Bahamians Immigrants All
Patricia Glinton-Meicholas & Christopher Curry
Bahamians Immigrants All
By Patricia Glinton-Meicholas & Christopher Curry
Produced on the occasion of
Race, Ethnicity and Identity
A Forum Sponsored by the School of Social Sciences of The College of the Bahamas
And Bahamas Association for Cultural Studies (BACUS)
January 20-22, 2004
Race and ethnicity exercised a widely
acknowledged influence on identity and social and
economic development in The Bahamas up to
Independence in 1973, and have continued to do
so, largely unacknowledged, in the post-
Independence era. It is the contention of the
organizers of the Forum that issues of race and
ethnicity have not been sufficiently studied, and
should form the basis of a more informed public
debate. This small monograph is offered as a
background to the Forum on Race, Ethnicity and
Identity, by providing sketches of the racial and
ethnic groups who settled The Bahamas in the years
following the Spanish decimation of the Lucayan
population of our islands, and formed the
foundation of present-day demographics.
Africans and Europeans
As far as history records, Bahamians today
are all descended from immigrants, as it is generally
accepted that Spanish colonization thrust in the
Americas led to the depopulation of the Bahamian
archipelago. From the beginning of post-Lucayan
settlement of The Bahamas, the salient elements
of the demography of The Bahamas ha% e always
been ethnic groups of European and African descent,
coming, in the first instance, from Bermuda in the
middle of the 17th century in a contingent of
settlers calling themselves "Eleutherian Adventurers,
leaving The Bahamas the legacy of such names as
Adderley, Sands, Saunders, Albury, Bethell.
Following the War of Independence, beginning in
1783, a wave of more than eight thousand migrants
poured in from the United States.
The first Africans from Bermuda were the
forty-eight slaves who travelled on board the
"William", flagship of Captain William Sayle, the
leader of the Adventurers. Subsequent cadres of
Africans included slaves involved in civil unrest
and free blacks and coloureds expelled in the
Bermudians' desire, as Craton and Saunders note,
to "extirpate" from their island "all nonwhites who
were not enslaved".
Because the islands of The Bahamas were
an English possession following the Crown's formal
claim in 1629, settlers would come primarily from
the British Isles, nearby Ireland or British colonies
in the years to come. The whites who came in what
is termed the American "Loyalist" immigration
were of British stock primarily but no doubt
included individuals of other European ethnicities.
Many were townspeople of varying occupations,
for example, merchants, artisans, teachers, and
others were planters. The first group tended to
settle in the more developed central islands, while
cultivators sought to establish estates in the more
sparsely populated islands further south.
In the American wave of settlers, black
Creole slaves were in the majority. There also came
a much smaller number of free blacks and coloureds.
It is also important to note that following the
1807 abolition of the slave trade, the British settled
in these islands several thousand Africans whom
they had rescued from ships engaged in illegal trade
in human beings. The majority of these men, women
and children came fresh from Africa and had never
lived as slaves in the New World. The resulting
admixture of creolised and non-creolized Africans
contributed to the uniqueness of Bahamian culture.
Before the advent of majority rule in 1967, the
two dominant racial groups, whites and blacks
existed, for the most part, at opposite poles of the
social and economic spectrum with whites
dominating in both spheres. Persons of mixed
ancestry and new immigrants of a variety of racial,
ethnic and national backgrounds existed in an often
ill-defined and uncomfortable middle ground. As
a result, the source of a major social tension was
the search for a more equitable integration into
the dominant strata of the hierarchy. In the late
19th century and early 20th century, the white Bay
Street merchant oligarchy showed a distinct pattern
of resistance to the influx of persons from certain
areas, a prejudice based either on race, ethnicity or
fear of commercial competition, or a mixture of
all of these factors.
Bahamians have been trading with Haitians
since the 1600s, an exchange of goods and persons
made easier by the fact that both peoples have been
seafarers. This connection has always been
particularly close between the sailors of Ragged
Island and Long Island and Haitian marine
communities of the north of the Hispaniola. Many
of the names we now accept quite readily as
Bahamian came to the islands from Haiti Bonamy,
Poitier, Benjamin, Deleveaux, Dillet, etc. The
Haitian Revolution, which broke out in 1791 and
the declaration of the Republic in 1803 sparked a
northward exodus of planters, their slaves and free
persons between 1793-1794. The Government of
the day restricted the settlement of Haitian blacks
as they feared (so they claimed) that they might
lead an insurrection in these islands as well. A
similar treatment would be accorded Africans
"liberated" from slave ships.
