The Carlton House
Today a barren parking lot rests on East Street in downtown Nassau, across from an historic police station and a short walk from the parliament building. In that parking lot once stood, half a century ago, a vibrant hotel: the Carlton House. At the Carlton, calypso music would waft from the hotel’s windows, beguiling patrons and passersby. There a young singer and songwriter named Ronnie Butler would launch his music career. Originally the Rozelda Hotel, the property underwent renovation and rebranding in the late 1950s and resurfaced as the Carlton House, a trendy hotel which touted its “Iron Bar” and celebrated its location “[j]ust off Rawson Square, around the corner from everything!” “It’s smart to meet at the new Carlton House,” announced its management. “Air-conditioned. Newly decorated. Featuring Bahamian cuisine.” The proximity of the Carlton to the House of Assembly along with the privacy available and the libations at hand would make it a natural meeting spot for parliamentarians. And indeed, beyond offering music and hospitality, the Carlton House would host the formation and ongoing consultation and activity of the United Bahamian Party.
On the first of March 1958, the United Bahamian Party stepped on the political stage, presenting itself through public media and publishing a wide-ranging twenty-point platform. The twenty-one charter members of the new political party reflected the seasoned white business class, informally christened the “Bay Street Boys.” The twenty one doubled as politicians and were all already members of the House of Assembly. Of their cohort, Roland Symonette, a wealthy businessman from the island of Eleuthera with interests in construction, shipping, and other industries took his place as leader and would go on to serve as the first premier of The Bahama Islands. While Symonette was the leader of the party, another individual, Stafford Sands, cemented his profile as a multi-faceted visionary whose role in advancing the Party’s economic plan was central. As Chairman of the Development Board and Minister of Tourism, Sands orchestrated The Bahamas’s transition from an elite island destination into a titan of mass tourism. As Minister of Finance he masterminded The Bahamas’s migration from the sterling area to the dollar pool and secured near parity between Bahamian and United States currencies. The remaining nineteen members of the new political party together exercised potent influence over the lives of Bahamians sprinkled through much of the archipelago.
The twenty-point platform of the United Bahamian Party included “enactment of new labour legislation to permit all workers in the Colony who wish to do so to join Trade Unions.” The provision was timely, for industrial relations in the colony were then a burning political issue. Just six weeks prior to the platform’s release, on January 13th media headlines had roared: “STRIKE HITS, Violence Reported; Economy Threatened.” The question of who it was who would be allowed to ferry passengers between hotels and the airport had set at odds the Bahamas Taxi Cab Union, on one hand, and private hotels and private tour companies on the other. The Bahamas Federation of Labour as well as the opposition party in the legislature, the Progressive Liberal Party, had rallied in support of the taxi cab drivers. Strikes called in sympathy with the Taxi Cab Union had spread to other industries, affecting essential services like garbage collection and water and electricity supplies, with the Bahamas Electricity Corporation issuing a notice to customers cautioning: “[d]ue to the present emergency customers are asked to exercise every economy in the use of electricity,”. The tourist industry, which was central to the economy, had ground to a standstill during this, the height of the winter season, with walkouts affecting an array of tourist establishments, including the Carlton House. The United Bahamian Party issued its platform barely four weeks after the general strike had run its course. Arguably – views at the time differed sharply – the strike had accelerated the formation of the Party and had helped to shape its platform. In any event, together the strikes and the formation of the new political party made the winter of 1958 a signal moment in Bahamian political life.
After its election loss in 1967, the United Bahamian Party ultimately melted away. Some individuals, like Stafford Sands, left The Bahamas altogether, while others remained active politically, incorporated into yet a further political undertaking called the Free National Movement. Like the United Bahamian Party, the Carlton House too passed from view. It was demolished and in its place now sits an empty parking lot, a hollow reminder of a once commanding and still historic political party.