Features — 12 August 2008 — by Regina Neal
(Ed. NOTE: The following essay won first prize in the Kremandala 25th. anniversary essay contest. It was the unanimous choice of the three judges. The essay was first published in Amandala no. 1305, on Friday, September 16, 1994.)
In Maryse Conde’s novel, Tree of Life, Albert has gone from Guadeloupe to work in Panama, there joining thousands of black people from all over the Caribbean, including British Honduras.
It was then that a Jamaican named Marcus Garvey came to visit his unhappy countrymen, who were using up their lives digging the Canal. The man had left his own country at an early age and wandered around Latin America. He had already caused trouble for himself in Costa Rica, where he violently denounced the state in which his brothers were kept on the plantations. It was said that his words flowed like a torrent of lava rushing down the sides of a volcano. It was rumored that after his lengthy speeches those who bowed their head under the sad weight of their lives, raised them up and suddenly felt courageous for the adventure of a revolt.
Joining a crowd of workers, Albert traveled to Bahia Soldado to hear him.
Black and with the short legs of a fighting bull, Marcus Garvey jumped up on a platform and began to speak. And his words transfigured the present as they built a future.
“One day, one day, the black race will astonish the world … I shall teach the Black Man to see beauty in himself.”
Garvey and the UNIA
Marcus Garvey had the sort of immediate impact on millions of black people across several continents that no other black man before or since has had. No doubt this had to do with the simplicity of his message: black people were as good as anyone else; they were now downtrodden but one day they would be great again, as they were before in Africa.
As C.L.R James has pointed out, “Garvey never set foot in Africa. He spoke no African language. His conceptions of Africa seemed to be a West Indian island and West Indian people multiplied a thousand times over. But Garvey managed to convey to Negroes everywhere (and to the rest of the world) his passionate belief that Africa was the home of a civilization which had once been great and would be great again. When you bear in mind the slenderness of his resources, the vast material forces and the pervading social conceptions which automatically tried to destroy him, his achievement remains one of the propagandistic miracles of this century.” In less than a decade of effective organization, he made the cause of African peoples in and out of Africa part of the political consciousness of the world.
Garvey was the son of a Methodist deacon who imbued in him the concepts of self-pride and the importance of financial independence. His message to black people vitally included these ideas, and the organizations he established reflected them. The Negro Factories Corporation was meant to promote black businesses, while the Black Star Line, with its three ships, was designed to take black people to Africa to establish a black homeland in Liberia.
Garvey established the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica in 1914, but not until he moved the headquarters to New York in 1917 did it begin to have an international resonance. In 1919, in addition to the companies mentioned above, Garvey established the Black Cross Nurses and the African Orthodox Church, a black church with a black God. He encouraged those black persons who wanted to do so to emigrate to Africa, believing that only in their own state could black people develop freely their creative talents and enjoy the fruits of their labour. His newspaper The Negro World carried his message all over the world; by 1919 it was being read by a number of black persons in British Honduras.
British Honduras in Garvey’s time
British Honduras at that time was a stagnant colony dominated by the extraction of mahogany for export, and the mahogany workers still lived under conditions akin to those they had suffered under slavery. The advance and truck systems, and the harsh penal labour laws, ensured that they remained tied for life to their employers. Their wages were so low and so manipulated that by the end of the season they more often than not ended up owing their employers and were forced to return to work for them. Housing conditions in Belize Town, where most of the black mahogany workers lived, were abominable; the majority lived in abject poverty.
Belize Town also contained a small but important number of educated black and “coloured” people, however. They were the physical or cultural descendants of the “free coloured” during slavery, some of whom were even slave-owners and also quite rich. In 1919 this group of people included teachers, businessmen, landlords and, significantly, civil servants. They regarded themselves as loyal British subjects and as such defenders of the Empire and of its monarch. Just a few years before, on the occasion of the centenary of the Battle of St. George’s Caye, they had reinforced the idea that masters and slaves had fought shoulder-to-shoulder against the Spaniards and that in the same way employers and workers should not consider themselves as enemies but rather as partners in the enterprise of production.
