Woodes Rogers was commissioned on 5 February 1717 to be the first Royal Governor of the Bahama Islands. He was commissioned to drive out the pirates and to restore order and commerce. He was successful in suppressing the pirates and restoring order in Nassau. However, he encountered serious difficulty in coercing the residents to share his anxieties in rebuilding and rehabilitating the island's forts in order to defend Nassau against possible attacks from Spain. He eventually depleted his personal finances and left the Bahamas in 1721 in ill health to return to England.
Woodes Rogers was appointed Governor of the Bahama Islands for a second time on 20 December 1728. The second Commission specifically instructed him to establish a General Assembly. The Assembly was to make laws, as the need arose, for the good governance of the country.
Woodes Rogers arrived in the Bahamas from England on the 25 August 1729 for his second tour of duty as Governor of the Bahama Islands. Two weeks later on Monday the 8 September 1729, he issued a proclamation:-
- Dividing up the inhabited islands of Nassau, Harbour Island and Eleuthera into five districts;
- Fixing the number of Members to be elected at twenty-four,
- Setting the election dates for each of the districts;
- Informing the citizens of the first meeting day of the New Parliament.
On Monday the 29th day of September 1729 after the several elections had been held, the assembly met for the first time at the home of Samuel Lawford, a Member of that first assembly. The House did not move into a permanent home until 1805 and has continued to meet at its present location since that time.
The following persons were elected to serve in the first House:-
|From the Town of Nassau:-||John Colebrooke
Mr. Edward Elding
Mr. Peter Goudet
Mr. Benjamin Hall
Mr. Samuel Lawford
Mr. William Pinder
Mr. Moses Sims Sr.
From the East:-
Mr. John Bennet
Mr. Thomas Downham
Mr. Samuel Frith
Mr. Thomas Lory
From the West:-
Mr. Jacob Jarrold
Mr. Claude Belon
Mr. Flor Cox
Mr. Thomas Saunders
From Harbour Island:-
Mr. John Thompson Sr.,
Mr. John Roberts
Mr. Seaborn Pinder
Mr. John Thompson Jr.,
Mr. John Bethell
Mr. Joseph Ingraham
Mr. Paul Newbold
Mr. John Carey
John Colebrooke was elected the first Speaker of the Bahamian General Assembly and he almost immediately led the House into a serious feud with Governor Woodes Rogers. This feud resulted in the prorogation of the House and eventually to the Governor having to dissolve the House. The first House did, however, pass a number of Bills and Resolutions.
The life of the House at this time was not fixed, in fact, the duration was determined by the Governor acting on his own. As an example, one term lasted for nine years with twelve sessions from 1 February 1785 to h March 1794, while the very next House lasted only ten (10) days 19 September 1794 to 29 September 1794 when it was dissolved by Governor Lord Dunmore in the middle of business.
In 1795, “An Act for Limiting the Duration of Assemblies” better known as the Septennial Act was passed which fixed the life of the House at seven years. The Parliamentary term remained at seven years for the next one hundred and sixty seven years. The maximum duration of the parliamentary term is now five years but parliament may be dissolved earlier by the Governor-General acting on the advice of the Prime Minister.
The number of members and seats in the early House of Assembly including the first House was regulated by Royal Instructions. The Royal Commission appointing Woodes Rogers as Governor instructed him to summon and call a General Assembly with twenty-four (24) members elected from five (5) districts in New Providence, Eleuthera and Harbour Island. It is assumed those were the only islands with sufficient number of “Freeholders and Planters” to warrant an election. Later, the number of members and distribution of seats was fixed by Acts of the House of Assembly.
By 1785 the population of other islands had swelled with the immigration of hundreds of loyalists from the southern United States. Abaco, Cat Island, Long Island, Exuma and Andros were added to the original five (5) electoral districts but the number of members increased by only one to twenty-five (25). In 1805 San Salvador, the Turks and Caicos Islands were added and the number of members increased to twenty-seven (27). The Turks and Caicos Islands ceded politically from the Bahama Islands in 1848 and a representative for the Islands of Inagua and Mayaguana was added soon after. Grand Bahama was added as a seat in the House of Assembly in 1868 and a fourth seat, Southern, was added to New Providence in 1897.
