When some 2,000 angry negro labourers rioted on June 1st, 1942, the destruction which ensued triggered an immediate investigation by London. Two days of rioting, which started over pay for unskilled labourers on the Oakes Field air strip project, was a pivotal turning point in modern Bahamian history. Shops on Bay Street were damaged and looted. Some vehicles were burned. A few liquor stores in Grants Town was relieved of their alcohol supplies by rioters.
Reports coming out of Nassau, by the Governor, the Duke of Windsor were just not enough. Maybe it was all on purpose. How else could the Duke get the attention of the people he knew could twist the hard arms of the members of the Assembly. An official enquiry, solid recommendations for sweeping change written by London, would give the Duke all the ammunition he needed, to confront the Bay Street block, who controlled the House of Assembly. Windsor wanted to usher in political change to the Colony, but at every turn, he was thwarted by the collective voting force of the merchants who controlled the Assembly. The abdicated king wanted to leave an indelible mark on The Bahamas, and this event, though devastating for the community and economy, might just be his chance.
A formal Royal Commission was organised , headed by a retired colonial Chief Justice, Sir Alison Russell. Sir Alison had much experience in Africa and in colonial labour unrest. He was chairman of the commission into the inquiry of the copper riots in 1935 in Northern Rhodesia, Africa (now called Zimbabwe).
One question in particular London wanted answered. Was the Bahamas labour riot about race? In the end, Sir Alison Russell, assisted by two Bahamian Herberts – Herbert Mckinney and Herbert Brown – concluded emphatically, that race had nothing to do with the riot. The riot was all about money.
(Miami Times, November 15, 1942)
Sir Alison Russell’s, November 26, 1942 royal commission recommendations, broadly fell into four main categories: political, economic, social and taxes.
Each recommendation fell on deaf ears.
The House of Assembly at that time was controlled by the Bay Street merchants and while they tolerated the Governor and London for that matter, there was no way, they were going to cede anymore power to the common people.
On the social front, the aim was to decrease the substantial birth rate by introducing birth control education and practice.
A recommendation for an income tax never had a chance. Those with the most money would be paying and those with little or no income would pay nothing. Income tax in 1942 ran along racial lines. The majority of blacks were poor. Their contributions would not compare to what whites and foreign expats and investors would have to pay. Income tax died, before the ink had even dried, on the commission report.
By March 1943, the royal commission report had been tossed aside. The House of Assembly had appointed their own committee and were tabling bills based on their own internal report.
The internal report commissioned by the House of Assembly concluded that the riot was due to the negligence of the government and as such the government was responsible. And if the government was responsible, then the government should reimburse the Bay Street shop owners for damage caused by the negro rioters. Reimbursement should come from the public treasury upon owners submitting proper claims.
(Detroit Free Press, 12 March 1943 page 9)
INCOME TAX FOR BAHAMAS URGED
NASSAU, Bahamas– (AP) — A royal commission that probed deep into the causes of a disastrous labor riot in Nassau last June has proposed a sweeping program of liberal legislation by the Duke of Windsor and his colonial government.
The commission set by London and headed by Sir Alison Russell, a retired colonial chief justice, recommended:
1. That the Bahamas adopt an income tax to replace the existing system under which the government is almost wholly supports by tariffs on foods and supplies brought into the colony from the United States. The new system would include inheritance taxes.
2. That the secret ballot be given to the voters i the colony’s outlying islands and be made permanent in this metropolitan centre where it is now in effect on a trial basis.
3. That birth control instruction be authorised.
4. That the government adopt a more vigorous economic policy, particularly for the aid of the underprivileged and rural residents of the out-islands.
The commissions’ lengthy, formal report was handed to the Duke of Windsor. It discounted any hint that racial feeling precipitated the riot in this colony of predominant negro population.
(Miami Times, 5th December, 1942)