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Bahamian Relationship With Foreigners 

 

Wednesday, October 31, 2007.

 

By Sir Arthur Foulkes

 

The incident at the exclusive Lyford Cay Club in Nassau, involving a distinguished Bahamian gentleman and an expatriate manager merits comment in light of the growing tension over the presence and role of foreigners in the Bahamas.

 

The Bahama Journal reported that Baswell Donaldson, the first Governor of the Central Bank of The Bahamas and currently Chairman of the very successful Bahamian-owned Commonwealth Bank, took some friends to the club on a Saturday for a poolside lunch.

 

The party was refused service by Managing Director Didier Picquot because one of Mr. Donaldson’s guests was not in compliance with the dress code. There had been a change in the code but Mr. Donaldson, a member of the club for 12 years, had not been informed.

 

The Bahamian staff went ahead and served the party in defiance of their manager who never apologized for his behaviour. Another official of the club did offer apologies but the damage had been done.

 

Apparently Mr. Donaldson and the Bahamian staff concluded that there was an element of racism in the whole thing. “He thought because he was white and foreign he could intimidate me,” Mr. Donaldson told The Journal.

 

It is a pity that this incident took place in Lyford Cay because most Bahamians are aware and appreciative of the generous contributions made by wealthy residents of that community and others like it. They have become synonymous with class – in the best sense of the word.

Bahamians are ambivalent about foreigners; we love them and we hate them. The reason for that lies, of course, in our history.

 

Ever since Christopher Columbus made these islands the gateway to the New World for Europeans, the foreigners have been coming. The first wave was Spanish and it completely wiped out the aboriginals.

 

The gentle Lucayans left no literature behind to tell us how they felt about these first foreigners but when the truth about the brutal Spaniards became apparent they no doubt developed a strong but impotent hatred of the newcomers.

Eventually the islands were settled by English-speaking settlers and their African slaves. These foreign slaves did not like their foreign masters either, but together they formed the beginnings of what was to become the Bahamian personality and culture, colony and state.

 

The foreigners kept coming, mostly from Africa by way of other Caribbean countries, from the United States and Europe, and a sprinkling from Asia. Some Bahamian families can trace their ancestry back to the original settlers and their slaves, or to those who arrived here free and established communities like Adelaide and Gambier.

 

But the vast majority of Bahamian families, including some of the old ones,have a recent connection with relatively new settlers. So, like the great United States, we are by every yardstick a nation of immigrants.

Bahamians from old families as well as first and second generation Bahamians have a fierce sense of identity – despite occasional foolish talk to the contrary -- and are jealous of their status as Bahamians.

 

They entertain mixed feelings about foreigners that range from a residual inferiority to a genuinely welcoming attitude, and from suspicion to downright xenophobia. Black Bahamians are more likely to have negative attitudes about foreigners but white Bahamians are not entirely devoid of these feeling.

 

In the pre-1967 era, blacks were at the bottom of the totem pole and generally resented both local whites and British civil servants. But there was also intense friction between local whites and the British overlords.

 

Many of the Brits regarded themselves as a considerable cut above the local whites who were disparagingly referred to as conchy joes, but the whites tolerated them as necessary allies in containing the black majority.

 

There was one particularly obnoxious British Colonial Secretary with a hyphenated name whose arrogant attitude and massive chin seemed to invite the therapeutic application a Bahamian fist, black or white.

But black Bahamians realized that not all white foreigners came with bad attitudes and malevolent intentions. One British Governor with progressive ideas and an extraordinarily enlightened outlook quickly won the hearts of black Bahamians.

 

When Sir Robert Neville finished his term and was about to leave the colony, black Bahamians in the thousands turned out at Clifford Park on a rainy evening to bid farewell and to express appreciation for this fine English gentleman and the reforms he introduced.

 

Many other foreigners have come to The Bahamas over the decades and made deliberate and invaluable contributions to the development of black Bahamians and to the country as a whole.

 

The list is quite long but a few representative ones are investor Sir Harry Oakes from Canada, religious leader Father John Calnan from England, and the teaching nuns of the Catholic Sisters of Charity from the United States.

Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably, others have come with bad attitudes and intentions and have richly deserved the animosity of Bahamians. Most of these are attracted by the beauty of these islands and the opportunity they represent for profit.

 

But they have little regard, much less affection, for the Bahamian people. In fact, some of them seem to think that The Bahamas is too good for the natives. They are aided, astonishingly, by some Bahamians in very high places who are willing to betray their own.

 

These foreigners are a diverse lot. Some come in relatively minor positions and inferior qualifications but by clever social manipulation quickly break through the glass ceiling which seems to impede the progress of qualified Bahamians.

 

Others come with qualifications as middle and upper level managers but with arrogant attitudes, and they become frustrated when they discover that the natives do not recognize their superiority. Some discover to their horror that the natives are more cosmopolitan than they are.

 

It may be true that some Bahamians make the charge of racism against foreigner managers who insist on discipline and performance in the work place. But sometimes Bahamians in leadership positions too quickly dismiss charges of racism by those who have to work with these minor tyrants.

 

A few ugly foreigners are also to be found among the very rich who come to invest in The Bahamas. These are the ones who think that because they have or represent wealth they are entitled to do just as they please, even to the point of breaking the law.

 

They want special treatment when they fly in on their private aircraft: the Customs officers must come to them, and they want their cars on the tarmac without regard to security, customs and immigration procedures.

 

The unease about the foreign presence is being exacerbated by the PLP Government and its new model of development featuring the sale of public land for residential development for foreigners, and also by the rapidly increasing number of foreign workers in The Bahamas.

 

It is important for the future peace and prosperity of The Bahamas that we cultivate a healthy relationship with foreigners. Our two principal industries, tourism and financial services, depend upon it. Also, if the country is going to develop in an orderly and progressive fashion, we are going to need the expertise of expatriates.

 

But those responsible for recruiting foreigners to work in The Bahamas in managerial positions should make sure they are not getting people who have false assumptions and will be unable to function in this society. They would save themselves a lot of headaches – and expense.

The other matters are for Bahamians to sort out.

 

Sir Arthur is a former acting Governor-General for the Bahamas and ambassador to China. He has also served as the Bahamas High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and the European Union. A highly- regarded journalist, writer and political activist, he was a delegate to the Bahamas Independence Conference in London in 1972.

 

Sir Arthur blogs at Bahamapundit 

 

Please e-mail comments about this article to comments@thenewblackmagazine.com

 

 

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