PRELUDE

What we call ‘my life’ is but a constantly rewritten version of our own past. ‘My life’ is the mental autobiography with which and by which we all live. What really happened is quite another matter — Timothy Garton Ash, The File.

We flew from Atlanta early on a bright July morning. After an hour or so, amid a dazzling blue sea it was easy to make out the distinctive creeks of eastern Grand Bahama, then the distant outline of northern Abaco before the plane banked around the south of New Providence and landed at what had once been called Windsor Field. The islands seen from ten thousand metres above[1] brought into sharp memory the hurricane tracking maps from the summers of the 1960s and the life of a small boy called Kit by his family.

Fifty-two years earlier they had all been warmly greeted at the same airport by Rodney Bain, the jovial director of education for the Bahamas and organiser of Easter-time chocolate hunts in his garden, and driven into Nassau via Interfield Road past Lake Cunningham to the Town Hotel in East Street: their house was not yet quite ready. In 2014 a taxi followed the same route, now a dual carriageway, and then a new road to the north coast and a motel called El Greco next to Junkanoo Beach. On both occasions the heat and humidity felt overwhelming. The second time everything looked very much smaller and somewhat tawdry.

PART ONE

SCHOOL

Kit had been fascinated by maps, place names and geography in general for as long as he could remember. His sister, Penny, enjoyed bath-time number puzzles with their father Frank from a similar early age, but for his part he could recall no particular geographic stimulus. Frank’s itchy feet after service in the wartime Royal Navy produced several false departures, to India and Australia among others. Each time the atlas was consulted with crude attempts at cartographic reproduction accompanied by the errors of juvenile impatience to which Kit was prone. In early 1962, Frank struck lucky and the family prepared to go to the Bahamas for three years. Kit was nearly eleven. The excitement was immense. Relatives were displeased.

Cartographer in training with an audience of two, Cheltenham, c.1958

The house in middle England was rented out, belongings stored or packed, the family’s Spaniel resettled with relatives, farewells said; and one day in April 1962 a rented van trundled off towards Southampton – painfully slowly as it was fitted with a speed arrestor. The Queen Elizabeth sailed for New York via Cherbourg and Kit was first seasick then afflicted with German measles, which was duly passed on to his siblings. When the QE steamed into New York harbour after five days he was confined to the cabin drinking hot chocolate for breakfast while the Statue of Liberty glided past the porthole. With a sick child the family was fast tracked through customs and immigration. New York made a fleeting impression – fried eggs ‘sunny-side up’ in a diner, a hotel porter blatantly sticking out his hand for a tip, and a garish taxi to Idelwild Airport. A BOAC Britannia delivered everyone to Nassau.

Just before leaving England, Kit had passed the eleven-plus exam that would have admitted him to grammar school and was left high and dry for a term. The formidable Cecil Bethel (C.B.), head of Government High School (GHS), agreed that he could attend for a term before starting again in Form 1. No adult seemed to have considered the obvious and attractive idea that he should simply stay at home and read on his own for a few months. In a society historically marked by complex and subtle segregation, largely derived from social convention, GHS had been founded in 1925 as the first secondary school open to everyone − on merit. It had survived an attempt in the 1940s by the white- and business-dominated legislature to close it down and by the late 1950s occupied an impressive new building and extensive grounds near Oakes Field airport.

C.B. in a typically benign, but possibly deceptive, mood just before his retirement c.1966
GHS front entrance, 1969
GHS front entrance, 1969
GHS as College of the Bahamas, 2014
GHS rear 1969
GHS rear view, 1969 (Kit’s third-year classroom is on the ground floor to the left, next to the library and then the hall)

And so, just turned eleven, Kit joined a class that contained a number of thirteen-year-olds way beyond his social competence. Fortunately, he was befriended by a remarkable and already mature character, Deryck Richardson, who would become head boy of GHS and later a psychologist. He kept a watchful eye on Kit and helped him thrive educationally, except in Spanish which given the proximity of Florida and Cuba was a compulsory subject. In September 1962, Deryck moved upwards to the giddy heights of Form 2 and Kit joined a new intake with whom he would remain for the next five years.

Deryck Richardson, a mature and impressive head boy of GHS in 1968

In an obscure British colony at the margins of empire, GHS was a truly remarkable place populated by some very bright children and a core of very good teachers. There were, too, the mediocre of both categories, but expectations were high and the uniform was worn with considerable pride. The competition came from several largely white private schools such as St Andrew’s (Presbyterian) and Queen’s College (Methodist) and the mixed, American-influenced, Roman Catholic St Augustine’s (beyond the pale). Rivalry was most obvious at inter-school athletics meets, which were intense. Then there were the generic government high schools, three of them, unimaginatively named West, East and South (North would have found itself in the middle of Nassau harbour). Sandwiched in between was GHS.

That year in Form 1 was the most important and formative of Kit’s life. A class photograph survives to help illustrate why. The teaching held no real significance and lessons involved an amount of sheer drudgery, learning about Aztecs and Incas in History lessons – again. The classroom was a prefab at the rear of the main building and summer afternoon thunderstorms often brought an end to teaching, drowned out by the noise on the roof. But his 28 fellow pupils were an invaluable education in themselves.

Most of them were various shades of brown and black, a reflection of the varied social history of the Bahamas. Only six were white; two of them foreigners (British and American) and the others Bahamian. This being the A stream, a majority of the class was inevitably feminine. The boys were a cheerful and uncomplicated lot; the smaller, cheeky-looking ones including Kit lined up in the front row in front of Miss Davis in the class photograph of 1962 (figure 6). She, a teacher of Latin, managed this class with great aplomb, the minimum of fuss and without raising her naturally soft voice; just an occasional, expressive pursing of the lips.

Cheeky small boys to the front: GHS Form 1A, 1962-1963

The girls were another matter altogether; and somewhat alarming for a small boy from middle England.[2] Some of them were already quite well developed; many of them argumentative, raucous and opinionated; and a few had ‘attitude’ as the class photo attests. Kit gained first-hand experience of this having been chosen form monitor. One of the daily chores was to collect lunch orders and money for a whole range of thoroughly unhealthy fast food (hamburgers, hot dogs) plus milk (various flavours including chocolate) from a café up the road and take them to the office. At lunchtime he collected the food and delivered it together with change. This was no small task for an eleven-year-old. And queuing and behaving in orderly fashion were not in vogue. Grabbing food and demanding change was the norm for a significant minority. Not infrequently, the match between customer, food and money was less than exact and there would be an explosion of noisy, largely female scorn. One day he registered his resignation in spectacular fashion, throwing a basket of notes and coins in the air and suggesting that the lunchtime customers could sort themselves out. Memory fails to retrieve Miss Davis’ specific reaction to this demonstrative exit from responsibility: extra pursing of the lips, no doubt. It was a very far cry from the world of St Mary’s Primary School in Prestbury, Gloucestershire where photographic evidence suggests a world of dour, grey-clad boys and mousey little girls. Nassau was very different, full of drama with fewer conventional boundaries.

Some of the girls were rather motherly. Others tried, usually successfully, to be embarrassing and another thought they should be special friends, but he was unimpressed. One girl did make a particular mark and this continued for the following five years – Portia of the numerous Campbell family. She was pleasant, well-spoken, very clever and even at this early age maturely dignified. Up to O-level they competed largely unchallenged for the overall class exam top spot and it moved backwards and forwards like a metronome with some sort of unexpressed recognition, maybe affinity, in the rivalry. He had left GHS by the time she deservedly became head girl. Tragically, she died very young of cancer.

Portia Campbell: clever and dignified as GHS head girl, 1969

The children of Form 1A were from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some were clearly middle class with parents who would later take on political roles or government positions under the new constitution of 1964, the first Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) government of 1967, and then in the independent nation from July 1973. Some families like the Campbells were part of the civil service tradition. But other children clearly hailed from poorer parts, Over the Hill, sandwiched between the city centre and Wulff Road, at whose westerly end GHS was located. White Bahamians were harder to place, probably came from commercial backgrounds and lived in ethnic enclaves in Centreville and Palmdale. As a group they were known derogatively as Conchy Joes, although race relations at school were good enough to mean this term was rarely heard. There was, however, an unstated culture that favoured lighter skins – ‘red’ in the vernacular – which reflected embedded race consciousness and historic segregation. But, in general, there was an underlying solidarity that reflected a pride in the meritocracy of the school and the obligations of privilege. Nor in five years was there a significantly bad incident in Kit’s class, although by the time he left GHS in mid-1967 there were broader discipline problems, some of them probably related to drugs. As happened with other passages of Bahamian history, its geographic crossroads position came into play, in this case making the country vulnerable to international narcotics trafficking, which would reach the very highest levels of society by the early 1980s.

