Trinidad almost became an American territory in 1931. It didn’t because the British government was perfectly willing to default on its debts to the U.S. government. The Hoover Administration, sensibly, didn’t push the issue.
The Bahamas, it turns out, almost became a Canadian province in 1911. The colonial assembly in Nassau, backed by prominent Canadian investors in the islands, pushed hard to join. The population of the islands was only 56,000, but there was plenty of money to be made investing in infrastructure: the first telephones were only installed in 1906, and electricity arrived in the archipelago in 1909. The Royal Bank of Canada set up shop in 1908.
Canada’s share of Bahamian imports, however, remained small: $28,392 in 1911, compared to $1.3 million in American imports to the archipelago. Moreover, the fiscal cost of taking over the islands would have been minimal: the federal government spent only 6.1% of GDP in 1911, and transfers to provincial governments amounted to only 0.4% of GDP. (Federal infrastructure spending in the Bahamas would have contributed to economic growth in the islands and likely been a wash for the treasury. It also would have been negligible on the scale of the Confederation.)
So why didn’t it happen? Simply put, Canadian racism ... triggered by a wave of American political refugees. Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier (a Liberal) seemed open to the idea of letting the Bahamas join until, in 1911, a strange wave of racial fear arose from Manitoba. A group of about 1,000 wealthy black Americans from Oklahoma — fleeing the 1907 passage of Jim Crow laws after statehood — arrived at the Emerson border crossing. The result was panic on the prairies.
I’ll turn the floor over to William Thoburn, a Conservative MP from Ontario: “As long as we give the free homesteads in Canada’s northwest, they will come by the tens of thousands. I would like to ask the government if they think it is in the interests of Canada that we should have Negro colonization in the Canadian northwest. Would it not be preferable to preserve for Canada the land they propose to give to Negroes?”
The hysteria soon spread to Alberta. A group of prominent Albertans wrote to the federal interior minister, Frank Oliver, with a series of complaints straight out of an American inner suburb, circa 1970. First, they worried that “Negro immigration” would create white flight and drive down property values. (The idea of rural white flight on the Albertan prairies boggles the mind.) They then went on to worry about their women. “We do not wish that the fair fame of Western Canada should be sullied with the shadow of Lynch Law but we have no guarantee that our women will be safer in their scattered homesteads than other white women in other countries with a Negro population.” To his credit, Premier Arthur Sifton refused to block black immigration.
The panic was especially crazy because Canadian law required immigrants to have on them at least $50 per man, woman, and child. In 2010 dollars, that’s $1,185 — but that figure doesn’t take into account the fact that people were poorer a century ago. When adjusted for increases in average wages, each immigrant was required to have the 2010 equivalent of $7,425. In other words, these were not the huddled masses; these were well-heeled political refugees fleeing the sudden imposition of racial tyranny in their home state.
From the Toronto Mail and Empire of April 27, 1911: “If Negroes and white people cannot live in accord in the South, they cannot live in accord in the north. Our western population is being largely settled by white people from the United States. If we freely admit black people from that country, we should have race troubles that are a blot on the civilization of our neighbours ... The Negro question is of the United States’ own making and Canada cannot allow any part of her territory to be used as a relief colony on that account.”
The Canadian government ordered their agent in Kansas City “to refuse certificates or any encouragement to migration of this class” and “take immediate measures to check this class of immigrants.” It then limited black immigrants to Emerson and North Portal, where it subjected them to degrading medical examinations. It went so far as to hire a black doctor from Chicago to travel to Oklahoma and give lectures about how terrible the Canadian climate was for black people. Finally, in August 1911, with a federal election coming up fast, came this order-in-Council, pursuant to the Immigration Act of 1910, which allowed the government to ban “immigrants belonging to any race deemed unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada”:
In this atmosphere — with the Liberals under fire for their support of the Reciprocity Treaty with the United States — it should come as no surprise that Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier (a Liberal) would decide against expanding Confederation to the Bahamas on grounds of, in his own words, incompatible “ethnical origin.” Laurier was willing to take West Indian islands as purely colonial concerns, with no representation in Ottawa and no right of immigration, but that wasn’t acceptable to West Indian elites which already enjoyed a modicum of self-government. The Bahamas, for example, possessed a parliament elected by a property-restricted suffrage. (The restrictions meant that white people held 26 out of the 29 parliamentary seats, even though they made up only a quarter of the population.)
