ON RACIAL LABELS IN THE CARIBBEAN
It’s become fashionable for youngish Bahamians (people in the mid-30s range or so — people born since Independence, that is) to call individuals whose skins are cork-brown, tawny, biscuit brown, tan, paper bag brown, teabag, beige, coconut bark, gumelemi, tamarind, mango, eggshell, café-au-lait, milky tea, carnation, condensed milk, or thereabouts “white”. To be a “white” Bahamian, it seems, one has to be only slightly paler than the perceived “norm”; if your skin has sunset or sunrise tones, if your eyes are green or copper or amber or grey (or not), if your hair is curly or crimpy, or if it has a brown or gold-ish cast, or if it can get long on its own without external aids, you will be labelled “white”.
Well that’s all very well and good, but it’s not particularly accurate or helpful in the national context. Bahamian history, which is not taught in schools with any reliability or coherence, and so which the average young citizen picks up on the fly, from conversations and snippets of information only partially digested, particularly the most recent political history, is all about black and white. Race is part and parcel of our politics, our economics, and our collective psyche. But the “race” that has historical significance and the “race” that we appear to practice today are two very different animals indeed.
If, for instance, young Bahamians imagine that they can take their twenty-first century notions of black and white and translate them into what they may one day read about the history of this nation, they will never fully understand their country and its rich and difficult past. If they imagine that I am a white Bahamian, or that a person with light brown skin and curly hair is a white Bahamian, or that a person with one white parent, or a person with a “white” name is a white Bahamian, they will miss the significance of Majority Rule, of Independence, of the psychic power of the Progressive Liberal Party and the origins of the great divide between FNM and PLP. They will not understand the revolutionary importance of August 19, 1992 or the magnitude of the fact that this year, National Pride seemed to be a movement that started from the street, on Facebook and all Bahamians seem pleased to identify themselves with the colours of black, aquamarine and gold at this time of year.
They will not comprehend the One Bahamas experiment of the 1990s, nor will they understand that, at least on the surface, that experiment has finally succeeded in 2010. And they will not understand, fundamentally, the challenge, the strength, and the revolutionary significance that being a product of the Caribbean (which, all protestations to the contrary, we Bahamians are) can bring to this 21st century, globalized world. Their concept of “race” erases both our history and its power.
Here’s the reality of the situation. The Bahamas, along with Bermuda and Barbados, was one of the handful of British West Indian colonial territories to include among its population a sizeable number of settlers of European descent. We are not talking, as many younger Bahamians appear these days to believe, about of people of mixed African and European heritage who appear to be white; we are talking about European settlers of the same kind as the people who settled the Thirteen Colonies of the United States. In the “Three Bs” of the British West Indian colonies, as on the American mainland, white settlers moved to Bermuda, Barbados, and The Bahamas with a view to creating societies of their own. Change came in the end to Barbados, where sugar eventually took over as the mainstay of economic activity, and the society took on the characteristics of a full plantation society; but in The Bahamas, as in Bermuda, the plantation system never thrived.
For the first 150 years of Bahamian settlement, therefore, African slaves composed a minority of the population. Young Bahamians learn about this period most fully, it would appear, in their history classes; when I grill my college students on our histories they seem only able to recall piracy and the Lucayans. It is this period of history that they are considering — the period from the earliest European settlement, in 1647, to the wake of the American revolution in the 1780s, which proved revolutionary for the entire Caribbean basin. But it’s not a period with which most of today’s Bahamians will have any actual connection through descent or otherwise, as during this time the population of African-descended peoples never exceeded the population of European descent. For those of us who believe that true-true Bahamians are, or must be black, the reality of the first 150 years of Bahamian settlement may provide a subtle shock. For that period, the demographics show that in fact The Bahamas was primarily a white colony, and not a slave-holding one.
Let me give you some idea. In 1670, the Eleutherian Adventurers were two-thirds European, and most of the non-white settlers were free people rather than slaves. In 1722, the population of African descent stood at 28% of the overall Bahamian total, the remaining 72% of the population being of European stock. Moreover, of the 28% of the Africans, many were free; thus the total of the enslaved population was remarkably low. By 1731, the black population had increased, thanks to the importation of slaves by Governor Phenney, to 32% of the overall population. The society and culture of The Bahamas at that time, therefore, must have resembled those of many of the Thirteen Colonies: with a sizeable European majority and a minority of people of non-white origin.
In a land without major plantations, slaves were used as household servants, boat crews, skilled labourers, and manual workers on the construction of homes and the like, and large numbers were not required by the Bahamian settlers. What was most interesting about the free population, though, was that it was not all white. There were a number of black and mulatto free settlers as well, and many of them were people of social and economic substance. Several, indeed, owned their own slaves.
