May 26, 2013

Finest Hour 145, Winter 2009-10

Page 14

From the Canon – My Happy Days in the “Wet” Bahamas

By Winston S. Churchill

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First published in The Daily Mail, 23 March 1932 Published in Finest Hour by kind permission of Winston S. Churchill and Curtis Brown Ltd. (Footnotes by the Editor.)


Ever the literary entrepreneur, Churchill took the occasion to write this article while recuperating from the New York traffic accident that almost killed him in December 1931. (See “My New York Misadventure,” Finest Hour 136, Autumn 2007.) Churchillian visitors to the Bahamas will be intrigued by how much of his 1932 impressions still obtain. The island nation is still a land of “sunlit coasts and invigorating wavelets,” rent from time to time by the “heartache” of hurricanes, only to reopen, “mutilated but not cowed,” for the next tourist season.

Racial harmony presides still, for in this easygoing tropical strand one quickly forgets color, and the Bahamians are sweet, welcoming people, driven by a still-powerful religion. Independent since 1973, and self-governing even before Churchill’s visit, the country still shows British influence. Parliamentary democracy thrives; the Queen’s Birthday and Boxing Day are holidays; Queen Victoria still broods in dignity before the Parliament building in Nassau. The boom following U.S. Prohibition—on which Churchill decidedly writes tongue-in-cheek—was replaced by a thriving tourist industry. Winter residents still ignore the tourists, and the many Canadians testify to what Churchill suggested was Canada’s winter-garden. Much has changed, and much remains the same, in “de lan’ of de sea an’ sun.”

When Christopher Columbus discovered the Bahamas he christened them by various high-sounding names; but the English when they came along some years later and evicted the Spaniards were more prosaic. They called the island Santa Maria de la Concepción, Rum Cay; Fernandina and Isabella, named after the King and Queen of Spain, became respectively Long and Crooked Islands, and San Salvador, the island of the Holy Saviour, was renamed Cat Island. These decisions have been respected by hydrography. [1]

The history of the Bahamas is unedifying. Their first industry was piracy. From the thousands of creeks, bays and harbours in which the group of islands abounds the corsairs scoured the seas for prey. Thither they returned to carouse and quarrel, and here they divided and concealed their booty. More “pirate gold” was found only last month.

Gradually, as civilization toiled onwards, African slaves replaced the destroyed aboriginals and buccaneering was superseded by wrecking. The islands seemed specially blessed by nature for this purpose. Their intricate navigation must have proved in any case most dangerous to seafarers, and the well-conceived use of misleading lights and signals lured many a vessel triumphantly upon the reefs.

So prevalent and so profitable did the new industry become that the earlier Governments of the islands resolved to regulate it. Wrecking became a licensed trade, and those who pursued it were honourable citizens. They had their troubles, none the less, in the unfair and undercutting competition of unauthorized and disreputable wreckers. Nevertheless, the pulse of Bahamian progress beat more strongly as the generations passed.

American independence brought a great incursion of loyalist refugees from the mainland, with large new supplies of slaves; and agriculture added the toils of the land to the craft of the sea. Wrecking in its turn fell out of fashion in the general advance of culture and morals, and the islands were likely to have fallen upon evil days when their protecting saints sent the American Civil War for their deliverance.

Here was the hey-day. The lagoons, which formerly had sheltered Blackbeard and his buccaneers, now provided a far more lucrative security for the blockade-runners. Cargoes of cotton outward bound from the Confederacy purchased cargoes of munitions in return. Important depots and repair shops were erected for the service of the numerous vessels which ran the gauntlet of the Union blockade.

The two Whitworth rifled guns, the first of their kind ever fired in war, whose great range and screech attracted the notice of both armies at Gettysburg, must have reached General Lee by this route. Riches accumulated, and the city of Nassau (named after William of Orange) thrived and grew.

All too soon for the Bahamians, the Civil War came to an end, and a long lean period then ensued. In the 1880s, the eye of Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, already ranging far beyond his native Birmingham, was attracted by the possibilities of sisal-growing. He purchased a large estate, sank much capital therein, and sent one of his sons, a bright young man called Neville, to reap the fruits.

This venture failed. Over-capitalization, the enormous rise in wages on the mainland, and the competition of British East Africa have been assigned as explanations. But the native Bahamians whisper that the real cause was due to malignant fairies who perch in the trees and who had, in some way or other, been offended by the project.

Very lean indeed had the years become in the Bahamas at the beginning of the 20th century. Even the Great War brought no immediate relief. It seemed too far away to do them any good. They deemed themselves entirely God-forsaken. But celestial aid was on its way.

