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Journal of the Bahamas Historical Society, Volume 7 (October 1985)

A Paper Delivered to the Bahamas Historical Society 31st January, 1985

by G. A. D. Johnstone

Perhaps it would be well at the outset to give a definition of the word "tenure". It literally means the conditions under which a tenant holds land which is the property of his landlord, and the characteristics of his tenancy.

When I was a law student, I was once told by a distinguished lawyer at the English Bar " My boy, if you want to learn the law you must first learn how it came to be the law". By the same logic, if I am to impart any knowledge of the land law of the Bahamas, I must take you on a brief journey to a distant land and a far distant time.

In 1066 William the Conqueror defeated King Harold of the Saxons. In one fell stroke he conquered England and made himself its king. No doubt partly in anger, but more so in shrewd and far seeing wisdom, he seised the lands bestowed on the hapless English Magnates by former sovereigns and parcelled them out to his Norman and French supporters. It was not done at once, but at the end of his twenty year reign there were only two major landowners left, and one English Bishop.1 In a country where, apart from cattle and beasts of burden, land was the only wealth, this shrewd stroke vested enormous power in the hands of the king and a handful of his retainers.

But there were strings attached to his munificence. Having learnt from his harsh life that no state or throne was safe unless organized for instant war, he attached to every grant of land an inescapable martial obligatioa In return for their estates his tenants in chief had to swear to support the Crown with a fixed number of mounted and armoured knights, to pay specified dues at stated times, and to attend the royal courts and councils.2 It was a part of the system known as feudalism.

Out of this system there emerged the most distinctive characteristic of the English Common Law insofar as it related to land, namely, that the sovereign is the owner of all land in the realm and all persons who claim so-called ownership of land are his tenants. That doctrine has had widespread consequences through the centuries. If, for example, the tenant failed to perform specified services the land reverted to the landlord, namely the sovereign.3 And although the punitive features of its feudal origins have long since been dispensed with, the theory persists to this day and is not entirely academic.

As the years passed the services rendered to the sovereign for the grant of land took on an infinite variety of forms according to the nature of the land and the grantees thereof. Military service disappeared and was replaced by money or by a host of other services. Sir Robert Megarry's book Miscellany at Law is instructive on this point, and I quote from it the following passage:


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  1. Arthur Bryant, Set in a Silver Sea, Collins, London, 1984 p.66.
  2. Ibid., p.7.
  3. G.C. Cheshire, Modern Law of Real Property, 5th Edition, Butterworth's, London, 1944, p.12.