Today is Emancipation Day, not just in the Bahamas, but all across the former British empire. 176 years ago – in 1834 – my nation, Britain, finally abolished slavery. The Bahamas as a nation, however, is only five years older than me… not until 1973 did the Bahamas became independent from Britain – they celebrated the birthday the weekend I arrived.

This island and its family islands of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas share alot of history in common with the Caribbean as whole; the region was home to several million peaceful native Americans, who were almost completely wiped out by the Spanish and then by the English, through slavery, outright murder and disease. Both countries then imported black slaves stolen from Africa, depopulating some areas by between 60 and 90 per cent. For a time in the 17th century the Bahamas was administered from the Carolinas, and from 1718 directly by the British. These are young cultures, with their populations all from somewhere else – most of them moved here by force.

Sacred Space by Antonious RobertsOne of the most moving things I’ve experienced on the island so far is an artwork “Sacred Space” by Bahamian artist Antonious Roberts; figures of slave women carved out of casuarina trees, still rooted in the ground; they look out over the ocean, towards Africa. Even more moving, a few yards away are the “Pirate Steps”, more accurately called the Slave Steps because up them from about 1785 onwards were marched thousands of African slaves who were brought here to work for the ruling white people on the island. At the bottom of the steps I found a young white American couple from the South, larking about and taking photos of eachother on the rocks, unaware or uncaring of how their predecessors had driven thousands of other human beings across those rocks like cattle. A few yards further along, the same harbour that berthed the slave ships now accommodates Esso oil and gas tankers.

So most people in these countries like the Bahamas have been the working class, working for someone else’s benefit, for not just decades but centuries. Since I’ve been here I’ve met black Bahamians who are film-makers, business people, university staff and professors, poets and authors. People who are well-travelled, highly intelligent, thoughtful, conscientious and considerate. But black society in general – in the US (which had crazy racist segregation laws even as late as the 60s) as well as in the Caribbean and Africa – has hardly had a chance to develop a well-rounded, mature culture; it is still recovering from centuries of being broken apart in order to build nice big stone houses for the rich of Lancaster and London, both British cities I’ve lived in that directly and hugely benefitted from – literally – slave labour.

At least unlike Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba (most obviously), Puerto Rico, Grenada and even Jamaica, the Bahamas has escaped military and/or spook intervention by the modern United States (I’m talking post-WWII). But that’s only because it was kept in line quite effectively by the British anyway.

Pirate Steps at Clifton Pier

Pirate Steps at Clifton Pier

Today, the Bahamian people are trying to forge their own independent culture and identity as a young nation, but I can’t help but shake the impression that this island is very much a playground for rich Americans (very little of which wealth “trickles down” to the average Bahamian) and the Bahamian government – despite a lack of public enthusiasm – is very good at doing exactly what Washington tells them, including their impending joining of the World Trade Organisation.

There are plenty of examples of the Bahamas not being an empowered nation in control of itself. The brain drain is one sad example. There is one tertiary education institution in the whole of the Bahamas, the College of the Bahamas. Only this year are they starting to offer a Masters program. Many politicians do not even believe that the college is needed at all. They are happy to see the most promising and cultured, intelligent young people go away to the USA, Canada or Europe for their education. Many will not return to their home, where intellectual enquiry is not encouraged or rewarded. Yet then politicians and the media complain of the “Brain Drain”, and criticise individuals for “abandoning” their country. Clearly, their country abandoned them first by failing to have a thorough educational infrastructure. There is still a clear pattern of ex-pats being given work that no Bahamian can be found to do, because no Bahamian has been given the training and opportunity to do it. I met a European who is a new senior civil servant; he has been imported directly into a top job because there is insufficient home-grown talent (a law preferences Bahamian applicants over foreign ones where possible). He told me how he is overseeing major works, carried out by a foreign contractor. Nearby, the Chinese are building a new sports stadium. One of the most important public works at the moment is to dredge the harbour so even bigger cruise ships can be accommodated.

Investment into the Bahamas comes in terms of banking, tourism, cruise ships and mega-hotel complexes like the offensive gigantic and pink Atlantis resort (an exact copy of the one in Dubai, both owned by a multi-billionaire). Tourists, mainly American, and British, of course flock to these casinos and mickey-mouse restaurants (that reminds me, the Disney cruise ships also come here).

A large percentage of Bahamians are dependent – increasingly – on these services and tourists, for their jobs as maids, waitresses, shop assistants, cleaners… And Bahamians are not exactly respected in their own country; apparently companies that take tour groups into Atlantis have a policy not to employ any person with dreadlocks. Bahamians – at least black Bahamians – are not expected to go there. I know someone who was questioned repeatedly and nearly asked to leave a coffee shop for not being a tourist. Some bars and clubs in the Bahamas are essentially openly racist, not letting in Bahamians – unless they are the rich white ones.

Pirate Steps at Clifton Pier

Pirate Steps at Clifton Pier

The Bahamian dollar being tied to the US allows perfect facility for Americans to come and go as they please.  The airport is being expanded – at huge cost – to make way for even more of them. All in all, a culture of impoverishment and dependency prevails – dependency on foreign investment, both infrastructural and daily – and dependency because Bahamian’s life goals are too often reduced to the lowest common denominator, becoming tied to how they can best serve the “other” people, the people with the money, the people who are in charge, the people who come here for the sun and sand and sea but expect to be insulated from the crime, poverty and pollution. Bahamians are not readily able to develop an independent destiny for themselves and their country.

