|The independence series, part 1|
Philip C. Galanis
Published: Jul 09, 2012
Tomorrow we celebrate the 39th anniversary of Bahamian independence. The Commonwealth of The Bahamas was established by an act of the British Parliament which was passed on June 20, 1973 and took effect in the early hours of July 10, 1973, when thousands on Clifford Park witnessed for the first time the raising of the Bahamian flag after the Union Jack was lowered for the last time on this colony, ending 325 years of British rule.
This week, we begin a series of articles on The Bahamas constitution and for part one would like to Consider This... what were the salient issues facing those charged with shaping our constitution as we moved to independence, and how were those issues reconciled?
A natural progression
Bahamian independence in 1973 was a natural progression following a decade of rapid transformation, not just in The Bahamas but also in the Caribbean. In The Bahamas, the constitution twice prominently featured in the body politic, first in 1964 and then again in 1969.
The Bahamas received its first written constitution on January 7, 1964, which granted full control over its internal affairs to The Bahamas government, with the governor retaining responsibility for external defense and internal security. Cabinet government was introduced, and the upper house of the legislature, previously the Legislative Council, became the Senate. The Senate’s membership increased from 11 to 15, while the House of Assembly retained its designation and the number of elected representatives numbered 33. In 1969, the British government turned over the internal and external affairs to the Government of The Bahamas and replaced the office of premier with that of prime minister.
During this period, Caribbean countries were also obtaining independence from Great Britain. It started with Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago in August 1962. Guyana and Barbados followed in May and November 1966, respectively. The Bahamas was next in 1973 and, by the end of that decade, Grenada, Dominica and St. Lucia had also gained their independence from Great Britain.
We can appreciate that the fervor for national independence for Caribbean (and African) countries was inextricably tethered to nationalistic and socio-political realities of the era, aided by Great Britain’s willingness to release its grip on the empire, upon which the sun was said never to set. For The Bahamas, the movement to independence was a natural progression, propelled by the “trade winds” of the time.
The independence conference in London
The general election of September 1972 was contested with the understanding that a victory for the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) would begin the process of national independence for The Bahamas. It won and Loftus Roker was appointed to liaise with the official opposition Free National Movement (FNM) regarding matters relative to the Independence Conference before going to London.
Therefore, beginning in early December 1972, the PLP, headed by Sir Lynden Pindling, and the FNM, headed by Sir Kendal Isaacs, led a delegation to London to discuss an independence constitution with the British government.
Because The Bahamas already had the 1964 and 1969 constitutions, there was no need to start afresh so 90 percent of the issues regarding independence were agreed upon by both political parties before leaving for London.
The mood of the Bahamian delegation was upbeat and the talks were conducted in a very congenial atmosphere. Several of the delegates to the Constitutional Conference have noted that the drafting of the constitution was a moment in time where the PLP and FNM worked harmoniously, notwithstanding several philosophical points of departure.
One of the early issues discussed at the Constitutional Conference was Bahamian citizenship. The British attempted to persuade the delegation to accept the precedent that had been established by other colonies; that is, for British citizens and “belongers” living in the colonies to register at Government House, so that, at independence, they would automatically become Bahamian citizens. The Bahamian delegation unanimously objected to this, arguing instead that citizenship should not be so open-ended, and that there should be a process by which citizenship would be determined by the government. The Bahamian delegation was adamant and united, and the British relented and accepted the Bahamian position.
Another area of disagreement surrounded gender equality. The PLP proffered that full equality for women should not be enshrined in the constitution. The FNM argued the opposite view. Ultimately, the British government agreed with the PLP’s position.
There was a discussion on the issue of rustication and the freedom of movement and the right of Bahamians to leave The Bahamas. Some in the PLP expressed the concern that Bahamians might depopulate the Family Islands and were also concerned that, in the absence of a rustication provisions, the country could suffer a brain drain. This fuelled the debate about giving Bahamians the right to leave not just their native islands but the country. The British agreed with the opposition on this issue, and consequently there were no prohibitions on Bahamians’ ability to move freely within or outside The Bahamas.
With the issues fully aired and agreed, Sir Kendal Isaacs and the FNM delegates returned to The Bahamas. Some of the PLP delegates, including Sir Lynden, remained in London to finalize the terms upon which the new Bahamian constitution would be presented to the British Parliament. The delegation understood that the British Parliament would introduce and pass that all-important Bill for an Act to grant Independence to The Bahamas.
The surviving signatories of the Bahamian constitution are: Sir Arthur Foulkes, Arthur D. Hanna, Sir Orville Turnquest, Paul L. Adderley, A. Loftus Roker, George A. Smith and Rev. Philip M. Bethel. Deceased signatories included Sir Lynden Pindling, Sir Milo Butler, Sir Clement Maynard, Rev. Carlton E. Francis, Sir Kendal Isaacs, Cadwell C. Armbrister, Henry J. Bowen and Norman S. Solomon. Although there were other Bahamians present at the conference who were not part of the official delegation, these 15 signatories to the Bahamian constitution should rightly be recognized as our nation’s Founding Fathers.
After returning to The Bahamas, the government developed the country’s flag, the coat of arms and the national anthem. It is worth noting that the official opposition was not consulted on any of these matters.
After the Constitutional Conference, the government engaged in the most impressive public relations exercise ever conducted in Bahamian history. There was a massive national campaign to inform civil society and the Bahamian people about what independence meant to the country. The post-conference activities were spearheaded by George Smith, who was the parliamentary secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister and headed the Independence Secretariat.
In the early hours of July 10, 1973, the Commonwealth of The Bahamas was born.
There is no doubt that the men who assembled in London to frame the constitution of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas 40 years ago performed as impressively as the American Founding Fathers who assembled in Philadelphia in 1787 to craft that country’s constitution. The Bahamian delegates to the London Constitutional Conference are to be applauded for their superlative efforts in drafting a social contract which has served us these past 39 years.
In the weeks ahead, we will examine key articles of the constitution that have guided our ship of state. We will also consider some of the issues that should be addressed in amending our constitution, hopefully before we celebrate the 40th anniversary of a nation that was born on July 10, 1973.
• Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis & Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.