In order to fully understand the concept of The Presidency, one has first to understand what the events were leading up to this period in our history. From 1764 – 1848, the TCI experienced the years with The Bahamas. There were two critical problems as it relates to the relationship between The Bahamas and the TCI: (a) economic and (b) political.
Dr Carlton Mills is a graduate of Excelsior Community College and the University of the West Indies where he pursued his training in teacher education and Bachelors in History respectively. He is also a graduate of the University of London, Bristol and Sheffield where he pursued his Master’s and Doctorate in Education respectively. Dr Mills was appointed as Minister of Education in 2007 where he served until February 2009. Following the suspension of the TCI Constitution, he was invited by the governor to serve on the Advisory Council. He served for six months before resigning. Dr Mills is currently the chairman of the board of Governors of the TCI Community College. He is also the main editor of the recently published book “The History of the Turks and Caicos Islands”. He has written several articles for journals and chapters in other books and presented papers at various conferences in the region and in the UK.
The TCI was a salt producing economy. The Bahamas accrued tremendous financial gains from this relationship. The main contact that the TCI had with the Bahamas was on the occasion when the tax collectors came down annually to collect taxes on the salt that was produced in the salt ponds. The islands experienced high levels of taxation on salt exports, which they strongly resented. There was further resentment when the Bahamian government imposed legislation to enforce these measures.
In 1799, the Bahamas Assembly passed an act giving The Bahamas the power to tax the TCI, placing the islands within the political and geographical domain of The Bahamas. This Act of Parliament allowed one salt island representative to sit in the Assembly in Nassau. In 1835, the number was increased to three.
The distance between the TCI and The Bahamas, along with the lack of telecommunications, limited their attendance and involvement in the decision making that affected their lives in the TCI. On several occasions, by the time the representatives from the TCI reached the Bahamas, the Assembly had already met.
They had also made decisions that affected life in the TCI without any input from the local representatives. This helped to further aggravate the political situation between the TCI and The Bahamas.
The tax collector visited the TCI once per year while the mail boat made four visits per year. There were boats operating more frequently between Jamaica and the TCI than with The Bahamas. The islanders therefore felt more closely associated with Jamaica rather than The Bahamas.
On December 25, 1848, the TCI was separated from The Bahamas with the passing of The Separation Act. One of the main clauses of this Act was the setting up of a Presidency with a Council to assist him with the day to day administration of the government.
What was the Presidency?
The Presidency was a period of government in the TCI following Bahamas rule. It lasted from 1848 – 1873, approximately 25 years. The Act provided for the nomination of a President assisted by a Council supervised by the Governor of Jamaica. During the 25 years of the Presidency, there were a total of four presidents. I will briefly highlight the issues, problems and challenges faced by each president.
The first President was Captain Henry Alexander Forth (1848 – 54).
President Forth started schemes to increase salt production, which was the mainstay of the economy. This was done in South Caicos and salt production was also developed on West Caicos for the first time. He also declared West Caicos a port of entry to facilitate the salt trade. Under his watch, the Grand Turk Lighthouse was established in 1852. President Forth also started The Forth Masonic Lodge, The Royal Standard and Gazette weekly newspapers, which were used as propaganda machines for the government.
He also contemplated the establishment of a public bank and a public market but they did not materialize during his tenure. He also established the first Board of Education a demonstration of his commitment to education. He successfully paid off the remaining debt owed to The Bahamas by the TCI.
President Forth had a poor relationship with most senior staff and also with Judge Duncombe. This was further aggravated when he suspended the Police Magistrate Williams Hamilton and the Stipendiary Magistrate Francis Ellis. These individuals were later reinstated by the Secretary of State. Many also felt that President Forth was abusing his powers. This gave rise to questions about his integrity resulting in a petition for his removal. This was overruled by the Secretary of State.
President Forth had previously served in Tasmania and was described as being of the ‘old colonial school’ of public administration. Yet he was sent to the TCI to run the political affairs of the country.
Second President William Robert Inglis (1854 – 62) replaced President Forth. He was a former Stipendiary Magistrate in The Bahamas. He faced unprecedented resentment from the Bermudian settlers, who were totally opposed to anyone who had previous connections with the TCI separation from The Bahamas. As a result he was not well received. He actually started on a very bad note by attempting to regulate the salt industry, which previously was a very sore issue.