The next significant influx of Haitians
began when small numbers began to migrate towards
jobs as labourers on Grand Bahama and Abaco in
timbering operations. In the case of the latter
island, where a large population of this ethnic group
may be found today, the trickle became a flood
when the growth of citrus exporting farms began
to demand the services of hundreds of low-paid
In 1963, Haitian-born persons constituted
3.2 percent of the total population of The
Bahamas.2 When they became a highly visible group
in population, resentments against people of this
ethnicity arose. As Craton and Saunders note, "The
close human linkage between Haiti and the Bahama
Islands has existed as long as there have been people
in the archipelago, producing conflict and tensions
but also bringing mutual benefits."3 The first man
of colour to sit in the House of Assembly was
Haitian-born Stephen Dillet (1834). Moreover,
the many artisans and musicians who have migrated
from Haiti have influenced Bahamian culture in
Turks & Caicos Islanders
The inhabitants of the Turks & Caicos
Islands, predominantly of African origin, have
always had a close relationship with the people of
The Bahamas, as the Turks & Caicos are a
geographically a part of the Bahamian archipelago
and were once politically linked. Up until Bahamas
Independence the Turks & Caicos Islanders had
been travelling to The Bahamas in an informal
migration, and were generally absorbed without
incident into the wider population. In the 1940s,
the lumber operations at Pine Ridge in Grand
Bahama and Wallace Grove's other ventures drew
numbers of Turks Islanders, seeking to benefit
from relatively well-paid manual labour. For many
who had lived in The Bahamas for most of their
lives, Independence brought a citizenship crisis,
which, in an undetermined number, still remains
The relationship between The Bahamas and Cuba
has also been a long one, also based on proximity.
The Spanish forces stationed in Cuba are known
to have raided The Bahamas at least six times, the
last attack taking place on Cat Island in 1803.
Following the decline of Bahamian plantations in
the early I800s, there were Bahamians who sought
a livelihood in Cuba, including a member of the
Kelsall family of Exuma. There are recognized
communities of persons of Bahamian ancestry in
Cuba, particularly in the north Holguin province.
It is known that Cuban performers often travelled
in troupes here to entertain the local population.
The Spanish American War in 1899 and Cuban
Revolution of 1959 launched an exodus northward
much as the Haitian Revolution had done in the
late 1790s and early 1800s. The relocation of the
Bacardi rum factory, for example brought many
Cubans to settle and raise families in New
Providence. Names such as D'Aguilar, Jimenez,
Cutillas and Sasso have their origins in Cuba.
Other West Indians
As long as the British ruled The Bahamas
and other territories in the West Indies, there have
been links between the peoples of these areas.
Some of the earliest connections were forged by
the pirates and privateers who roamed the Caribbean,
and for whom the shoal-filled waters of The
Bahamas became a favourite hangout.
When Britain ordered the registration of
slaves and many planters read the handwriting on
the wall of the slave trade and slavery, many hastily
moved their slave cohorts to more fertile islands
further south to set up new plantations or increase
the population of more profitable estates they
already owned. Burton Williams of San Salvador,
for example, transferred some of his slaves to
The British policy of using the natives of
one territory to police another brought a group of
Barbadians to form the Constabulary in 1891. The
Police Force would continue to recruit men from
the West Indian islands up to the middle of the
last century. Names such as Chase, Ifill and Dumont
come to mind in this connection. Many such men
married Bahamian women and settled permanently
to raise families.
The rebuilding of the British Colonial in
1922 following its burning a few months earlier
and reconstruction after the devastating hurricanes
of the 1920s attracted Jamaican, Barbadian and
Trinidadian artisans as skilled labour. The
paterfamilias of such families as Maynard, Leach
and Davis came under such circumstances.
It is noteworthy that white or coloured
West Indians tended to benefit from the hierarchical
nature of Bahamian society and economy. Craton
and Saunders theorize that this group "was also
likely to have affected racial consciousness and self-
classification. Though Bahamians would tend to
regard black immigrants as inferiors, as well as
outsiders, they must also have noted how many
West Indian newcomers not unequivocally black
used their color to socio-economic advantage."4
The launch of the University of the West
Indies (as a College of the University of London
in the first instance) and regional trade programmes
forged further ties with the West Indies. It must
be noted that, just as with Haiti and Cuba, the
relationship with the rest of the Caribbean has not
been trouble free.
