(For The Punch – Issue 6 January 2011)
“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” ~ OSCAR WILDE
As the old folks used to say at critical junctures, when there was a need to stern decisions that would bring about necessary change, “It’s separation time,” and in this new year, just begun, the Bahamian nation, and especially the youth, must be constantly schooled on the route the nation took to arrive at this stage.
Almost every day there are attempts – both clumsy attempts by the stupid and benighted or disingenuous attempts by the supercilious and self-serving – to twist history in this direction or the next. Yet the devil must be forced to remain forever a liar, and there are still those in the community who can remember, and who can from time to time ensure that he remains a liar.
And so, let another history lesson begin.
Of the original eight Progressive Liberal Party Parliamentarians who, in 1970, supported a vote of no-confidence in former prime minister the late Sir Lynden Pindling, four have passed into glory. These were Sir Cecil Wallace Whitfield, Dr. Curtis McMillan, and James Shepherd.
Those yet alive include the present governor-general Sir Arthur Foulkes, former West End and Bimini MP Warren Levarity, former Freeport MP Maurice Moore, and Dr. Elwood Donaldson, who was first elected to the House of Assembly for the Killarney constituency of New Providence.
Each of the eight “Dissidents” in addition to forming the nucleus of what was to become the Free National Movement, had his own private and political row to hoe, as it were, his own life’s story to tell, and most of those stories – such as Sir Arthur Foulkes’s to-hell-and-back tale – have brimmed with fascination.
Every now and then we encounter Dr. Edwood Donaldson, now in his seventies, who has long been off the political front line, but who today, four decades after his front line tour of duty which saw experiences of resignations, firings, protests, and caucuses, enjoys his own curious brand of exile.
Few astute observers of the Bahamian political scene over the decades will deny that Dr. Donaldson was the very first of the established mavericks in The Bahamas, and although he may from time have been accused of being guilty of ill-timing, impetuosity, or even over-estimation, the record that he always spoke out first still remains unchallenged.
Elwood Donaldson, who was born and bred in Bain Town, returned to The Bahamas in the 1960s after completing medical studies at the University of Hawaii. He became formally aligned with the then opposition PLP, receiving that party’s nomination for Killarney in the 1967 polls, winning that election.
The story is well-known about how, when the votes were counted following those January 10th elections, the PLP had won 18 seats, and the governing United Bahamian Party also 18. There was work to be done.
It is little known that in addition to Randol Fawkes and three others who won their seats in that election, Elwood Donaldson was one of those approached by the UBP to throw his support their way, to help form another Bay Street government. The fact that he resisted the lucrative offers is not especially dramatic – so did all the others who were approached.
Even before the PLP won the landslide in 1968, Donaldson was already speaking out against certain of those elements in the party which, he thought, needed correction and renovation. For example, he insisted, publicly, that the law which prevented Bahamians from gambling in the casinos was discriminatory.
After the PLP took office as the government, it was not clear what was offered Dr. Donaldson in the way of cabinet portfolios, chairmanships, or parliamentary secretaryships, but he served, for a time, as Sports Commissioner. Many thought he accepted that position more out of an attitude of team cooperation than out of any real sense of love for the job.
In late 1968, when the late Cecil Wallace-Whitfield made his initial move against the Premier at the famous but little-remembered PLP Balmoral convention, Elwood Donaldson was in the thick of it.
Some say that Dr. Donaldson was there, later that night, to help prepare Sir Lynden Pindling’s short address, which said that there had been a “genuine misunderstanding” between himself and the Minister of Education (Wallace-Whitfield).
Two years later, in 1970, when the dissident eight joined in the move against the prime minister on the floor of the House of Assembly, Donaldson was one of those who spoke most strongly – yet with proper respect – against the PLP leader. Only a few months before that he had led the way, during the PLP convention for the dissidents to voice their complaints against the leadership,
Taking issue with the PLP leader’s suggestion that those who could not fish should cut bait or get the hell out of the boat, Elwood Donaldson no doubt set the tone of the attack, which subsequently saw Whitfield and D. Curtis McMillan resign as ministers, and James Shepherd resign as chairman of Bahamas Electricity Corporation.
When the new Free National Movement was formed, following the Booby Rock-like shivering existence of the Free PLP, Elwood Donaldson emerged as the party’s first chairman, even though, from the break, he had publicly denounced the idea of any kind of joining up with the United Bahamian Party.
The FNM lost the 1972 general elections, badly, with every single one of the original Dissident Eight incumbents, including Dr. Elwood Donaldson, being vanquished. Donaldson was appointed an FNM senator. However, within a few weeks’ time he resigned from both the Senate and the FNM, apparently still uncomfortable with what he termed the “coupling” with Bay Street.
For years Dr. Donaldson existed, politically, unconnected, and he remained in that state of political limbo, although he admitted back than that he “will move when the time is right,” whatever that indicated.
As time passed, it seemed Elwood Donaldson held the view that he could not support Lynden Pindling and the PLP, but neither was he prepared to follow Cecil Wallace Whitfield, entertaining an attitude that he could never be content in saying, as some back then did, that “anything is better than the PLP.”
Expanding, he was reported at the time as saying that “if you replace one leaky pipe with another leaky pipe, what, really, have you done?”
It used to be an utter and joyous education sitting and listening to Elwood Donaldson, a young but renaissance man, as he held forth eloquently on this subject and the next, his head forever tilted to one side, and you came away with the impression that he was once an even younger man filled with passion and anger, and, drawing near his furtive forties, that passion and anger had coalesced into a burning philosophy.
Ten years after Elwood Donaldson’s first fierce foray onto the rigid range of Bahamian front line politics – back in the mid to late seventies – some who may have been viewed him as once who had gained great experience during that devilish decade. Yet Oscar Wilde once noted near the turn of the 20th century that “experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes”.
If Donaldson, a brilliant if somewhat eccentric Bahamian professional, was indeed thought to have been guilty of mistakes during those first critical years beginning with his election in 1967, then without doubt the biggest of those would have been to drop, suddenly and unceremoniously from the Bahamian front line political scene.
Of course his reasoning might understandably have been that that scene – as in some many ways it remains all round today – was too profusely peopled with the traditional fickle, fanatical, and fortune-hunting four-flushers who own, if nothing else, a say in the supreme political board rooms, and, alas, a vote.
Dr. Elwood Donaldson, who is, in his way, still a very voluble and vibrant part of the present passing scene, has always been socialist by nature, and his other mistake may have been attempting the application of that theory to a Bahamian situation where there were others, with more money and more power who did not want to be so, at least not at that time.
Today Elwood Donaldson, although still far from the madding crowd of front line politics, is far from any kine of relic. Today he is an even more seasoned renaissance man. If one observes carefully, that old fire in his belly which on so many occasions in the past caused him to stroke out, is now re-directed, but hardly simmered.
He was the very first of the political mavericks of the land, who didn’t give a damn if he way damned for saying his piece against friend and foe alike, and whose whole frank and fearless contribution to the advancement of democracy, made a whole and mighty difference to what is today the new Bahamas.
History is all, and the people, especially the young, should know . . . for what it’s worth.