By the 1770s, the investment of Europeans economically and culturally in the institution of slavery, and the normalizing of the idea of the right of Europeans to enslave Africans and people of other “races”, had led to a shift in Bahamian demographics, so that the population was divided equally between whites and non-whites. However, this change in designation might have been the result of new laws that had been passed defining who was white and who was not as well as evidence of a real increase in the non-white population. Even at this time, the overall percentage of slaves in the population was still a minority. Many of the non-whites — Michael Craton and Gail Saunders 1 estimate up to 20 per cent of the total population — were free people “of colour”, people of African descent who were not slaves, or free people of mixed African and European heritage.
Towards the end of the century, when skin colour and origin had been transformed from aesthetic and cultural differentiators into markers of a natural right of some people to assume dominance over others, this free coloured population were causing some confusion in the appropriate social hierarchy. Two laws were passed with particular significance to the resolving of this confusion.
The first was an Act in 1756 whose purpose was to define who was a “white” Bahamian and who was a person of colour. According to this law, only those persons who were “above Three Degrees removed in a lineal descent from the Negro Ancestor” could be called white. In other words, everyone who had a single parent, grandparent or great-grandparent of African descent was classified as not white, no matter what they looked like or how much money or education they might have. Despite appearance, custom, or connection to white families (as many people of mixed descent were the cousins or “outside” family of people of white Bahamians), these free people of colour were defined by this law as second-class citizens, and prohibited from sharing in “all the Privileges and Immunities of His Majesty’s White Subjects”.2
The second was an Act, passed in 1767 and amended in 1768, “For the governing of Negroes, Mulattoes and Indians”. This Act governed not only the activities of slaves, determining what they could do and how they could be punished — and for what — but it also limited very specifically what “Privileges and Immunities” were available to free people of colour. Of particular interest was the fact that the punishments prescribed for slaves offering violence to white Bahamians were exactly the same for those free people who were not white. To be precise, these punishments consisted of:3
- first offence: public whipping
- second offence: mutilation — the slitting of the nose, the cutting off of the ears, or the branding of the face
- third offence: execution
The only difference between the punishments given to a slave and a free person of colour were that free coloured settlers had the right to be tried in open court, presumably with legal representation before they were sentenced (and presumably they had the right of appeal), while slaves did not have that right; slaves who were guilty of giving offence to whites were to be presented to a special tribunal of five people, two justices of the peace and three freeholders.
In addition, a free person could be fined £15 instead of being whipped.4 This wasn’t much consolation, though, because under the same law, the evidence and oaths of free coloured Bahamians were not considered binding or valid, thus making their ability to appear in court more of a facade than anything else. They were prohibited from gambling, selling liquor, and were restricted in what they could trade or plant. Most important, though, was the fact that they could, for certain crimes, forfeit their freedom; the punishment prescribed for any free person of colour (African, mulatto, or Amerindian) who harboured a runaway slave was slavery and deportation — a harsher punishment than that given to whites (who would be fined) or slaves (who would be whipped).5
Now although these laws were repealed in 1824 during the gradual movement of the British colonies towards freedom for all persons, their impact on the society and its definition of black and white, of coloured and non-coloured, was long-lasting. Indeed, it lasted well into the late twentieth century; even in 1967, the “majority” represented in “Majority Rule” was in fact the non-white majority, most of whom were defined as they had been defined two hundred years before by the 1756 Act — as having a single great-grandparent, grandparent or parent who was black — and for whom, although the laws had been changed, access to political power and equality under the government had consistently and systematically been blocked.
So. To call me or any other Bahamian of partial African descent “white”, then, is to deny this historical truth. Some of us who fall into this category may be in the business of denying it for ourselves; but that will not change the reality of our history, nor will it change the reality of the oppression meted out to those of us whose ancestors did not all hail from Europe for well over 350 years of Bahamian settlement. It will not change the facts on which the Independent Bahamas was founded, and it will not help to heal the wounds that linger from that difficult past.
I plan to continue this discussion, going further into the subtleties and complexities of this history, but for now: Please. Don’t call me white.
Nicolette Bethel is a Bahamian writer, blogger and academic. She holds a PhD and MPhil in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge and a BA in English Literature from the University of Toronto.
She left academia to assume the position of Director of Cultural Affairs for the Bahamas Government, but continues to teach part-time. She also writes a weekly column for the Nassau Guardian.
She blogs at Nicolette Bethel's Blog.