Bahamian Ambassador to the U.S. Assumes New Role, Spreading Message of Unity and Connection During New Orleans Visit
By Anitra D. Brown
The New Orleans Tribune
As the Bahamian Ambassador to the United States, Wendall K. Jones’ official job is to represent The Bahamas and its prime minister in various diplomatic matters, from treaty negotiations to immigration to international humanitarian efforts.
Of course, as the recently appointed ambassador, Jones intends to perform those duties. But he also plans to do much more, especially when it comes to telling the story of The Bahamas—its independence, its growth, its beauty, it history, and its connection to the rest of the world.
“Most people know the Bahamas as Nassau. They don’t know of the southeastern islands or the islands in the northwest,” he says. “The Bahamas run northwest, from Bimini and the Abacos, to southeast down to Inagua; and every island of the Bahamas is different. You will get a different experience on every island. It’s my job to tell the world about our beautiful country.”
The Bahamas includes 700 islands and some 2000 keys, Jones says; and while tourism is the nation’s number one industry, it is not the only one. The second largest industry is financial services. And he wants the world to know that, too.
“We have had a financial services sector that has been the envy of many countries,” he says. “We have a well-regulated financial services sector in our country that provides financial services to people around the world.”
According to the Bahamian government’s official website, there are more than 250 banks and trust companies licensed to do business within and from The Bahamas, representing twenty-five different countries including the United Kingdom, Switzerland, France, the United States, Canada, Japan and Brazil.
While business is booming in The Bahamas, there is still much beauty to behold.
“Indeed, the astronauts, when they where up there, they took a photograph of earth and they said the most beautiful place on earth was the Exuma Keys, a string of keys in the central Bahamas, some 365 keys—many of which are owned by wealthy American investors,” Jones says.
NASA’s Scott Kelly, the astronaut to which Jones refers, took the photograph during his yearlong space expedition in 2015. So impressed Kelly was with the beauty of Exuma that he donated $5,000 to the Bahamas National Trust for the protection of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.
And it is the beauty of The Bahamas that attracts visitors to the island nation. To be sure, tourism is major part of the country’s economic engine, accounting for one-third of the nation’s GNP and employing about 40 percent of the population. But the Bahamas is so much more than a playground for the well to do.
“The Bahamas is a nation in progress,” says Jones. “Next year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of our independence. We have gone from a fishing village in the early sixties to a growing metropolis. The Bahamas has a story to tell, not only in terms of tourism, but also in many spheres of life.”
Jones continues, “For instance, we have the Cascarilla bark. The Cascarilla bark is a main component of the Campari liqueur. From the bark, you can also get perfumes. You can get all sorts of soaps. The bark is harvested in Acklins Island, Crooked Island and, to a lesser extent, Cat Island. And it is bought by European countries.”
Cascarilla is also used to flavor Vermouth. The Bahamas exports cascarilla to the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the United States and, of course, Italy, where Campari and Vermouth might never have been invented were it not for exploits of European explorers in the archipelago islands of Caribbean, the only place where the Cascarilla is native. Recall, it was actually what is now The Bahamas that Christopher Columbus stumbled upon in 1492.
The Bahamas is also home to the second largest deep, blue hole in the world. Dean’s Blue Hole or “Dean’s Pond”, as Jones calls it, is on Long Island. He admits to only learning that his country laid claim to this phenomenon many, many years ago while watching an episode of “60 Minutes.”
“I was educated about my own country,” he says. “And there are many stories to be told of every single island of The Bahamas.”
An Experienced Story Teller
In early May, Jones visited New Orleans, meeting with elected and appointed officials, community and businesses leaders. He has been to New Orleans before, but this trip was his first as The Bahamian ambassador and his first as his country’s unofficial-official storyteller.
Luckily, when it comes to telling stories, Jones is experienced, spending 50 years in journalism, beginning his career when the nation’s media outlets were owned by the government and continuing long after the industry privatized. One of the most successful journalists of his generation in the country, he founded businesses that changed the face of journalism throughout The Bahamas.
Jones began his career with The Broadcasting Corporation of The Bahamas in 1972. His training took him to the University of the West Indies in Cave Hill, Barbados, WTV Channel 4 in Miami, Fla., The Voice of America, Washington, D.C., and ultimately to the top as the CEO and owner of his own media business, Jones Communications International Limited, which is comprised of Radio Love 97 FM; The Bahama Journal, a daily newspaper; JCN Television and Jones Publications, which has produced several Bahamian books.
