What we haven’t learnt from Burma Road

[This paper was part of a panel discussion hosted by the School of English Studies at the College of the Bahamas and the Bahamas Historical Society as part of the Critical Caribbean Symposium Series on June 1, 2015.]

In tonight’s paper, I am going to look at some of the economic realities of 1942 that caused Bahamian workers to protest in what would become known as the Burma Road Riot. I am also going to look at some economic realities in the present-day Bahamas based on various documents compiled over the past five years. This might allow us to rethink the place that Burma Road holds in our national narrative.

The prevailing theme in this narrative is to interpret the Burma Road Riot as the first manifestation of a political consciousness amongst the Bahamian masses that then directly lead to, practically causing, the formation of the Progressive Liberal Party eleven years later, “Majority Rule” twenty-five years later, and independence thirty-one years later. On the other hand, a competing if marginalised interpretation sees the events of May and June 1942 as a labour unrest caused by dire economic stress, which was “later mythicized and used as a ‘heroic movement’ by the blacks, when a political movement had finally started.” (Gail Saunders, Bahamian Society after Emancipation, p. 151.)

Even proponents of the former interpretation, though, admit that, whether first spark or not, “time, and the remarkable foresight, courage, and initiative of a few dedicated members of that majority were all that were required to crystallize this awareness into a mighty political force.” (Doris Johnson, The Quiet Revolution in the Bahamas, p. 27.) Furthermore, these words by Doris Johnson stem from a time when she herself still stood to gain political capital from the mythification of Burma Road. On the other hand, H. M. Taylor, well past his political prime, was more cautious about ascribing too much importance to Burma Road, merely saying, “The bread and butter questions caused the riot. There was very little public opinion on matters of national importance among the masses before the rise of the PLP in 1953.” (Henry M. Taylor, My Political Memoirs, p. 78.)

So, about bread and butter: in 1936, the minimum wage for unskilled labour was set at four shillings a day, or twenty shillings, that is one pound, a week. In 1938, the year before the outbreak World War II, the cost of living in New Providence was estimated to be nineteen shillings a week. Minimum wage would have just paid the bills. However, with the war came heightened inflation, caused by a variety of factors, such as the militarisation of industry as well as the loss of existing and the reallocation of remaining shipping capacities. By 1942, the year after the United States of America got drawn into the war, the cost of living is estimated to have increased by more than 50% compared to the 1938 figures. A sample price list, though not representative of a person’s weekly needs, comparing 1938 and 1942 shows these prices to have increased – on average – by 96.6%. It is clear that minimum wage no longer amounted to a living wage.

When the so-called “Project” – a combined effort by the American and metropolitan British governments, locally handled by the colonial Bahamian government – was announced, it was hoped that Bahamian workers, perhaps as many as a couple of thousand, would be given an opportunity to earn American wages. Instead, the Bahamian government negotiated that they be paid at the local minimum wage rate. Ostensibly, this was done to protect Bahamian employers from having to compete with “the Project.” As a result, Bahamian workers on “the Project” were paid four shillings a day, instead of the hoped for fifteen to twenty this kind of labour would have paid in the United States.

The role of the white American employees of the Pleasantville Corporation is not entirely clear. They are mostly described as “foreman,” thus by definition not doing the exact same work, or at least not playing the exact same role or bearing the exact same responsibility as the Bahamian workers on “the Project.” They were housed at the still segregated British Colonial Hotel, so there would not have been more than a couple of hundred. Various contemporary commentators as well as present-day authors have reported very different rates of pay for these Americans. With eight shillings at the low end, or forty shillings at the high end, they were thus earning anywhere between two to ten times as much as the Bahamian workers, and, being housed in a hotel, did not have to worry about rent.

However, what is also important to note – and this emphasises the importance of bread and butter – is that after the riots, workers settled for a 25% increase plus a free lunch. Thus, they were now being paid five shillings a day – still significantly less than their American counterparts, and still less than a living wage, thus presumably making the free lunch the most important meal of the day.

Regardless of whether this was the alleged watershed moment in Bahamian racial and political consciousness or merely a spontaneous poverty riot, its results fell short of rectifying both the immediate problem as well as addressing the underlying causes. The Russell Commission, which was appointed in the aftermath of the events, and whose findings were dismissed by the Bay Street controlled House of Assembly, for instance, recognised the systemic social injustices which characterise the Bahamas and recommended, amongst other things, the adjustment of regressive import duties and the consideration of a more progressive income tax.

Fast forward to the present: regardless of whether Burma Road was a watershed moment in Bahamian racial and political consciousness or merely a spontaneous poverty riot later mythicised and exploited for political ends, the systemic social injustices remain. We have yet to discuss a progressive tax reform, and the only adjustment to the regressive import duties made, paved the way for the new and über-regressive value-added tax (VAT) regime. A couple of months ago, at the funeral of a Bahamian lady who had placed great hopes in the political reforms of the 1960s and 1970s, the eulogy concluded with the following words: “She never understood why we replaced one set of self-serving tyrants with another set of the same.”

Allow me to demonstrate how this plays out in terms of wages compared to cost-of-living. 1942’s minimum wage of twenty shillings (or one pound) a week was then the equivalent of $4.04, with the cost of living being upward of $6 a week. We are now discussing increasing the minimum wage, which currently stands at $150 a week – or $7,800 per annum. A look at the 2010 census will show that 5.8% of Bahamian households, more than half of them consisting of two or more persons, have to survive on less than $5,000 a year. An additional 7% of households, more than two thirds of them consisting of two or more persons, have to survive on less than $10,000 a year. As household incomes increase, so does the household size suggesting that a great many Bahamians still live very precariously, often with less-than-minimum wage available to feed each member of the household.

The 2013 Household Expenditure Survey, conducted by the Bahamas Department of Statistics with the “support of the Inter-American Development Bank” suggests that 12.5% of Bahamian residents live below the poverty line. In contrast, figures presented by the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce during their campaign against VAT, demonstrated that even the “average” Bahamian household, pre-VAT, could not make ends meet.

The 2013 Household Expenditure Survey and its supporting IDB personnel suggest that the poverty line in the Bahamas is $11.64 a day, of which $3.82 a day are earmarked for a “balanced low-cost diet of 2,400 kilocalories a day,” leaving $7.82 a day for “essential non-food needs (clothing and footwear, housing, education, health, transportation, etc.).” Minimum wage then, which translates into an available $21.37 a day, should be more than sufficient to keep a single person above the poverty line; however, reading between the lines and numbers of the Chamber of Commerce’s report, a living wage in last year’s pre-VAT Bahamas should have been closer to approximately $15,000 per capita per annum.

Never trust any statistics that you have not manipulated yourself. However, I am not sure how to survive on these IDB figures without supplementing one’s diet by hunting and gathering, or begging for a lot of other necessities and services – in which case the Household Expenditure Survey approach is flawed for it fails to take charity received into consideration.

In 1946, the Rev. H. H. Brown during a widely noted sermon expressed concern that the government had failed to learn the lesson of the riot, and further warned the powers that be that Burma Road would “seem pale and insignificant in comparison with its successor.”

I posit that, if we continue to look at Burma Road as merely the beginning, whether mythical or real, of a development that was in any way completed, finished, in 1967 or in 1973, we have still not learnt our lesson. As a nation, we like to pride ourselves with having the third-highest GDP per capita of any independent nation in the western hemisphere, but we fail to acknowledge that GDP per capita does not feed the nation if this goes hand in hand with the second highest income inequality of the western hemisphere. If we fail to learn this lesson, then Burma Road will indeed seem pale and insignificant in comparison with its successor.