The Burma Road Riot
The Burma Road Riot

The Burma Road Riot

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  • Published: June 22, 2018
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I’se a Man Political Awakening and the 1942 Riot in the Bahamas Abstract When Americans began building their World War II bases in Nassau, the Bahamians they hired expected the high wage rates that usually accompanied foreign contracts. Unfortunately, the Bahamian government had negotiated much lower rates than were expected. Green, with his cry ‚I’se a man,? captured the indignation that many of his co-workers felt. After attempts to address the wage issue by collective bargaining failed, two thousand labourers gathered at the building site chanting ‚we want more money.?

Their cries fell on deaf ears and police officers were called in to disperse the group. But, the police only succeeded in agitating the protestors. Eventually, armed with sticks and clubs, the leaderless crowd marched to where they would be heard. They marched to Bay Street, the stage for some of the most significant events in the Bahamas’ history and a social space that has continually been at the centre of cultural, economic and political life in the country. Two days of rioting ensued. Although the riot was triggered by a labor dispute, it has been described as the first sign of a popular movement in the Bahamas.

And, some have described the riot as a tremor along the fault line that divided the rich white Bahamians who owned businesses on Bay Street and the poor blacks who worked as laborers and lived in the poorer neighborhoods ‚over-the-hill.? This paper is an effort to retell the story of the riot, focusing on its significance as the first sign of political

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awakening in the country’s black community. This paper was published in the Journal of Caribbean History, 41 (1 & 2) 2008. Paper presented at the 30th Annual Conference of the Society for Caribbean Studies, The National Archives, Kew, UK, July 2006.

We would like to thank Nicola Virgill and John Rolle for comments on previous versions of this paper. The standard disclaimer applies. * I. Introduction At the beginning of the Second World War, the British and American governments made arrangements to build training bases on several of the British West Indian islands. Two of these operational bases were scheduled to be built on New Providence Island, the economic hub of the Bahamas; one in Oaks Field known as Main Field and one in the western end of the island known as Satellite Field.

The Project, as it was called, would employ over two thousand Bahamians. When the news about this employment opportunity was publicized, many men from the outlying Bahamian islands flocked to New Providence joining the already large labor pool that looked forward to the high wages that such foreign projects historically brought. The wages offered were not only lower than was expected but there was an inequity of pay between Americans and Bahamian laborers employed at the same jobs.

The men were dissatisfied but neither management nor government made any real steps to reconcile the wage dispute. What started as low grumbling among the men at work, exploded into two days of rioting that left six men dead, several people injured an

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Bay Street, the island’s principal commercial district, and parts of Grant’s Town, where many of the laborers resided, in shambles. Dame Doris Johnson, noted Bahamian politician, has argued that the 1942 riot was a watershed event in the Bahamas’ political and racial history. That the June 1 and 2 disturbances were mblematic of a growing political consciousness within the Bahamas’ majority black community and was the explosive start of what would ultimately be a relatively quiet revolution to usher in black rule and independence in the former British colony. As Johnson recorded, as a consequence of the riot ‚the first awakenings of a new political awareness began to be felt in the hearts of black people < time, and the remarkable foresight, courage, and initiative of a few dedicated members of that majority were all that were required to crystallize this awareness into a mighty political force.?

Sir Randol Fawkes, labor leader and parliamentarian, has concurred. As they rightly point out, the riot was the first major collective labor action in the Bahamas with political overtones. Political scientist, Colin Hughes, however, has questioned its significance. While accepting it as a precursor, he views it more as a symbol that was profitably mythologized and rallied around once the popular movement actually found its feet. According to Hughes, the riot was ‚a momentary outburst of raw energy? that ‚provided martyrs and a heroic moment? o Bahamian blacks ‚once a political movement had finally started.? Agreeing with Hughes, Gail Saunders sees it as a ‚short-lived spontaneous outburst? after which ‚the black masses slept on.? 3 Both deny any direct link to the dramatic socio-political developments in the 1960s, pointing out that nothing much happened in response to the riot and that no real push for political power or majority rule could be said to exist in the Bahamas for more than a decade after the riot. They also point out that nothing like this ever happened again in the Bahamas making this event an anomaly.

The riot, however, was more than an isolated act of venting. And, although a powerful symbol of black agency that has been referenced again and again in the political struggles of Bahamian blacks, the riot was more than a symbol. The riot had real (if not immediate) effects. Following Johnson, it is our contention that the riot is rightfully considered the first shot in the battle for political change in the Bahamas. The riot also kindled the development of a pro-black consciousness in the country, a necessary precursor to black rule and independence.

At the time of the riot, political and economic life in the colony was controlled by a small group of white merchants who were headquartered on Bay Street. As Johnson describes, ‚the usually docile and cheerful Bahamian workers? marched towards Bay Street, the space of white wealth, ‚in an angry and belligerent mood.? The 1942 riot demonstrated to both Bahamian blacks and the oligarchs who were known collectively as the ‚Bay Street Boys,? that Bay Street was vulnerable. Indeed, the riot showed quite clearly that the hold the merchant princes had on

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