He has built an incredible media empire that took many years of effort and commitment. Deservingly so, he had his eye on retirement and had been collaborating with his children in recent years to ensure that they were ready to lead the businesses he started, he says, when The Bahamas’ prime minister reached out to him and his family to see if he was interested and able to take on a new role.
He was, and so Jones was appointed Ambassador to the United States of America and non-resident Ambassador to Colombia and Malaysia by Prime Minister Philip Davison on March 7.
Since he had been considering the prospect of backing away from the direct management of his media companies and easing his way into quieter days, he was already comfortable with the thought of his children taking over. However, instead of leisurely vacations, naps or golf, Jones has stepped into public service.
While he has conscientiously assumed his new role as ambassador, his successful, 50-year career as a journalist and businessman came to fruition in a far more happenstance manner.
Growing up, Jones says he wanted to be an architect. He was accepted to the Ontario College of Arts in Canada; but that dream was dashed when his father told him that he could not afford to send him to college.
“I am from a large family,” says Jones. “My father said to me ‘I can’t afford to send you to Canada. You have to go and get a job because you have other brothers and sisters in high school.’ So, I started an apprentice kind of arrangement with a structural engineer as a draftsman.”
That lasted for about two years until Jones learned there were vacancies in the (government-owned) broadcasting corporation in the Bahamas.
“I went there just to test it, to see whether or not they would be interested,” he says. “It was during my lunch hour as a draftsman. I went around the corner and filled in the application form, and by the time I got back to my drawing board, they called me and asked ‘when can you start working?’ ”
The broadcast reporting job paid a bit more than his apprenticeship, so he gave his boss two weeks notice and became a news reporter in 1972—just like that.
“I was a parliamentary reporter most of the time,” he says. “I covered many aspects of life in our country.”
He spent several years as a reporter and hosted a show called “Action Line”, one of the first Bahamian radio talk shows, before starting a public relations and advertising firm. Then in 1987, he started The Bahama Journal, which began as a weekly and transitioned into a daily newspaper seven years later.
In 1994, with the expansion and privatization of broadcasting in The Bahamas, Jones secured one of the first licenses for private broadcasting and opened LOVE 97 FM, “which became a hit—a very popular station, right away,” he says. “We’re still operating LOVE 97. It still has a dominant role in radio business in our country.”
In 2002, Jones started JCN television.
All of We Are One
It is the acumen and the skills he sharpened during his 50-year career in journalism that Jones will use to share the story of The Bahamas. The other story he is eager to share is how the Diaspora connects The Bahamas and its people to Black people all over the world, how we are all connected.
“All of we are one family; all of we are one,” he says, repeating a Bahamian adage that speaks to the ties that Black people across the world share with each other as sons and daughters Africa.
For many Black Bahamians, some of those ties have been bolstered through education.
When British rule ended nearly 50 years ago, the newly independent nation, like many others in the Caribbean were “left in a bad way in terms of infrastructure development,” Jones says. “And so the focus has been on education because the government believed that if you educate your people, they will be able to pull themselves up and take advantage of the opportunities available in the country.”
Many educated professionals have remained at home and work in their fields in The Bahamas.
“There was a time in the Bahamas when you could count the number of native Bahamian chartered accountants on probably two hands. Well, today there are thousands of them. There was a time when we had two or three dozen well-trained lawyers. Today, there are thousands of them. They are working all over the legal profession, in banks, in the newspaper business, specializing and doing various things. We have a cadre of professional Bahamians that we didn’t even dream of 50 years ago.”
He also speaks with pride about Bahamians who have left home and made a place for themselves in other countries.
“If you go on Wall Street, you’d find Bahamians. You will find them working at NASA; you will find them working in Silicon Valley. You will find them working at all of the major blue chip companies of the United States because Bahamians are taking their rightful places as global citizens. We are churning them out by the thousands.”
He delights in connecting with people he meets across the world who are from the Bahamas. He found that here in New Orleans.
“You know, I met (Dr. Laura) Rosanne Adderly, who is a professor of history at Tulane University. Her father is one of the former attorney generals in the Bahamas, and here she is teaching. She taught at Vanderbilt, and now at Tulane. And there are so many other Bahamians who are just like her. And I want them to be able to participate in our national development from where they are.”
