Journal of the Bahamas Historical Society, Volume 3 (October 1981)
THE ASCENDANCY OF CHARLES ROGERS NESBITT,
POLITICIAN, CIVIL SERVANT, ADMINISTRATOR
C. R. Nesbitt was perhaps the most influential government official in the colony of the Bahamas. With his death in 1876, the Bahamas lost a man who had been in public life for over fifty years and had, for over three decades, shaped the policy and legislation of the colony as few men, including governors had to that time or have since.1 By virtue of his political and administrative positions he was at the centre of Bahamian life during a formative period which witnessed the end of slavery, the establishment of an educational system, a continuing religious controversy and social and economic transformations of the blockade running era. An examination of his life, in addition to providing an interesting biographical sketch, supplies grounds for constructive speculation on related issues worthy of further study.
These issues can be stated as questions that apply to the Bahamas as a colony but that have wider application to all British colonies. How important, for instance, was the "man on the spot," governor or public official? Considering the fact that the Bahamas had representative but not responsible government and, with Bermuda and Barbados but not Jamaica and Trinidad, had greater power vested in its assembly, were the representatives of the Crown possessed of greater influence there than in the latter colonies?2 Was a colonial secretary, who served for over three decades, acted as government advocate in the legislature as an elected member and administered the government seven times, likely to have exercised greater influence and power than the governors themselves, most of whom served no longer than six years? Was the insignificance of the colony of the Bahamas such that it did not matter who governed as long as a semblance of peace was maintained and chaos avoided? A preliminary study of the career of one person, however important, can do little more than suggest answers; more importantly, it can emphasize the desirability of increasing research in a hitherto neglected area, the role of individuals in Bahamian history.
The dearth of secondary material on Nesbitt, and indeed on most figures in Bahamian history whether governors, officials or simply eminent citizens, is the result, not of a lack of primary sources but rather of all apparent deemphasis on the study of individuals as agents of change in history, a failure to consider or to oversimplify the role of the man on the spot. In addition, the necessity in general histories of tracing the chronological order of events and development on a larger scale may militate against biographical studies.3 Perhaps too, an underlying suspicion on the part of historians that, with power emanating from the Crown, it did not matter who exercised authority on the local level, caused them to neglect the study of individual careers. A perusal of primary documents and contemporary newspapers illuminates Nesbitt's career and calls into question some of the negative assumptions currently prevailing on the importance of individuals in the history of the colony.4
Charles Rogers Nesbitt, born in London on April 3, 1799, was one of ten children of Samuel Nesbitt. He attended Merchant Taylors' School. In 1814, after travelling in the East Indies, he joined his father in the Bahamas where the latter had been appointed Secretary of the Colony in 1812. On his arrival he became a junior clerk in his father's office, the duties of which included, in addition to those of Colonial Secretary, those of Registrar of Records and Clerk of the Council. From 1818 to the death of his father in 1838 he served officially as Deputy Colonial Secretary, although he was fully responsible for the office from 1831 on his father's departure from the colony on unlimited leave of abscence. Thus, by 1831 Nesbitt was in charge of the office in which he was to remain, with few breaks, until his retirement in 1867 and which was to become during his tenure at least the second most powerful office in the colony.
Nesbitt entered his administrative apprenticeship with vigour, eager no doubt to attract notice in the despatches and thus advance his career, his loyalty at this time - - and perhaps throughout his career - - being to himself and the Crown rather than to the colony. His father, confessing worry about a fall into poverty from relative prosperity, admitted that his intention in having his son join him in the Bahamas was to prepare the younger Nesbitt to be his successor.5 Besides taking over during his father's numerous leaves of absence after 1818, young Nesbitt also served in other capacities: Master of Chancery, 1821-1831; Police Magistrate, 1830-1838; Judge of the Inferior Court, 1831-1838; Receiver of Rates, 1834-1838. Denied confirmation as his father's successor while the older man was still living since it was against the rules of disposing of the Crown's patronage, Nesbitt demonstrated his impatience for advancement by petitioning the Colonial Office for permission to follow Governor Lewis Grant to Trinidad with thirty slaves and so to leave a colony "fast dwindling to insignificance," having, as he said a year later in 1830, sacrificed sixteen years in the Secretary's office.6