INSTEAD of being ashamed of their ignorance and keeping their mouths firmly shut, the squabbling over the posthumous award of The Bahamas’ first National Heroes is continuing with Englerston MP Gladys Hanna-Martin claiming that to recognise the late Sir Roland Symonette, the longest serving member of parliament, with such a reward was “perverse”.
Of course, the “rags to riches” life of Sir Roland reads almost like a fairy-tale, but, unlike so many fairy tales which concentrates on the hero, many Bahamians — and even the country — was touched by his generosity. He was the longest-serving member of the House of Assembly, successfully contesting the Harbour Island seat in 1925 at the age of 27, and serving in all branches of parliament as a member for Shirlea until his retirement in 1977 – a total of 52 years. His parliamentary record is yet to be broken. During that time – 1964 – he became the first Premier of a self-governing Bahamas. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1959.
Apparently, unlike PLP chairman Fred Mitchell, the Queen found Sir Roland a “fit and proper” person to qualify for her knighthood. But not so Mr Mitchell. According to Mr Mitchell, this first Bahamian award does “not fit into the legal definition in the (law) for a national hero”. It would be interesting to know from which law book Mr Mitchell was quoting. Probably one of his own creation when he even calls one of the most beloved literary characters —“Uncle Tom” — into the debate thus turning it racial. Race seems to be his crutch in so many of his pathetic arguments.
FNM chairman Carl Culmer defended the first local award going to Sir Roland saying that “singlehandedly Sir Roland did more for black people” than some people of colour. Mr Culmer said that although “there is no man without sin”, he never heard anything about Sir Roland being prejudiced. “I heard and read where Sir Roland did a lot for black people,” he said. “He was the one that gave a lot of loans to black people, giving them opportunities they didn’t have normally. If the records are correct, he did more for black people —I’m talking singlehandedly — than many black people did for black folk.” We can attest to that because in the early years of the PLP when foreign residents folded their tents and left, there was a dramatic drop in donations to local charities. Not one of the leading black families felt it their duty to fill the void — but that’s a story for another day.
Sir Roland was an executive of the late Rev Prince Hepburn’s Charity Guide and for years supplied a large barge to take hundreds of children to Little Whale Cay for their annual summer camp. He built churches, schools, and roads by advancing credit to provide these facilities for small communities. The extent of his charitable work was never fully known, because Lady Symonette insisted on anonymity.
However, on Thursday, retired Bishop Simeon Hall called for a stop to the degrading debate, which to him was “retrogressive”.
Bishop Hall, who serves as pastor emeritus at New Covenant Baptist Church, said despite the negative cases now being brought up about Sir Roland’s legacy, he knew first hand of many of his positive deeds.
“Sir Roland heard me preach one summer, struggling to get back in college and he paid one year’s tuition for me,” he said. “So for me, he will always be my national hero.”
We recall the nights as a House of Assembly reporter — those were the days when members, dressed in their tuxedos, met at 8pm and on budget night would sit at least until midnight – when Milo Butler, who eventually became The Bahamas’ first Governor General and was later knighted by the Queen, would lift his hefty frame from his extra large chair and bellow that soon we would see “rivers of blood” flowing down Bay Street. He was particularly interested in the blood of the Englishman. At that time The Bahamas was still a colony. And this is what Sir Milo, who was also honoured posthumously on Independence Day with the Order of National Hero, had to say about Sir Roland when he died on March 13, 1980. Remember that during life they were political opponents.
“Sir Roland,” said Sir Milo, “is one citizen of The Bahamas who has been a true man to his fellow man. The country would have run in blood years ago when racism and discrimination was rampant if it were not for the sterling qualities of Sir Roland.
“He is the one among us who has played the part of a true-born Bahamian, one whom young and old knows. I don‘t known if there is any person in The Bahamas as outstanding in helping people in many ways people who had problems one way or the other.”
As for Mrs Hanna-Martin, she – who thinks the award to Sir Roland was “perverse”— might like to know what her father who was acting prime minister at the time of Sir Roland’s death, had to say: “Sir Roland’s energy had effected no small influence over the course of the Bahamian way of life for well over half a century and he had indeed made a vital and substantial contribution to the development of The Bahamas over these years, but above all he will be remembered as a real patriot.”
And as for Sir Lynden he acknowledged that “in the heat of the battle they often clashed swords and the din rang throughout the country, but when the noise subsided we realised that nevertheless the country was safe and sound”.
It was estimated that 1,500 persons, filled the Ebenezer churchyard and lined Shirley Street for Sir Roland’s simple funeral.
When Sir Roland stepped down, there was money in the Public Treasury. When Sir Lynden, who was also made a National Hero, stepped down, The Bahamas was a “nation for sale”.
But before Mr Mitchell puts away his special law book, we invite him to read “The Cocaine Wars” by Paul Eddy with Hugo Sabogal and Sara Walden. Luis Garcia, better known in these parts as “Kojak”, features largely in this book. He is better known as the “man who bought The Bahamas”. In the end, Kojak turned “state”, which means he was giving the Feds. the details of all of his contacts in The Bahamas during the height of his colourful career. Very late one night in September, 1987, we received a telephone call from one of the authors of “The Cocaine Wars” — Kojak, who was to fly from Miami to New York the next morning to collect more vital documentary evidence was dead. He died of a heart attack as the final chapter of this book was being written. After Mr Mitchell has read the book and consulted his own special law book, maybe he will then be better equipped to make a more informed statement on the matter of who was deserving of a National Heroes award. As Bishop Hall said: “Some of our black leaders had their own graveyards, figuratively speaking.”