EDITOR, The Tribune
Over 39 years since his demise, Sir Roland Symonette, first premier of The Bahamas, remains a lightning rod and a polarising political figure among Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) supporters who are unwilling to exonerate deceased members of the Bay Street Boys and their heirs. This anger towards Pop Symonette, as he was affectionately called, is due to his prominent role within the now defunct United Bahamian Party (UBP) and his support for his wealthy comrades who comprised the white oligarchy that ruled the Bahamian colony for decades. Symonette detractors would invariably point to the late UBP leader’s legislative support for the late Free National Movement (FNM) MP Errington “Bumpy” Watkins’ motion for a United Nations supervised referendum in Abaco, in which Abaconians would be given the choice of either going along with the PLP’s push for independence or remain a crown colony of Great Britain. This move by Watkins and the white Abaconians brings to mind UBP MP Donald d’Albenas’ revelation to Parliament in 1968 that his Long Island constituents were threatening to secede from The Bahamas, if full independence is sought.
Interestingly, Watkins’ controversial initiative for Abaco was also supported by FNM Parliamentarians Cleophas Adderley (Nassau City) and Michael Lightbourn (Clarence Town). The remaining FNMs, Kendal G L Isaacs, Norman Solomon, Noel Roberts, Cyril Fountain and C F Tynes all demonstrated bipartisanship and Bahamian patriotism in supporting the PLP and Sir Lynden Pindling. In response to this bipartisanship gesture by the FNM, Watkins said the following on the July 8, 1973 edition of The New York Times: “The fight is over now, but my feelings was that as a crown colony our stability was protected from a government that one day might produce a dictatorship.” In the same article, penned by Richard Severo, Watkins had estimated that 75 percent of his Marsh Harbour constituents, many of whom were white, supported his anti-independence stance. Because of his unrelenting inflammatory rhetoric and over-the-top radicalism, Watkins was promptly expelled from the FNM. The decision to fight Pindling and the PLP on the matter of independence was foolhardy. Watkins led his naive supporters on a fool’s errand. In all things considered, the Abaco Independence Movement (AIM), the Greater Abaco Council and the Council for a Free Abaco (CFA), all posed a massive challenge to the nascent Pindling administration. Descendants of the English Loyalists and white Southerners who fled the United States around the time of the American Revolutionary War in the late 18th century, white Abaconians were simply not prepared to be governed by a black majority administration without any oversight from the United Kingdom. This distrust led certain radical elements within the CFA to engage in talks with an arms dealer named Mitchell WerBell, who managed Defence Systems International out of Powder Springs, Georgia. The fact that the experienced mercenary WerBell was based in the former secessionist slave holding state of Georgia is indeed telling. The year 1973 was just five years removed from the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Obviously, white Abaconians had found an individual who would commiserate with them. In an obvious rebuttal of racism allegations levelled against Leonard Thompson and Co, one Bahamian commenter on Weblog Bahamas noted that Thompson had served in World War II; and was a POW, having fought against Adolf Hitler, as if this bit of information weakens the position of Pindling and the PLP. I will give the leadership of the CFA the benefit of the doubt. However, the commenter should know that the Negro 369th Infantry Regiment, which fought valiantly in World War I, encountered racial discrimination from their white American counterparts while fighting in Europe, according to Marcus Garvey biographer Edmund David Cronon.