That wonderful surge of idealism which induced the newly enfranchised women of the United States, in the absence of their husbands and brothers at the war, to prohibit forever the use of alcohol by American citizens, was destined to bring to the Bahamas an affluence more steady, more widespread, and more remarkable than any windfall in their long history. There, at the gate of the Caribbean, ministering assiduously to the wants of Uncle Sam, stands Nassau, like Ganymede of questionable reputation, but certainly bearing a cup.

In no part of the American continent is the nobility of the Eighteenth Amendment more admired than in the Bahamas. A numerous, influential, and very wealthy American colony descended swiftly upon Nassau in search of health, sunshine, freedom and refreshment. They did not seek in vain. Their villas, white, orange and pink, rose swiftly in a gay profusion on every knoll and promontory. Their yachts and sailing boats fill the lagoons. They congregate at the luxurious and highly exclusive Porcupine Club to enjoy the delights of eternal summer and incomparable bathing, the diversions of tennis and golf, and the comfort of soft breezes and hard drinks.

The permanent winter residents offer scant welcome to the crowds of their own countrymen who disembark almost daily from visiting ocean liners. These merrymakers must content themselves with a bathe at Paradise Beach and the overflowing hospitality of the taverns of Nassau. Still, they, too, seem to enjoy themselves.

Over all spreads the decorous administration of a British colony. The streets are clean and tidy. Their traffic is regulated by magnificent Negro policemen, each under a fixed umbrella, attired in the undress uniform of the Horse Guards Blue. In front of the Parliament House stands the statue of an extremely youthful Queen Victoria, with an undeniably truculent air; while overhead in great profusion fly the Union Flags.

Racial peace reigns throughout the islands and the colour question appears completely solved. At a dinner given to me by both branches of the Legislature, considerably more than half the members—all in immaculate evening dress—were of ebon hue. It was with pleasure that I listened to speeches affirming the long-proved loyalty of the Bahamas to the British Crown, or heard the Leader of the Opposition declare that “here in Nassau as well as from history we have learned that no civilization or progress is possible without a stable Government administered by capable and honest officials.”

These admirable sentiments are supported by a public revenue which, though reduced in this hard year, is nevertheless four times what it was before the United States voted dry and felt thirsty.

The most grievous visitation of the islanders is the hurricane. Perhaps once in every ten or fifteen years a frightful circular storm sweeps and devastates the Bahamas. Preceded by greenish skies and the instinctive premonitions of the natives and birds, the whirlwind lashes land and sea with the fury of over a hundred and fifty miles an hour.

It is an understood thing between the Bahamas and their Creator that the hurricane season and the tourist season must never clash. Nature has arranged her processes in harmony with this decree. Scarred and mutilated by the calamity which periodically smites them, all the hotels open punctually, and Nassau, throned in luminous seas of green and blue, presents, with whatever heartache, a smiling face to smiling skies.

One need scarcely say that the economic future of the Bahamas, and indeed the whole of the West Indies, ought to be specially linked to Canada. The West Indies can offer to the Dominion exactly that range of tropical products and winter resorts which it needs.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was Under-Secretary for the Colonies, all this talk about the West Indies being Canada’s winter garden, “sun-parlour” and tropical hot-house was already familiar. The talk goes on still. One is shocked to find how little has been done.

Too swiftly came the day when I must leave these sunlit coasts and invigorating wavelets and return to my toils under the bone-dry laws of the United States! Nassau is not only one of the most expensive, but one of the most accessible places in the world. Three or four times a week mighty ships lie in the roads. On one of these I sailed away.

The last scene lingers in my memory. The arduous work of rounding up tardy or straggling passengers had been completed. The rear-guard had tottered up the gangway and reeled safely on to the tender. Last of all, struggling in the grip of six sturdy Bahamians and uttering strange cries of hilarity or wrath, came a tall grey-bearded American citizen earnestly recording his dissent from the provisions of the Volstead Act; while on the jetty minstrels played upon sorrowful saxophones the local anthem of Nassau:

Momma don’t want no rice, no peas, no coco-nut oil,
Momma don’t want no rice, no peas, no coco-nut oil,
Momma don’t want no rice, no peas, no coco-nut oil,
All she wants is brandy, whisky, beer. [3]


[1] In 1925, Watlings Island was renamed “San Salvador.” Cat Island may have been named for the pirate Arthur Catt.

[2] On Chamberlain’s Andros, largest of the islands, locals still speak of “chickcharnies,” bird-like, forest-dwelling elves with piercing red eyes and a tail used to suspend themselves in trees. Like leprechauns, chickcharnies must be treated with respect, or beware the consequences.

[3] To hear this popular song of the 1930s, visit this link.

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