer on whose shoulders fell the full burden of a system of indirect taxation. It was indeed an upside down society in which the poor carried an inordinate burden.



The Duke of Windsor with members of the Bahamas House of Assembly



The Duke of Windsor with members of the House of Assembly

 

The coloured people were in the majority but they had minority problems. They were poorly educated, ill fed and ill housed. Few could afford an English education, yet by custom this was the only type of training officialdom recognized in the Bahamas. American ideas of freedom were considered detrimental to the peace and good order of the Negro masses ever since the first attempts of the British to colonize the American continent came to grief.

 

Since 1728,  there was a House or Assembly to which persons sent representatives to speak on their behalf once in every seven years. The Old Order, however, retained virtual control by bribery and the manipulation of huge blocks of companies, which were entitled to vote under the Election Law. To add insult to injury, there were the plurality votes, which entitled a person to vote in respect to each lot of land he or she owned or rented in a particular district. Those who had no property consequently had no vote. There being no secret ballot in 1942, the sons and grandsons of former slaves who could qualify were compelled to declare their votes openly or face victimization later if their selection of candidates did not please their employers. Women’s suffrage did not exist.

 

 The Emancipation Act of the United Kingdom Parliament, though designed to come into force on August 1, 1834, did not immediately give the slaves freedom. There was a compulsory "apprenticeship" similar in all but name to indentured labour. Therefore, even long after emancipation the salves were still not free.

 

Warrants of arrests were frequently issued for the most trivial of things. In this way the courts were made weapons to club the people into submission. Without a Court of Appeal in the Bahamian judicial system, the people rapidly lost faith in British justice. To them it meant simply “justice” for the British.

 

Faced with this sort of oppression, the Negro labourer feigned a kind of resignation. Up to 1942, he moved with caution and fawning obeisance. When he saw the white man in the distance he would bow down to the ground and then look up to the moon. When his boss issued the command “Jump!” his only reaction was "How high?” If he were accosted by the Manager of a theatre, church or restaurant for occupying a seat that was reserved for "Whites Only", he would retain his seat and reply, "Sorry boss-man, I can't read."  Indeed, he became the walking embodiment of Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem:

 

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

 

Why should the world be overwise,

In counting all our tear’s and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

We wear the mask.

 

 

 We smile, but O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise,

We sing, but oh the clay is vile

Beneath our feet, and long the mile;

But let the world dream otherwise

We wear the mask!

 

The Bahamian professional, however, had grown to accept the status quo and the white man as his lord and master. He expected freedom to be offered to him on a platter by the colonial administrators. It was not, therefore, surprising when the Duke or Windsor, the former King Edward the Eighth of England, came to govern the Bahama Islands in August 1940, that Dr. Claudius R. Walker, a representative in the House of Assembly for the Southern District and Editor of "The Voice", asked this Royal Emissary in all the sincerity of mere words, “Art thou he that cometh, or look we for another?"

 

 

 


His Royal Highness, the Duke of Windsor, being sworn in by Sir Oscar Bedford Daly, K.C., L.L.D., when beginning his term of office as Governor of the Bahama Islands

 

 

 

 

 

And so in June, 1942, the authorities thought that the now gay, now dancing, now cringing Bahamian was content to remain in his servile station in life forever. In any case, they reasoned, "Those niggers would never have sense enough to unite to make an effective demand." But strange things were happening in the outside world that were to have profound effect on the hitherto subtle complacency of the average Bahamian.

 

Citizens from other Caribbean islands were bringing tales to the Bahamas of struggles for labour and constitutional reforms in their own homelands. West Indians lionized such leaders as William Alexander Bustermante, Norman Washington Manley, and Grantly Adams and their titanic efforts to come to grips with the problems of Colonialism. Added to this there was the further stimulus provided by the conscription by Great Britain for Bahamians to fight on foreign soil in World War II to obtain freedoms which they themselves did not enjoy at home.   "If we can go on foreign soil and fight and even kill and be killed for another's freedom," the Bahamian labourers reasoned, "why can't we stay at home and unite and fight for our own self respect and the freedom of our children?"

