Features — 14 July 2018 — by Peter Ashdown
The growth of Black Consciousness in Belize 1914-1919

(Continued and concluded from last weekend’s issue of Amandala)

That anger, perhaps somewhat ameliorated by the expectations of demobilization and their return to Belize, was reactivated on the long journey home by the so-called “Incident at Taranto.” That incident which was brought to light by C.L. Joseph and W.F.  Elkins and is in need of further investigation – involved the revolt of some 50-60 members of the 9th Battalion of the British West Indies Regiment at the British Army  transit camp at Cimino near Taranto in Italy in December 1918. Apparently, on December 6th members of the 9th Battalion, exasperated by weeks of discrimination in the camps, canteens and cinemas, humiliating fatigue duties and the overbearing arrogance of the South African camp commandant, attacked their officers and severely assaulted their unit commander. The revolt, once instigated, continued for several days – men refused to work, a shooting and a bombing took place and a generally insubordinate spirit prevailed. That spirit was only dissipated by the dispatch to Taranto of a white battalion and machine gun company, the arrest and long imprisonment of the mutineers, the disbandment of the 9th Battalion and the subsequent disarming of all British West Indies Regiment battalions. Consequently when the 1st and 2nd Battalions arrived at Cimino in May 1919 their members found themselves confined to camp, kept strictly segregated in their own quarters and were generally treated with hostility and suspicion by the camp commandant.

The reasons for the authorities’ hostility could hardly have gone unexplained to the members of the Belize Contingents and there must have been considerable clandestine discussion of the events of the previous December. Indeed it may be that during this time at Taranto that the “plot” to stage a coup d’etat in Belize was first formulated (if such a plot ever existed) and that it was there that some Belizean NGOs joined the so-called “Caribbean League.” This association, which was quickly suppressed after its discovery by the military authorities, expressed black aspirations for self-determination and did not shrink from the use of force.

While there is no hard evidence, at the moment, to  link any of the Belize soldiery with this association, there can be no doubt that its aims and objectives were viewed  sympathetically by the members of the various West Indian contingents whose war service had brought them face to face with blatant white  racism. In 1915 no more loyal subjects of the King Emperor could be found among the members of the Empire contingents – three years of humiliation, discrimination and degradation had reversed those loyalties – in 1919 there were many in the Belize Contingents who abhorred everything the Monarch and his Empire represented.

The Background to the Riot

II. White Racism and the Growth of Garveyism

In Belize itself a similar disillusionment had come to pass in the minds of many who had suffered the privations of war, but in the homeland the growth of a black consciousness was a more insidious process brought about by the spread of Garveyism and the appearance of an Establishment racism unknown since the days of slavery. That there had been a certain racial tension between the Colony’s black Creole labour force and its white and off-white elite of officials, merchants and land owners since Emancipation was probably undeniable – witness the Labourer’s Riot of 1894 and the racial outbursts of Governor Wilson – but these antagonisms appeared to have subsided, if not actually disappeared, during the prosperous years from 1900 to 1914. That subsidence may also be partly attributable to the characters of two exceptional governors (Sweet-Escott, 1904-06; Swayne, 1906-1913) for the old hostilities of race and class returned co-incidentally with the advent of two successive governors who made little attempt to hide their prejudices. Swayne’s successor, Sir William Collet, governed Belize during most of the War (1913-17) and one of his first actions after his promotion was to supervise the passage through the Legislative Council of Ordinance Number 20 of 1914, the Prevention of Crime Ordinance. This was designed to incarcerate “good-for-nothing” people who wished to stir up the labourers and instigate a general rising of the blacks against the whites. Collet reported to his superiors that he had been informed that a “Young Belize Party” had been formed, several prominent white citizens had been threatened and the wife of one such citizen had been subjected to an armed holdup. There were rumors too, he insisted, that the Drill Hall with its arms cache was about to be raided and, in consequence the martial law powers contained in the Ordinance were necessary as the local populace were apt “to be misled by any non-Belizean colored man.”  Such fears proved groundless and Collet’s dispatches were more revealing of his racist attitude towards his charges than of the revolutionary potential (real or imaginary) of those charges. It was common knowledge that the Governor was averse to seeing coloured gentlemen rising above their “proper station” in life – an aversion he demonstrated blatantly in November 1915 on the eve of the departure of the 1st Contingent for Mesopotamia. At the departure ceremony held on the Court House verandah, H. H. Vernon, a prominent Creole citizen and treasurer of the Contingent Committee was refused access to the Governor’s entourage on the verandah because, as he related in a letter to the Clarion, he was “not white.”

Such blatant discrimination did not go unnoticed or unanswered. The Governor himself was protected from personal assault by the majesty and mystique of his office but one of his subordinates was not so fortunate. Colonel W.J. Slack – a prominent white lawyer and Commander of the Belize Defence Force (whose name belied his authoritarian administration of that force) – was extremely unpopular and in June 1916 he was murdered by one Johnston whom he was prosecuting for debt. While the Establishment could only evince shock and revulsion at Slack’s demise, its mouthpiece,the Clarion, was at least cognizant of the changing mood and noted that “some said that this foul deed was a brave act.”

