WHO is a true Bahamian? And what is a true Bahamian?
In this battle for citizenship – now being waged and won in the courts by Bahamian QC Fred Smith – former Appeals Court President Dame Joan Sawyer refused to be drawn into the controversy – but not before reminding us that “we are all foreigners here.”
“Why,” asked Dame Joan, “all this feeding frenzy of Bahamians against foreigners?
“We were all foreigners here,” she said. “The original inhabitants were killed out… they died out”. She was referring to the Lucayans, the population of which was decimated by the Spaniards.
“My ancestors, one side came here as slaves, or in chains,” she said. “The other side came here as exploiters. So what right have we got to say that we are not going to treat people humanely?”
When Columbus discovered our islands, landing at San Salvador on October 12, 1492, he met the originals — the Lucayans, an Arawak-speaking Taino people, who arrived between 500 and 800 AD from other Caribbean islands. These were the true Bahamians. And today there is only one person in the Bahamas that we know of who can trace his roots directly to these originals. The rest of us are “Johnny-come-latelies”. Included among us over the centuries have been wreckers, privateers and pirates – a melting pot of many peoples, leaving the inhabitants of today historically all interlopers in the land of the Lucayans.
Until 1963 Bahamians were colonials in a British colony. At the London conference in May, 1963, the Bahamas received a new constitution granting these islands full self government with Britain retaining control of foreign affairs, defence and internal security. By July 10, 1973, the Bahamas Independence Order was signed making us an independent nation within the British Commonwealth. Sir Lynden Pindling was the first Prime Minister.
Sir Lynden was a master of divide and rule. In his first years as prime minister he seemed to think The Tribune was his main opposition, not the Opposition members facing him in the House of Assembly. He felt that he could sideline us – not by debating the issues — but by making his supporters believe that we were foreigners with no right of an opinion in our own country. Very often in House debates he would refer to us as “that crazy French woman on Shirley Street.” What he seemed to forget was that he was more foreign – or non Bahamian than we were. At least we were fourth generation in the Bahamas, compared to him being first generation through a Bahamian mother and Jamaican father. However, even those roots were questioned. The rumour that he was in fact born in Jamaica of another mother and brought to Nassau by his Jamaican father was so persistent that while he was prime minister he called a press conference in an attempt to prove that he was fully Bahamian and indeed born in the Bahamas of a Bahamian mother. At that conference he produced a copy of an affidavit sworn in 1947 that he was born in the Bahamas in 1930. The affidavit became necessary 17 years after his birth because, with no record of birth, the affidavit had to be sworn by someone who could attest to the birth so that he could get a passport to pursue law studies in England. Some believed him, others did not.
And now we have the case of lawyer Fred Smith, QC, a human rights activist, who, against all odds, is fighting for the right, mainly of Haitians, who were born here to be heard before a court rather being arbitrarily arrested and deported. Haitian labourers were attracted here because Bahamians refused to do menial labour, dismissing it as “˙Haitian work.” Over the years this has become a major problem because the Haitians have come in droves — many smuggled in in unseaworthy boats. The result was that Immigration officers were arresting them — many of them born here with certain rights — and detaining them until they could be flown back to Haiti. It has become a major humanitarian problem. And Fred Smith, a Bahamian born in Haiti, fluent in Creole and brilliant in the law, has come to their rescue and given them a voice before the courts.
Many Bahamians, angered by this are demanding that Mr Smith’s passport be revoked and he be shipped back to Haiti, the land of his birth. They claim he is not Bahamian. However, Mr Smith is more Bahamian than most of us. His parents met when his Bahamian father worked a mailboat between Nassau and Haiti, trading with a Middle Eastern family that had also settled in Haiti. Mr Smith eventually married the daughter of the merchant. She was born in Jordan and with her parents moved to Haiti when she was eight years old.
Today there are Bahamians who claim Mr Smith is Haitian, not Bahamian. However, when Papa Doc Duvalier took over Haiti, he refused to recognise the Smiths as Haitian. Mr Smith’s father was arrested and deported back to Nassau. Fred Smith was eight years old at the time. He remembers the nightmare of the Ton-Ton Macoutes breaking into and destroying their home, seizing and imprisoning his mother, who remained missing for three days.
Although Mr Smith’s family had settled in Haiti for business reasons, they never lost touch with their Nassau roots. They returned home frequently, until they finally returned for good. Each Smith child ––including lawyer Fred Smith — born in Haiti, was registered at birth with the British consulate as British citizens, which we all were at that time. And, like the rest of us, when the Bahamas gained its independence in 1973 they too became full-fledged Bahamians.
But, unlike the rest of us, lawyer Fred Smith can trace his family roots back to a man whose last name was Sims— the family later added another ‘m’ to the name. He was one of the last remaining Lucayans after the Spaniards had left the islands. He was Fred Smith’s great maternal grandfather — with seven greats before grandfather. One hundred and fifty years later his descendant William Simms had a daughter by the name of Arabella Simms. She was lawyer Smith’s great, great grandmother. In other words as far as is known Fred Smith is the only Bahamian who can trace his roots directly to the original Bahamian— a Lucayan.
Should the day ever come that each family now inhabiting these shores would be ordered to leave according to the date of arrival of their original forebear, then Fred Smith would probably be the only one left standing at Prince George Wharf waving us all goodbye. The last Lucayan left standing – the original Bahamian!