And that’s before we consider fundamentalist Christianity – another “gift” that America and Britain have given the Caribbean… and one that will continue for decades to come, before people question whether it is in their own best interests. Although not as bad as in Jamaica, homosexuality – for example – is not just frowned upon but attracts physical violence. In the 90s a cruise ship with mainly gay passengers was turned away by the Bahamian government, such was the public hysteria. Thanks to the “Christian Council” Brokeback Mountain was not screened in Bahamian cinemas. Neither was the South Park movie.

But opposing homosexuality has very little to do with emancipating native Bahamians. It still has everything to do with Bahamians having internalised someone else’s set of largely disciplinarian and pro-individualist/anti-community moral values; ironically when most of the Western nations who are imposed that religion on them are now relaxed about homosexuality, and have far better, more compassionate welfare provisions.

The Bahamas continues to import bad ideas from outside, rather than finding its own solutions. As part of the kow-towing to rich foreigners, the government allowed the building of a large new housing development on top of the only fresh water table left on this island. Fresh water comes to the capital by barge. Yes, barge, across the sea, from another island. What kind of government paves over the only fresh water left and brings water to its citizens by boat? More than once apparently the barge has had problems, and there have been water shortages. But then hardly anybody drinks the water anyway (it’s too high in calcium). Most people drink water from barrels (although there is hardly an endless supply of that, either, and of course, it costs $5 a time).

Everybody loves conch

Everybody loves conch

The national dish is conch, a small snail-like sea creature enclosed in its beautiful white and pink shell. Conch salad, conch fritters, conch chowder, cracked conch; it’s a big thing here. But because of the demand from natives and tourists combined the conch are getting smaller as fishermen don’t want to wait for juveniles to mature. Conch is becoming more and more scarce, and the price has risen by 50% in the last couple of years. Given that conch is as inseparable from the Bahamian mentality as tea is from the British, or coffee from the American, I can’t help thinking this particular environmental crisis is going to hit hard. But it’s not all bad since there is plenty of imported food…. in fact, almost all of it. There seems to be hardly any agriculture left, certainly not here on New Providence island, with the nation’s capital Nassau, and precious little on the surrounding family islands. Certainly very little that is on a commercially viable scale. Yet the government is continuing to support policies that mitigate against local food, and the culture is increasingly the poverty diet that most of America would recognise: too much meat, too much diary, too much high fructose corn syrup; in short too much fat, crap and processed sugar and not enough exercise. But the corporations of course (Coke and Pepsi have their own brands here such as Goombay Punch (parent company Pepsi is not even mentioned on the tin)) are laughing.

In order to deal with the prodigious amount of waste created by a culture of high-sugar intake, soda drinking, beer drinking and bottled water, the government is considering incinerating its waste in an almost certainly toxic fashion (advised on this by American consultants). But then the dump is freely burning away anyway. Some nights the air reeks of poisonous burning plastic.

Yet the government’s main ambition seems to be to participate more fully in neo-liberal globalisation, which is bound to wipe out whatever agriculture and domestic manufacturing are left. In the last decade Bahamians have objected to CSME (the Caribbean Single Market and Economy) and the EPA (the European Partnership Agreement). Unfortunately though the main reasons seem to have been a partly irrational and racist fear of Haitian immigrants. Now that “accession” to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is near, the government seems to have taken a different approach: just don’t tell anybody it. So, very soon, with almost no public debate, the Bahamas will be subjected to all the free-market discipline and expectations that the WTO puts on small countries, with none of the ability of an America or a France to hypocritically subsidise their own domestic industry while devastating those of other nations.

America corporations will love it, since the Bahamas has no income tax at all, and no corporation tax at all (yet, as most countries are, is saddled with debt).

In short, even with Independence in 1973, the Bahamas has not achieved any huge real independence; it is now just caught up in another type of exploitative merry-go-round in globalisation. Like any place that has a low opinion of its own worth, and a lack of experience and clout, the politicians look to other bigger people for guidance, because they lack real confidence in themselves. So they will follow America down a path where they will continue to not be in control of themselves as a country and a democracy, and lose even more power over how they live their lives.

There IS an alternative: economic localisation; stimulating domestic agriculture, diversifying fishing, putting in some public transport infrastructure (non-existent), more heavily taxing imports and practices that damage Bahamian society or Bahamians, investing seriously in education and public health (rather than an awful and deadly system of private health insurance (most people don’t have any at all)). While they’re at it they could make sure that corporations pay their way rather than actually free-riding on the taxes that ordinary citizens pay. And with the amount of sun here, consultants have shown that the Bahamas could run itself completely on solar energy, ending part of its dependence on foreign and polluting oil.

All these things would be a sign of a government of the people, operating for the people.

But for now, celebrating Emancipation – freedom from physical slavery – one has to ask, what about freedom from the slavery of other people’s ideas, ideologies, markets, religions, instructions, bullying and demands?

Real independence comes slowly, but without it, there can be no real democracy.

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