Roland Theodore Symonette
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The Right Excellent Sir Roland Theodore Symonette (16 December 1898 – 13 March 1980) achieved high office as a Bahamian political figure. He was leader of the United Bahamian Party (UBP), which represented the interests of the white oligarchy known as the "Bay Street Boys" and was the ruling party between 1958 and 1967. When the country achieved self-government in 1964 Symonette was the first premier.
The Right Excellent Sir
|1st Premier of the Bahamas|
7 January 1964 – 16 January 1967
|Preceded by||Position Established|
|Succeeded by||Lynden Pindling|
|Born||16 December 1898|
|Died||13 March 1980(aged 81)|
Roland "Pop" Symonette was one of nine children of Methodist minister Edwin Symonette and his wife Lavania (née Weech) on the small island settlement of Current, Eleuthera.
Although he had only six years of formal education, Symonette became one of the wealthiest men of his generation. An autodidact and lifelong advocate of education, he was a school teacher early in his career, but, during Prohibition, Symonette transported whiskey to the United States. With the profits from bootlegging, he invested in real estate, hotels, a shipyard and eventually a wide range of philanthropic interests, including Camp Symonette, originally built for the youth of the Bahamas. The Symonette family's holdings have never been publicly confirmed, but public speculation has placed it between $700 million and $2.5 billion USD.
In 1925, Symonette campaigned successfully for a seat in the Bahamas' House of Assembly. He served in the House, representing the Shirlea district until his retirement in 1977. His 52 years as a Member of Parliament is the longest record of service in the House of Assembly.
Symonette served as the head of government of the Bahama Islands from 1955 to 1964 and in 1964, when the country achieved internal self-government, he became the first Premier of the Bahama Islands. In 1959, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
The 1967 British Royal Commission of Inquiry reported that Symonette received 5,000 pounds from the U.S. casino interests who had left Cuba and were seeking a greater presence in The Bahamas. Notably was Symonette opposition to casinos well know, this sum of the alleged bribe was so modest to a man of Symonette's wealth that it is thought that he was acting as an informant to US intelligence agencies, who were concerned lest mobsters reestablish enterprises like the ones they operated in Cuba before the revolution. (See also Sir Stafford Sands).
The timing of the release of the inquiry, around election time also suggested political interference in island affairs.
Source: Masters of Paradise: Organised Crime and the Internal Revenue Service in the Bahamas by Alan Block page 41 as quoted below:
"…Of those on the executive council who were lobbied so in intensely and extensively, Sir Roland Symonette was the most reluctant and disturbed. Soon to become the first premier of the Bahamas with the passage of a new constitution in 1964, Symonette was morally opposed to gambling. And even though he finally accepted a modest consultancy agreement with DEVCO, he still could not bring himself to vote for the certificate. Shortly after this difficult and morally ambiguous period, Symonette became premier and resigned his consultancy, having collected only 5,000 pounds.(21)"
Symonette was married three times. By his first wife Gertrude Nellie of the Current Settlement, Symonette had one son, Basil Harcourt. Basil founded the Bitter End Resort at Virgin Gorda, BVI. By his second wife, the former Thelma Bell Clepper of Andalusia, Alabama, Symonette had one son, Robert "Bobby", and one daughter, Zelda. Symonette's son Bobby was a self made man, founding many successful business without his father's support, competing in the Olympics and winning acclaim as a yachtsman. Bobby also served as Speaker of the House of Assembly. Zelda was an elementary school librarian. Among her honors was a humanitarian award for bettering relations between the races. In the late 1940s, Symonette married Canadian Margaret Frances, the union producing one daughter, Margaret, who died in infancy, and two sons, Roland Craig and Theodore Brent. His youngest son Brent Symonette was the Deputy Prime Minister of The Bahamas, Free National Movement, Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Ingraham led government and in 2017 was appointed Minister of Financial Services, Trade & Industry and Immigration.
Sir Roland Symonette died on 13 March 1980 at his home in Nassau; his widow, Lady Margaret Symonette died 24 years later in 2004.
Symonette's portrait appears on the Bahamian $50 note. A community park in the settlement of Current, Eleuthera, Bahamas, just feet from his birthplace, was named after him on what would have been his 111th birthday, 16 December 2009.