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Wednesday, September 30, 2020
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The Centenary spell

On the very day that they came off the boat to fight for the Mother Country, Corporal Samuel Haynes and his comrades from the British Honduras Contingent were hit between the eyes by British racism. Haynes and the British Hondurans had a horrid 35-day journey across the Atlantic during which the food served was not only inadequate, but ranged from the “far from palatable” to the “unfit for human consumption.” They finally disembarked in Alexandria, Egypt, in August 1916. Tired, hungry but relieved, they marched to a Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) hut reserved for British soldiers singing one of those tunes they had always been taught to believe was theirs, “Rule Britannia.” The white soldiers greeted these proud Caribbean men with utter scorn: “Who gave you niggers authority to sing that?” they asked. “Clear out of this building – only British troops admitted here.”

– ( – pg. 56, HOLDING ALOFT THE BANNER OF ETHIOPIA, by Winston James, Verso, 1999)

In 1908 Fr. Bernard Abeling, after finishing his studies, returned to Belize and taught at the College. He was a musician and is remembered in Belize today as the composer of one of Belize’s popular patriotic songs, Abeling’s March, known best for its first line: “’Twas the 10th Day of September.”

– ( – pg. 199, YEARS OF GRACE, by Charles M. Woods, Sr., J. Alexander Bennett, and Silvaana Udz, BRC Printing, 2015)

Perhaps the first time the Rt. Hon. George C. Price realized the limits of his power on Belize’s domestic political landscape was when he tried to break the “Centenary spell” in the late 1950s. On coming to leadership power in the nationalist People’s United Party (PUP) in 1956, Mr. Price was sent home from London “in disgrace” by the British in 1957. Then in 1958, the British arrested Mr. Price and tried him for sedition in the Supreme Court of British Honduras. On both occasions, the anti-colonial masses of the Belizean people rallied to Mr. Price’s support, and both times he came out smelling like roses politically.

The British, we submit, began to cast their Centenary spell on the Belizean masses in 1898 with their Battle of St. George’s Caye celebrations. Everybody knows the British were notorious tightwads. Just check out the narrow streets and confining bridges they built here. In the line of “bread and circuses,” the only thing they ever spent money on in British Honduras was their Centenary celebrations. The program leading up to and including the Tenth of September was financed by Government House.

The British orchestrated Centenary so that a black Belizean, Simon Lamb, received the credit for organizing the first celebrations in honor of the 1798 Battle of St. George’s Caye one hundred years later (thus “Centenary”) in 1898. But Simon Lamb was an employee of the Belize Estate Company (BEC), which absolutely dominated the economy and politics of British Honduras in 1898. If it was not his bosses who gave Mr. Lamb the Centenary idea, then they certainly did not oppose the concept. Such celebration organizing costs money. It is doubtful that Mr. Lamb himself was in a position to foot the Centenary bill. We’re just saying.

We mean no disrespect to Simon Lamb. But, the fact of the matter is that after the first twenty years of Centenary, celebrations which emphasized that white slavemasters and their black slaves had fought “shoulder to shoulder” to repel a Spanish naval invasion from the Yucatan in September of 1798, black Belizean soldiers who had been racially abused by the British in Mesopotamia and Egypt during World War I, smashed up the business and white elite sections of Belize Town on the night of July 21, 1919, and took over total power in Belize for two days. July 1919 established for all the world to see that there was no such thing as real racial harmony in British Honduras, that in fact there was a white supremacist status quo. There is no evidence that such a status quo had not existed in 1898, when Centenary was born.

Centenary was most likely a cynical construct by the British and the Baymen to distract and entertain Belize’s oppressed masses. Centenary ended up casting a spell on the Belizean people which lasts until today. Centenary cast a spell because we Belizeans were very poor and we looked forward eagerly to September, the only time of the year when Government House gave us anything – cookies and lemonade and sports and entertainment. And Centenary cast a spell on us Belizeans, which has lasted from generation to generation, because of the Centenary music.

Arguably, the five most impressive musical compositions which came out of Centenary were written by Chuchin Acosta, Abel Rudon, Fr. Bernard Abeling, Roderick Pitts, and Eloise Humes. At September time these pieces of music reach deep into our Belizean souls and stir powerful feelings of love for our country and our people. To this day, 34 years after Belize’s political independence, there is no body of patriotic independence music which can begin to compare with the Centenary music which came out of the colonial 1930s and 1940s. That music cast a Centenary spell which lasts to this day.

So that, even though Mr. Price was at the height of his personal popularity and political power in the 1960s, he was unable to break the Centenary spell. It was not that all the Belizean people who rebelled against the ruling PUP’s attempt to question the authenticity of Centenary were hard-core British lovers: some of us Belizeans were victims of a Centenary spell which the music had cast. The music had become an obsession, an addiction almost. We had to have it. This was the lesson that Mr. Price learned in the 1960s.

It is to be presumed that records of colonial expenditure in British Honduras are housed somewhere in London. It would be interesting to see the budgets for Centenary celebrations. From the time of the Roman Empire, rulers have been using bread and circuses to distract and entertain the masses. There would have been a need for extra bread and circuses in September of 1919 after the July rebellion that year, and there would have been a need for extra bread and circuses in September of 1934 after Antonio Soberanis led the working classes of the colony in rebellion earlier that year. Wouldn’t you say?

The disappointing thing today is that the ruling politicians of Belize will be feeding politically off the colonial Centenary spell this September. 2015 should be a year of national mobilization in the face of continued Guatemalan threats and incursions. Instead, September 2015 will be another mindless exploration of a spell which the British cast in a successful attempt at distraction and entertainment.

Power to the people. Remember Danny Conorquie. Fight for Belize.

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