Prime Minister Winston Churchill appointed the Duke of Windsor as the Governor of the Bahamas to keep the former king out of Britain at all costs during World War II.
The British Establishment expressed grave doubts about the Duke’s loyalty whilst the Royal Family behaved as if he ever existed!
A Tremendous Welcome
The Bahamas was one of the British Empire’s most backwards colonies during the 1940s, with a population of 70,000. (About 60,000 were black or mixed races.)
Thousands gave the Duke and his American-born Duchess Wallis a tremendous welcome despite the extreme heat and humidity. The Duke was annoyed when none of the women curtsied before the Duchess.
Government House in Nassau was in a near-derelict state so the Windsors rented private homes until it was rebuilt. The Bahamian Assembly reluctantly voted £5,000 towards repairs whilst the Windsors paid for the interior design.
The Duke opened the House of Assembly on 29 October 1940. He planned to address unemployment, revive local agriculture and improve the black population’s socio-economic situation. The Duke wanted the Bahamas less reliant on tourism.
Bay Street Boys
The Bay Street Boys—the greedy white merchants’ mafia of Nassau’s main thoroughfare—controlled the economy. They made their fortunes importing food and drink. Their power depended on keeping the blacks in their place and the islands’ agriculture primitive. The “Bay Street Boys” controlled the House of Assembly and adopted gangster-style tactics during elections.
They blocked the Duke’s attempts at economic and political reforms. The Duke eventually sacked the Bay Street members of his Executive Council (ExCo), dissolved the House and called an election.
Wallis used her organisational skills in charity work, especially with the Red Cross and the Bahamas Assistance Fund.
The Bahamas was a culture-shock after war-torn Europe. Wallis vented her frustrations in letters to her Aunt Bessie in America. She felt isolated and Nassau was provincial and claustrophobic with a “petty colonial atmosphere and in-bred gossip.”
The Windsors made the best of a bad situation and kept their personal miseries private, especially when the Establishment tried stopping their visits to mainland America.
However, Wallis needed dental treatment from a periodontist in Miami so the Duke requested permission to accompany his wife. The Windsors were absent for five days. Government House was ready for occupation when they returned on 14 December 1940.
America declared war against Japan when Pearl Harbour was bombed on 7 December 1941.
The Duke was victorious when the British Air Ministry, in consultation with the Americans, built a series of Operational Training Units in the Atlantic in 1942.
One unit RAF OUT III was based in Nassau, next to an important RAFT Transport Command. American contractors constructed both bases using local labour—about 3,000 unskilled and 1,000 skilled labourers—solving the unemployment problem as service personnel often frequented the shops, bars and hotels.
The Windsors visited America in May, on urgent official business concerning defence, supply and trade.
Leslie Heap, the Duke’s deputy, sent urgent telegrams to Washington on 1 June 1942, warning of serious riots. The black population resented payment of lower wages, compared to those of the Americans, so they looted and pillaged Bay Street when the Government failed to respond to their demands. Local police were unable to take control.
The Duke returned to Nassau immediately and stopped the riots, using his charm and presence. He made it very clear on 8 June in a radio broadcast he would not tolerate further rebellious displays.
The Duke wanted a change of post, after three extremely difficult years, and hoped to become Governor-General of Australia. He was offered a promotion as the Governor of Bermuda but the Duke declined.
Canadian millionaire Sir Harry Oakes was murdered in his sleep in his home, Westborne, in 1943. The murder caused a sensation in the Bahamas and the United States. The Duke called in two senior criminal detectives from Miami, and framed Oakes’ unpopular and dissolute son-in-law, Alfred de Marigny, as the perpetrator. The murder remains unsolved today.
The Duke resigned as Governor on 15 March 1945, to take effect at the end of April.
The Duke’s brother, Henry Duke of Gloucester, was appointed Australia’s Governor-General in 1945.
The Duke was magnanimous in his victory, so he ended his governorship on a conciliatory note with the House. Past political struggles were forgotten.
The Bahamians were sorry to see him leave as the Duke gave the Colony its “best administration in modern times”. The Windsors left without ceremony on 3 May 1945.
The Duke was never given another official post.
Bloch, Michael, The Duchess of Windsor, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1996
Bloch, Michael, The Secret File of the Duke of Windsor, Bantam Press [Transworld Publishers Ltd], London, 1988
Higham, Charles, Wallis: Secret Lives of the Duchess of Windsor [First edition published 1988]
Ziegler, Philip, King Edward VIII: The Official Biography, William Collins Sons & Co Ltd, London, 1990
© 2009 Carolyn M Cash
This article was originally published by Suite 101 on 17 June 2009.