This “Creole” educated class believed that it was only by emulating the British and declaring loyalty to the Empire that they could advance socially and economically; no doubt to a certain extent they were right. This did not stop some of them, however, from feeling the effects of the racism that pervaded the society, nor of occasionally protesting against it. The message of Garvey, that black people were as good as white, was profoundly attractive to them, and they became avid readers of The Negro World.
The colonial administration, however, did not look favorably on that publication, considering it as a seditious instrument which could “incite racial hatred”, and the Acting Governor banned it in January 1919. But the Garveyite paper was not the only publication then carrying ideas designed to uplift black people. The Belize Independent, a newspaper started in 1914, often carried news items and articles covering the activities of black people in the USA, England and the Caribbean, and in particular covered the activities and ideas of Garvey and the UNIA; it had a column called The Garvey Eye written by L.D. Kemp. The editor of the Independent, Hubert Hill Cain, led a delegation to the Acting Governor to protest the ban, but he was rebuffed.
In July 1919 a number of ex-servicemen from Belize who had served in the “First World War” under the British returned to Belize totally disgusted with the racist treatment they had suffered abroad at the hands of the British Forces. When they were treated shabbily on their return and their pay was delayed, some of them started a riot in Belize Town, and they were soon joined by over 3,000 Belize Town residents, including many women. The looting was stopped by other members of the returned troops led by Samuel Haynes, but the whites did not feel safe until a British warship arrived the following day, followed by a US gunboat a few days later.
In the Commission appointed to investigate the causes of the riot, several witnesses testified that there was a large element of “race” resentment involved, and the Commissioners concluded that the banning of The Negro World was one of the grievances leading to the riots. There is no doubt that the heightened racial consciousness inspired by Garveyism had contributed to the black people feeling self-confident enough to challenge the power of the colonial administration and of the business elite.
One effect of the riots was to increase awareness of and support for Garveyism, and in March 1920 a local branch of the UNIA was formed with William Campbell as President and Samuel Haynes as General Secretary. Governor Hutson was aware of correspondence between Garvey and his local followers, and he also believed that the ban on The Negro World was doing more harm than good; while it created resentment, it still found its way into the colony by contraband from Mexico and Guatemala. He reported a “strong race feeling after the riot”, and felt it best to lift the ban on Garvey’s publications and see what the local UNIA would do.
Haynes in fact invited the Governor to a meeting of the UNIA in April 1920, and later sent him a copy of the Constitution, which the Governor considered “a very cleverly composed document, a dangerous one … probably aimed in the main against the United States Government in fomenting racial trouble in that country; and indirectly against British possessions in the West Indies.” He felt, however, that Garvey’s ideas would not find great acceptance among the colony’s blacks, who objected to being called “Negroes”, and concluded that if government did not interfere, the UNIA would die a natural death.
Garvey’s visit in 1921
In April 1920, just a month after the local UNIA was formed, Garvey reported to a meeting in New York that he had received a cable from Campbell reporting a membership of 8000. No doubt this was a greatly inflated figure, for as Garvey himself stated, “If we can have eight thousand in the UNIA, you might say that we own Belize.” In any case, Garvey visited Belize for the third time (the first was in 1910, before he was well known, and there is no available record of this visit or of a subsequent one shortly after) in July 1921, along with his International Organizer, Henrietta Vinton Davis, and others.
Unfortunately there are no available copies of The Belize Independent of that period, but The Clarion of July 7, 1921 carried a lengthy report of a meeting held by Garvey at St. Mary’s Hall by “E.A.L.” probably (Edward Laing), who noted that “the attendance was not large”, but that those present were moved by Garvey’s oratorical powers. Those on the platform included H.H. Cain, C.M. Staine, B. Adderly, Mr. and Mrs. I.E. Morter, D. Belizario, Miss Eva Cain, Mrs. Joe and Miss V. Seay. Several of these were to play a prominent role in the colony’s future. The audience included the Colonial Secretary and his assistant and their wives, as well as the Superintendent of Police.