The number of members in the House stood at twenty-nine from 1868 until 1960 when four (4) seats were added to New Providence by the provisions of the General Assembly Elections Act. The 1964 Constitution established the Constituencies Commission and fixed the minimum number of seats at twenty-four and the maximum at forty-two. The Commission was constitutionally mandated to review the boundaries of the constituencies and the number of members to be elected. In 1967 the Commission provided for thirty-one (31) constituencies returning thirty-eight (38) members. By 1968 the principle of single Member Constituencies had been established and there were thirty-eight constituencies returning thirty-eight seats.
The Treaty of Versailles in 1738 officially ended the American War of Independence and in accordance with the terms of the treaty Florida was given to Spain while the British regained authority of the Bahamas. The British Government offered tracts of land free of charge to those Americans who wanted to relocate to the Bahamas and thousands who wanted to remain loyal to Britain and the King took up the offer.
By the time the American Loyalists began to stream into the Bahamas in 1783 Captain Andrew Deveaux had already entrenched himself in the Bahamian society and even sat in the House of Assembly. He is said to be the first of the loyalists to settle in the Bahamas and had appropriated large tracts of land both in New Providence and Cat Island.
The Americans settled mostly in the islands of Eleuthera, Exuma, Cat Island, Long Island, Acklins, Crooked Island and San Salvador. They brought with them their slaves and their plantation economic lifestyle. The Loyalists wasted little time in becoming involved in politics. They ran in newly established electoral districts in the Family IsIands and were successful in winning over a third of the seats. The entrenched local politicians did not appreciate the new immigrants encroaching on their power base and the next nine years were some of the most virulent and tempestuous in the history of the parliament.
By 1794 the loyalists had become the dominant clique in the House and began to put their stamp on Bahamian political history. They instituted a period of institutional development and transformed the face of the city of Nassau that included constructing the buildings that house the House of Assembly and the Senate.
Destruction of the loyalists main agricultural product, cotton, and the approaching end of slavery signaled the end of their domination of the Bahamian society and by 1830 most had left and returned to a developing United States.
The early settlers in the Bahamas brought their slaves with them when they migrated to the Bahamas. The first law in the Bahamas aimed at controlling slaves was passed in 1729, “An Act for the Better Regulating and Governing of Negroes and Other Slaves.” This Act rendered slaves as chattel property who could be bought and sold, could be passed down in inheritance and who were forbidden to own property.
As the non white population increased tougher laws were passed to regulate slaves. One such Act was the 1756 “Act to Ascertain who shall not be deemed Mulatoes.” This Act sought to demarcate racially and socially the differences between whites and non whites and introduced biological standards to define who could be considered white and therefore free. In 1767 a comprehensive law, “An Act for the Governing of Negroes, Mulatoes and Indians” was passed by the House and it imposed severe restrictions and harsh punishment on slaves, freed coloureds and blacks for minor infractions.
The influx of loyalists after the American War of Independence saw the number of slaves increase dramatically. Prior to the loyalists, slaves in the Bahamas performed mainly domestic chores. The American loyalists introduced the plantation system and this new system introduced a different relationship between slave and master. In 1796 “the Slave Act” was passed which introduced some protective measures for slaves and made attempts to socialize the slaves. The main objective of the Bill, however, was to further regulate and control the movement of slaves.
The Act abolishing the Trans Atlantic Slave trade was passed by the British Parliament in 1807. All British colonial Parliaments were forced to enact and implement the imperial provisions. Slaves freed by the British navy were taken to the nearest British port and the Bahamas was greatly impacted. Thousands of freed slaves were brought to the Bahamas and the House was forced to provide for these liberated Africans.
The British Parliament forced all colonial parliaments to pass laws intended to improve the conditions of slaves and to prevent the transfer of slaves from one colony to another. “The Slave Registration Act” in1821 and the 1824 “Melioration Act” were two such laws, both of which were fiercely resisted by the House Members who claimed that they were too costly to implement and were not needed in the Bahamas.
Slavery was officially abolished in 1834 but in the Bahamas slaves were forced to undergo a four-year apprenticeship to assimilate them into freedom. It was not until 1838 that slaves in the Bahamas were finally and completely freed
The Royal Governors acted on the advice of a council. This council performed both executive and legislative functions. In 1841 Governor Francis Cockburn issued letters patent dividing the Governor’s Council into two separate councils. The executive council was given executive functions and the legislative council assumed the legislative functions of the Upper House thus firmly establishing the bi-cameral nature of the Parliament.
For many years the Legislative Council (the Upper House) was considered more prestigious than the House of Assembly and most elected members looked forward to the “call up” to the Legislative Council from the House of Assembly. It was not until political parties were established in the 1950’s and the institution of ministerial government in 1964 that the House of Assembly became the dominant chamber in the bi-cameral parliament.
