We are fast approaching that time of year when the Creole people of Belize show themselves, so to speak. That’s good: we need that. We make no apology for the music and the motion and the spirits. This is Centenary time, and it is what it is: celebration.
Some of our Belizean brethren and sistren of different ethnicities ask, well, what is it exactly that you are celebrating? They argue that Centenary is a colonial celebration, a British Baymen celebration, and that slavery was almost four decades from being abolished when our slave ancestors supposedly fought “shoulder-to-shoulder” with their masters in 1798. They point out, correctly, that 22 years after the Battle of St. George’s Caye there was a major slave revolt in Belize.
Well, roots Creole people are not celebrating slavery, and we’re not celebrating colonialism, and for sure we’re not celebrating the British. We’re celebrating us, baby, our Belizean selves. Play di music. Shake up wi body.
Since political independence in 1981, the Tenth of September and Independence Day celebrations are basically as one, the days being just 11 days apart. So the first three weeks of September are a jumble of festivities. Any September division amongst the Belizean people is only an intellectual one. The debate, sometimes quarrel, goes: 1798 or 1981, which was more important? Before independence, however, there was a socio-political argument which began around 1958. Around that time, the ruling, nationalist PUP began to say that the Battle of St. George’s Caye was a myth, and the Opposition NIP felt they had to defend the Centenary traditions, and so they did.
During his early efforts to build the Belizean nation, PUP/Belize Leader George Price felt that the Tenth of September story divided the Belizean people at our very core, because that story essentially said that Creole Belizeans had defeated Hispanic Belizeans in a fight where the Spanish were seeking to take back the territory of Belize from the British Baymen. At that time, Creoles and Mestizos, in that order, were the largest ethnicities in Belize, and if so fundamental a part of our national narrative was based on one of our groups supposedly defeating the other, how could we move forward to a unified independence?
In 1958 in NIP circles, an attack on Centenary was seen as an attack, in the service of the Guatemalan government and claim, against Belize’s black population. Guatemalan president, Ydígoras Fuentes, was pushing the Guat claim to British Belize in the most aggressive manner ever.
The history says that the Battle of St. George’s Caye was not celebrated in Belize until 1898, when Simon Lamb, a Creole employee of the Anglophile Belize Estate and Produce Company (BEC), organized the so-called Centenary festivities. Such celebrations apparently had the official blessing and financial support of the British colonial administration and the propertied, privileged Belize Baymen class, the same class against which the returning Ex-Servicemen violently rebelled 21 years later.
Despite that 1919 rebellion and the rise of Garveyism in Belize around that time, Centenary became a fixture in the first half of Belize’s twentieth century. Britain fought two world wars during the first half of the twentieth century, with their primary opponents being the Germans. These wars were for control of the raw materials in colonial territories and for international hegemony. Legally speaking, Belizeans in the first half of the twentieth century were “British subjects,” and in Belize City we thought and behaved as such.
Now consider Mexico, from the Yucatán part of which our Mestizo and Maya Belizeans had come in the second half of the nineteenth century. 12 years after the Battle of St. George’s Caye, the Mexican people fought a war of independence from Spain. Many Mexicans died. In 1847, 26 years after Mexico achieved independence, the brutal, bloody Caste War began in the Yucatán. This featured the rebellion of the oppressed Maya people against the higher ranking, urban ladino class which was in alliance with the Roman Catholic Church. When we Belizeans began to celebrate Centenary in 1898, the Caste War, in fact, was still smoldering just north of us.
Compared to the ancestors of our Mestizo and Maya Belizeans, our Creole ancestors had a peaceful ride under the British empire. Totally oppressed, but relatively peaceful. Centenary got into our DNA during the first half of the twentieth century, and it’s still there for most of us. The British and the British Baymen gave parties for the Tenth of September every year. They invited us, and we got to enjoying the parties so much that the historical narrative of 1798 didn’t matter that much to us.
This is what you must understand. For the masses of our Creole people, the politics of Centenary was always secondary to the party. We were alive and vigorous and hopeful of a better tomorrow. The party was annual, it was official, and after a while it became like second nature.
We Creole people absolutely need to be in a better situation than where we are. We are victims of a slave and colonial past. We may have a case of Centenary nostalgia. At this newspaper, however, we will make no apology for the party tomorrow, the party next week, and the one next month. We need these days of healing before we start marching on rough roads again.