On June 1, 1942, a riot on the streets of Nassau was never supposed to happen. A world war was raging. Rationing was in effect. Things were tight already, and everyone had to make due with a little bit less, whether they liked it or not.
On June 1, 1942, the intention of the men who worked on the American airstrip in Oakes’ Field, called “The Project,” was only to conduct a ‘work to rule’ type protest.
They wanted to walk off the job, causing work to come to a standstill. Then, it was a march to Bay Street, to demand that the House of Assembly revisit the matter of pay with the Americans. Bahamian labourers were making less money, but doing the same job as the American labourers.
What many don’t realise about the Burma Road Riot was that, not everyone who rioted on Bay Street, worked on the Project in Oakes’ Field. All sorts joined in, because, well, they had nothing better to do.
By the time the actual workers got to Bay Street, by the time passions had been inflamed by the heat, frustration, and shouting for equality, by the time local troublemakers, who had nothing better to do joined in, the whole march got out of hand.
A peaceful march became a RIOT!
A few hours march for equal pay, turned into three days of mayhem, destruction, injuries, death and long prison sentences for many.
MANY RIOTERS ARE CONVICTED AND SENT TO PRISON
Alfred “Sweet Potato” Stubbs, the Stupidest Man in Bahamian History 1942
After three long days of riots, much of Bay Street, and parts of Grant’s Town were left in a shambles of looted shops, broken buildings and burnt equipment. There was simply no way in the world that the government could just let the matter of the riot be swept under the rug. Persons who participated, persons who were seen to do the most damage, or who were caught with looted goods, were all prosecuted, and given lengthy jail sentences from nine months to ten years. Some with hard labour.
The Bay Street controlled House of Assembly, and the Governor, the Duke of Windsor, pressed for swift justice.
Swift justice was exactly what happened.
Alfred “Sweet Potato” Stubbs earns the historical allocade of being the very first person tried for committing crimes during the Burma Road Riot… after the riot!
His crime: Burning Books from the Grant’s Town Library
BOOKS IN 1942 WERE THE EQUIVALENT OF IPADS TODAY
Books in 1942 would be the equivalent of an iPad today. In 1942, in the middle of a world war, and decades before the information superhighway would be invented, a book was the only window to the world for millions of people across the globe.
Books were expensive. Precious. And coveted. Encyclopaedias cost hundreds of dollars which few could afford. Libraries, which held all these books, were the only place, poor and even well to do people would find access to them.
For the Bahamas, and the impoverished negro people of Grant’s Town, a library was nothing short of having a gold mine of knowledge right in the centre of their community. For the families who dreamed of a better future, it was more than a gold mine, it was the only way for their children to read the books needed to give them a chance at being more than a labourer. The people who burned the books and the furniture had damaged the whole community, in a very serious way.
The trial of “Sweet Potato” was the first riot case because it was simple and relatively straightforward. The crime for which he was tried, given the time and the place, one of the most heinous for a small colony like the Bahamas.
Alfred Stubbs went in the Grant’s Town Library and threw precious, irreplaceable books of significant historical value, out the window and into the fire. He threw the furniture as well.
He did this, with malice and forethought, on the second day of the riots, on June 2, 1942.
The case was heard on July 16, 1942. The accused Alfred Stubbs alias “Sweet Potato” not being able to afford a lawyer, represented himself at trial.
The Attorney General in presenting the case to the jury, said that this was the first of the riot cases to be tried—– the simplest and shortest…
Alfred “Sweet Potato” Stubbs with 10 previous convictions since 1935, mostly for disorderly conduct and stealing, who testified that he wanted to read a book, as the library was under siege from looters. Sweet Potato snatched a book from another man, who was looting and burning books at the Grant’s Town Library, when the man accidentally dropped the book in the fire…
“Sweet Potato” got 9 months in prison. This would make his 11th conviction.