“Whenever you lift up your glad hearts to sing,
Oh, mingle the Baymen with God save the King.”
– from Sons of Honduras, by Roderick Pitts
At the opening of the second millennium, the British were mere barbarian tribes fighting each other on their island in the northeastern Atlantic Ocean, and by the end of that millennium they had lost absolute control of the international empire they had built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the British earned a reputation during the course of the second millennium of post-Christian history as arguably the greatest and most successful warriors on planet earth. There was a famous British Empire still in place in the first half of the twentieth century, British Honduras was one of that empire’s colonies, and there were British Hondurans who swore by the British and their empire.
The Caste War of the Yucatán, which began in 1847, only 26 years after Mexico had become independent of Spain, had significant effects on the settlement of Belize. The Caste War, in which the Yucatec Maya rebelled violently against the ladino-dominated status quo, catapulted the Santa Cruz Maya and the Icaiche Maya to prominence and power to the north and northwest of Belize. The Santa Cruz and the Icaiche taxed the mahogany contractors of Belize mercilessly, frightened Belize’s settler elite with their violence, and eventually caused that settler elite to seek colonial status in the British Empire in 1862.
Before 1862, the settlement of Belize was an independent section of the British Empire, so to speak, which looked to British Jamaica for protection, support, and advice when they had experienced major slave rebellions, such as in 1773, and when they experienced major invasions, such as the Spanish armada attack from the Yucatán in 1798. The settler elite of Belize gave up their independence in 1862 because they could not handle the Maya, and in effect they asked the British Empire to take over in Belize.
In 1872, the British Empire, having brought in the British West India Regiment, stopped the Icaiche in Orange Walk when they killed the Icaiche leader, Marcos Canul. The Icaiche had been more hostile to the British than the Santa Cruz Maya, who had been buying arms, gunpowder, and supplies from British merchants in Belize in order to fight Mérida and the ladino power in the north and northwest of the Yucatán.
When we were growing up in Belize in the second half of the twentieth century, the history of the second half of the nineteenth century in British Honduras was shrouded in almost complete secrecy. The Caste War was never, never discussed. Yet, it was during this precise period that the ladino and Maya refugees from the Caste War settled the Corozal and Orange Walk Districts, and laid the foundation for what represents today the population majority of Belize. And, in 1898, the British, for whatever the reason(s), decided to pass the credit for what had been in 1798 an insignificant naval engagement, the Battle of St. George’s Caye, to what was then the majority African population of British Honduras.
Because of Garveyism in Belize, that Centenary propaganda did not work so well immediately, as is evidenced by the July 1919 Ex-Servicemen’s Riot, during which the majority Africans took complete control of Belize Town for two days. Garveyism, however, began to fade here after Marcus Garvey was imprisoned in the United States in 1925, and the 1920s were overall a period in British Honduras during which the British were integrating a native black elite into their civil service administration. This native black civil service became the core of the colony’s loyalty to the British Empire.
Antonio Soberanis’ labor uprising of 1934 was a challenge to that arrangement between the British and the native civil service, but it was until the nationalist movement of 1950 that the masses of the Belizean people, including the people of Corozal and Orange Walk, confronted British colonialism in an organized manner and eventually marginalized the native black civil service. The Belizean people fought for and achieved self-government in 1964 and independence in 1981.
The imperial propaganda of 1898 is not relevant today when we are fighting to consolidate our Belizean nationhood. It’s a tourist attraction. Those Belizeans who wish to continue celebrating are historically entitled to do so. But those Belizean nationalists who view and condemn the imperial propaganda of 1898 as divisive for Belize are justified in so doing. That is our thesis and our belief, and we stand by it.
Power to the people.