EDITOR, The Tribune.
EVEN though he has been dead since 1980, the name Sir Roland T Symonette is currently at the centre of the political furore which was created by the FNM’s decision to honour him as a national hero on Independence Day, along with Sir Lynden Pindling, Sir Milo B Butler and Sir Cecil Wallace-Whitfield. To PLPs such as chairman Fred Mitchell and Englerston MP Glenys Hanna-Martin, this latest political gesture by Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis borders on sacrilege. Sir Roland led the United Bahamian Party (UBP) during the tumultuous 1960s.
It is my understanding that the UBP was officially formed shortly after the formation of the PLP by William Cartwright, Sir Henry Taylor and Cyril Stevenson in 1953. Therefore, it was anachronistic of a writer in one of the major dailies to say that Symonette was elected to the House of Assembly in 1925 to the district of Shirlea as a standard bearer of the UBP. There was no UBP in 1925. Symonette served as MP for 52 years.
In 1964 after The Bahamas achieved internal self-government, Symonette became the country’s first premier. He retired from frontline politics in 1977. When it became apparent that the glory days of the Bay Street Boys were over, in terms of wielding political power after the events of Majority Rule in 1967, elements of the UBP joined the newly formed FNM in the early 1970s. To the best of my knowledge, there is no definitive biography on the life of Sir Roland. Hence the grave difficulty in separating fact from fiction regarding his life.
The PLP under Pindling did a yeoman’s job at portraying the UBP to the black Bahamian populace as the bogeyman, especially after the self imposed exile of Sir Stafford Sands in 1967, immediately following the election victory of the PLP in 1967. By airing Alex Haley’s Roots on ZNS TV13 during the lead up to general elections during the 1980s, the Pindling administration made sure this negative image of the UBP remained etched in the minds of the grassroots. The FNM has been far more accommodating to elements of the UBP than any other predominantly black political party.
For example, Sands’ image was placed on the Bahamian $10 banknote in 2000 by the Ingraham government, only to be removed by the Christie administration in 2005. The image was reinstated in 2010 by the Ingraham administration. The reason given for this controversial move was that Sands was the architect of the economic pillars of tourism and finance. In fact, Sands has been dubbed the Father of Tourism by some political observers. Symonette’s image is on the $50 banknote.
Symonette has taken a lot of flack due to him being a prominent member of the Bay Street Boys. To Mitchell and Hanna-Martin, Pop Symonette, as he was affectionately called, is guilty based on his association with the aforementioned group, which is routinely labeled racist by historians. The PLP chair has a laundry list of complaints against Sir Roland posted on his Facebook page.
According to Mitchell, Symonette opposed black majority rule, independence under the PLP, women suffrage, fairly drawn boundaries for constituencies, lowering the age of voters to 18 and labour and social reform. Interestingly, while charges of racism are often lodged against the UBP, I have yet to come across any accusation that Symonette was personally prejudiced against black Bahamians. Many black Bahamians are saying that Symonette was a generous philanthropist who helped hundreds of disadvantaged black Bahamians.
Granted, Symonette opposed the idea of The Bahamas obtaining independence from England in 1973. PLPs are also vehemently alleging that he supported the Abaco Independence Movement.
Whatever his reasons for opposing the Pindling administration’s quest for full autonomy from Great Britain, it should also be pointed out that Pindling himself opposed independence prior to him becoming premier.
Maybe his opposition was due to the UBP being in power at the time. In any event, Pop Symonette is viewed by many rank-and-file FNMs much the same way millions of African Americans and other ethnic minorities in the USA view George Washington. At the time of his death in 1799, Washington owned 123 of the reported 317 slaves at Mount Vernon. The Father of His Country and the first president of the United States became a slave owner at the tender age of 11, after the death of his father. There were allegations that General Washington utilised inhumane punishment against unruly slaves. I have never heard of any historian alleging that Washington was a racist. As a slaveholder, however, he was a typical 18th century white American.
Despite this information regarding Washington being in the public domain, he is still honoured by millions of African Americans as a founding father. He is one of the four faces on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. His image is on the $1 banknote. The US capital city is named after him. The state of Washington is named after him. The famous Washington Monument was built in his commemoration. George Washington University, Washington and Lee University, Washington and Jefferson College, Washington University, University of Washington, Washington State University, Washington College, Washington County Community College, Washington State Community College along with numerous high schools are all named in the the first US president’s honour.
To the best of my knowledge, black advocacy groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and the Rev Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition have never opposed Washington being honoured. Maybe FNMs are viewing the Symonette debate from the vantage point of their African American counterparts.
While Symonette was flawed, he is still deserving of some recognition as a national hero, even if his contributions toward nation building was not as seminal as Pindling’s. I hold no brief for Minnis for recognising Symonette as a national hero. However, my only issue with Symonette and the Bay Street Boys is that they could have done far more in making high school and college education available to the black masses. I also take issue with them for failing to put in place much needed infrastructure in many of the Out Islands. Indeed, when Pindling became premier in 1967, many Bahamians lived in the Dark Ages without basic utilities. Symonette those could have done far more in this regard. Having said that, I agree with FNMs that Symonette should be afforded at the very least a modicum of national recognition for his contributions to The Bahamas.
July 12, 2018.