CLIFTON COMMENTARY: LOUIS BACON’S ROLE CHALLENGED

CLIFTON COMMENTARY: LOUIS BACON’S ROLE CHALLENGED

In their awareness they arrive at a bright new voluminous consciousness which makes for a new vibrancy and creative civic mindset.

Sometime in 1989 the Lynden Pindling PLP Government acquired a 208 acre tract of land known as Clifton or more colloquially known as Jaws Beach from its private owners, Lady Nancy Oakes, and Nassoak Company Limited with a view to using this property to move the Container Port from down town Nassau.

Hardly an eyebrow was raised and it would appear that the Bahamian people were for the most part, totally ignorant as to the precious cultural and national jewel that this property would soon be revealed to be. Or maybe people had grown so tired of the malady of traffic of lorries, container trucks and vans clotting up down town that the proposed move of the Port to Clifton diverted any attention as to the importance of this property.

The Pindling Government left office in 1992 never having paid for the land even though under the Acquisition of Land Act, 1913; the property was vested in the Treasurer of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas and its true owner only entitled to its money value in compensation.

Sometime in late 1998 several land developers, led by Chaffin/Light Associates and a company owned by the Bechtel Family of the USA, entered the picture under the new FNM Administration led by Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham with a view of developing Clifton, a former slave plantation, into a $400-million gated community of 600 upscale residences for wealthy foreigners.

What initially incensed the Bahamian people was the idea that Jaws Beach was now going to become inaccessible to us. With that, coupled with having suffered through government policies that gave certain public beach rights at Sandy Port away and a proposed development to close Goodman’s Bay to the public by allowing another resort to be built there, unprecedented public indignation was at the ready to explode.

The FNM Government in wanting to curb these concerns and give Chaffin/Light Associates the green light for its development, brought in eminent US archaeologists to evaluate the property at Clifton in hopes that their report would substantiate an EIA already submitted by Chaffin/Light Associates, which basically ignored what these other scholars were about to reveal.

Suddenly, the Bahamian people awoke to the reality that the property at Clifton was more than qualified to be a World Heritage Site under UNESCO and may be the last and only property with artifacts dating back a 1,000 years evidencing the existence of the Lucayan civilization of the pre-Colombian era, the African Slave Trade and the arrival and settlement of the English Loyalists, fleeing the American Revolutionary War.

Awaken and now aware, the Bahamian people took a stand.

This is what I submit happened in the struggle which began in late 1998 to save and preserve the historic property known as Clifton on the southwestern tip of the island of New Providence from the irreverent and despicable decision of the then Free National Movement Government to cede Clifton to the hands of a foreign urban developer; who sought to transform the property into this luxury gated community for mostly non-Bahamian residents, while paying mostly dishonest lip service as to how it would safeguard the ancient history of this place.

I had only recently been called to the Bahamas Bar, but as a long-standing socioeconomic activist and Africanist at heart, I was attracted to the bickering that was being raised in the media by Chaffin/Light Associates led by James Chaffin, for this controversial development.

It was when I attended a Town Meeting at St. Paul’s Catholic Church, Lyford Cay, sponsored by Chaffin/Light Associates and the then Government, I became even the more incensed that the Government had taken the view that the deal to sell the property to Chaffin/Light Associates was a “done deal”. They were just taking the Bahamian people through motions, content on grandstanding to give the appearance of wanting to hear the views of the Bahamian people. Fact was, only a miracle from on High could get Hubert Ingraham to change his mind.

For me, that miracle came in the form of Vivian Whylly, a childhood friend, when he got to the open microphone that evening and talked about his direct slave ancestral connection to Clifton and the fact that the pain and the sacrifice that his African ancestors would have borne on the William Whylly Plantation along with the fact that they were buried on that property, demanded protection and preservation.

Mystically, this sparked a level of passion in me that was so deep-rooted, that I felt something come over me at that very moment that this was a part of “my calling”. I was driven by this to join the growing chorus of protest and civil disobedience to get the Government to listen, fall in line and change their minds about destroying this unique historical, cultural and spiritual preserve lust for the sake of money-hungry investors who had come to simply rape and plunder.