In the Constitution of 1964 the Legislative Council was renamed the Senate and executive functions previously carried out by the Executive Council became the responsibility of the Cabinet.
Prior to 1959 only males who had British citizenship were permitted to run for the House. In addition, the male had to be a resident in the Bahamas for three (3) years and own property, rent or personals of the value of 200 pounds above all debts and mortgages.
The right to vote also was restricted at first to white males who were twenty-one (21) years or older, and who were resident in the colony for twelve (12) months. The skin colour restriction for males was removed in the mid-nineteenth century. The male voter also had to be a tenant or householder paying an annual rent of 2.85 pounds.
In addition to these restrictive measures the electoral process was antiquated and unfair. Voting was conducted openly in the presence of the candidates or their agents. This system was oftentimes subject to intimidation and corruption and candidates who were defeated often correctly alleged that the results of the elections were undermined by payments to voters by wealthy candidates.
Elections were held over a period of weeks with voting for each district being held on a separate day. This facilitated the unfair and inequitable system of plural voting.
In 1939 the House passed the “Ballot Act” which provided for secret balloting but its provisions were restricted to the four New Providence Districts and were temporary as they fell away after five (5) years. Sir Harry Oakes, a wealthy Canadian, resigned his Western District seat in the House in October 1939 after only a year in the House. A by-election was held to replace him in November of that year and Milo B. Butler won that ensuing by-election and thus became the first person in The Bahamas to be elected by secret ballot.
A new Ballot Act was passed in 1949 and the general elections later that year were the first to be conducted by secret ballot.
The Burma Road Riots of 1942 and the General Strike in 1958 were two worker revolts that acted as the catalyst for Constitutional and Parliamentary Reform. In June 1942 labour unrest at “the Project”, the construction sites for the new airport in West New Providence and the renovation of the existing airfield at Windsor Field, spilled over into the streets of New Providence. During the curfew that had been imposed by the government four (4) men were shot dead. The Duke of Windsor who was Governor of the Bahamas, appointed a Commission to make a full inquiry into the riots. The Commission’s report was tabled in the House of Assembly on 26 November 1942 and it found that all the killings by the police were justified. It attributed the cause of the riots to the low wages paid to Bahamian workers on the project especially when compared to the wages paid to foreign workers. The report also attributed blame for the unrest on the prevailing social conditions and on errors of judgment by the police.
The House of Assembly appointed its own committee to report on the riot. The House found itself in conflict with the Governor who refused to make government officials available to give evidence before the House committee. Clearly stung by this rejection, the committee chaired by Stafford Sands placed most of the blame for the riot on the shoulders of the Government.
In 1953 politics in the Bahamas changed fundamentally with the introduction of political parties. That year the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) was established by several activist Bahamians, most prominent of whom were Henry M. Taylor, Cyril St. John Stevenson and William Cartwright. The party's manifesto and philosophy concentrated on reform of the political and social conditions. By 1956 the PLP was led by a charismatic young attorney by the name of Lynden Pindling. With the addition of Pindling and other black leaders, the objectives of the party had expanded to include not only the fight for social and economic reform, but also to wresting political power from the ruling class and putting it in the hands of the majority of the population.
The United Bahamian Party (UBP) was formed in March 1958 in response to the earlier formation of the PLP that had been united and resourceful in opposition to the government. Sir Roland Symonette, a business man, was elected leader of the party and Sir Stafford Sands, an attorney emerged as probably the most powerful figure in the party and in the House of Assembly. The UBP was made up mostly of wealthy merchants and professional men, the majority of whom were white. They had controlled the House of Assembly and politics in the Bahamas for decades and were determined to hold on to power.
The 1956 General Elections, the first since the formation of the PLP, and the first in which elections for all the districts in New Providence were held on the same day, had strong racial overtones. The entrenched rulers who became the UBP, however, won the overwhelming number of seats and the PLP were relegated to opposition status.
Prior to 1956 certain public places practiced overt racial discrimination. Black people were denied entrance to some hotels, restaurants, movie theatres and other public places. On 23 January 1956 Mr. Etienne Dupuch introduced a Resolution into the House of Assembly expressing the wish of the House that racial discrimination was not in the best interest of the public. He moved that the resolution be passed and sent to the Governor, but Frank Christie, moved as an amendment, that the resolution be sent to a committee. The Committee was appointed with Mr. Christie as Chairman.