He brought further resentment when, in 1859, he imposed a law to enforce order at Council meetings. Members who were brought to order twice by the chairman were fined $10. This resulted in mass resignations of members. President Inglis also had serious problems maintaining law and order. He did not think twice to use force to bring stability to situations he felt could get out of hand. As a result of his abuse of power, the Colonial Secretary concluded that the president contributed significantly to the moral, social and intellectual decay of the TCI. This resulted in his departure in December 1862.
Third President: Alexander Wilson Moir (1862 – 69)
He took up office on November 14, 1862. He also had some immediate successes. He opened the short lived Public Bank in 1864 as well as the Public Market on Grand Turk. He also expanded agriculture in the Caicos Islands and realized that salt alone could not sustain the TCI economy. This was done in an attempt to diversify the economy and to reduce the high cost of food importation.
President Moir also changed the traditional leasehold system that characterized the salt industry to a new freehold tenure of ownership. He felt that this old system stagnated the growth of the industry. His new approach saw the islands experiencing a brief period of prosperity where annual exports of salt reached a record $124,000 in 1865.
President Moir was also on the verge of becoming the most popular president but disaster struck. The hurricane of 1866 devastated the salt industry, destroyed homes and caused loss of lives in Grand Turk. The economic base of the country was wrecked. President Moir left in 1869 to take up an appointment in the Virgin Islands.
The fourth president was Captain Melfort Campbell (1869 – 73). He came on the heels of an economic downturn in the country. Unfortunately his first order of business was retrenchment. This was a very unpopular move, particularly following the recent hurricane. The country was experiencing serious cash flow difficulties. As a result, payment of salaries to civil servants was usually three month in arrears.
Several civil servants survived by discounting promissory notes to local merchants. On top of this, the price for salt on the global market had declined. Although the Crown had provided some assistance and the Public Bank had provided loans, this did not better the situation. The country continued to drift into debt. Revenue collection was down. The islands had to survive on revenue from taxation. This was not sustainable.
The situation in the TCI led the Governor in Chief, Sir J.P. Grand from Jamaica to make two assessment visits to the islands, one in 1872 and another in 1873. During his second visit, the Legislature took the decision to beseech the British government to annex the islands to Jamaica. By Order in Council, this was done on January 1, 1874.
There are several lessons that we can learn from the Presidency. Firstly, there was failure on the part of the Presidency to consult with the local population on issues that could impact their lives. As a result, the local population generally felt that they were at a distance. Another drawback was the fact that all of the appointments were done from the outside. This caused further resentment. These appointments were paybacks by HMG for what they termed outstanding service.
The Presidents had no training in public administration and thus generally ruled as if they were totally in charge. It gave the impression that, because the TCI was viewed as a small colony, anyone could run its political affairs. Other than the attempt by President Moir, little attempt was made to diversify the economy. We still face a similar situation today. With the collapse of the salt industry after the hurricane of 1866, the collapse of the Presidency followed closely. The economy was in dire need of a stimulus package, which was not readily available at the time.
These 25 years under the Presidency provided the opportunity for the TCI to set the stage to become one of the most prosperous countries at the time. The TCI was on the verge of becoming a country of global significance and influence. This did not materialize because of poor leadership, high level corruption in government, bribery, dishonesty, deceit and political patronage.
Little attempt was made to empower the local population. Furthermore, the local population resented the installation of leaders from the outside who were given autonomy over them. Little was done during the period to improve the infrastructural development, educational and health facilities. These important essential services were critical to the continued growth and sustainability of the Presidency.
With the regional and international trade relations that we had going on at the time, we lost the opportunity to form strong economic partnerships that could have provided more meaningful benefits to the TCI. We lost an opportunity to use our salt to become an economic hub and an economic bargaining power, thus attracting other global partners to our shores. This could have resulted in more diversification of our economy.
We lost an opportunity to form global political networking despite the limited technology that was available at the time. We lost an opportunity to unite the TCI so that it could become a ‘country’ rather than a group of individual islands still considered to be separated in one instance by ocean and in another by banks.
Finally, the Presidency was an opportunity missed because, during those 25 years, we had the opportunity to begin our quest for self-determination. Unfortunately, no thought was even given to this critical issue. The financial gains that were derived from the salt trade in particular created a hunger for power and wealth, leading to widespread corruption, greed, dishonesty and the eventual demise of the Presidency.
History has repeated itself in 1986 and again in 2009. This is true of the TCI because of our failure to understand the importance of our own history. We will continue to make these same mistakes over and over again if we do not take time out to learn the lessons that history continues to teach us.