Now, Clifton is in the international spotlight again. Hedge Fund International Banker Louis Bacon, said to be a resident of the Bahamas at Lyford Cay, was recently awarded the Audubon Medal, a prestigious honour for his efforts in the USA on environmental issues and, as reported, for a claim that he led the campaign to Save Clifton.

Mr. Bacon’s high honour is endorsed by our Prime Minister Perry Christie who, in a recent news release, certifies Mr. Bacon’s “lead” claim about his involvement to Save Clifton.

It is not my intention to inquire into the decision of the Audubon Society, an organization of high and decent international repute. Rather, I am satisfied and delighted that such an entity would recognize the importance of Clifton and its distinction as a World Heritage Site.

In recognizing Mr. Bacon, and in reviewing Mr. Bacon’s own printed comments, once again the Bahamian People can draw sustenance and pride from the fact that we were correct and honourable in challenging the FNM Government’s decision; which would have destroyed what may be the most precious and most valuable piece of real estate in our country with far reaching cultural implications which date to the period of the Lucayans before Christopher Columbus ever set sail from Genoa, Italy on his “discovery voyage” in 1492.

What is troubling for me, is that our Prime Minister, in communicating with the Audubon Society missed a great opportunity to salute the Bahamian people as a whole, who responded to the call from the spirit of our ancestors, to stop the intended desecration of this wonderfully preserved place that was not only unique archeologically and anthropologically, but also environmentally.

Somehow, it does not augur well for a Prime Minister in the 40th year of our Independence to internationally recognize the contribution of Mr. Bacon, for whatever it was worth, while not appreciating that the Bahamian People were not sitting down twiddling their thumbs, eating conch salad or in the Junkanoo Shacks – waiting for a foreign person to tell them that Clifton was too valuable a piece of land for the Ingraham Government to destroy by letting the Chaffin Group proceed with their development.

This is not the occasion to get into a debate on what Mr. Bacon did or did not do in assisting from behind the scenes in saving Clifton. Rather, what I am submitting is that for generations of Bahamians yet unborn, for whom Clifton has been preserved; it cannot be right for a Prime Minister, who knows the facts, to be on international record ignoring the struggle of his own countrymen and the men and women of his own political party, in what we as a people did collectively to Save Clifton.

In my opinion, it is always foolhardy when substantive issues such as these are recklessly approached with little or no concern for the historical damage, thus blurring the facts that always ensue from gratuitous postures, pretentious in nature but, in fact, nothing less than presumptuous.

By the time that Mr. Christie and the party which I support went to the beach at Clifton in March 2000 to declare its abhorrence with what the FNM Government was doing, Nassau had long before been ablaze with vigorous and spirited protest in the form of petitions, letters to the editor, protestations from the pulpits, debates on radio talk shows, in barber shops, in beauty salons, on basketball courts, at domino tables, and under the sprawling canopies of the guinep, mango and dilly trees over-the-hill in the backyards of our people. The entire island gyrated to the “honk your horn” to Save Clifton.

Before Mr. Christie’s pronouncement, the campaign had intensified with bigger demonstrations attended by a wider cross-section of people who participated in one of the largest motorcades ever seen on this island. The fight had gone international, in a call-to-arms from our African American brothers and sisters, who, through the coordination of local businessman Mr. Al Collie and Mr. Jerry Lopes of famed American Urban Radio Network, international personalities like the Rev. Jesse Jackson of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Bev Smith a former BET Talk Show Host and Prince Immanuel Ben Yehuda of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, aggressively drummed up major support in the USA against the proposed development at Clifton amongst leading Black and White US leaders and businessmen. They gave effect to taking the fight to the door step of the Bechtel Family and Chaffin/Light Associates.

It was only after all of this, and persistent internal lobby by those of us who had that inner track, that Mr. Christie, on the beach of Clifton, vowed that when the PLP was returned to the seat of Government in then approaching 2002 general elections, “any building approvals, permits issued by the Government will be revoked and all construction immediately terminated”.

It makes for interesting reading to return to the speech Mr. Christie made on that March day in 2000 where he so eloquently spoke about the travails of our African ancestors and the artifacts and story carved into the anthropology of the land of how and what life was like on the William Whylly plantation.