In an April 1973 Milwaukee Journal article, WerBell (spelled Bell In the article) is quoted as saying, “that he had been approached by the people of Abaco to help them as much as I can. My job is to attempt in every way to enable them to follow their wishes and remain a Crown Colony.” Pindling biographer Michael Craton wrote that it was rumoured that WerBell had hired 300 British mercenaries to assist the Abaconians in their fight against independence (Pindling: The Life and Times of the First Prime Minister of The Bahamas, page 208). Nothing materialised with respect to a rumoured military coup against the Pindling administration, which obviously was not in any position, militarily speaking, to go up against First World militiamen anyway, especially seeing that the Bahamas Defence Force was not yet in existence. In any case, the entire chatter about a violent revolution led by Messrs WerBell and British soldier Colin Mitchell may have been nothing more than a bluff on the part of the CFA and the AIM, in order to frighten the nascent Pindling administration, in order to give in to their unreasonable demands. On the diplomatic side of the squabble over independence, Bumpy Watkins and other AIM representatives fared no better in England, when an amendment bill drafted by Conservative MP Ronald Bell was soundly defeated in the House of Commons by a vote of 74 to four; and in the House of Lords, by a vote of 50 to one. Pindling argued persuasively before English lawmakers, alleging that the AIM petition was nothing more than the biggest attempted land grab in the history of The Bahamas. This allegation was also levelled against CFA representatives by Pindling at a seminar on independence, held at the Holiday Inn in Freeport in May of 1972. Conversely, the PLP’s White Paper on independence stated that it was the government’s policy to hold all lands In trust for the Bahamian people (Pindling: Life and Times of the First Prime Minister of The Bahamas, page 205). What AIM members wanted was for Abaco to be another Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands -- two British colonies.
In the minds of Pindling and the PLP, however, the motivating factor of the white Abaconians in their revolt was entirely based on finances, despite AIM allegations that the PLP was being motivated by American Black Power radicals. Granted, within the PLP was a think tank called Unicomm. An offshoot of Unicomm was the Vanguard National Socialist Party -- a leftist group that espoused economic theories which ran counter to American capitalism. AIM members had painted the entire Pindling administration with the same broad brush that was used to paint the Vanguard Party, whose leadership admired Karl Marx, Fidel Castro and the late Marxist Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah. Obviously the pro-communist rumours were started to garner support from the United States and the United Kingdom for AIM members. However, a cursory examination of the PLP’s 1972 White Paper on independence would have quickly dispelled all rumours of a planned Marxist revolution by the Pindling administration. All told, the PLP was just as much a believer in the capitalist/free enterprise economy as their UBP predecessors. What is ironic about the CFA and its allegations against the PLP is that Abaco today, some 46 years after the initial Independence Day, remains one of the more economically prosperous Family Islands. History has vindicated the father of the modern Bahamas. Whether or not one agrees with everything Pindling did in his 25 years as prime minister, right-thinking Bahamians must side with him, as opposed to Watkins and the AIM, on the issue of independence. As for Sir Roland, his opposition to independence must be judged within its historical context. When Pindling announced in 1971 that his government would be seeking independence after the 1972 general election, not only Symonette opposed the idea, but also the then UBP Chairman Geoffrey Johnstone and the then Free-PLP Leader Sir Cecil Wallace-Whitfield. Symonette argued that independence was not in the best interests of the Bahamian people. Again, history has vindicated Pindling. Having said that, Symonette, who chose to remain in The Bahamas after his erstwhile UBP colleague Sir Stafford Sands had moved to Spain, was probably still emotionally hurt over his party’s overwhelming rejection at the polls in the 1968 general election -- an election called after the untimely death of PLP MP Uriah McPhee in February of that year. With the predominantly black PLP firmly in power, emotions were running high among UBP and PLP supporters. Symonette’s actions during the lead-up to July 10, 1973 should not be used to define him as a statesman and consummate Bahamian national hero, anymore than Sir Cecil’s initial opposition to independence should define his role in helping to shape the modern Bahamas. Even Pindling conceded this, by mentioning Symonette as one who loved The Bahamas during his farewell address to Parliament in 1997. In closing, it is interesting that the PLP administration of former Prime Minister Perry Christie had engaged Bumpy Watkins in some capacity between 2002-2007, I think.
If I am correct, it would then mean that the PLP has forgiven Watkins. So why can’t the party forgive Symonette? That’s a question worth answering.
July 8, 2019