The teachers of GHS were of three sorts: local; and British and North American expatriates. None of them made much of an impression until he reached Form 3, by which time the more senior teachers were in the frame. Having developed a very high degree of anti-Americanism he was not well-disposed towards the last group; but in any case they did little to inspire confidence producing pedantic and boring Religious Knowledge, rather sloppy Maths, and egocentrically taught Spanish. There were of, course, the less able amongst the other groups: certain ex-pats were clearly there just for sun and beach and some locals were poorly trained. These included CB, whose main aid to the teaching of Spanish was a ruler used on heads that in his judgement lacked concentration or necessary memory.

But some truly memorable teachers stood out. Gurth Archer, a History teacher, was one. A small, rotund and moustachioed man then in his late 20s with a tendency to giggle, he had been to Worcester College, Oxford. A later, politically correct complaint against the old regime was that the school syllabus was colonial and neglected the local. Not Gurth’s: he taught Bahamian history with considerable panache and commitment. Whether this was a school decision or his initiative remains unknown.[3] Similarly, Lew Morgan, another inspiring teacher, taught Bahamian and Caribbean geography. An expressive Welshman, the look on his face when a new boy responded to a question about his previous Geography teaching in Canada – ‘Well, sir, we reviewed the world’ – remained indelible.

Another significant figure for Kit was the head of physical education, Donald Elphick. This was not because of any real prowess at sport or interest above glances in the direction of cricket and football. Sport at GHS was highly regarded because it played a crucial part in the pecking order of secondary education on the island. Standards were exceptionally high and Don once pointed out that they were on a par with the AAA’s in Britain at that time. He had survived the Russian convoys in the Royal Navy during World War II so miserably seasick and cold he recalled he longed for a torpedo. Kit generally got on better with adults than his contemporaries and with a certain uncharacteristic precociousness had regular lunchtime conversations while Don ate his sandwiches in a storeroom for sports equipment, presumably also his office, at the back of the school hall. They talked a great deal about politics, local and British, and it was Don who reinforced Kit’s interest in liberalism and the Liberal Party. He predicted, with spectacular inaccuracy, that Kit would one day be a member of parliament at Westminster. He was a slightly controversial staff member at GHS: his relationship with pupils was unconventional and he and his wife Carol had a GHS girl called Brenda from a troubled family background live with them. This was not received well in some quarters.

Politics also entered the conversation in the stairwell before school each morning in the senior years. In 1967, O-level year, the largely black opposition party won a very narrow, one-seat majority in the House of Assembly. For the first time in three hundred years the white merchants and allies had to concede power to the largely black professional classes and several of Kit’s classmates had fathers who were about to take on senior government positions ahead of the independence that was self-evidently not far distant (July 1973 as it turned out). Kit argued, largely without support, that the problem for Bahamians was not Britain, which was unlikely to obstruct independence, but the ugly Americans next door. He was also in a decided minority as a supporter of Fidel Castro when it came to Cuba. Bahamians, even those who posed as anti-imperialist, perversely generally toed an American line and in the mid-sixties went along with criticism of Britain for trading with Cuba: one famous example was Leyland buses. Sticking up for Britain from a left-wing, anti-American perspective was a very lonely political road.

Kit in GHS blue top and white trousers, winter 1963

GHS school uniform was truly remarkable; not for the conventional colour combination of blue and white, but the fact that boys wore white trousers (girls had blue skirts and Penny painstakingly ironed the pleats in hers on weekday evenings). This must surely have been a mother’s worst nightmare, especially since a favourite game, akin to mass anarchy, was called ‘bruising’. It was simple enough and a throwback to the days before British public schools codified sport. Boys crowded inside the athletics track armed with tennis balls. Possessors hurled a ball at the closest available body with intention to hurt. And since conditions before school, when these melees largely took place, were often wet in summer white trousers did not remain pristine for too long. It is hard to imagine that any of the boys took an interest in washing or ironing. Surprisingly, there seems to have been no mothers’ revolt.

GHS was the most typical of British institutions give or take a few, minor Americanisms. In class, use of correct English, written and spoken, was demanded. But what was known as Bahamian dialect invaded unsupervised time before school and during breaks and was a reminder that a vast majority of the pupils had African origins of some sort (within a stone’s throw of GHS was Congo Town and Quakoo Corner). Their language was appropriately flavoured by what one later researcher was to identify as pidgin English from West Africa. Words were doubled for emphasis, verbs were stacked in series (‘She come want pay’), the pronoun ‘he’ was frequently gender-free and people were perpetually ‘vexed’, but most memorable and seductive was use of the verb ‘done’: ‘I done tell you’ left nothing to doubt (and in the opinion of one linguistic expert is derived from Mandingo). Such grammar and syntax made more of a lasting impression than local vocabulary, such as to ‘catch a check’ (get a cold).

The tribal element of Nassau’s school communities showed itself at inter-school sports, which were emotionally charged events whose results meant a great deal for the prestige of each institution. GHS did well at these competitions, but there was always the fear of being beaten by the papist, American-dominated St Augustine’s.

For his part Kit did his inadequate physical best in inter-house sport. For a slight boy he unexpectedly played at right back in various football teams and captained the GHS under-13s on one memorable occasion when they lost narrowly to St Andrew’s. Football was a minority and unregarded sport that played second fiddle to softball and volleyball. The athletics offerings were considerable and he found some consolation in hurling a junior-weight javelin in a remote corner of the sports fields. Nor were his efforts entirely in vain: toiling around last in a 400 metre race earned him a point for Fincastle house for finishing.

For five years the journey to school followed the same short trek with his duffel bag down Gregory Street, Moss Road on the corner of which stood the fast food outlet that supplied school lunches, and along Interfield Road that linked the city and both airports (figure ). It was somewhere along this route that he had a significant intellectual moment in the mid-1960s in which he realised he could make his own connections between the Geography and History he was being taught at GHS and the results of independent reading in Politics and Economics.

Gregory Street, Nassau, near the former bungalow and house, 2014

Seven hundred pupils wrote O-levels in June 1967 in the Bahamas, but only 48 passed more than five subjects over half of them from GHS where three candidates passed eight.[4] One of them was Kit. But then he left for boarding school in England, under a strange delusion that he was missing out on life in this forgotten corner of the empire. There is a foggy, poorly reproduced photograph of Form 5G from the school magazine. Comparison with the form photograph of 1962 shows a surprising number of recognisable faces – Portia is naturally one of them – who had trodden the same high school path. Five years of mutual experience and various levels of companionship came to an abrupt and thoughtless end, as tends to happen in school lives leaving the eternal question – what if …

HOUSES AND ANIMALS

Next door to the Bahamas Teachers College in Gregory Street, Oakes Field were three new bungalows built for expatriate staff. Kit’s family initially occupied the lowest one, a tight squeeze for five people. This lasted no more than a few months before larger premises were found a few doors up the road, which possessed no house numbers because nothing much was ever delivered. Life in a Nassau bungalow represented significant change for Kit. Shopping was done at a supermarket opposite GHS. No doubt supermarkets had reached Britain by this time, but not the small places his family had lived in. This was, after all, North America heavily influenced by the nearby United States: going shopping was a new experience altogether: the shelves were stocked with exotic cereals, puddings and drinks. Kit was old enough to have had a ration book: Britain even in 1962 was still emerging from post-war austerity and there was little choice just eight years after rationing had ended.

The bungalow, Gregory Street, Oakes Field, 1962

Then there was the night-time burglary. The intruders entered through a window, removing the glass slats from their soft metal holders, and managed to take belongings from his parents’ bedside tables. It was Penny who heard them, waking up as they left the house. In those less complicated times without plastic cards ruling lives, the loss was cash and although Frank was for the first time in his life earning a generous salary the disappearance of at least £30 was a serious setback. But it was another reminder of the fact that this was a very different place. Frank, the practical handyman, devised what he called a welcome mat to greet future uninvited nocturnal guests based on local belief that they crept around people’s houses barefoot. The mat was a sheet of double cardboard that contained upended tacks and would have made an immediate impression on the shoeless.

The former RAF officers’ mess aka the new house, Gregory Street, Oakes Field, 1963

The new house up the road had a particularly distinctive history, by repute the Royal Air Force officers’ mess during World War II and later converted into a rather strange dwelling where the family lived from late 1962 until 1969. It had undoubted atmosphere, either due to its unconventional layout or to the ghostly presence of long-departed inhabitants – maybe both.

