by Larry Smith
Tinker, 57, is a historian who led the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corporation from its inception in 1998 until 2011. Before that he was a civil servant in the Ministry of Finance and the Department of Co-operatives, while teaching part-time at the College of the Bahamas. He holds history degrees from West Indies College in Jamaica, Florida Atlantic University, and Florida State University.
In this book, Tinker has compiled information on "the story of the origin of the black masses into a comprehensive, thematic work." A project, he says, inspired by research carried out in the 1990s by two former attorneys-general - Sean McWeeney and Alfred Sears - as well as conversations with Patricia Glinton-Meicholas, a former lecturer at the College of the Bahamas.
The book opens with an overview of the African slave trade. Between 1650 and 1860 as many as 15 million enslaved people were transported from West Africa to the Americas. And from the 9th to the 19th century millions more were dispersed throughout Asia and the Middle East. The African Diaspora refers to the movements of these people and their descendants throughout the world.
The first record of an African presence in the Bahamas can be traced to the arrival of the Eleutherean Adventurers from Bermuda in the mid-1600s. By 1670 a number of African men, women and children were living in the Bahamas, and four years later Bermuda banished a small group of slaves together with all free blacks and Indians to the Bahamian island of Eleuthera.
Tinker quotes Anne and Jim Lawlor in their book, Harbour Island Story, that "While Bermuda never succeeded in expelling all of its free black population, the historical significance of this attempt…is that the majority of the early black settlers in Eleuthera were free." In fact, Read Elding, a mixed race pirate, acted as governor of the Bahamas for two years in the early 1700s.
Hundreds of black slaves arrived in the Bahamas in the early 1700s with scores of white emigrants from Bermuda and Barbados in search of land grants. "By 1731 Africans or creoles comprised 40 per cent of the New Providence population, 22 per cent of the Eleuthera population and 5 per cent of the Harbour Island population," Tinker writes.
But Africans did not become the majority ethnic group until the late 1700s, when some 6,000 loyalists and slaves settled the islands following the American War of Independence - doubling the pre-war population and raising the ratio of black to white inhabitants to two to one.
Tinker includes a chapter describing the black loyalists in the Bahamas. In it he traces the history of the combined plantations of John Woods and his brother-in-law Lewis Johnston in southwest New Providence, on which the Clifton Heritage Park is now established. The ruined great house built by Woods still stands on the Clifton shoreline, and Tinker calls the park "the most significant of public attempts to date to research and preserve the prehistoric and historic resources of the Bahamas."
The stationing of black troops here in the wake of the successful Haitian slave revolt was "one of the more intriguing episodes of Bahamian history," Tinker says. In 1801 white imperial troops were replaced by armed blacks of the West India Regiment, who had been previously stationed in Honduras.
"Throughout the early 1800s some white Bahamians continued to protest the presence of the black troops and the increasing number of black and coloured (Haitians) in the colony," Tinker says. Nevertheless, "the troops remained in the colony until the 1860s with many marrying into the black community and becoming assimilated into Bahamian society."
The regiment was originally stationed at Fort Charlotte - where the foundation outlines of the barracks building can still be seen on the grassy plain east of the fort. About 40 years later a new barracks was built on the site of derelict Fort Nassau, where the British Colonial Hilton stands today, and remained there until it too was demolished in 1899.
A 17-man police force was established in 1840, operating from a single station house on Parliament Street. The police later became a paramilitary force to replace the West India Regiment. Their new barracks was established on East Street, where police headquarters is today.
Most readers will be aware that between 1807 and 1834 (when slavery was abolished in the British Empire) some 5,000 Africans liberated from slave ships by the Royal Navy were settled on various islands of the Bahamas, including New Providence. Tinker provides several not-so-familiar accounts of how these people were integrated into Bahamians society as "apprentices".
But it is the chapter on the Saltwater Underground Railroad that will be of interest to many readers. Tinker draws together most of the scholarship on this fascinating period, which started in the 1700s and continued throughout the 1800s, involving the migration of African, mixed race and Native Americans to the islands.
"The Bahamas became a focal point of contact between the southeastern Native American peoples, runaway blacks living amongst them, and the British authorities," Tinker explains. "During the American Revolution many southern blacks and Native Americans associated freedom with collaboration with the British government…The British enlisted thousands of free blacks and slaves into their armed forces with the promise of freedom."
And of course, slavery continued in the United States long after the British abolished the slave trade in 1807 and outlawed slavery itself in 1834. "Invariably,' Tinker says, "escape from a life of slavery in the United States through Florida and to freedom in the Bahamas became the hope and subsequent action of many American blacks."
Perhaps the most widely researched account of escape to the Bahamas was the experience of the Black Seminoles who ended up on the island of Andros, founding the settlement of Red Bays in the 1820s.
Another celebrated episode occurred in 1841, when 135 slaves aboard the American vessel, Creole, took over the ship and sailed to the Bahamas, where they were eventually freed. Runaway slaves were also found as stowaways on ships running the Civil War blockade to and from the Bahamas. They were also freed in accordance with British law.
Tinker describes several relatively well-known instances of slave resistance prior to emancipation - such as the Pompey insubordination on Exuma. But he also recounts the lesser-known events of 1832, when thousands of slaves and free blacks engaged in two days of protests on New Providence over elections in which pro-abolitionist candidates fared poorly.
"Opposing groups, divided largely along racial lines and ideology, and armed with clubs marched along the major thoroughfares where voting stations were established," Tinker writes. "The threat of violence was only averted by the quick and decisive intervention of the Second West India Regiment."
These disorders led to the passage of a pre-emancipation law in 1832 granting people of colour the same "rights, privileges and immunities to which they would have been entitled if born of, and descended from, white ancestors." However, the right to vote was not exercised until 1834 - when Stephen Dillett, Edward LaRoda and John Patrick Deane were elected to the House of Assembly.
Tinker rounds out his discussion with some perspectives on ethnicity and ancestry. While acknowledging the limited research on the African origin of most Bahamians, he provides extracts from various reports and publications that offer some information about tribal backgrounds.
The final chapter focuses on Caribbean migration and the making of the modern Bahamas. Here, Tinker draws from his earlier book on The History of Migration to the Bahamas. As he says, it is "particularly rewarding for me to be one of the first to systematically trace the story of the migration of groups of Caribbean peoples to the Bahamas.
"The Caribbean immigrants, mostly of African descent, effectively impacted all spheres of life in the Bahamas almost as dramatically as did the migration of the loyalists from the United States in the 1700s," Tinker says.
He begins this discussion with the recruitment of Barbadians for the police force in the 1890s. Later regional immigrants included Turks Islanders who worked in the lumber industry during the first half of the 20th century, West Indian artisans who filled labour shortages during the 1920s construction boom, increasing numbers of Haitian economic refugees from the 1950s, as well as Jamaican teachers and Guyanese professionals recruited from the 1960s.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of the migration of West Indians of African descent to the Bahamas was the achievement of majority rule in 1967 under the leadership of the son of a Jamaican policeman named Lynden Pindling.
In this 250-page work, Tinker has collated all the available published works on the subject and presented them in a scholarly yet easy to digest format. "Hopefully, others will continue the research and a more complete story of the African Diaspora to the Bahamas will be revealed."
In addition to the present work and The History of Migration cited here, Tinker has also published a short history of the Bahamas in American History and is about to publish another book about the relationship of Bermuda and the Bahamas in the shaping of the Atlantic world.