When Laurier lost the September 1911 election to Robert Borden, the Bahamians tried once again. The big issue in the election was a proposed tariff-reducing Reciprocity Treaty with the United States. The Conservative Party opposed the agreement, and it used imperial rhetoric as part of its appeal. With pro-Empire Borden as Prime Minister, the (unelected) Governor of the Bahamas, William Grey-Wilson, travelled to Toronto. Among other things, he gave a speech before the Empire Club. In it, Grey-Wilson extolled the wonders of trade and tourism — which were, in fact, the biggest gain from Confederation. The Bahamas would win a secure market for its tropical products, and Canadian companies would gain control of that trade. (They would also cement their domination of Bahamian finance and services.) Grey-Wilson, of course, felt the need to assure Canadians that the absorption of the Bahamas would not lead to black members of parliament sitting in Ottawa:
Now, the constitution of the Bahamas, like the other three B’s of that portion of the Empire, is on a suffrage that is almost equivalent to yours in Canada. I have examined them. Separately and I think they are very much the same. That is to say, any member of a community who is in possession of a house of the value of $10 a year is entitled to vote. That, of course, is practically manhood suffrage. That vote is common to the blacks and to the whites. The inhabitants of the Bahamas are one quarter white and three quarters black.
The result of our elections has been for many years past — and I would remind you that the Bahamas have a constitution almost as old as Newfoundland — that the black man almost invariably elects a white man to represent him. And why is that, gentlemen? You here are conversant with the horrors of the situation in the Southern States of America. In the Bahamas we have no such position. (Applause.) I say that a white woman in the Bahamas, in the most isolated position, is as secure today as if she were in this room now. (Applause.) I defy anyone to say that about the Southern States of America.
Now, gentlemen, why is that? It is not because we have treated the black man as the equal of the white; no. He admits himself — the most intelligent of them with whom I have spoken — he admits himself that he is the white man’s inferior. He admits that he is of a child race, undeveloped; but it is because, being a child race, we have extended to him, as we have to all the other races of the Empire, that universal unswerving British justice.
Unfortunately, Governor Grey’s arguments failed to assuage Prime Minister Borden. In a meeting between Grey and Borden on October 18th, 1911, the Prime Minister rejected the possibility of taking the Bahamas into the Canadian confederation. His reasoning was that the events of the past year had proved that Canadian public opinion would not countenance the admission of a majority-black province, no matter how small or how far away. (The refusal of Toronto hotels to give rooms to black Bahamian visitors only reinforced his point.) The Colonial Office concurred. Worried by the hysteria engendered by the emigrants from Oklahoma, the C.O. reported the following about the possibility of a Bahamian province: “No doubt for the moment the Dominion government would safeguard their interests, but there are signs of the rise of a colour question in Canada and in any case it cannot be long before U.S. opinion gives the tone to Canada in regard the Negro.”
Ultimately, all that came out of the talks was a reciprocity treaty with several West Indian jurisdictions. Reciprocity entailed a 20% tariff cut; it was far from the free trade entailed in political union. It barely dented American domination of Bahamian commerce. And so, much as racism derailed an 1867 attempt by the United States to annex the Dominican Republic, racism derailed what should have been a simple, easy, and mutually-beneficial extension of the Canadian confederation into the Caribbean. Canada eventually absorbed poorer, less strategic, and more troubled Newfoundland, but those islanders had pale skins.
As for the Bahamas, it became part of the United States ... okay, not officially, but watch this space.