Its central feature, consistent with the RAF mess theory, was a dining room large enough to use as a dance floor. At the western end was the kitchen, a toilet and a room used by Frank as a study. The eastern end was divided into three bedrooms and a bathroom with a novel design twist: the furthest bedroom could be reached only by passing through the other two, or one of them plus the bathroom, which was effectively a corridor. To outward, and even inward, appearances it was more like a barracks than a house – partitioned space. For Kit it had one highly significant feature. Next to the bathroom was the smallest defined space in the building, what had presumably been a woman’s dressing room. The small table and its drawers were ideal for Kit’s purpose: space he could call his own – until someone wanted a bath. So, from the age of twelve he had a desk in a notional study.

It was a happy house in spite of its many design imperfections and peculiarities. Some of them were major security flaws that loomed large psychologically in view of the earlier burglary. The flat roof above the double garage was a burglar’s dream, giving easy access to the living room windows. The veranda that ran the length of the back of the house put more windows within completely secluded reach. Whether or not Frank’s welcome mats from the bungalow were discarded, he developed special catches using screws and flat metal hooks he cut himself that secured the windows in their wooden frames. But there were further burglaries: one via the flat roof, after which some of mother Grace’s jewellery was found scattered about in the garden. Another was from the back veranda into Frank’s study using a piece of paper to retrieve the internal door key. This was no ordinary burglary as nothing was taken; although there was no resolution, just strong suspicion. Kit fancied he heard nocturnal footsteps and rigged up devices on the veranda to detect any unauthorised presence, but without conclusive results. In those days reticulated water was safe to drink but the house had a reservoir, a breeding ground for mosquitoes, and a small pump house. The most noticeable feature of the building was an enormous front porch surmounted by a flagpole, the most obvious evidence not only of the building’s origins but also its military importance, large enough for a table tennis table.

The new house, Gregory Street, Oakes Field, now probably an Education Department store, sometime in the 1990s

At front and back was a rudimentary garden with a few patches of flowers and expanses of crab grass. At the back there was even a hedge. But most of it was pockmarked with sinkholes known locally as pits, a distinctive feature of the coral limestone from which New Providence is made. One fringed the driveway and was protected by a wall. To the north was the Bahamas Teachers College and westwards there was no demarcated boundary in the bush, just a tangle of vegetation, holes in the ground and a few paths. It was tailor-made for children and together with Glenn and Lynn Crawford from next door Kit, Penny and Jonathan founded the Cavemen’s [sic] Club. It had a newspaper, but little other evidence of organisation.

Mostly it was taken up with adventurous anarchism. Its members raided a number of derelict properties nearby, presumably old military buildings for which the Education Department had no present use, and expropriated wood and asbestos sheeting to roof over sinkholes. Venturing too far onto one of these fragile surfaces Kit fell through, his right eye connecting with a jutting piece of limestone. The amount of blood was considerable and the cuts above and below the eye severe enough to leave scarring for life. There was no doctor involved: in those matter-of-fact times fairly advanced medical attention was provided at home.

Cavemen activities were often hazardous. The bush at the back of the Crawfords’ house was entered by a path that led to another part of Oakes Field. A substantial barricade constructed across the path included a number of felled small trees, plus more purloined building material. Exactly who used the path was never clear; but there were objectors and encounters involving missiles. On one occasion Kit was hit on the head by a stone but had taken the precaution of acquiring an improvised helmet, a discarded metal lampshade. Some antagonists were presumably rival local children, but there were other users of the bush and its paths.

Some of the caves had interconnecting tunnels, places of concealment when other people were about. Sometimes these were illegal Haitian migrants who had fled the tyrannical rule of Papa Doc, François Duvalier. Haitians on New Providence were easy to spot even before they spoke English with a French accent as they walked briskly and with purpose, and were eager to take on work. The problem of illegal immigrants was dealt with in rather erratic fashion by the colonial authorities, but was to become a perceived crisis for the post-independence government after July 1973. In Kit’s time it was presumably illegal immigrants who attached strange objects to trees that locals believed had something to do with voodoo; and tramped through the bush to avoid attracting attention on public roads while children calling themselves Cavemen hid in tunnels beneath their feet.

Bahamas Teachers College in new, pristine condition, probably 1963

The Bahamas Teachers College was so close to both houses that in the absence of fencing they were in fact all part of the same property. Frank was wedded to his job, and a short walk to work suited him.[5] Grace had a job in town at the Cathedral School and once she had learned to drive the family Mini, a somewhat painful interlude, took over school lift duty ferrying Penny and Jonathan to Queen’s College. The Training College was still in the process of construction in mid-1962 and replaced a collection of huts, presumably ex-military, that were absorbed by the Technical College. Like GHS, the Teachers College was refreshingly new and modern, a pristine white, its purpose to make up for a chronic shortfall of local teachers. One of Frank’s projects was to build a functional library and in the holidays Kit helped him to process book stock, a foretaste of things to come. Books were treated with a strong-smelling purple concoction apparently designed to ward off tropical insect life attracted to paper.

Bahamians call their mongrel dogs potcakes, reputedly because they licked the food scraps from the bottom of cooking pots.[6] Kit and his family made the acquaintance of several over the years. On an island largely devoid of large mammals, potcakes constituted both domesticated and wild animal life. Of the latter only the odd raccoon was seen in the garden, although insects were numerous. In his first year in Nassau Kit was a target for mosquitoes, aggravating their bites so systematically that he developed septic sores that had to be bandaged. The theory was that after a passage of time the blood thinned and mosquitoes lost interest. The sores did eventually disappear of their own accord but left scars for years.

The first dog was Brock, a black and white mongrel with a tendency to wander in a largely fenceless neighbourhood. Late one night there was a noise in the road: Brock had been hit by a car and the family was dogless again. It left Kit with permanent anxiety about animals out in the dark. Andy came next, a long-haired, light brown dog of happy disposition who, as a puppy, had enormous brown velvet triangles for ears and large paws into which he quickly grew. Andy would live for twelve years, including one in quarantine in his new home – England. Both Brock and Andy joined the family formally from a contact of Frank’s at the Technical College. Andy arrived with smudges of oil in his coat wrapped in Frank’s jacket and dived into a bowl of milky rice pudding, his first meal in his new home. Other dogs introduced themselves.

Andy and his big ears, 1963

Ginger and Vicky emerged, separately, apparently from nowhere and were fed at the kitchen door and slept on the veranda. Ginger was a sociable fellow of somewhat ragged appearance who enjoyed tagging onto whatever expedition was heading into the surrounding bush on various adventures, but eventually he vanished. One of the world’s anonymous dogs, he had at least and at last achieved some recognition and basic care. Vicky was in the same neglected position, but before she died she left her mark in the form of three healthy puppies two of them named Hippo and Hoppo. Penny was particularly involved in their upbringing and as Frank took a particular shine to Hippo, she joined the family and would also eventually move to Britain. A home for Hoppo was found with a Teachers Training College student about to be posted to one of the Out Islands.

Kit and Vicky, probably 1966
Two of Vicky’s puppies
Vicky’s puppies feeding
Jonathan with Andy and Hippo, probably 1968

Nassau was not a comfortable place for animal lovers. Many dogs were not properly cared for, roamed the streets and were casualties of traffic accidents. As a place where no one, except Haitians, walked anywhere if they could avoid it, the sight of a dog on a lead was inconceivable. The colonial was juxtaposed with the metropolitan and clearly lacked certain ordered behaviours. In general, Nassau did not favour structured bourgeois behaviour such as animal welfare, gardening or much community organisation. Life was somewhat elemental.

Andy and friends hanging out, Oakes Field, late 1960s

POLITICS

On the evening of Saturday 27 October 1962 Kit, aged eleven, accompanied his father into Nassau city centre to collect mail from the College box (213) at the main post office. It was chilly and autumnal and Rawson Square, its surrounding parliament and government buildings, and the nearby harbour were eerily deserted. The only person in sight was a night watchman who offered a lugubrious greeting.

Rawson Square, the heart of Nassau, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, 1962

There was good reason for his gloom and the absence of people. To the South over Cuba a U2 reconnaissance aircraft photographing Russian missile sites had been shot down, the pilot ultimately the only casualty of the crisis. To the West the Americans were preparing to invade the island which now housed thousands of Russian troops improbably disguised as agricultural advisers. The Joint Chiefs of Staff predictably recommended invasion within 36 hours and nuclear-armed B52 bombers were on fifteen-minute standby. And far out in the Atlantic to the North warning depth charges were dropped by USS Beale on B-59, a Soviet submarine on the maritime quarantine line. Three of its officers were required to authorise launch of a nuclear torpedo on the aircraft carrier USS Randolf and just one of them, Vasili Arkhipov, refused permission. His submarine surfaced instead.[7] Not all of this was known at the time. But everyone realised that the world was on the brink of mutually assured destruction (MAD), a third and possibly terminal world war.