 

During World War II,  the Bahama Islands were under two flags: The British Union Jack, because it was to that standard that the Black "British Subjects" pledged their allegiance and, the American stars and stripes to which the natives owed their economic existence through tourism, project farm labour, and the importation of food stuffs.

 

Early in 1942, the United States, after consultations with the United Kingdom Government, decided to build a new air base at Oakes Field in New Providence. After this announcement, people from all the Out Islands flocked to Nassau in search of employment as there had been a sharp decline in the sisal and sponge industries.

 

These two contracting powers - the USA and the UK Governments - agreed to "peg" the wages for Bahamian labourers at four shillings per day without the prior consultation of the labourers. Only a year before, however, the American Governments had employed Bahamians in similar work at Exuma at higher wages. The Exumians communicated this information to their fellow workers in Nassau who then concluded that they were being passed a "squeezed lemon".

 

The American firm, Pleasantville Construction Company, was granted the contract to build the airport. The company was prepared to pay labourers eight shillings per day. The Bay Street merchants were horrified at the suggestion and claimed that such action would upset the economy of the country. In 1934 labourers worked for one shilling per day. This was later raised to two shillings, and in 1942 their daily earnings under the Labour Minimum Wage Act of 1936 were fixed at four shillings.

 

Faced with these pressures, the Pleasantville Construction Company had to give way to Bay Street.

 

At the time of the construction of the airport, there were two trade unions, the Bahama Labour Union headed by Percy Christie, Osborne Kemp, and Caleb Gibson, and the Bahamas Federation of Labour which was governed by an Executive Committee consisting of Charles Rodriguez, Gerald Dean, Harold Fernander, Eustace Ford, Charles Fisher, Bert Cambridge, Dr. Claudius R. Walker, and S. C. McPherson. The representatives of neither union were consulted prior to the fixing of the wage scale for labourers. After the announcement of the construction of the project at Oakes Field, strenuous efforts were made to amalgamate these two unions under the banner of the Bahamas Federation of Labour in order to achieve greater solidarity and recognition. Before these negotiations could be completed, however, the disturbances at Oakes Field erupted.

 

The only laws relating to trade unions at this period were the Combinations of Workmen's Acts 1825 and 1859. Although the English legislature on which these acts were based had long since been repealed in Britain, they did leave the door for freedom ajar; but workers had to fight to keep it open.

 

Traditionally in the colony all combinations of workers were discouraged.

 

Despite this encumbrance, the Executive Committee of the Bahamas Federation of Labour on the 26th day of May, 1942 made representations to the Labour Officer for an increase in wages for labourers. On Sunday, the 31st May, a meeting was held at which all parties concerned were present, but no agreement was reached.  Early the following morning, the Attorney General, Sir Eric Hallinan, threatened to import foreign labour unless the Bahamians accepted four shillings a day. The workers, who had not been party to any agreement, became increasingly discontented and on Monday, the 1st June a "wildcat" strike occurred.

 

Crowds totalling about fifteen hundred workers marched from over the hill in every direction and converged on the corner of George and Marlborough Streets in the city. At first the march east along Bay Street was quite peaceful, but the sudden sound of a smashed glass windowpane sent the mob into an uncontrollable orgy of looting and pillaging that resulted in the destruction of many shops up and down the main thoroughfare of Nassau.

 

Milo Butler, A. F. Adderley, and Percy Christie all tried to bring the representatives of labour and capital around a conference table to conciliate their differences but without success. While the pillaging was at its height and missiles were flying in many directions, a detachment of British forces accompanied by a number of policemen with fixed bayonets moved down Bay Street against the rioters. Corporal Pinder arrested Leonard Store, alias Leonard Green, the ringleader, on the instructions of Captain Sears. The mob now became furious at the site of their leader in the clutches of the police. With one daring and desperate thrust against the armed might, the workers rescued Green from their grasp.