So, how can he reasonably expect us to accept that the grandsons and granddaughters of these African slaves who had endured significant trials and tribulations over generations of subjugation by the evils brought to these shores with the landfall of Columbus, had to be led by Mr. Bacon to protect and preserve Clifton? Whether Mr. Christie realizes it or not, by distinguishing and isolating his praise solely to Mr. Bacon, this is in effect what he has done. Of course, the condemnation for this cannot be placed at Mr. Bacon door step, but it would appear that this posture of Mr. Christie might have emboldened Mr. Bacon to point that he feels he can claim that he “led” the Save Clifton struggle.

Environmentalist like Ms. Sam Ducombe and her Re-Earth organization, Rev. Dr. C. B. Moss an inner city religious leader and social activist, the late COB Lecturer Dr. Thaddeus McDonald, the late celebrated Bahamian Playwright and Author Ms. Telcine Turner-Rolle, internationally renowned religious leader and preacher Bishop Neil C. Ellis, entertainer Freddie Munnings Junior, Ambassador Hon. Witman McKinney and his brethren of the Ethiopian African Black International Congress of The Bahamas, social activists Rodney Moncur and Celi Moss, and many others were supporting and facing down an FNM Government that was stubborn and vehement that the Chaffin/Light development deal will go through.

The Bahamian leaders of the struggle to Save Clifton had raised the attention of the world. Major international newspapers and Cable TV were reporting on the dispute.

Our grassroots movement found yet another gear, when, following a ruling of Chief Justice Dame Joan Sawyer that the land belongs to Nancy Oakes (daughter of famed Sir Harry Oakes) as the Government had not yet paid for its acquisition of it, in May 2000, Mr. Ingraham, continuing to be incensed over the national protest of the people, like Pilot, he chose to wash his hands and to go to Parliament and have the land transferred back to the Oakes Family. This would have put it back in the hands of private ownership for the Chaffin/Light deal to go through, with the FNM Government feigning non culpability.

The Struggle to Save Clifton by then was so national and fundamental in scope that 13 members of the 40 seat House of Assembly were absent when the Resolution was passed to return the land to the Oakes’s.

Legal scholars forming a part of our movement, bounced into action. Exhaustive studies of the Acquisition of Lands Act was done and it was submitted that having acquired the land for the purposes under the Act for public usage and the public’s interest, the Government could not return it to its original private owners, even though at that time, the Government, neither the Pindling Government or Mr. Ingraham’s, had paid the Oakes family for the acquisition. An interest payment on the property to the Oakes’s of $5.6 million had also accrued.

When International environmental personality, Mr. Robert Kennedy Junior, son of the slain US Attorney General Robert Kennedy and nephew of the slain US President John F. Kennedy came to Nassau in 2001 and said he was moved to tears in recognizing the significant importance of Clifton and what doom the Chaffin/Light development would bring; the Bahamian people, had by then, solidly entrenched themselves with a line in the sand that the Chaffin/Light Associates deal would continue to be met with strong resistance that would lead to it never happening.

The FNM was so hardened in its disrespect of the will of the Bahamian people that a letter on FNM stationery was sent to the Department of Immigration asking that Mr. Kennedy’s visa in The Bahamas be withdrawn.

I recognize that it may be that Mr. Bacon, who has a friendship with Mr. Kennedy Jr., may have been instrumental in his coming here, but by no stretch of the use of the word “lead” or its derivatives, can be subscribed to say that Mr. Bacon and/or Mr. Kennedy “led” the struggle to Save Clifton.

The Chaffin/Light group used its money and influence to get good press in many sections of the media and the honourable protest of the Bahamian people was termed by the Chaffin/Light group as the “tyrannical” conduct of a minority.

After the PLP was elected the Government in May 2002, the Clifton Heritage Authority legislation was tabled in Parliament by Attorney General The Hon. Alfred Sears and seconded by me, the then PLP MP for Mount Moriah. There was no mention by Mr. Christie of a role having been played by Mr. Bacon.

To suddenly now appear on the world stage endorsing a claim that Mr. Bacon led the Clifton struggle is disingenuous at best if we are to truthfully adhere to the total meaning of the word “led” and what it conjures up to the world.

