By FELICITY DARVILLE
This special Independence edition is dedicated to the very first person I ever saw face to face in this entire world – my mother. As I reflect on my country, its achievements, and where it needs to go in the future, I continue to honour those who have paved the way. My mother Agatha Watson is among them.
The year 1973 was a special time in our country. Bahamians were proud and were embracing all the hopes and dreams of a newly-independent country. In every aspect of life where Bahamians were succeeding, they were celebrated. So when my mother won the Miss Bahamas title that year, she also won the adoration of thousands near and far. A beautiful 18-year-old girl from Long Island who was humble, sweet and sincere wore the crown that sent her around the world representing her newly-independent country.
The beautiful thing is, my mother has remained that way all her life. She is a petite, graceful, kindhearted woman who loves her country and is filled with Bahamian pride. Throughout the years, she has proven that what she presented on that stage, and the way she was when she wore the crown, was real and true.
My mother was born to William and Olga Watson in the remote and southernmost settlement on Long Island, Gordon’s. There, my grandfather and his brothers Thomas, Edgar and Bruce raised their families. So, Gordon’s really comprised of all Watsons. They enjoyed one of the most beautiful beaches on the island. There, my mother grew up with her six brothers and her cousins enjoying all the childhood bliss the islands provide. They spent a lot of time on the beach, as my Papa and his brothers were fishermen and farmers.
“I loved to read and would sit under the lignum vitae tree every afternoon after school and on weekends and read whatever I could get my hands on,” mom said of her childhood days.
“I would imagine the far away places I read about and dreamed about visiting them one day. Every night before going to bed, I had to read a chapter from the Bible to daddy.”
Agatha attended Mortimer’s All Age School until she was 11-years-old. The Government offered scholarships to Family Island students to attend school in New Providence. She had taken the exams for three schools but choose St John’s College because she had heard that Father Pestaina was at that school and she was familiar with him as he was the Priest at Holy Family Anglican church in Mortimer’s in earlier years.
She found the transition to Nassau difficult. She was away from her parents and cousins and although she went to live with her older brother with his family, it was not the same.
“There was no one my age there, and I really missed my cousins, my parents and younger brother… and most of all, the sound of the ocean at night. I think that reading the Bible, especially the 23rd Psalm, helped me through difficult times when I transitioned to Nassau. I had a New Testament given to most of us by our cousin, Pastor Rex Major, and I kept that and read from it every night as if I was reading to my father.”
At St John’s, Agatha made many friends and enjoyed her high school years. She believes she was fortunate to have had Father Neil Roach as the homeroom teacher for her form, because he treated all of them as if they were his children. During her last year of high school, the students were subject to career talks to help them determine their future path. She was not sure of what she wanted to do, but she did know that she wanted to travel. She decided she would see how she could get into interior decorating, and she collected information on this field, but she knew that her parents could not afford to send her away for training.
“While I was contemplating this, one of my classmates, Buena Wright, telephoned me to say that there was an ad in the newspaper by Bahamas World Airlines for stewardesses,” she recalls.
“So together, we went and were hired on the spot! Unfortunately for me, my brother with whom I lived, discouraged me and said that I should go to BTVI (Bahamas Technical and Vocational Institute) and do a secretarial course. I did this, and at the same time I discovered that they had an Architectural Drafting course, so I took that course also.”
At BTVI, employers would often take on students as apprentices, and Agatha was fortunate to have been selected from the Architectural programme to work with Mr Howard Dobell, whose company Dobell Howard Humpreys was the engineer for a few Government schools at the time, including SC Mcpherson and LW Young. She accompanied him on site visits to these schools.
Eventually, she moved from her brother’s house and was living with a woman who would become like a sister to her, Mavis McCartney-Smith. She used to babysit for her and she ended up moving in, because Mavis worked at a hotel and sometimes it would be too late to drop Agatha back home.