“We are living in a world that is reorganizing itself”, said Garvey, “and we must reorganize too. Two millions of us coloured men from the United States of America, from Africa and from the British islands went into the war. We were told to fight for the weaker people, for the democracy of the world. We fought nobly in France, Flanders, Mesopotamia and other parts. But when the war was over only the Negroes did not get freedom. But now we are determined. Let there be freedom for the white man, the yellow man and let there be freedom for us black men too. There should be a free and unfettered Africa.”
Garvey then spoke about the aims and activities of the UNIA and said he was appealing to “the New Negro, the Negro of backbone who will stand for his right, and if he needs be, even die for the cause.” He referred again to the courage and fighting skill displayed by black people in the war, but lamented that “after the war all that was given to the Negro was a kick and a smile, and no freedom … I believe that we have arrived at a stage of civilization when we can take care of ourselves. We have developed a new stage of enlightenment; we have a right at this stage of civilization to re-educate the Negroes.”
“In four years”, continued Garvey, “we organized four millions into one organization and we are all pulling together as one man.” He stated that the UNIA did not wish to change the government of British Honduras or of any other country, but stressed that “the Negroes want to build a government of their own.” He then went on to describe the plans to transport black people to Africa and of the activities of the Black Star Line. He asked for the people’s support in this venture, and concluded by repeating that he did not wish people to leave the meeting with the wrong impression: he was not preaching sedition nor disloyalty. He then asked the audience to stand and sing “God save the King”, “the hearty singing of which brought a most interesting meeting, long to be remembered, to a close”, as The Clarion reporter noted.
Other public meetings were held at the Theatre and at the UNIA Hall. One meeting attracted some 800 persons, and the Superintendent of Police reported that Garvey “knew how to get his hearers and was cheered heartily time and time again.” At a meeting with the Governor, Garvey insisted that he was a loyal British subject, and disclaimed a reported remark of his in The Negro World praying for the downfall of England. Speaking of the UNIA, he told the Governor that “in certain parts it stands for the liberty of the people. But where they are already free, such as in this colony, we are doing our best to strengthen the moral life of the people.”
Already free? And in a colony? We will return later to the contradictions and limitations of Garveyism.
The UNIA in British Honduras
While Garvey’s visit helped to gain support for the UNIA, his decision to take Samuel Haynes with him undoubtedly weakened the organization. The Clarion of July 14, 1921, reports two farewell events held for Haynes. One was at the club room of the Wesley Old Boy’s Brigade Association. A purse was collected and presented to Haynes. The other meeting was at the UNIA Hall on Barrack Road. Haynes was likewise presented with monies collected there, and in his reply he said:
“If there was ever a time in my life when I was made to realize that I was a citizen of British Honduras, it is today.”
“On the 14th July, 1916, I sailed from these shores to an unknown destination – as a soldier of His Majesty the King. On the 12th July, 1921, I am sailing from these shores as a soldier of the Hon. Marcus Garvey … I have enlisted myself under this banner because I feel that the time has come when I should do something for humanity.”
Haynes, in fact, went on to become an important officer of the UNIA in the USA, and a frequent contributor to The Negro World. In Belize, however, it appears that no-one of his stature remained to carry the UNIA forward. Mr. Isaiah Morter, the self-made millionaire described by Garvey as the Coconut King of Central America, who had hosted Garvey in Belize and financially supported the UNIA, became seriously ill soon after, and in fact the legacy he left for the UNIA served only to create a bitter feud in the organization for several years.
It is unfortunate that the source that might have enlightened us about the UNIA activities in the crucial months and years after Garvey’s visit, The Belize Independent, is no longer available. It is clear, however, that the UNIA in Belize did not live up to Garvey’s expectations of it; it became just another friendly society and, as we shall see, its officers became apologists for the Empire. Beginning in 1925, the UNIA gave annual “loyalty” addresses to the Governor during the Battle of St. George’s Caye celebrations.