The Newer Immigrants
Jews migrated to The Bahamas during the
American Civil War. They were involved in the
Civil Service and were members of House of
Assembly in the early 1900s. Of note is the
Solomon family as A.K. Solomon and Eric Vernon
Solomon were members of the House of Assembly
between 1900-1914.5 More arrived in the 1920s
although their numbers have always remained small.
There is a Jewish cemetery on Shirley Street, next
to St. Matthew's Church; the earliest tombstone
is that of Samuel Benjamin, who died in 1864.
The 1920s saw the arrival from Cuba of William
Yanowitz of William's Shoe Store, and from Miami
of M. Garfunkel of the Home Furniture Company;
both prospered by catering and extending credit to
the working classes. Today, among the eighteen
gravestones in the cemetery can be seen the names
of Eustace, Lillian and Donald Myers, and Dr.
Many Jews fell victim to Bahamian
xenophobia and the fear that Bahamian-owned
businesses would be taken over by foreign invaders.
Garfunkel for example was accused of unfairly
undercutting established competitors to drive them
out of business. Garfunkel and many other Jews
were well liked by the labouring class of Bahamians
because they provided reasonably priced, quality
goods that were always in high demand.
Other Jews who made a contribution to the
Bahamian economy included Austin Levy who
established and developed a model farm in Hatchet
Arriving in the late 19th century as experts
in sponging, Greeks made significant contributions
to the industry before starting other enterprises.
By 1888, according to the Nassau Guardian, 24
Greeks had come to Nassau. Fishermen, mostly
from the island of Kalymnos in the Dodecanese,
they were experts in harvesting sponges and
preparing them for export. Some, including George
Damianos, had become agents for the Vouvalis
Company in London. By the early 2zoth century,
Psilinakis and Esfakis were operating their own
warehouses. Meanwhile, other Greeks had started
restaurants, clothing, and shoe and dry goods
James Mosko built the Greek Orthodox
Church 1930s and Father Kolyvas was the first
priest. At present there are approximately 320
Greeks in Nassau, 80-85% of whom are members
of the Church. This includes first, second and third
generations and scions of mixed marriages. There
are about 100 Greeks on the Family islands.
At the end of of 2003 first-generation
Greeks are principals in eight to ten restaurants
including one cafeteria and two carryouts and a
well-known pizza franchise. Many second-
generation Greeks were engaged in the professions
and included five or six doctors, a dozen or so
lawyers and a half dozen teachers. Several Greek
families were involved in retail businesses, among
which are outlets selling shoes, women's clothing,
jewellery, perfumes. They were owners of such
stores as Gold, Tick-tack Shop, Ocean Jewels,
International Jewellery and Express Limited.9
Most second generation Greeks speak their
native language but this is not the case with the
third generation, many of whom have married non-
Greek spouses. Younger generations do not
understand the liturgy of the Greek Orthodox
Church or the language of their parents. Many
young Greek Bahamians appear to have no strong
sense of ethnic Greek identity.
The Lebanese arrived in the late 19th century and
established themselves as shopkeepers. About six
families from Lebanon had come to The Bahamas
in the 1890s to escape persecution by their Ottoman
rulers. Poor themselves, they operated as peddlers
to the poorer classes, travelling from house to
house, and island to island and offering credit. By
the 1890s, two had saved enough to open dry goods
stores in Nassau; they were A Baker & Sons and J.
K. Amoury. Another Lebanese immigrant who
opened a store was K.S. Moses & Sons.IO
Chinese first began arriving in the late 19th
century, but most immigrants arrived in the 1920s
and quickly proved to be enterprising businessmen.
According to the Nassau Guardian, there
were as many as 12 Chinese in The Bahamas in
1879, including one who worked as a farmer on
Cat Island. However it was not until the 1920s
that immigrants like Charles Chea and Henry Wong
began to arrive from Cuba. Early ventures included
the New Chinese Restaurant on Bay Street, and
the New Oriental Laundry. They also operated dry
goods and grocery stores, which they kept open
after regular business hours and on Public Holidays.