The next day the Resolution was reported and ordered to be printed. Gerald Cash, a member of the committee who would later become President of the Senate and Governor-General, wrote a minority statement claiming that the Resolution by itself did not go far enough as it was not binding on the public places that practiced racial discrimination.
The Resolution was agreed by the House on 29 February 1956 and is credited by many as having initiated the process to removing institutionalized racial discrimination in the Bahamas.
A long-standing dispute between taxi drivers and tour car operators erupted into a strike by taxi drivers and hotel workers on 12 January 1958. Members of the Bahamas Taxi Union led by Clifford Darling who would later become Speaker of the House of Assembly and Governor-General, were angry that tour operators were permitted to pick-up and transport tourists directly from the airport. The taxi drivers blocked the entrance to the airport and were joined by hundreds of workers who walked off their jobs. Randol Fawkes, a fiery and diminutive labour leader, threw his support and the support of his members behind the walkout. Over the next few days the walkout grew into a general strike that paralyzed much of the economic life in New Providence for some nineteen (19) days. During the strike that ended on 30 January there was no violence even though the situation was made even more tense by the premature deployment of a regiment of troops to New Providence from Jamacia by Governor Raynor Arthur. The fundamental issue that was the spark for the General Strike, that of tour cars transporting passengers directly to and from the airport has never been conclusively settled, even to this day.
The General Strike had at least caught the attention of the British Government. Alan Lennox –Boyd, British Secretary of State for the Colonies, was sent to Nassau to investigate the causes for the strike. His statement containing his recommendations for action by the House was tabled in the House in April 1958. The recommendations included:-
- the passage of modern labour laws including the establishment of a Department of Labour;
- the introduction of universal adult male suffrage. It was felt by the Governor and his advisors that there was not sufficient widespread demand for the vote for women;
- the abolition of the Company Vote;
- the abolition of plural voting;
- the addition of four (4) seats in New Providence in keeping with the population shift.
As a result of the recommendations and pressure from the opposition PLP the General Assembly Election Act was amended on 13 July 1959 to remove the property restrictions on male voters and to abolish company and plural voting. These measures did not go far enough for the PLP or the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement who were adamant that women should be given the right to vote. The Elections Act was further amended in 1960 to add four (4) additional seats in New Providence, and on the 23 February 1961 legislation was passed giving women the right to register and to vote thus finally introducing universal adult suffrage to the Bahamian political landscape.
The election of 1962 was truly historic. Many of the political reforms that are now part of the political process were initiated in that election. The 1962 election was the first time that all the Bahamas voted on the same day. It was the first time that womEn voted and the first time that plural voting was illegal. It was also the first election to be contested along party lines. Having regard to the fact that the PLP had won by-elections in 1960 to fill the four (4) newly created seats, and to the recently instituted reforms, the party had every right to expect victory at the polls. It was not to be. According to the prevailing British characterization of the political make-up of the House the results of the election could be summarized as follows: Right Wingers (UBP) 19; Left Wingers (PLP) 8; Independents 6. It may be instructive to know that the PLP won only eight (8) of the seats despite receiving the majority of the votes cast in the election amassing 32,000 votes while the UBP received 26,000 votes.
In 1964 the first negotiated written constitution was instituted and ushered in internal self-government for the Bahamas. The constitution was modeled after other constitutions that had earlier been adopted in former British colonies. It established, for the first time, ministerial government that was responsible to Parliament that now included a Senate, House of Assembly and the Governor who represented the British monarch.
The offices of Premier and Leader of the Opposition were created and Sir Roland Symonette became the first Premier of The Bahamas and Lynden Pindling became the first Official Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Executive functions previously performed by the Executive Council became the responsibility of the Cabinet. The Constituency Commission was also created to review the boundaries of constituencies, the number of constituencies and the number of members to be returned by each constituency.
The constitution made provision for a Court of Appeal and placed responsibility for external affairs, defense matters, internal security and the Police Force with the governor.
The 27 April 1965, popularly known as “Black Tuesday”, was one of the most memorable sittings of the House of Assembly. The events that climaxed that day were initiated on 1 April 1965 when Roland Symonette, Premier, tabled a Draft Order providing for the revision of boundaries and the re-distribution of seats for the House of Assembly. The Constitution of 1964 had made provision for the creation of a Constituencies Commission which was to review the number and boundaries of constituencies and the number of members to be returned for each constituency. Prior to 1964 the number and boundaries of constituencies were decided by the House itself.