The Black Cross Nurses
One unit of the UNIA which did have a lasting and important presence, especially in Belize Town, was the Black Cross Nurses (BCN). This organization, formed by Garvey in the USA to administer to the health needs of poor black people, was established in British Honduras in 1920 by Miss Vivian Seay, who had shared the platform with Garvey during his visit here. She remained its head until her death in 1971.
The Black Cross Nurses did valuable work tending to the sick and poor in Belize Town; they were also instrumental in bringing to public attention the poor sanitary conditions in which the majorities there lived. The members became trained as nurses and did volunteer work in the hospital and in the community; they helped to significantly reduce infant mortality. Their uniforms reflected the UNIA colours and their ubiquitous presence in the Town identified them as the most important social workers. In 1938 they presented a “Compendium of Living Conditions and Dietary Statistics of the Labouring Classes in the Town of Belize” to the Moyne Commission, which had been sent by the British Government to the West Indies to investigate the causes of the riots that had swept the region, beginning with the one in British Honduras in 1934.
But the Black Cross Nurses were far from being radicals calling for black empowerment; in fact they were quite early on co-opted by the colonial establishment, since their social work was useful in stemming discontent by tending to individual cases of illness and malnutrition. Indeed, Eleanor Hermann states that “they were models for young girls to emulate and represented a state of womanly achievement toward which to strive.” This model, however, which in effect emphasized the “respectable” behaviour for women and which confined women to the acceptable “woman’s work” of social welfare, was in fact quite convenient for the colonial establishment. It was not, of course, the model followed by those women who took a very active part in the 1894 and 1919 riots and who were militants in the Labourer’s and Unemployed Association (LUA)
The respective positions taken by Nurse Vivian Seay of the BCN and by the Women’s League of the LUA on the question of constitutional change bear out this distinction. While Seay urged that the voting age for women in the proposed constitution be made the same as for men, she said nothing about the property qualifications that would disenfranchise the vast majority of working people. The Women’s League, however, emphasized that “there are only about 2 percent of the females of British Honduras who earn $25.00 per month. By which means the balance of 98 percent will have no vote, and also the age limit is too high; women should have equal rights as men.”
The LUA was, of course, the organization formed by Antonio Soberanis in 1934. Its significance as the forerunner of the workers’ movement cannot be explored here, but it is important to note its links with the Garveyite movement. There is no evidence that Soberanis himself was a member of the UNIA, although one of his closest allies, L. D. Kemp had been the writer of The Garvey Eye. Garvey’s influence, however, was especially clear in the memorial of April 1934 presented by Soberanis to the Governor. He stated that:
“We want to be friends with the White Men, because neither the black, yellow, brown or white race can achieve anything in the world lastingly, except through peaceful methods… Your Excellency knows that no race has the last word on culture and on civilization. Your Excellency do not know what the people of British Honduras are capable of doing … Does Your Excellency know that the greatest scientist in the world today is a black man … We are a peace loving people, we love humanity, we love your race, not for social fellowship, but in Common Brotherhood, that God intended we should live.”
But while Soberanis was able to move beyond the question of racial pride and activate a movement based on class, and later to support the anti-colonial movement, the UNIA in Belize became a supporter of colonialism. Its leading lights were also officers of the Loyal and Patriotic Order of the Baymen. Its major female protagonist, Miss Seay, was awarded the title of Member of the British Empire in 1935 and acted as a collaborator of the colonial administration against the nationalist movement in the 1950s. Why?
The limitations of Garveyism
There is no doubt that the troubles which beset the UNIA after Garvey was sent to jail in the USA on trumped-up charges in 1925, and the litigation surrounding the legacy of the Morter estate, helped to deviate the development of the UNIA’s revolutionary potential. Garvey was released from prison in 1927 and deported to Jamaica in January 1928. By that time the fight over the Morter legacy was in full swing, and Garvey came back to Belize to pursue the case in 1929. The year before, the local branch had been torn asunder by mutual accusations of misappropriation of funds by the President and the Secretary. This trip by Garvey was very low-key compared to his triumphant 1921 visit. It was reported that the local UNIA was “not a very active body and cannot hear of any great preparations for Garvey’s reception.” The same observer, (admittedly not a very impartial one, since he was the local representative of the United Fruit Company, which was very anti-Garvey), stated that Garvey’s reception was “very half-hearted,” and that at a UNIA meeting he was “very careful … to avoid any expression to which exception could be taken.”