Opposition from local merchants led to
discrimination between 1927 and 1933 against
applications for naturalization by Chinese residents.
I Michael Craton and Gail Saunders, Islanders in
The Stream, Vol. I, (University of Georgia
Press, 1992), p. 78)
2 Michael Craton and Gail Saunders, Islanders in
The Stream, Vol. II, (Georgia, 1998), p.
3 Craton and Saunders, Vol. II, p.450
4 Craton and Saunders, Vol. II, p. 196.
5 Patrice Williams, "Ethnic Minorities in The
Bahamas", Journal of the Bahamas Historical
Society, Vol, 18 (1996), p. 19.
6 Allan Murray, Bahamian History Highlights.
(Nassau, 1999), p. 76.
7 Craton and Saunders, Vol. II, p. 259.
8 Murray, Bahamian History Highlights, p. 76.
9 Nassau Guardian, December 1994. (The
Bahamian Greek Community in The
Bahamas: The Past, Present and Future), p.
10 Murray, Bahamian History Highlights, p. 76.
Ii Ibid, p. 76.
Definitions of 'Race' and Ethnicity
Colin A Hughes, Race and Polotics and The
Bahamas, University of Queensland Press, London,
Page 21. M.G. Smith notes five categories help
distinguish racial differences: appearance, biological
status, colour of those with whom the person
associates, conformity to norms associated with
cultural hierarchial traditions, power and wealth.
In The Bahamas wealth has had pre-eminent place.
Rooted from slavery.
28. Etienne Dupuch divides Bahamas into 3 groups:
The British official class, the Bahamian whites
divided into the government house crowd and the
rest and third the coloured majority split into
groups based on colour, black at bottom and near
white at top.
Virginia Cyrus, Experiencing Race, Class and
Gender in the United States, Mountain View
California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 2000.
Pg I I. When we identify someone as being a part
of an ethnic group this means that he or she belongs
to some identifiable group within American society.
This is the most important component of ethnicity:
membership in a subgroup within an environment
dominated by another culture.
Ethnic subgroups are defined by many complex,
often variable traits, such as religion, language,
culture, customs, traditions, physical characteristics,
and ancestral origin.
One definition of race in the American Heritage
dictionary is "any group of people united or
classified together on the basis of a common history,
nationality, or geographical distribution.
In this sense race does not differ substantially from
ethnicity. Scientists identify race solely in terms
of physical characteristics, such as skin colour,
texture and colour of hair, and other attributes,
especially facial features.
These features or attributes are not as discrete or
self evident. From earliest times human populations
have migrated and intermingled, mixing and
blending biological makeup. Precise lines of racial
demarcation are blurred, so that, at best systematic
classifications of race are complex and must be
Many have come to believe that race is less a
scientific actuality than it is a social construct -
a classification based on social values. Mixed
children, father white, mother black, would be
assigned the value of being black. This racial
assignment reflects social assumptions rather than
the child's genetic composition.
John Hope Franklin, "Ethnicity in American Life:
The Historical Perspective", in Experiencing Race
Class and Gender in the United States.
Pg. 16 The presence of persons of African descent,
almost from the beginning had helped whites to
define ethnicity and to establish and maintain the
conditions by which it could be controlled. If their
color and race, their condition of servitude, and
their generally degraded condition did not set them
apart, the laws and customs surrounding them more
than accomplished that feat.
Pg. 19 In its history, ethnicity in its true sense,
has extended and continues to extend beyond race.
At times it has meant language, customs, religion,
national origin. It has also meant race: and, to
some, it has always meant only race. It had already
begun to have a racial connotation in the eighteenth
century. In the nineteenth century, it had a larger
racial component, even as other factors continued
to loom large. In the present century, as these other
factors have receded in importance, racial
considerations have come to have even greater
If the history of ethnicity has meant anything at
all during the last three centuries, it has meant the
gradual but steady retreat from the broad and
healthy regard for cultural and racial differences to
a narrow, counter-productive concept of differences
in terms of whim, intolerance, and racial prejudice.
We have come full circle. The really acceptable
American is still that person whom Crevecoeur
described almost two hundred years ago.
One of the greatest tragedies of American life at
the beginning was that ethnicity was defined too
narrowly. One of the great tragedies is that this
continues to be the case.
Patricia Glinton-Meicholas and Christopher Curry, 2oo004