It was the most fraught point of the Cold War and arguably the most dangerous moment of modern world history. That night Kit went to bed fairly convinced that nuclear war would break out and he would not wake up in the morning. The next day the Americans and Russians withdrew from the abyss under a largely secret agreement, the former assisted by the fact that they had a high-level agent, Oleg Penkovsky, in Moscow.[8] Back door diplomacy and considerable compromise from both sides prevailed. But for Kit the experience was never forgotten and contributed to a somewhat cautious view of life.

This was not his family’s first brush with the Cold War. In England they lived in the Gloucestershire village of Prestbury and Kit, his sister and brother attended school within a kilometre of a curious collection of hutments mysteriously known as the Foreign Office. Nearby was Cleeve Hill, the highest point of the Cotswolds and what the family referred to as ‘the masts’ near where Frank led expeditions to look for Jurassic age fossils. This was all the work of GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters, which had grown out of Bletchley Park and Eastcote where coincidentally Grace had worked as a Wren at the end of World War II). Years later the Foreign Office site became a shopping centre and GCHQ moved to impressive premises at Benhall on the other side of Cheltenham. But in the 1950s someone in or near Moscow had a finger on a button that could have meant instant oblivion; probably an overhead nuclear air burst over Prestbury to disrupt GCHQ’s communications.

It was not much more than an undercurrent, but there was a fashionable strain of anti-British feeling dressed up as anti-colonialism in Nassau. It was personified by Alvin Braynen, a member of parliament and later its speaker, who was prone to scathing comment about the British. For Kit, already politically well versed, some of it was explicable, but it missed the point that the root of Bahamian problems lay not in London or with British expatriates. It was local or stemmed from the southern United States where segregation was still alive and well. Like Bermuda and Barbados, the Bahamas was a Crown Colony whose legislature had for centuries controlled the budget. It and expenditure were kept to a minimum to protect its autonomy and the taxation system was designed to suit the political oligarchy. Pre-war elections were so corrupt they entered the realm of farce. The governing class was paradoxically anti-government. Put another way there was, effectively, no government and London’s influence had little or no effect on social expenditure. This was, indeed, the quintessential neglected imperial outpost, but its neglect was a complex matter. The wartime Russell commission of inquiry had raised major concerns about Out Island development, labour law, taxation, import duties and the alienation of land by estate agents.

Five key political events in modern, pre-independence Bahamian history framed the political climate of 1960s Nassau. First, the 1942 (‘Burma Road’) riots were triggered by differential wage rates for American and local labour working on ‘The Project’ (construction of the Windsor Field airport) that led to four deaths and a siege of the Grants Town police station. Second, in 1956 Etienne Dupuch’s anti-discrimination motion in the House of Assembly ended American-style segregation in public places. Third, the 1958 general strike was triggered by taxi drivers objecting to competition from transport provided from the airport by American-owned hotels. Fourth was the April 1965 House of Assembly debate on corrupt electoral practice that led to demonstrations inside the house and in Bay Street, a near-terminal revolt against the local political oligarchy. And, fifth, the 10 January 1967 general election produced a tie, but the first black-led government changed politics for ever. It was predictably given biblical flavour in the press and popular mind by being ascribed Exodus symbolism of slavery, chains and Moses.[9] From exactly what Bahamians were escaping in the 1960s was not fully explained and was largely emotional, but it was all part of a process, as the progressive politician H.M. Taylor put it, of developing ‘public opinion’.[10]

All this fascinated Kit. Very little politics in Nassau was remotely left of centre and much of it was mere posturing while jostling for power within the status quo. What was clear was that the days of the Bay Street Boys, the merchants of the United Bahamian Party, and their occasional conservative black allies were numbered. During the 1965 disturbances, during which the mace disappeared through a House of Assembly window and opposition MPs were removed bodily by the police, a Royal Navy frigate appeared in the harbour. Politics was replete with tension and provided a challenging backdrop to discussions at school. The colony was in a state of flux: the long reign of prominent business and political families such as Symonette, Christie, Solomon, Sands and others that had made fortunes from various marginal, often criminal economic opportunities was nearing its end. Their catchy informal name, the Bay Street Boys, was in a sense inaccurate: it was what happened behind Bay Street and at the harbour wharf that had made their politico-economic fortunes. Rum running fed into real estate and the legitimate liquor trade and control of large parts of the economy attracting the attention of the American Mob. The name of Meyer Lansky frequently crops up in mid-twentieth century Bahamian history and Prime Minister Roland Symonette and other Bay Street Boys were found in 1966 to be in receipt of criminal money. So, too, in turn would be his successor Lynden Pindling who would scale even greater heights of criminality with the Medellin Cartel. Nassau was an obscure part of empire, but endowed with the ingredients of immediate high drama.

EVERYDAY LIFE

It was a childhood with a difference, strongly infused by the strange and the risky; a far cry from Kit’s middle- English origins. There was no local television in the Bahamas, let alone modern electronic diversion. Indoor entertainment consisted of the wireless and reading, plus the occasional film played on a borrowed projector that tended to overheat with celluloid consequences. The outdoors was by no means safe, but Kit and his siblings were let loose on the assumption that they would exercise common sense and survive. Whether the first was true or not, they did flourish although not entirely without mishap.

Life in Nassau was a strange mixture of the banal and the exotic. Essentially this was a juxtaposition of expatriate life and the tropical context in which it was lived. People went to work and school during the week, church on Sundays, and to the beach over the weekend. The last was a privilege for which increasing thousands of tourists, predominately North American, paid small fortunes. New Providence provided a fair number of public beaches for anyone’s use, although much of the shoreline had been privatised. The family would set off on a weekend afternoon in a Mini, five people and a dog inside, a sailing dinghy on top. Frank had built the boat himself in partnership with his Technical College friend, Ken Theobald, and it was occasionally taken out to Lyford Cay, then open to public access, where the children would be taught to sail. More usually it was a simple trip to the beach for swimming and snorkelling, although this was not without its hazards as large rays and various sizes of jellyfish were occasionally spotted. There were sharks, too, but it was generally assumed that they did not venture inside the reef. During winter storms inter-island boats were sometimes wrecked and the beaches would become a graveyard of flotsam and jetsam and the occasional exploitable cargo. In one incident a load of limes was washed ashore. During summer electrical storms sinister-looking waterspouts could be spotted out at sea.

Kit, Jonathan and Penny snorkelling, 1962
Frank, Penny, Kit and Jonathan, Adelaide Beach, 1963

For five years one of Kit’s summertime preoccupations was the tracking of tropical storms and hurricanes. The petrol station provided a free map in May and the United States Weather Service obliged with a report every six hours for each named storm (female only in those days), which was broadcast over Nassau’s Radio ZNS (Zephyr Nassau Sunshine). The position was carefully mapped and the details logged in a large, second-hand hardback notebook courtesy of the Teachers College stationery store. One of the attractions was the extraordinary variety of colourful place names from the Out Islands that cropped up in tropical storm and hurricane reports: Snug Corner (Acklins), Pirates Well (Mayaguana), Port Nelson (Rum Cay) and Bullocks Harbour (Berry Islands), for instance. On Long Island there were Clarence Town, Deadman’s Cay, Salt Pond, Buckley’s, Seymour’s, Roses, Scrub Hill, Gray’s, Burnt Ground, Simms and Gordon’s, often named after former estate owners. There was even a Kits Cay somewhere.

Encouragingly, Nassau appeared to be in the direct path of the average Atlantic hurricane, but the irritating law of averages meant they only occasionally came near – Flora in 1963 and Cleo the next year. Then the observations would become thrillingly, but alarmingly, first hand. The shutters would be retrieved from the garage beneath the house, accompanied by a scattering of hundreds of cockroaches, and bolted across all the windows accentuating the deepening gloom of the gathering storm. Hurricanes, and the tropical storms that spawned them, were immensely fascinating and promising even when still thousands of miles away. A few days later and they could literally land on your doorstep.

All of this took place against a distinctive background of heat, humidity, vivid colour, distinctive smells and noise. And human behaviour sometimes exceeded even the unexpected. The second house required some maintenance not long after the family moved in and the Education Department sent round a workman remembered as Arthur Maycock who seemed perfectly pleasant and obliging. A couple of weeks later he was on the front page of the Nassau Guardian having massacred his family before shooting himself. This was not an everyday occurrence in Nassau; nor was it entirely unusual. Kit’s family background was post-war suburban Britain with its unspoken conventions, inhibitions and enforced austerity. Demonstrativeness of any sort was neither encouraged nor approved, although the blandness of that Britain was deceptive and largely middle class. Facades and public impressions were not all they seemed. The year after Kit’s family arrived in Nassau the Profumo affair erupted, a saga of sleaze, lying, hypocrisy and the perversion of justice that dented the reputation of the imperium.

