In a few days, The Bahamas will celebrate its 46th anniversary of Independence. There will be the usual pomp and circumstance, the banners, flags, bunting, music and feelings of pride and nationalism. It will be preceded by a Beat the Retreat on the 7th and culminate in a Junkanoo rush-out on Bay Street that insiders say will be different from any that came before.
The Prime Minister plans to celebrate in Grand Bahama and there will likely be the usual fall-out of complaints afterward that not enough white people showed up, maybe the same group who were not necessarily remembered on the flag when it was designed but letting bygones live up to their name and moving on, what is worth noting is a little piece of history that continues to play out almost unnoticed.
It’s the incredible secession without seceding story of Abaco.
Abaco is a group of islands in the northern Bahamas known as the boating capital of The Bahamas. Each of its cays is a destination of its own – Green Turtle Cay, Hope Town, Elbow Cay, Man-o-War, all plump with history and postcard cottages, its once controversial development now among the most luxurious in the region, Baker’s Bay, the mainland Marsh Harbour with its Abaco Neem farm considered the finest product for hundreds of miles around, Pete’s Pub and Foundry in Little Harbour.
Together, the cays of Abaco make up a mini-archipelago of their own and thousands visit by boat or air and never go any further. Locals say most are repeat visitors who bring new friends each year. Many leave their power or sailboats in the marina or on dry dock for storage, arranging to have them launched in time for their arrival.
Abaco has its own independent TV station, radio station, newspaper and glossy magazine. You’d be hard-pressed to find this newspaper there and yet it is the second most vibrant economy in The Bahamas.
Property values in Abaco maintain and appreciate. In fact, just about everything in Abaco maintains almost as if the island that once sought to secede managed to do so without announcing it.
Those who wanted to be separate from the new independent Bahamas believing Abaconians had been victimised carried their case all the way to the British Parliament. A member of the Conservative Party listened attentively and went so far as to propose an amendment to the Independence Bill for The Bahamas. It read:
“Greater Abaco shall continue to be a colonial dependency of the Crown under the name of the Colony of Abaco, and shall be governed in accordance with the provisions of any Order in Council which may be made by Her Majesty.”
The proposal died a predictable death though its existence continues to haunt historic accounts around the time of Independence each year, as it is now.
Here we are, 46 years later, preparing for Independence celebrations, paying little attention to the success story of the Abaco islands brought about largely by a population that created it themselves.
Despite failure to secede, Abaco goes its own way very nicely, thank you, except for those few areas where it relies on government. Designated public trash disposal sites lie just off the side of the road down a little trail. There are infrastructure defects which need attention. The Leonard M Thompson Airport at Marsh Harbour is in need of public-private sector management. Flights are notoriously late (not government’s fault), the airport is always packed, often with hundreds of waiting passengers who are there for hours on end. There is huge opportunity for commerce. Yet a few days ago the only thing open on the second floor where there is supposed to be a sky lounge and a restaurant was a coffee stand. There was no toilet paper in the women’s rest room. Only one spigot worked.
Abaco is so independent there is no automatic gratuity in restaurants and most staff I spoke to preferred it that way, saying they did not think it fair to pool gratuities and share with others who may not have worked as hard as they did. They made more, they said, by providing excellent service.
Maybe it’s in the islands of Abaco that the true spirit of individual independence lives on and the dependence in the word takes its rightful place in the back. Maybe there’s a lesson for all of us in that.
The grand old lady of historic Nassau
I had the privilege of spending a little time recently studying one of the most beautiful historic structures that helps to define Bahamian architecture, Victoria Court. Situated on Victoria Avenue between Bay and Shirley Streets, its pink façade with tall French casement windows trimmed in sharp white, its dormers, quoins, wrought iron balcony trim, gate work and octagonal opening portholes bespeak a style of dignity and grandeur we could never re-create.
Once, before Lyford Cay was developed and private gated communities spelled exclusivity, the four-storey lady in the heart of the capital was where the rich and famous stayed when they came to The Bahamas. In the decades since, she has had her ups and downs. Today, she has been largely restored thanks to extensive expenditures by her homeowners who come from a cross-section of the Bahamian population, a senior foreign service officer, a few doctors, nurses, attorneys, an executive with a local publicly-traded company. Those homeowners are united in a way that many in fancy gated communities are not. Despite the financial challenges of upkeep (a much-needed new roof could cost up to $300,000 to maintain the integrity of style), they love where they live and they are determined to preserve the beauty.
This old place they call home is the grand lady of historic Nassau, one of the few remaining architectural treasures of downtown. We should applaud them for doing all they can in the real work of restoration and preservation – words we often pay lip service to without digging into our own pocketbooks. They are doing it just because their home is historic, stately and beautiful and because there is only one Victoria Court.