 

The confrontations still continued, however, as about eight hundred rioters resisted the attempts of the armed forces to push them off Bay Street over Bailliou Hill Road and into their villages in Bain Town.  In the struggle, fifteen gunshots were heard. Four of the rioters were killed, seven seriously wounded, and forty suffered minor injuries. Only one soldier was hurt.

 

Many of the stores on Bay Street were extensively looted and some were completely emptied of their merchandise. In fact, the "Street of Contracts" resembled a township that had recently been hit by a hurricane.

 

When the frenzied mob reached Grant's Town, they looted again and pillaged some more. While Alfred Stuffs alias "Sweet Potato" burned the photographs of the King and the Royal Family, others damaged almost everything that represented the white man's wealth. In the wake of this rampage, grocery and liquor stores were broken into, the Southern Police Station and the Public Library were occupied, and the fire engine and ambulance were set ablaze. Cole Thompson Pharmacies on Market and East Shirley Streets were also burglarised and extensively damaged.

 

On Tuesday the 2nd June, the rioting continued. Attempts were made to break into Bay Street again but these were prevented by armed might.

 

When the news of the riot broke, His Royal Highness, the Duke of Windsor, was in Washington, D.C., investigating the possibility of using Bahamian labour in the harvesting of crops on American farms. He returned on Tuesday evening the 2nd of June and after holding discussions with all parties, he went on the local station Z.N.S. and made an appeal for peace.

 

The Duke’s return to Nassau was greeted with much anticipation by the labouring masses who had not forgotten his Empire Day message which had been give a few days prior to his departure.  Furthermore, who had not heard of the Duke’s sympathy for the poor and underprivileged of England?

 

Arrangements were immediately made to have leaders of the B.F. of L. meet with the Duke’s Committee.  The workers selected their most articulate spokesman, Dr. Claudius R. Walker to state the case on their behalf.

 

A week after the riot the workers returned to their jobs with one shilling per day raise in their pay and free meal during the luncheon break. What price freedom? In addition to all the blood, sweat and tears one hundred and twenty-eight persons were prosecuted in the Supreme and Magistrate's Courts for their involvement in the riot. One hundred and fourteen were convicted. Some were imprisoned; some fined. And was it worth it'? Time and history will tell.

 

Out of their agony a Commission or Inquiry was born consisting or Sir Alison Russell, Herbert McKinney, and Herbert Brown. The Commission, after interviewing some ninety-nine witnesses made "inter alia" the following recommendations:

 

·       That labour legislation should be brought in line with modern standards.

·       That the life of the House of Assembly should be reduced from seven to five or four years.

·       That the Out Islands should be represented in The House of Assembly by residents of those respective constituencies (local government)

·       That permanent officer in the Civil Service should not take part in politics.  They should be above even the allegation that they have been influenced by purely political considerations.

·       That the imposition of a fair system of income tax and death duties should be thoroughly considered by the legislature with a view to placing the burden of taxation on the shoulders of those better able to bear it.

·       That land should be reserved for Bahamian cultivators and that no such land should be allowed to be sold to realtors without approval of Government and subject to conditions as may be laid down.

·       As Out Islands in the past had been treated as “poor relatives”, Government should introduce as soon as possible a realistic and imaginative development plan.

·       That universal suffrage be introduced based on the principle of one man one vote.

 

Lofty as the recommendations of the Commission were, they did not please the professional and merchant class in the House of Assembly, some of whom had dominated the political scene since the nineteenth century.

 

ACCOMPANIED by my father, I sat in the visitor's gallery of the House for the first time on the evening of the 10th of September, 1942. From this vantage point I was able to observe the Bay Street machine at work.