A character who seemed to sum up both the otherness and familiarity of Nassau was David Knox, director of information for the colony and known to Frank. In mid-1968 he disappeared, only to surface at Fort Dimanche prison in Port-au-Prince, Haiti as a guest of François Duvalier and accused of spying. It was alleged that he had some involvement with military training of dissident Haitians and invasion plans from Inagua. Amid a great deal of media fanfare he was put on trial, then pardoned and released. With a military background, a supposed career as a journalist, a reputation as a daredevil and a number of interesting postings, it is perfectly likely that he was indeed a British agent.[11]

The Bahamas had a generally sordid public past, one of racketeering. Historic success was largely based on lawlessness; or as Michael Pye vividly puts it, ‘living at right angles to the law’.[12] Its sole natural resources were sunshine, the sea and geography. There was little of value on or below the limestone apart from occasional pits with a spot of fertile soil. Its history of depression, speculation and economic failure was interspersed with episodes of opportunism, usually criminal, that made the fortunes of many Bahamian families: piracy, wrecking, blockade running in the American Civil War, rum running during Prohibition, land speculation as the tourism industry took off and, after independence, staging post for the international trade in narcotics. The last would involve the nation’s prime minister. Other scams had made prominent politicians in earlier eras. There had also been more honest attempts, based on the occasional bonanza thrown up by economic circumstances or the sea, at other economic activity: agriculture, such as pineapple growing and canning; sponging; and salt production. Sponging lasted several decades. Thus the Greek community, with its orthodox cathedral, that ran cafes and restaurants. Kit’s best friend in form 1 was Anthony Kikivarakis (pictured in figure 6 on Kit’s left), although there was not much Greek about him. Then in forms 4 and 5 another friend was Nicholas Saligaros (now known as Nikos Angelos Salingaros), but he was Australian born of Greek parents.[13]

On Friday nights the 3rd Bahamas scout troop met on Blue Hill (Baillou) Road not far behind Government House. The journey to Scouts was sometimes made by bicycle and took Kit through part of the area known as Over-the-Hill that dated from the arrival of American loyalists to the Crown from Georgia and the Carolinas in 1783. Previously there had been no segregation, but a sudden doubling of the population resulted in the restriction of black persons for residential purposes to an area known as Headquarters, south of the ridge. It was later to become Grants Town after abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the landing on New Providence of hundreds of freed slaves; and later still absorbed Bain Town and Delancey Town further west where the brown middle class lived. This area was properly connected directly to Nassau only in the 1850s at Gregory Arch (figure 20). Meeting Street, Hospital Lane and Meadow Street were probably not the best place for a teenage white cyclist, but imperial hubris triumphed. The urban landscape was distinctive: largely wooden houses built on piles for ventilation with verandas and yards that were quite clearly well utilised as social space.

Blue Hill (Baillou) Road, Nassau, 2014
Gregory Arch, Nassau, 2014

Kit was number two in the horse patrol of the 3rd Bahamas whose colours were grey and white. Periodically the Scouts were required to parade before some visiting royal worthy, perhaps to mark a new stage in the colony’s rapid constitutional development, and they marched and formed up below Fort Charlotte on Clifford Park. It was a distinctive setting between fortifications intended (but never used) to repel pirates and foreign invaders and the sea, usually featuring at least one moored cruise liner. More often the Scouts were sent on missions into town to answer quiz questions, a form of urban orienteering. The cafes and stores with their radios played music, news and the familiar adverts (‘There are twenty-three beans in each cup of new Nescafe’ – or was it more?) from ZNS. And there was a distinct ambience of a dubious past, particularly the rum running of the Prohibition era just forty years before and the land, property and hotel boom it had financed. It was from these side streets, now roamed by Scouts on innocent missions on sultry summer evenings illuminated by flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder, where opportunists and crooks had made quick fortunes running shady businesses that benefited from the country’s geographical situation and American political circumstances. The smuggling of liquor lasted only as long as Prohibition, but also involved other goods. Drug running continued well into the 1940s. The streets of Nassau exuded a sense of sleaze and racketeering for good reason: each economic boom cycle, including tourism, contained a strong dose of criminality. Yet this was the context for benign and ordinary activity such as wide games of urban orienteering set up by scout master Norman Donkin on Thursday evenings.

It was not just Scouts that made Nassau’s streets familiar to Kit. His mother worked at the Cathedral School attached to St George’s and she and Penny were involved with Brownies and Girl Guides. Tuesday evenings provided a chance to get a lift into town and wander around for an hour or so and this always took Kit to the harbour. It was a busy mixture of smaller cruise liners, ocean-going cargo vessels, inter-island mail boats and fishing vessels, plus the tenders that brought passengers from larger liners and the harbour’s overflow anchored beyond the Hog Island lighthouse.[14] Every so often a Royal Navy frigate would dock with open days and Sunday lunchtime visits from naval personnel. Harbour activity itself was fascinating, but Kit also had an interest in photography and in sketching the larger ships. He would write off to the cruise line companies in the United States and receive bulging brown envelopes secured with string fasteners containing brochures and postcards from which further drawings would emerge. One of the familiar regular visitors, the Evangeline became the Yarmouth Castle, which in November 1965 caught fire not far from Nassau and sank with the loss of nearly 90 lives.[15]

St George’s Cathedral, Nassau, 2014

The cruise liners were not simply objects of distant admiration. A family friend, the Cathedral organist John Clayton, had struck up a friendship with the harbour master and frequently travelled on the tender that ferried passengers from and to ships moored beyond the reef. The purpose of these visits was not entirely clear except a few duty-free drinks at the bar. Once or twice he took Kit with him, on one occasion to the Grace Lines Santa Rosa, a beautifully designed ship whose interior seemed the epitome of luxury. The view of the sea from the deck revealed numerous sharks.[16]

The exotic even invaded the hours after dark. Junkanoo was an annual carnival held before dawn on New Year’s Day in Bay Street. Darkness gave the costumes and noise great allure. But Junkanoo began many weeks before that with evening practice sessions that entertained whole neighbourhoods. For Kit’s family the source seemed to be somewhere along Farrington Road and he and his siblings went to sleep on many nights to the sound of the drumming and whistling that made up most of Junkanoo’s rhythm. Noise was added to smell and vivid colour as a measure of vivid difference.

Food was largely imported, mainly from North America but there were local nuances. The produce market reeked of rotting tomatoes and produced new experiences such as okra (never demystified) and avocado (initially misidentified by Grace as a dessert). In the garden there was a sapodilla tree which produced fruit with a sticky resin that when over-ripe tasted not unlike prunes. Cavemen mixed it with evaporated milk. Peas (black-eye and more like beans) and rice cooked with tomato paste entered the domestic diet.

Sapodilla tree, Clifton National Park, New Providence

Has anyone ever thought of researching the geography of smell? For Kit, his Nassauvian years and their ongoing memory, were predominately those of people and place, in the context of history and geography. But, and perhaps longer lasting, there were also matters of vivid colour, mainly botanical, noise, and smell: of rotting vegetable produce, conch fritters at fetes, fish at the harbour, and the sweaty bodies of a humid, tropical island.

PART TWO

FIFTY YEARS ON: MEMORY, HISTORY, IDENTITY

Just one generation and the door on the past starts to close … Yet your lives, too, will become that other country — Hilda Bernstein, A Life of One’s Own

The infinite and unbearable space of memory — Melvyn Bragg, Remember Me …

Place and time, and their memory, form the bedrock of our personal histories and identities. In the case of Kit, entering late middle age, Bragg’s infinite space, Bernstein’s other country, embraced the confusion of more than one country – in fact, three. The immigrant has, after all, been defined as a stranger to more than one country. This may not be unbearable, but it is undoubtedly confusing when it comes to identity and a sense of belonging. Identity is rooted in a past that exists in memory, makes fleeting and reassuring appearances, but readily vanishes. It is reinforced by documents and photographs, but those, too, can be all too ephemeral: ultimately all we have to fall back on is memory that expires along with us. Eventually, as Bernstein suggests, we become archaeological subjects.

The writer Jean Rhys (Gwendolyn Ella Rees-Williams, 1890–1979) returned to the West Indian island of her birth, Dominica, after thirty years. The adult Kit took 45 to revisit the place of his childhood. She suffered from a personality disorder, drank too much and was a fantasist about whom the truth has proved elusive and whose fame as an author has largely been posthumous. She is not an appealing character, nor is her writing particularly compelling, but certain resonances have echoed for years. She left Dominica for boarding school in England without apparent regret, but felt destined to return to a place that had left an indelible mark on her. In 1935 she paid a visit of some weeks, but what she found was distressing. She wept, she said, for the past – in particular the neglected grave of her father. Dominica and its capital, Roseau, she described as ‘shrunken and shabby’ and at Geneva farm, a place of happy childhood memory, she discovered creeper-covered, burned ruins of the house. She wrote of surface beauty and underlying violence; a heightened immediacy of life and death; colour and smell; a sinister elusiveness and defeatism; and a sense of bad luck based on superstition. Rhys lived for another forty years and more, but never returned to Dominica.