On 15April, Premier Symonette moved that the House do resolve itself into a committee of the whole House to consider the Draft Order. During the Committee of the whole House Milo Butler refused to end his debate after the expiration of his fifteen minute time limit. The Chairman of the Committee of the whole House, Dr. Raymond Sawyer, reported the matter to the Speaker. The Speaker reported the matter to the House and ordered Mr. Butler to withdraw from the House for the remainder of the sitting. Mr. Butler again refused and was named by the Speaker and was forcibly removed from the House.
When the business of the House resumed the House again resolved itself into a Committee of the whole House. Mr. A. D. Hanna stood to object to the forcible removal of Mr. Butler and when he refused to sit he was asked to withdraw from the House. He refused and he too was forcibly removed from the House for the remainder of the day.
The PLP members of Parliament were unable to persuade the government to make critical reforms to the electoral system. The night before the next sitting of the House they decided that something dramatic had to be done.
The leaders of the PLP decided to call out their supporters in a massive show of support. Overnight they were able to contact and bring out thousands of supporters. The crowd had gathered at Windsor Park and marched downtown. The people were in a festive mood and on edge as they knew something would happen but they did not know what to expect. They filled Bay St, Parliament Square, Rawson Square and the side corners.
A very contentious debate on the Draft Order commenced on 15 April. During his debate Lynden Pindling calmly walked up to the Speaker's desk and removed the Mace. He slowly walked back toward his place while continuing his debate. Meanwhile Milo Butler had opened the windows on the eastern side of the House chamber. The Speaker of the House, the Hon. Robert Symonette, usually a very astute politician had apparently been caught off guard because he neither scolded Mr. Pindling for removing the Mace nor Mr. Butler for opening the windows. Mr. Pindling moved toward the window and said that the mace was the symbol of the House authority, and the authority belongs to the people and the people were on the outside. Having said that, Mr. Pindling threw the Mace out of the North Eastern window of the House that Mr. Butler had opened. Milo Butler followed Pindling’s lead and tossed out of the window the hour glass that was used to time the length of speeches. No one caught the Mace and it smashed on the ground. There was a mad scramble for the parts of the Mace. Pieces of the head\crown were retrieved by the police but the handle was never found.
After these historic and defiant acts the PLP members walked out of the House of Assembly and moved the crowd to the Southern Recreation Grounds on Market St. and prevented a serious confrontation with the riot squad police which had been called in to control the crowd.
In the general election of 10 January 1967 both the PLP and the UBP won eighteen (18) seats. Alvin Braynen, an Independent Member elected for Harbour Island, and Randol Fawkes, a Labour Party candidate who had won the St. Barnabas Constituency, both threw their support behind the PLP. The crucial support by these two unattached Members enabled the PLP to form the first majority government. Lynden Pindling became the second Premier of the Bahamas, with A.D. Hanna as his Deputy. Sir Alvin Braynen was elected Speaker of the House of Assembly and Sir Randol Fawkes, as he would later become, was appointed Minister of Labour in the first PLP Government.
In 1973, the Bahamas gained its independence from Britain and became a sovereign nation responsible for all of its affairs. The Independence constitution established the Office of Governor-General; identified persons who were entitled to Bahamian citizenship and vested fundamental rights on all persons in the Bahamas. The Constitution retained the Westminster model government with a bi-cameral parliament consisting of an appointed Senate of sixteen (16) Senators and an elected House of Assembly with a minimum of thirty-eight (38) Members of Parliament. It also created the Office of the Prime Minister who was head of Government that was accountable to the Parliament. Sir Milo Butler was appointed the first Governor-General of The Bahamas and Lynden Pindling became the first Prime Minister of the Bahamas.
With the attainment of independence, many national institutions were created by Acts of Parliament to support and bolster the young nation. Some of these institutions included:-
- the National Insurance Scheme to provide social security benefits and assistance and a vehicle for national savings;
- the Central Bank to safeguard the value of the Bahamian dollar, manage exchange control, regulate credit and supervise the many banks in the Bahamas;
- the Royal Bahamas Defence Force to defend the Bahamas from poachers, drug smugglers and illegal migration, to protect its marine life, provide search and rescue and disaster preparedness assistance;
- the College of The Bahamas to provide tertiary education, general interest courses and professional development programmes;
- the Development Bank and Bahamas Agricultural and Industrial Corporation to promote and facilitate business and entrepreneurial enterprises.