House of Assembly
During the Middle Ages, clergy wielded the mace offensively to conquer their enemies without shedding blood. In what would become a memorable year in the evolution of the Bahamas’s House of Assembly, Lynden Pindling would untether the institution’s mace, the symbol of parliamentary authority, and call for a transfer of power to the citizenry in a defining moment for the Bahamian people.
Located in the heart of downtown Nassau, the Bahamas House of Assembly stands among a triad of Public Buildings in Parliament Square on the southern side of Bay Street. This coral pink structure, an excellent representation of British colonial architecture, was erected in 1816 by Loyalist refugees from the new United States of America. Today the House consists of members elected by the people as well as a Speaker elected by members of the House, and is charged with legislating for the peace, order, and good government of The Commonwealth of The Bahamas. Nearly three centuries and countless changes have shaped both the physical structure and the constitutional authority of the Assembly.
The first House of Assembly, convened in Nassau at the home of Mr. Samuel Lawford on the 29th day of September in 1729, consisted of twenty four members elected by two hundred and fifty individuals who were male, free, and white. The House continued to meet at private homes and in the former courthouse until 1815 when the Public Building which now hosts the body was completed. A 1799 Act mandated House of Assembly electors to be free white males over the age of twenty-one who were of Protestant faith and who owned no fewer than two hundred acres of land. Notable changes which would reshape the House of Assembly occurred in 1807 when free blacks became able to vote for the first time; in 1834, when the Emancipation Act took effect and four blacks were elected to the Assembly; and 1962, when women, together with those men over the age of twenty-one who lacked ownership of real property, first exercised newly-won rights to vote.
April 27th, 1965, commonly known as ‘Black Tuesday,’ marks another milestone in the life of the House of Assembly. On that day Lynden Pindling, then Leader of the Opposition, would symbolically return power to the people by tossing the Speaker’s Mace through a second-storey window of the House of Assembly as thousands of Bahamians waited expectantly outside the House. Pindling’s words, scripted by years of struggle between the governing United Bahamian Party and the opposing Progressive Liberal Party over undemocratic electoral structures and practices, filled the chamber. “This is the symbol of authority,” Pindling reportedly declared, “and authority on the island belongs to the people; and the people are outside. Yes, the people are outside and the Mace belongs outside, too.” Fellow legislator Milo Butler followed suit by sending the Speaker’s hourglass tumbling from the same window. PLP Members proceeded to exit the House of Assembly and were welcomed by the cheers of thousands waiting below on Bay Street. Pindling led the crowd in a sit-down demonstration which would be met with police mobilization, a reading of the Riot Act, and thirteen arrests. Eventually the crowd would retreat to the Southern Recreation Grounds.
Black Tuesday set in motion waves of political action which would crest twenty-one months later amid keen suspense. Once again the House of Assembly supplied the stage for memorable events. January 10th, 1967 witnessed the election of 18 Members of the House for the United Bahamian Party and 18 Members of the House for the Progressive Liberal Party. Four days later, on January 14th, as a result of decisions taken by Independent Member Alvin Braynen and Labour Party Member Randol Fawkes the Governor would invite the Progressive Liberal Party to form a government. On February 9th, the doors of the House would open for its first session in which Government Business would be led by African-descended rather than European-descended legislators. Thus did the House of Assembly play host to the advent of Majority Rule.