As it turned out, Garvey himself lost out in the Morter legacy case. Although the courts had found for the UNIA and not for Morter’s relatives, the legacy was granted in 1939 to the breakaway UNIA Inc. of New York, which had been established after Garvey was deported from the USA. Lionel Francis, a Trinidadian, was then the leader of this faction, and in 1941 he came to Belize to take up what was left of the legacy. He became active in local politics and headed the local chapter of the UNIA. In the 1950s he was a leader of the National Party, which was promoted by the colonial administration as an alternative to the nationalist party; he died in Hurricane Hattie.
And what had become of Garvey himself? He continued his UNIA activities in Jamaica and stood for, but lost, the Legislative Council elections. He tried to introduce the idea of party politics, and later became a member of the Kingston Corporation Council, where he tried in vain to get the Council to improve services for the people. He later left for London, where he died in 1940.
When he was in the USA, Garvey had been against black people joining trade unions, because he feared this would cause them to lose their jobs. In Jamaica, however, he campaigned for workers to be paid a fair wage, and promoted the idea of trade unionism.
In assessing the contribution of Garvey to the cause of black people, we must recognize his limitations, both those imposed on him by the enemies of the movement and by disunity within the movement, and those emanating from his own ideas. Garvey, like everyone else, was a person of his time. He built on the work of people like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois in the USA, as C.L.R. James notes.
Before Garvey, the great millions of Africans and people of African descent simply did not exist in the political consciousness of the world in general, of the general public, and of politicians in particular. After less than a decade, this Jamaican had placed them there. He had placed them there in a manner that they could never be removed again. Garvey had placed them not only in the consciousness of the oppressors, but as a constituent part of the minds and aims of the great mass of Africans and people of African descent.
That Garvey did not move much beyond the assertion of black pride during his tenure in New York is not surprising. That was the basic message needed at a time when black people were ashamed of being connected with Africa and when they were subjected to all manner of “scientific” and other theories trying to show that they were inferior. That he failed to condemn British colonialism in Belize, and even pretended to the Governor that black people here were “free,” can be explained by his basic instinct for survival as well as by his realization that the local UNIA leaders were not anti-colonialists. He was, in his time, a supporter of capitalism, believing only that blacks should also become capitalists, hence his admiration for, and support of, Isaiah Morter.
All this, however, is merely to restate that he was a man of his time. He could not take the cause further than he did. That was left to others, like George Padmore, the “Father of African Emancipation,” Frantz Fanon, and, in the USA, Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael. When Bob Marley sang “Get up, stand up for your rights”, he was continuing the message of Garvey. And when Stokely Carmichael spoke of BLACK POWER, he was continuing the message of Garvey. But also, of necessity, taking it further. Thus, building on Garvey but also on those who came after him, Stokely could declare to the OLAS Conference in Havana in 1967:
“We speak with you, comrades, because we wish to make clear that we understand that our destinies are intertwined. Our world can only be the Third World, our only struggle for the Third World, our only vision, the Third World.
“But we do not seek to create communities where, in place of white rulers, black rulers control the lives of black masses and where black money goes into a few black pockets; we want to see it go into the communal pocket. The society we seek to build among black people is not an oppressive capitalist society – for capitalism by its very nature cannot create structures free from exploitation. We are fighting for the redistribution of wealth and for the end of private property inside the United States”.
Garvey’s legacy in Belize
To look for Garvey’s legacy in Belize within the ranks of the UNIA is to look in vain – the UNIA was jacked by Francis and his ilk. The revolutionary potential of Garveyism was glimpsed at by the actions of Soberanis, but it came to fruition with the birth of the United Black Association for Development (UBAD) in 1969. Its leader, Evan X Hyde, declared in The Crowd Called UBAD that “I was into a Malcolm X – Stokely Carmichael Third World black power bag.”
