- Race and Class in the Colonial Bahamas 1880–1960 by Gail Saunders
Territorial coverage within Caribbean historiography is quite uneven. Some places like Jamaica and Trinidad are fairly well researched, but even they suffer from some significant period gaps. On the other hand, the Bahamas is among the least researched areas of the region; but Gail Saunders stands out as the researcher who has made the greatest contribution to the small body of its history writing. Her Race and Class in the Colonial Bahamas 1880–1960 adds to this, and it is certainly her most important and comprehensive published work.
Several reasons account for why the Bahamas has not attracted greater attention from historians. It is remote from the rest of the former British Caribbean colonies, and Bahamians themselves are ambivalent about their "Caribbean identity". Saunders occasionally echoes that ambivalence when, as for instance on page 145 (and other places), she seems to suggest that the Bahamas and the British West Indies are two different entities. The Bahamas was also not a typical sugar or coffee plantation (or commercial) colony like most of the others in the region, and its status as just a small, impoverished, unimportant outpost of British imperialism in the western hemisphere hardly recommended it as a place worthy of serious study. Additionally, the multiple islands comprising the Bahamas make it very challenging to research and write comprehensive historical studies of the whole archipelago.
Saunders' new book, however, goes a long way toward debunking much of the above. She shows that although the Bahamas may have developed differently from its regional "neighbours", that very difference is potentially of major analytical significance in Caribbean historiography. For a start, the book demonstrates that the economy of the region as a whole was more diverse than just a narrow focus on the plantation complex; and, likewise, though the social and cultural configurations were in some ways similar (white and black brought together [End Page 199] unequally through slavery), there were important variations worthy of study. With the exception of Barbados and the Hispanic islands, the percentage of whites in the Bahamas was comparatively higher than in most Caribbean plantation colonies. That had very important political consequences which differentiated the Bahamas.
One of the strengths of the book is the author's ability to incorporate the ecological, demographic and economic variations among the many islands comprising the Bahamas into a single holistic account without over-simplification or over-generalization. This is no easy task, but she successfully makes the insular diversity of the country intelligible for the reader without losing sight of the main theme of the work.
Although this book purports to be a social history, it is much more than that. It discusses economic, political, and cultural developments throughout the period of its stated coverage. At all times the author ties those developments to the social realities of race and class so that the reader always has a very clear picture of the social identities of the actors. Saunders not only discusses those identities as broad social categories, but names and describes the individuals who were the principals in the historical events she describes. That is complemented by some well-chosen pictures in the middle of the book. One of the noteworthy features of the book is her attention to detail. It is literally a treasure trove of data, mined from a wide variety of historical sources: government documents, missionary and church records, newspapers, memoirs, private letters, oral testimonies, published books, et cetera. Saunders is remarkably meticulous in her documentation of the data.
This book is an excellent source of information on all aspects of Bahamian life from the late nineteenth century through to the 1970s. Beginning with a fine description of the racial and class composition of the population, their cultural practices, and their spatial distribution not only in New Providence (the principal island), but in the Out Islands as well, Saunders also discusses the economies of the component islands and the labour systems (centred primarily on the iniquitous truck system...