Two generations further on and given considerable differences in detail, Christopher/Kit could identify broadly with this. His childhood fault line had meant a shift from a place with a thousand years of evidence of habitation to one of thin rootedness and seeming impermanence. It made a profound impression on a teenage mind that was after five years traded in, largely unwisely, for boarding school back in Britain. Yet Rhys’ experience was a relevant pointer to the psychological impact of return after many decades to a place of familiar otherness.

From the air before landing at the old Windsor Field airport (now Linden Pindling International Airport) in July 2014 it was easy to see how tourism not only dominated the economy, but the landscape too. The airport is still quite small: most of the island’s tourists arrive by ship, in effect massive hotels that float, literally, to the city centre. At the airport a form of apartheid was in operation: returning residents had their suitcases ransacked while tourists were waved airily through. Outside the terminal, taxi drivers were clearly in charge, a reminder that it was they who had initiated a key event of modern Bahamian history, the strike of 1958 that had led to a general stoppage and a blockade of the road to the city.

Cruise ships in Nassau harbour from Fort Fincastle, 2014

Kit’s family left Nassau in mid-1969 with Frank’s job prospects increasingly uncertain. He would return for a visit to see old students, but left few recollections except characteristically critical comments about upkeep of the college. About twenty years after the family’s departure some relatives passed through Nassau and photographed both houses, which looked in bad shape, seemed not to be occupied and were possibly used for storage (figure 11). Yet, in a triumph of dogged memory against all reason, and another quarter of a century on, Christopher expected to find some trace of the landscape that had contained and shaped his and his family’s lives. The college was now a junior high school named after a T.A. Thompson with a battered sign announcing without explanation that it was formerly known as C.C. Sweeting. The clean, open and airy sixties design of the building seemed to have given way to something patched up and then painted yellow and blue in a futile effort either to cheer it up or dispose of a cheap consignment of paint. Otherwise three bungalows and three former military buildings converted into houses had been obliterated, together with their surrounds, reduced to rock interspersed with weed. The ground had been pulverised, presumably in readiness for some unfulfilled construction. Not only had a colonial past populated by expatriates, military and civilian, been superseded long ago but its physical presence had vanished completely. It felt as if an atomic bomb had been dropped on precious memory of people, dogs, buildings, landscape and activity (figure 25). Now the only repository of that past was a few photographs and the occasional written reference to the history of Oakes Field. These in time would disappear, too.

T.A. Thompson Junior High School, formerly the Bahamas Teachers College, 2014
In futile search of memory: the house site, Gregory Street, 2014

There is nothing particularly remarkable about this – an all-too-common casualty of time’s passing. Yet each is tellingly personal, by definition unique. And it throws into sharp relief the matter of memory. Timothy Garton Ash, whose thoughts on such matters are located in the vastly different context of central Europe, describes personal memory as ‘such a slippery customer’. A multiplicity of recollections are subject to slow change and sudden jolts; a process of geomorphological dimensions. Garton Ash adapts familiar phrases from L.P. Hartley and Milan Kundera to suggest that ‘the past is another universe … in which the kaleidoscope of memory keeps turning … [through] a continuous remixing of memory and forgetting’.[17] How should it be handled? This was a problem then entirely unforeseen by a small colonial boy called Kit, although already intrigued by history and the meaning of space and locality. How do we preserve what is important from our past as people and landmarks disappear? How is it possible to keep precious recollections alive, memories from a long-gone age, without allowing them to commandeer the mind and compromise a present that will, in turn, simply become just more history consigned to the oblivion of forgetfulness in the dialectic we experience as the passage of time?

Kit’s Oakes Field was redolent of education – teacher training, technical education and the high school. It was named after the Canadian mining magnate, Sir Harry, murdered in 1943 in a case that remains unsolved to this day and was fully in the public consciousness in the 1960s as a number of the main actors in the drama were still alive. The investigation and trial carried strong political overtones. Oakes owned much of western New Providence and one third of the entire island, controlled significant parts of the Bahamian economy, and was elected to the House of Assembly.[18] Only twenty years before the arrival of Kit and his family Oakes Field had been a busy military centre training RAF and Royal Canadian Air Force crew on American planes, the hub of what had rapidly become an Allied garrison town. By the mid-sixties all that remained were a few derelict and converted buildings, the backdrop to the Cavemen’s Club, and the decommissioned military and international airport now used for private flying.

Nassau War Cemetery, 2014

Today, the only physical symbol is the Nassau War Cemetery known in the 1960s as the RAF cemetery) in nearby Maxwell Lane off Farrington Road, which holds clues to an era whose artefacts soon vanished. It has the graves of six Czech airmen of 111 OTU who died in mid-afternoon on Saturday 7 August 1943 when their B-25 Mitchell crashed into the ground two minutes after take-off from Oakes Field. There is a photograph of the funeral, but the exact location of the crash is nowhere recorded.[19]There were a number of air accidents in and around New Providence related to training in spite of its supposedly favourable weather conditions and the absence of hostile activity. Some accounts implausibly mention the Bermuda Triangle as a contributing factor. 111 OTU, set up in August 1942 and repatriated in July 1945, also trained crew on B-24 Liberators (at Windsor Field), maintained anti-submarine patrols over the western Atlantic and tracked hurricanes for a brief period in 1944. Nassau was a ferry base for planes flown to Accra on the Gold Coast (Ghana) and then on to various war zones.[20] On the eastern fringes of the Bahamas off Abaco, Eleuthera and San Salvador five Allied ships were sunk by German and Italian submarines in the middle of the war and there were sightings of U-boats in the New Providence channels to the north of the island and in the Exuma Cays to the south; according to Pye by commercial, Panam pilots rather the military.

Three thousand personnel served with RAF Nassau from 1942 to 1945 and many of them would have visited the officers’ mess that later became the home of Kit’s family. A menu survives from a Christmas dinner served in 1944 featuring turkey and many other courses, which must have been a rare luxury for personnel from wartime Britain.[21] Was the house the venue and this long-forgotten event part of its ambience?

Yet, less than twenty years later this dramatic period of war and death had been largely erased from the physical landscape of Oakes Field, and New Providence as a whole, even in a marginal place with a limited economy. Pye’s wartime description of Nassau as a little town dominated by rich merchants and rich visitors with a poor black majority Over the Hill[22] was as true of 1962 as it was of 1940, but the evidence of war had largely vanished and the political influence of the shopkeepers was about to be replaced by a new elite largely consisting of black lawyers.

It was only on the ninth and penultimate day of our 2014 visit that Christopher really comprehended how little had changed in Nassau since Kit’s childhood and that the island of New Providence (and without doubt the other islands in the archipelago) was a classic backwater. We were returning on the harbour ferry from a wonderful day at Cabbage Beach on Paradise Island. Apart from a couple of structures in the harbour area that caters for four modern cruise ships at a time, the skyline is basically the same as Kit saw from a return from scout camp on what was then called Hog Island in 1966. The latter could now be Florida, the Gold Coast of Queensland, Durban, Dubai or Singapore: a concrete jungle of hotels and resorts interleaved with grass that looks (and probably is) imported from America and fringed by luxury yachts and marinas. In Nassau itself the Anglican Cathedral is still clearly visible from the harbour just uphill from the British Colonial Hotel and below Government House. There are no high-rise buildings, business or government. Viewed from another perspective, the highest point of the city at Fort Fincastle, Nassau’s street pattern has barely altered in half a century. This is essentially the same small port city notorious for blockade and rum running of the 1860s and 1920s, although the island as a whole has seen massive suburban and tourist development. The immediate fringes of the city remain poor with wooden houses on blocks. William Faulkner might well have been writing of Nassau: ‘The past is not dead and gone; it isn’t even past’.