“One Sunday afternoon, two of her friends came to have lunch with us,” Agatha said.
“We were all sitting around the dining table and one of them mentioned that there was an ad in the newspaper looking for attractive young ladies to enter the Miss Bahamas pageant, and that the top prize was a European trip. She suggested that I apply. Well I did not think I would be a good candidate as I did not have much experience… I had not travelled anywhere and basically lived a sheltered life. After much coaxing from Mavis, I finally called one of the members and went to the meeting. Well after meeting the other contestants, I decided I would do it just for experience, because I was much shorter than most of them and they already had their sponsor. I would have to find a sponsor. However, Mr Dobell’s company ended up being my sponsor and so I was set! I did not tell my family - especially my older brother - because I felt he would discourage me again. They did not know until they saw the contestants in the newspaper!”
The Miss Bahamas pageant should have been held in early July, but because of the excitement and anticipation of our country becoming Independent, and with all of the events leading up to July 10, 1973, the pageant was not held until August 27.
“The night of Independence, I was among the thousands of Bahamians at Fort Charlotte waiting with baited breadth for the raising of the Bahamian flag,” Agatha recalled.
“During preparation for the pageant, the committee members shared with us the importance of being an Independent country, and pride was welling up in all our hearts.
So my reign as Miss Bahamas 1973-1974 was a special time, and completely different from any other queen’s. I felt a sense of pride and privilege to be able to represent the new Bahamas and at the same time, I was afraid that I would not be capable of representing well.”
However, she represented this country outstandingly, and continued to contribute to the Miss Bahamas pageant as a committee member, assisting in moulding young women to become ambassadors for their country for many years. She has also spent many years as a committed judge for the Junkanoo parades.
In 1974, the Miss Universe pageant was held in Manila, the Philippines: “I enjoyed the three weeks there among the other contestants touring the city, even though the rehearsals and schedules for events were tiring. On the day of the parade through the streets of Manila, all contestants rode on vehicles with their country flag as identification, but when I was taken to my vehicle, the British flag was on it. I refused to go on the vehicle as I had brought a Bahamian flag with me and gave it to the organizers to be sure that I had our flag for the parade. I was upset and insisted that they find my flag. Up until that time, my photo was in the newspapers in Manila a lot. It seemed that after that, I was not very popular. I did not make the finals, but my roommate Miss Wales was the first runner-up and I was happy for her.”
As was the custom for the new Miss Bahamas, Agatha was hired by the Ministry of Tourism. Juanita Carey was her boss, and along with Athama Bowe, they made sure to give Agatha all the literature she needed to be well-informed about her country. She spent most of her reigning year travelling around the USA, Canada and Europe with Tourism officials and Tourism Minister, Sir Clement Maynard.
“On a trip to Chicago, I was in the hotel lobby with Al Collie and the VIPs,” she said.
“Sir Clement must have overheard us all talking and of course in ‘Bahamianese’ - because a day or so after our return to Nassau I was told that the Minister wanted to see me. I was nervous and wondered what it was about. Well to my surprise he called me to compliment me. He said that he was pleasantly surprised to hear me speak in proper English and answer the TV show host confidently and knowledgeably. He just wanted to say I did a good job!”
“I am thankful for my parents who instilled in me the importance of being truthful and to always try to do the best at whatever you were doing, and I encourage my children and grand-children to do the same. My mother taught me to pray every morning as soon as I awake. She always said to ask God to help you through the day.”
These days are so different from the way they were 47 years ago: “We say we are proud to be Bahamian, but what does it really mean? I am not so sure that we are because we seem to take on the identity of the foreigners in our country instead of promoting our own culture and love for ourselves. Our young people, especially young men, seem to be so very angry and they are killing each other over simple things.”
Still gracious, and still true, the Independence queen of The Bahamas appeals to her fellow Bahamians to remember that manners, respect and love of country helped make Bahamians who they are and without these virtues, we could lose the very essence of being Bahamian.