He is clear. He wants Bahamians transplanted here and across the world to serve as living, breathing examples of the country—what it was, is and will be.
Then there are those deeper, historical diasporic bonds. They may be more ambiguous, a little less distinct than meeting a Bahamian-born, Tulane college professor, but Ambassador Jones loves to make those connections, too.
He recounts an exchange with NOPD Chief Shaun Ferguson during his New Orleans visit. Jones says he told the Chief that “Ferguson” was a common Bahamian surname.
And it seems that it is, ranking number eight on the list of common surnames in The Bahamas, according to forebears.io, a genealogy website that catalogs surname distribution by country.
“I told him, you look like an Exumian. Fergusons are either from the Exumas or south Acklins. I could just look at him and see some of his relatives in him. He said that his grandparents were from Mississippi; but I am almost able to guarantee you that somehow, somewhere, he would have relatives among the Fergusons in the Bahamas.”
Whether or not NOPD Chief Shaun Ferguson actually has any Bahamian roots is not certain. But the history between The Bahamas and the United States suggests that, at the very least, it is possible that he or anyone of us, for that matter, just might.
For instance, when the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, many American colonists loyal to the British fleed to The Bahamas, taking the Black people they enslaved with them, especially those from southern regions of the original 13 colonies—colonies like Georgia and the Carolinas. Those enslaved people and their descendants became free in 1833, when slavery and slave trade were outlawed in The Bahamas and other British territories in the Caribbean.
Then there are the stories of the Encomium, the Hermosa, and the Creole.
In 1833, the Encomium, an American slave ship traveling from the U.S. eastern shore to slave markets in New Orleans, was forced by bad weather into the British port in the Bahamas, where the British authorities, pressed by free Blacks in the Bahamas, freed the enslaved people onboard.
In 1840, the Hermosa, also traveling along the eastern shore of the United States from Virginia headed to New Orleans, wrecked in The Bahamas’ Abaco Islands when it found itself in waters to shallow to float. The 38 enslaved people aboard that ship were removed and freed after the ship docked in Nassau.
Then in 1841, a revolt by enslaved people aboard The Creole, yet another U.S. slave ship traveling from Virginia to New Orleans’ slave markets, ended in freedom for more than 100 enslaved people. Several of the captives started a rebellion on the Creole when it was about 130 miles off the coast of the Abaco Islands. Historians have speculated that the rebellion’s leaders, at least one of whom had previously escaped slavery using the Underground Railroad before being captured, knew that if they could make it to the Caribbean where slavery had been outlawed eight years earlier, they would find freedom. If indeed armed with that knowledge, it is possible that they decided to start their uprising in the Caribbean, counting on British rule and pressure from free Black Bahamians as the path to freedom. If so, they were right.
While authorities in The Bahamas initially jailed 19 of the enslaved, those believed to have been responsible for the uprising, another 114 captives were immediately freed. And 17 of the 19 initially jailed on charges of mutiny were also ultimately released. Two others died during their confinement.
Given the fate of these U.S. slave ships along with the fact enslaved families were often torn apart as members were bought and sold, there very well could be Black people today in both the United States and in The Bahamas who are distantly related—sharing family ties long ago broken by the cruelty of slavery.
There were other enslaved people from the United States, packed as human cargo on ships such as the Comet and the Enterprise, who found freedom in Bermuda—another British Colony where slavery was abolished in 1833, when those ships wrecked or stalled there because of weather. In all, it has been estimated that authorities in The Bahamas and Bermuda freed 450 enslaved people from America.
There is also this truth—the same slave ships that carried Africans to America made stops along the Caribbean while slave trade was legal there. Because of that, Black people in America, in the Bahamas, across the Caribbean and throughout the world have ties that span an ocean. That is the Black Diaspora.
Or, as they say in The Bahamas, “All of we are one.”
And through his work as ambassador, Jones also hopes to create more spaces and opportunity for exchanges that celebrate that oneness in his native Bahamas, in other Caribbean nations, in the United States and everywhere else.
“My grandmother was a Devaux,” he says. “That is a French name. So I know there is some Haitian in me. There are tens of millions of people who look like us in the United States who do not know themselves. The slave ships dropped us off in different places. So we have to be accepting of one another, because somewhere and somehow in your DNA you’re going to find something. As long as you are a Black man, you are Africa. You’re my brother. You’re my sister. All of we are one.”