The harbour of a backwater, 2014

The fortunes of the Bahamas have generally been shaped by distant events, particularly the political economy of North America. Today that is reflected in tourist extravaganzas such as Paradise Island and the troubled and unfinished BahaMar at Cable Beach where there was evidence of Chinese labour. This was eerily reminiscent of wartime use of foreign workers to construct Windsor Field that caused the worst riots in the country’s history. Bay Street and the parallel Shirley Street have barely changed, except for traffic congestion, together with the narrow streets that cross them north-south and still contain a sense of former illegal activity. Bay Street between Rawson Square and the British Colonial Hotel remains the old mix of banks, mainly Canadian, and posh duty-free shops. But one clothes shop had a window display of shirts that could have been a museum reconstruction from the 1950s. And on the east side of Rawson Square was a dry goods store – Ageeb’s established 1925 – apparently and amazingly still trading, the sort of place where you could buy pencils and little shop-soiled notebooks for a few cents. One extraordinary aspect of this is that apart from the seaward side this coincides with a description of the street in the 1940s. Shirley Street remains a place of government offices, businesses, the Princess Margaret Hospital, and a number of vacant plots. One of them marks the old Victoria Hotel, the first building of the organised tourist industry, but destroyed by fire in the 1990s. The limited area frequented by tourists was largely clean and exceptionally well policed, but there were frequent and strong sewer smells that provided a clue to the enormous bottles of drinking water being transported on trucks. And you do not have to venture far to encounter the shabbiness that belies the apparent wealth of the tourist industry. So while tourism dominates the Bahamian and Nassauvian economies, there is a distinct sense of foreign intrusion, a necessary inconvenience, and a new form of colonialism.

The Bahamas has escaped this – represented by the almighty dollar (accepted as local currency), rather than the Colonial Office in London, and American cultural imperialism and evangelical religion – in small, but significant, ways. These are understated and politically incorrect: Bahamians have clung to parts of a colonial identity In order to preserve their distinctiveness. It is not the only factor. There is a definite local culture. Junkanoo, the background rhythm to Kit’s youth, is no longer confined to Christmas and New Year. It was part of a summer festival with a competition on Bay Street, although it seemed to excite minimal tourist interest. The national gallery had a fascinating exhibit of architectural art that captured the specific detail of vernacular housing.[23] And the islands have distinctive food, mostly from the sea and mainly focused on some version of conch. Nor do Bahamians behave like Americans. Somewhat perversely and illogically for a nation that catches pneumonia from an American economic sneeze, they are laid back, take their time and are not notably service orientated. It is an understandable defence mechanism, although there is a sense, whether accurate or not, that American tourists are less dominant than they were half a century ago; not so likely to wear awful Bermuda shorts and talk in loud, demanding voices. They have, perhaps, lost too many wars.

Junkanoo competition in Bay Street, 2014

Rawson Square remains the heart of Nassau, connecting Bay Street to the harbour, which has shed its freighters and inter-island motor vessels to other parts of the shoreline and is now dominated by multi-storey cruise liners that tower above the city centre. The square is not as impressive as it used to be when the centrepiece was a 1950s-style signpost that pointed to the cities of the world. Now it seems a little bare space apparently reserved for government functions and national celebrations. Its significance lies on the south side. Here lie the House of Assembly, Supreme Court and various government offices, all presided over by a statue of Victoria, the Queen Empress herself.

Supreme Court, Nassau, 2014
Parliament Building, Nassau, decorated for Independence Day, 10 July 2014

There is no obvious sign of the fact but the head of state is thousands of miles away in London; her name Queen Elizabeth II while her representative, the Governor-General, resides in Government House overlooking the other end of Bay Street. The main official buildings are immaculately maintained and the people inhabiting them clear inheritors of a British colonial tradition and its parliamentary and judicial systems. The police dress in British-style khaki uniforms with those on public duty in their distinctive white with pith helmets. The pointsman at the intersection of Bay and Frederick streets still stands prominently in a wooden box in the middle of the road (figure 32). Such visibility did not protect a predecessor in the early 1960s, knocked over by an old lady in a Morris Minor. She explained that fog had obscured her view, a totally unlikely excuse that apparently impressed a gullible magistrate.

Government House, Nassau, at the top o\f George Street, 2014
Pointsman of the Royal Bahamas Police Force on duty in his mobile box, 2014

There is absolutely nothing American about these old parts of Nassau. Every few years another worthy from the political establishment moves into Government House with a newly acquired knighthood and others from the local great and good acquire titles, too. One, Dame Keva Bethel, now sadly dead, was Kit’s French and Spanish teacher at GHS who became head of the College of the Bahamas. In spite of anti-colonial rhetoric, still strident in intellectual and academic circles, Bahamians have with admirable common sense held onto choice parts of their past to maintain their identity in the face of foreign money, cultural power and tourists. The Empire still binds to some mutual benefit: Bahamanian nationalism, symbolic and even real, to some extent depends on a British colonial past. But can a service economy to a world superpower be truly independent despite the symbols of nationhood? Is it possible that there was greater psychological independence before nationhood?

The fringes of the CBD, which remains little more than a coastal strip two blocks wide fronted by the harbour and marked to east and west by Rawson Square and the British Colonial Hotel and Anglican Cathedral respectively, are partly derelict. Many colonial-era buildings are in a poor state, some occupied by government departments; others have vanished altogether leaving the standard legacy of weed-infested parking lots. Some of the occasional new constructions are unappealing in the extreme, such as the Rodney E. Bain Building in Shirley Street, an unfitting memorial to a memorable man. While there are modern government buildings such as the Ministry of Foreign Relations outside the city en route to the airport, it seems that the revenue from millions of tourists has yet to be invested in central Nassau.

Fringes of Nassau’s CBD, 2014
Fringes of Nassau’s CBD near Fort Fincastle, 2014

In fact, few tourists from cruise liners venture outside Bay Street or Paradise Island. New Providence is a particularly violent place with an alarming murder rate. But virtually all the victims are locals, the consequence of drug-fuelled, gang-related conflict that often draws in uninvolved family members. Some of the resultant tension feeds through to visitors. In the 1940s they were advised not to venture ‘Over the Hill’ and the same applies today. But Bahamians on the strength of this 2014 visit were invariably polite to visitors, perhaps the result of desperation for dollars. Many of them look poor and shabby and so do their properties – there is a distinct sense that the fruits of the economy are not as widely spread as they might be. A figurative stone’s throw away is the opulent real estate and the floating palaces of Paradise Island. The distinctly middle-class woman who acted as guide at the museum suggested that upheaval might lie not far beneath the surface of society. For now it is vented in intra-community conflict.

This is no banana republic, although there was a tell-tale sign or two including a convoy of official black cars with flashing blue lights that muscled its way through the rush hour traffic of West Bay Street. The Bahamas has had a spectacularly corrupt history, but it is a society that values the symbols of respectability and the rule of law. Perhaps the worst examples of misgovernance occurred during World War II. In Nassau there had been suggestions of high-level treachery centred on Government House. Rumours that Axel Wenner-Gren, a Swedish industrialist and Nazi middle-man had built a secret submarine base on his Hog Island property Shangri-La was reason for Ian Fleming of the Directorate of Naval Intelligence to fly from Miami to Kingston, Jamaica in 1943 to attend an Anglo-American conference.[24] More important than this fiction was the fact that the wartime Governor of the Bahamas, the alcoholic Duke of Windsor, was close to Wenner-Gren, who acted as his banker.[25] This may well have been connected to the Oakes murder. Another outrage was economic warfare against Britain: conversion of pounds sterling captured by the Nazis into dollars, a practice that was halted when convertibility was prohibited after the intervention of a diligent official at the Royal Bank of Canada in Nassau. Anti-Semitism was rife. Tax dodging became an industry in the 1950s, the walls of many offices in central Nassau plastered with the nameplates of multiple businesses. Suggestions that a considerable amount of document destruction went on in the run up over several years to independence are probably not unfounded.

The post-colonial legacy is highlighted by two institutions; the public library and the botanical gardens. The first was a nineteenth-century prison built conveniently near the court and converted into a library in 1873. The old cells, their windows wide open to the street, define the book stock, which looked as if it had not been touched since Kit’s weekly visits in the 1960s to read the overseas newspapers. Books were glued together by a combination of dust, heat, age and lack of use. The local newspaper collection showed signs of disintegration and the staff looked defeated. Then there were the botanical gardens beyond Fort Charlotte, founded as an extensive and well laid-out research station by a Jamaican. There was energy here, but only from a rather aggressive woman demanding a $2 entrance fee, which turned out to be a mixed investment. There were interesting specimens such as a massive silk cotton tree, but the labelling was decades old, the ponds disgusting, and vegetable debris lay everywhere. In both cases functional institutions seemed to be decaying with the passage of years to a point of disintegration before the gaze of apathetic staff. Their very neglect highlighted their colonial origins, which in turn possibly diminished their chance of survival. Both could be an asset to community and tourism and worthwhile symbols of nationhood. The post-colonial psyche seemed to suggest otherwise.