Great landmark movements around the world, and especially the historic one to Save Clifton, would have had the financial and moral support of many local and international persons. We have to be careful in our value system that we don’t confuse financial contributions with a peculiar dispensation that it must follow that all of the other non-monied bodies present and stirred to action, are just mere followers because the person with the money is the leader.

The Bahamas has long benefitted in all of our great struggles from benefactors from abroad. We applaud that, and wish for such to continue in the public’s best interest. However it must be catergorized just as that. For example, Mr. Bill Gates gives millions of dollars every year to various international charities and concerns, but he does not pass himself off as then being the leader of those causes just because of his cheque book. But we have to respect and revere the Bill Gates’ of this world for their true philanthropy.

Mr. Ted Turner who started CNN was recently awarded The Trumpet Award for the many causes he has used his wealth to assist around the world. At no time did the Trumpet Award organizers or Mr. Turner intimate that because of his cheque book, Mr. Turner led or leads those causes.

I don’t want this point to be misunderstood.

The struggle to save Clifton surely needed more than just funding. But funding was essential. The Chaffin/Light group was throwing money around like chicken feed on a poultry farm. The struggle to save Clifton required more than any other consideration – the indomitable will of the people to own up to their legacy and history, and take a stand that the attraction of jobs for maids and busboys, gardeners and chauffeurs was a monumental insult to the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors and our national identity.

Public pressure eventually forced the Government to release the Farnsworth/Wilkie Report on the property at Clifton.

Anthropologists Dr. Paul Farnsworth, from the University of Louisiana and Dr. Laura Wilkie from the University of California at Berkley had been commissioned by the FNM Government to do the study.

Their conclusion: “The prehistoric and historical cultural resources of the Clifton Cay property are of the highest order and potentially worthy of designation as World Heritage Site.”

It went on to say that, “…at the rate of development in New Providence, few if any prehistoric Lucayan Village sites or Loyalists period plantation buildings are likely to survive into the next century unless direct action is taken to preserve them.”

Further, the Report submitted, that Clifton is a very special property as it contains four pre-historic Lucayan sites and three highly significant groups of historic structures dating from the Loyalists period and even earlier. This position was amplified by the Report pointing out that the “…potential significance of the two older structures cannot be overstated as there has been no archaeological research on buildings pre-dating the Loyalist period in The Bahamas”.

The professors declared that: “NO PROPERTY IN THE BAHAMAS COULD CONTAIN AS MANY EQUALLY SIGNIFICANT PREHISTORIC AND HISTORIC CULTURAL RESOURCES AS ARE LOCATED AT THE CLIFTON PROPERTY.”

They concluded by saying that “[we] can make no stronger statement on the importance of these historical and cultural resources than that”.

We as a people ought to look to the struggle to Save Clifton as a defining moment in our history as an Independent Nation. We, the People checkmated a Government and put it in its rightful place as “servants of the people”. Our movement led by Bahamians, personified the adage “by the people” which was such a vital achievement for a young nation such as ours.

As a people, we have grown even larger and more sure-footed in the instance of the key platform for the movement toward nationhood and the realization of good governance; “…equal political participation…”. Yes, even the publicly unknown Bahamian can make a difference by his commitment and loyalty to what is righteous and beneficial to us as a nation.

Historical revisionism and inaccurate assumptions and ambiguous claims are always geared to or result in robbing all of us, whomever, from whatever was done and achieved. Indeed, today, I submit that the true glory of enjoying Clifton as a national preserve created by Statute, will be best enjoyed if we appreciate that we saved Clifton because it was a compelling patriotic duty. Not vain glory.

I am sure Bahamians everywhere are most grateful for the role everyone played and do not want the spirit of so great a movement to be marred in the controversy of personality and demagoguery.

After all, we would all have hoped that after the struggle to save Clifton, “Uncle Tom” would be consigned to the annals of literature.


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Keod Smith - Keod Smith

Keod Smith is a Barrister in The Bahamas practicing at Commercial Law Advocates, Trinity Place Nassau.

He served as a Member of Parliament for 2002 – 2007 and as Ambassador for the Environment and Chairman of the BEST Commission from 2002 to mid 2006.

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