That racial antagonisms had become obvious and worthy of comment was further evidenced by the testimony of Reverend Cleghorn (a Methodist minister and a member of the Legislative Council) who in March 1916 at a recruiting meeting found it necessary to explain that the current universal conflict was “not for a moment a white man’s war.” Such a view which demanded unquestioned loyalty from all colours and classes of the populace for the duration of the war was not as appealing to Belize’s Creole work force in 1916 as it had been two years earlier. By 1916 there were many, particularly among the unemployed, who could see no benefit to them accruing from the ultimate victory of the Anglo Saxon powers. Such creeping disloyalty manifested itself again in the last year of the War when in August 1918 the Public Building caught fire and burned to the ground. The conflagration was obviously the work of an arsonist (although no miscreant was ever brought to book) and the Clarion agreed that the populace of the City had done little to save the government edifice. The general attitude had been let it burn, the fire brigade had been jeered and its hoses sabotaged and there had been some looting of deserted stores. Acting Governor Walter who witnessed these events believed there to be “a dangerous and ugly spirit abroad.”

While this decidedly unpatriotic spirit was partly a negative response to the institutionalized racism of the Establishment which had blossomed under Collet it was also, perhaps in greater part, a positive reaction brought about by the awakening of a black consciousness among the despised and exploited Creole work force of the City. Since 1914 pride in black achievement and potential, and resentment at widespread black humiliation had been reaching a sympathetic audience through the pages of the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s Negro World and its offshoot in the Colony, the Belize Independent. The uplifting doctrines of Garveyism which, as a matter of necessity, invoked some criticism of the European colonial empires and their racist assumptions, forced the Acting Governor to prohibit the import and sale of Garvey’s mouthpiece in Belize in January 1919. Walter’s excuse for this prohibition was the Negro World’s failure to print within its pages the names of the U.S. publisher and printer but his real reason was the journal’s”tendency to incite racial hatred.”

Particularly galling to the King’s representative was the February 1919 issue in which one article attacked colonialism declaring that the European colonies were, in reality, “the property of the blacks,” and they should revert to their rightful owners “even if all the world is to waste itself in blood.” Such sentiments also prompted Walter into requesting the British Embassy in Washington to seek a United States injunction against the Negro World’s dissemination and while this was refused he was able to curtail the circulation of “this inflammatory rubbish”in Belize. His suppression of the journal was however only partially successful as copies were smuggled in after January 1919 through Mexico and Guatemala but the ban did inconvenience those avid readers who had freely purchased the journal direct from the United States. After some 2000 copies had been confiscated by the Post Office, Walter was obliged to face a deputation of citizens arguing for a revocation of the ban on the grounds that the Negro World circulated freely in the rest of the British West Indies and that it enabled negro to keep in touch with negro.

The leader of that deputation was H. H. Cain, the leader of the “radical, coloured, anti-white faction” in the Colony and the editor of its second newspaper, the Belize Independent. The Independent, which first appeared in 1914, although not as inflammatory as the Negro World, sought to acquaint black Belizeans with the black experience elsewhere in a manner never attempted or contemplated by the older, pro-Establishment Clarion. Unlike its more respectable rival, the Independent ignored the fatuous social activities of the British ruling class or the tedious (and often trivial) cases in the Supreme Court and concentrated instead on reporting significant local news and the successes and failures of blacks throughout the world. Alongside accounts of the previous days’ proceedings in the Legislative Council (common to both newspapers) were reports of black achievement and humiliation in the U.S.A. and Europe and of the activities of the UNIA in Jamaica and North America. Cain himself may well already have been  a member of  one of the UNIA branches in the U.S, for the Negro World was obviously scrutinized weekly and its most interesting observations summarized in a column in the Independent written by Luke Kemp under the pseudonym of “The Garvey Eye.”

From the circulation figures given in the Blue Books it can be seen that from its inception in 1914 the Independent was as widely read as the Clarion and its message probably reached a wider audience – it was the newspaper of the poor and copies (or oral reports of its contents) were exchanged and borrowed in stores and rum shops. That message (complemented by one similar, but more explicitly stated in the Negro World) stressed the need for blacks to take pride in black history, culture and achievement, to stand up and be counted and to resist white arrogance and oppression. It was a message not unwelcome in 1919 to either the populace of the City, who had grown tired of their exploitation by the Belize white and off-white “forestocracy”, or to the returning soldiery of the 1st and 2nd Contingents who had three years suffered grievously at the hands of the racist military authorities. It was a message which in July 1919 produced a violent upheaval in Belize City which was more than a riot and may very well have been an attempted “coup d’etat.”

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Deshawn Swasey

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