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Emancipation or Centenary

The imagined nation was therefore born “in war – and not in sex,” as Ada Ferrer has argued of Cuba, and specifically in the “physical and spiritual embrace between black and white men in battle.” Male slaves’ loyalty to their white masters in jointly repudiating the Spaniard in 1798, according to the myth, symbolized the absence of racial hatred that had plagued other British possessions. This was a thinly veiled reference to the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica, which had ended midcentury optimism that former slaves would learn to behave according to emerging white bourgeois norms and consolidated the view that blacks lacked any capacity for self-government. In denying that a Morant – or, implicitly, a Cuban Ten Years’ War or a Haitian Revolution – could occur on British Honduran soil, the myth’s authors did not contest the linkages between whiteness and civilization or among blackness, hybridity, and degeneracy. Instead they asserted their white male ancestors’ command of loyal male slaves as a metaphor of their own ability to lead and control the Creole working class, and thus of their fitness to legislate. By associating themselves with whiteness without explicitly claiming to be white, middle-class Creoles presented themselves as authentic natives who, as Britain’s junior partners in governance, could secure a racially harmonious and loyal colonial nation.

– pg. 109, IMAGINING THE COLONIAL NATION: Race, Gender, and Middle-Class Politics in Belize, 1888-1898, Anne S. Macpherson, University of North Carolina Press, 2003

In West Africa, the ancestors of Belize’s African population grew crops in the earth to feed themselves. They fished in the creeks, the lagoons, the rivers and the ocean to feed themselves. And they hunted birds and animals in the jungle to feed themselves. Where food was concerned, our pre-slavery ancestors were self-sufficient.

Things changed dramatically when our people were brought here chained in slave ships to work in the woodcutting industry of Belize’s forests. The slavemasters controlled most of the food, which was imported in the same sailing ships which, on their outward journey, carried the logs and lumber to England, and afterwards America. There was a chronic labor shortage in Belize’s woodcutting industry, and slavemasters prevented black people from owning and developing land. The settlement of Belize was about forests, not farming. In fact, the situation was more complicated than that. The Spanish in the Yucatan who claimed the territory of Belize in the name of the King of Spain, signed treaties with the British Baymen which allowed the Baymen to cut down trees as long as they did not grow food crops.

Somehow, against the odds, a farming tradition developed in the Belize River Valley villages. And farming sustained the runaway slave communities around the Sibun River. We know these traditional maroon villages today as Gracie Rock, Freetown Sibun, Gales Point Manatee, and so on. The Garifuna people who came here as refugees in the early part of the nineteenth century settled in the southern areas of Belize, remote at the time from Belize Town, and they maintained food-sufficiency and independence. The vast majority of black Belizeans lived in Belize Town, however, and apart from some fishing, they lost the ability to feed themselves, because they lost the tradition and knowledge of farming and hunting.

It was an incredible, and terrible, thing that the vast majority of roots Belizeans should lose, essentially be weaned off, the farming tradition, because the settlement of Belize, with a small population relative to large tracts of fertile land, always enjoyed a comparative advantage where agricultural potential was concerned. It is fundamental that a strong people should grow as much of their food as they can. This was not so in Belize/British Honduras, for the reasons we have previously offered. So that, after our forests had become depleted around the middle of the twentieth century, there was a large group of people in Belize City with shrinking career possibilities. Our people, intimidated by farm life, headed north to the big cities of the United States. Their sons and grandsons are the ones who have been murdering each other in Belize City, at civil war levels, for the last quarter century and more.

The human carnage in the old capital, we suggest to you, is related to a Centenary narrative and tradition which were imposed and orchestrated by the white and brown class in Belize. There was a reason why Emancipation Day was never celebrated in Belize, just as there was a reason the settlement’s official Centenary history claimed that black slaves had fought in defence of their white masters in September of 1798. The reason the history of Belize featured Centenary and ignored Emancipation was because the black masses at the base of the socio-economic pyramid had no say in the official narrative and tradition here. Belize lived an elitist lie with a color discrimination reality.

On their own initiative, the UBAD Educational Foundation (UEF) began Emancipation Day celebrations in Belize on August 1, 2014, so this July/August will mark their third such effort. The UEF members, led by YaYa Marin Coleman, have been working very hard on this year’s Emancipation Day activities, and we are pleased to say that they have received more support this year from various quarters than ever before.

Nowadays, it is common to refer to anyone of visibly mixed European and African ancestry as a “mulatto.” But in slavery and colonial days in the Caribbean, in British and French possessions especially, “mulatto” referred only to someone who was white father, black mother. There were all kinds of racial classifications, such as “quadroon,” “octoroon,” “mustee,” and so on, which indicated precisely what was the percentage mixture of European and African in an individual.

The rulers of these British and French possessions encouraged the growth of a separate class of people who were neither European masters or African slaves. In the vast majority of cases, the members of the separate “brown” group, who, to repeat, were neither white or black, consciously strove to be as European as possible in their clothes, speech, manners, culture, and so on, and their loyalty was to the whites. There was all the advantage to be gained from the whites: identifying one’s self as black and African was to buy a ticket downwards socially, economically, and in every possible respect. These British and French possessions, like Jamaica and Haiti, and Belize, were white supremacist possessions. No one can deny that.

The United States of America was also a white supremacist society, but they had only two racial categories – white and black. The fact that the United States did not allow for a brown, mulatto class simplified racial matters. After the black power phenomenon arose in the United States in 1966, it began to spread to the British Caribbean, including Belize. In Belize, opponents of the new black consciousness argued that UBAD was importing something from the United States which had no relevance to Belize. According to such apologists for the Baymen’s Clan, Belize did not have a race problem and never did. One Emory King went so far as to claim that in Belize, slavery had been genteel, that slavery was different here from everywhere else. This is the lie that Belize has lived for centuries.

The torrents of blood on Belize’s Southside give the lie to that Baymen’s Clan lie. Centenary is about the perpetuation of the colonial lies. Emancipation is about the search for our truth. It is as simple as that. The marking of Emancipation Day as a historic moment in Belize was a long time coming, too long really. Truth crushed to earth has risen. We salute the UBAD Educational Foundation and all who have contributed to their Emancipation Day effort.

Power to the people. Remember Danny Conorquie.

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