Nassau Central Library, 2014
Botanical Gardens, Nassau, 2014

In spite of a certain level of radical talk, especially over immigration and identity, the history of the Bahamas is largely one of moderation. From 1834 there was a common electoral roll for all males subject to a property qualification and at this early stage there were four coloured members of the House of Assembly, including Stephen Dillet who was of Haitian origin. There has been an attempt to write off these early political pioneers as ambitious individuals who belonged to the establishment (especially the Anglican Church) who did nothing for the poor masses. But this is, at least in part, misleading. They supported the Governor in his struggles against the merchant majority, constantly replicated by a notoriously corrupt electoral system, in the House of Assembly which held the purse strings and obstructed every progressive development. (This was a feature of the quadri-cameral Crown Colony system that applied to Barbados and Bermuda as well.) This coloured (near-white or high yaller) community, which initially lived in Delancey Town, served the Bahamas well although it was inclined to ‘marry up’ and ‘pass for white’. It showed that barriers could be overcome in the fashion typical of the West Indian middle class in the professions and civil service. Antagonism to their ambitions was more likely to stem from the United States than Britain; and, strangely, from reactionary Wesleyans.

In Nassau over forty years after Cavemen hid in underground tunnels there was no obvious sign of Haitians in spite of a significant assimilated community with citizenship. The problem of illegals persists, in part exacerbated by local bureaucratic obstruction. In the 1960s there were several thousand Haitians on the island at any one time and every so often they were rounded up and shipped back to the Haitian north coast. There, rumour suggested, they were machine-gunned on the beach by Duvalier’s secret police and private army, the Tonton Macoute. There had always been Bahamians of Haitian extraction shown by prominent surnames like Demerritte, Dupuch and D’Albenas. The names of many Bahamians betray a Haitian origin, often going back to the eighteenth century. Links between the southern Bahamas and northern Haiti had been strong and mutually beneficial, and included the Duvalier family which had Inagua connections. But from the 1950s the two economies began to diverge and there developed a perceived ‘Haitian problem’ based on xenophobia that attached a stigma to emigrants betrayed by accent and appearance. Labour not highly regarded by locals was labelled ‘Haitian work’ undertaken by ‘paper Bahamians’. Although the definition of Bahamian is in itself difficult to pinpoint, Haitians, whose supposed numbers were grossly inflated, became a subject of xenophobic focus and a perceived threat to culture and sovereignty. Irresponsible journalists wrote of an ‘invasion’.[26]

Jean Rhys left Dominica with a profound sense of disappointment and loss, and never went back. Christopher left Nassau hoping to return, disappointed only by his own questions he had failed to pursue. Many millions of people claim to have visited Nassau, but it still remains obscure; on the edge of somewhere – if not the empire any longer. This ongoing obscurity explains the continuity of Nassau, which is illustrated by a drive along Farrington Road and then Wulff Road around the southern fringes of the city. Tourism, business and government are far away from this scene of apparent anarchy: a jumble of houses, yards and shops; a tangle of overhead electricity and telephone wires; a noisy confusion of traffic heading into a myriad of alleyways; and potholed, puddle-strewn roads thronged by crowds of people and animals. Life for ordinary, largely poor Bahamians has barely changed.

The discontinuity involves what has been imposed from time to time: in Kit’s instance a military presence and a subsequent colonial education administration that provided his childhood landmarks. Of both there is today barely a physical or other trace. As Marina Warner eloquently wrote of West Indian islands further south, colonial societies experience the passing through of people who leave a shallow and fleeting imprint that is soon erased;[27] thus the impression of impermanence. History is indeed a long march that strides off in many different directions.

THANKS to Christine Forbes and Penny Merrett for some of the photographs used above; to Penny for correcting factual errors and supplying new information; to John Conyngham for literary advice; and to Nithaya Chetty for general encouragement.

NOTES


[1] The Bahamas is one of a few nations granted archipelagic status under international maritime law. In order to avoid the problem of large pockets of sea within the nation falling outside territorial waters, a perimeter baseline was drawn to include the Great and Little Bahama banks and the Cay Sal Bank to create a country of 80 000 square miles. This is subject to provisos about freedom of navigation and overflight.

[2] Interestingly, recent research has suggested that Bahamian society is matrifocal (Nicolette Bethel, Jessica Minnis and William J. Fielding, ‘Knowing your ancestors: a survey of Bahamians’ knowledge of their progenitors’ names’ International Journal of Bahamian Studies 18 (2012): 1–5).

[3] In 1966 Lynden Pindling, leader of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) and within a year the country’s first black prime minister, made a speech at the United Nations in which he criticised the British content of the school syllabus and claimed that ‘as a people we are without history’. This was arrant nonsense; political opportunism at which Gurth Archer would have laughed, shaking with mirth.

[4] Colin Hughes, Race and Politics in the Bahamas (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1981): 146.

[5] The BTC had four principals, three vice-principals and 69 staff in the ten years from 1962 (Hughes, Race and Politics in the Bahamas: 179). Frank, having been vice-principal from 1962 to 1965, was principal for four more until 1969 and therefore among the longest serving staff.

[6] The lowly Nassau roaming mongrel has achieved considerable status since independence. Regarded correctly as a ‘true’ Bahamian, it is referred to in political speeches (William J. Fielding et al., ‘Using DNA to locate the ancestry of today’s island dogs of the Caribbean: the case of the Bahamian potcake’ International Journal of Bahamian Studies 21(1) 2015): 27–37.

[7] Edward Wilson, ‘Thank you Vasili Arkhipov, the man who stopped nuclear war’ Guardian 27 October 2012.

[8] In Sebastian Faulks, The Fatal Englishman.

[9] Maria A. Lee, ‘Curating the nation: the politics of recognition in a Bahamian national museum’ International Journal of Bahamian Studies 21(1) 2015: 91–107.

[10] Michael Pye, The King Over the Water (London: Hutchinson, 1982). Taylor was a co-founder of the Progressive Liberal Party in 1953 and thirty years later one in a succession of Governors-General.

[11] Knox was born in Cape Town in 1923 and died in the Seychelles at the age of 60.

[12] Pye, The King Over the Water: 220.

[13] According to the Internet, Anthony is now a member of the Bahamas Maritime Board; and Nikos became one of the world’s most influential intellectuals, a mathematician who has made profound contributions to thinking about the nature of urban space.

[14] Hog Island is now known as Paradise Island.

[15] Built in 1927 it had become a floating fire trap covered in multiple layers of paint. Many of its lifeboats could not be launched and another familiar vessel, the Bahama Star, led the rescue operation.

[16] Launched in 1957, this ship survived a number of refittings and roles until it was finally broken up in India in 2012.

[17] Timothy Garton Ash, The File: A Personal History (London: Harper Collins, 1997): 37, 96–97, 209, 221.

[18] Oakes defeated Milo Butler, a store owner marked as a labour leader and ‘troublemaker’ by British Military Intelligence. Butler would later become the first post-independence Governor-General and his statue now stands in Rawson Square. Oakes has a more modest memorial near the old airport and was resented by the locals, although he was one of the island’s lesser villains. The best and most recent book on the Oakes murder is James Owen, A Serpent in Eden (London: Abacus, 2006). See also Cathleen le Grand, ‘Another look at Bahamian mystery: the murder of Sir Harry Oakes: a critical literature review’ International Journal of Bahamian Studies 16 (2010): 92–101.

[19] http://www.aircrewremembered.com/hadravek-jan.html. The Mitchell was a very noisy twin-engined bomber with a tricycle undercarriage that first arrived in Nassau on 20 August 1942.

[20] http://www.aircrew-saltire.org/lib140.htm.

[21] http://postalhistorycorner.blogspot.co.za/2011/11/no.html.

[22] Pye, The King Over the Water.

[23] In the late sixties the family’s neighbour, Richard Crawford of the Adult Study Centre, controversially told Rotary that there was little upon which to build a national culture: no literature, derivative painting and the Americanisation and commercialisation of local traditions like Junkanoo (Hughes, Race and Politics in the Bahamas: 181).

[24] Lewis Jones, ‘Disciplined exoticism’ Spectator 9 August 2014 (reviewing Goldeneye by Matthew Parker).

[25] To be fair, the Duke had a social conscience and expressed significant concern about the state of the local population, but at the same time he lacked political will. The Duchess put similar concern to more practical effect.

[26] Charmane M. Perry, ‘Invasion from the south: social construction of the Haitian “other” in the Bahamas’ International Journal of Bahamian Studies 20(1) 2014: 1–12; Fiona Joseph, ‘The treatment of Haitian Bahamians in Bahamian society’ International Journal of Bahamian Studies 20(1) 2014: 63–69.

[27] Marina Warner, ‘Between the colonialist and the creole: family bonds, family boundaries’ in Unbecoming Daughters of the Empire ed. by S. Chew and A. Rutherford (Sydney: Dangeroo Press, 1993): 199.