 

Promptly at 8 o'clock the drama began unfolding with the Messenger striking the wooden floor three times with his staff and shouting: "House!" Everybody stood as the procession entered the main Chamber, headed by the Sergeant-at-Arms carrying the Mace, the symbol of the Speaker's authority. Immediately behind him was the Speaker, resplendent in tails wearing black knickerbockers, long white wig, and a facial expression to match the mock solemnity of the hour.

 

The principal actor that night was a young Lawyer/ Politician/ Businessman of twenty-nine years, known as Stafford Sands. He moved with teutonic thoroughness to demolish the progressive points of the Report made by the Governor's Riot Commission. The terms of reference of his Motion on the Agenda paper called for "a consideration of all matters relating to, connected with, and arising out of the June 1st disturbance with a view of preventing a recurrence thereof with powers to send for persons and papers."

 

The majority or the members of the House did not trust the Duke of Windsor or his advisors and they said so in no uncertain terms through their official mouthpiece and minion, Stafford Lofthouse Sands. The broadening of a franchise, the reduction of the life of the House from seven to four years and reform in the system of taxation foretold an unwanted possibility to their selfish political and economic ambitions. As Mr. Sands rose to speak on that Monday evening, an aura of silence descended upon the House. Every head was turned in his direction so great were his histrionic powers. Sands had only one good eye, the other was made of glass, but among those pompous Cyclops this one-eyed giant was "King".

 

"House Members," Mr. Sands said, "You have no doubt heard of T. P. Barnum's famous phrase, 'A sucker is born every minute'.”  There followed a ripple of laughter.

 

"Mr. Speaker," he continued, "I sincerely trust that the Honourable Members will not allow the Governor, the Duke of Windsor, to consider that this House falls within Barnum's category.

 

"When Barnum operated his first side show in New York, one of the most prominent signs was an arrow with the legend: 'This way to progress'. The trusting members of the public who followed Mr. Barnum's pointing arrow," Mr. Sands said making a pointed gesture in the air with his right hand, "soon found themselves in the street without having seen the show.

 

"We, Mr. Speaker, know the difference between 'progress' and 'egress.' Our way represents 'progress' the Governor's report points to the 'exit' the famous 'exit' of all our ancient rights and privileges."

 

With these words Stafford Sands's colleagues proceeded to appoint their own Select Committee which would be responsible to the Bay Street merchants. The Committee sat for a few weeks and recommended that all merchants who had suffered loss or damage during the riot should be compensated out of public funds. The mountain had indeed laboured and produced a grain of sand.

 

Twenty-five years later, on January 10, 1967, the sons of those who fought and fell on June 1, 1942, were to wrest the Government from the white oligarchy. Stafford Lofthouse Sands was to flee the country and seek refuge in Spain while the first Friday in June of each year was to be celebrated as LABOUR DA Y – a day which was to be set aside to remember the events of June 1st, 1942.  On the first unofficial Labour Day in 1956, The Bahamas Federation of Labour planned a mammoth parade to exhibit the strength of the labour movement.  They invited no less a person than His Excellency, the Governor, the Earl of Ranfurly himself, to address the workers’ rally at the Southern Recreation Grounds.

 

As I spoke to thousands on Labour Day, 1962, I reflected on that first of June morning twenty years ago when Albert Stubbs, Joseph Rolle and Lawrence  Green  led that rag and bone army up Burma Road toward Bay Street and demanded better working conditions on the jobsite.  Thanks to them, we, labour statesmen, have now learned how to substitute the Conference Table for The Riot Act. 

 

I will say no more except to add: "The mills of God grind slowly. But they grind exceedingly fine..."

 

 

 

 



A copy of the bill piloted through the House of Assembly of The Bahamas by Sir Randol Fawkes to make Labour Day a public holiday.

 

 

 

 

 

 



Majority Rule was ushered into the country on the 10th day of January 1967. Pictured above is the first black government of The Bahamas. Sir Randol is standing fourth from the right.

 

 

 

<<<HOME>>>