In the same publication he tells us that, before forming UBAD, he had met with the Acting General Secretary of the UNIA in Belize and had, “planned a strategy of infiltrating the UNIA as members. Then we would try to become officers of the organization and radicalize it into a black power unit.” That strategy, however, could not work, for, as we have seen, the UNIA was a tamed, pro-colonialist organization. Although Evan X Hyde managed to get Liberty Hall as a venue for meetings, the officers of the UNIA later “said nothing like Black Power at Liberty Hall.” Nonetheless, Evan X reports that the UBAD constitution was “patterned basically on the UNIA constitution.”
As we have seen the basic weakness of the UNIA in Belize had to do with the fact that its leaders were basically middle class educated blacks who subscribed to the “shoulder-to-shoulder” myth of the Battle of St. George’s Caye, and who were effectively sold on the idea of the superiority of British colonial values. It is no surprise, therefore, that Evan X Hyde’s first major political tract, Knocking Our Own Ting, locked horns with the “Creole bourgeoisie class” on this very issue:
“The myth was created that white master and black slave fought hand in hand against a dastardly aggressive tyrant – the Spaniard. For the black masses, the 10th is another excuse to get high. For the sycophantic Creole bourgeoisie class, the 10th represented a legitimization of their supremacy in the civil service administrative circles of government … For the English, the 10th has been an opportunity to divide the native society by allying themselves with the Creole bourgeoisie class against the ‘niggers’ and the ‘Pania’ and the ‘Kerobi’.”
But myths die hard, especially when they serve the interests of a ruling class, and the Battle Myth, with its undercurrent of ethnic division and its effect of demobilizing the working class, continues to be predominant in Belize today. In 1988, when some people in Belize celebrated the 150th anniversary of legal emancipation from slavery, Stokely Carmichael, now living in Africa and called Kwame Toure, visited Belize. His visit, significant as it was, went virtually unnoticed by most Belizeans, and was largely ignored by the media. Stokely is one of the very few Black Power leaders of the 1960s who has not only remained faithful to the cause of people’s liberation, but has radicalized his thinking and developed a critique of capitalism and imperialism which is more relevant today than it was in the 1960s. But Belizeans remained deaf to this message.
We cannot afford to turn a deaf ear to the message of people like Stokely and Evan X. Stokely spoke of the need to create an alliance between oppressed black people and indigenous people, women, and all those who are discriminated against by this society. That is the same message that has been preached over the years, with some inconsistencies but with a basic undeniable constancy, in the pages of the AMANDALA. Today with the social and economic crisis of unprecedented proportions which we suffer in Belize, it is more urgent than ever that the teachings of Marcus Garvey and his spiritual successors be made known to young Belizeans.. the alternative is too frightening to contemplate.
I know what I am talking about. As a young “Creole” woman growing up in Dangriga I was totally taken in by the Battle Myth and all the justifications of imperial culture. But when I began to study the history of the UNIA in Belize, I realized that its members became upholders of the colonialists. This is demonstrated clearly and most sickeningly when, beginning in 1925 and annually after that, the UNIA gave a “loyalty address” at the Battle of St. George’s Caye celebrations. What is this if it is not a case of them betraying the objectives of the UNIA? For the Baymen and the Slaves were not living harmoniously, nor did they fight hand in hand to defend their “homeland”. Because the slaves/blacks and the Baymen were not united at all (it’s not logical anyway), for a people cannot be equal and united when one race feels superior to the other and is mistreating and suppressing the other.
The UNIA members in Belize pretended to be radicals fighting for Black advancement, but they wanted to remain loyal British subjects. Of course this couldn’t work, and history clearly shows that it didn’t work.
What will work? I don’t know, but what I can say is this: Marcus Garvey taught us to believe in ourselves, to fight for justice, to work hard and achieve financial independence. Garvey was accused by white racists of trying to create racial hatred, but what made him a threat to them was the fact that he was an educated black man who was teaching his fellow blacks to empower themselves so that they would not remain ignorant and accept the oppression of the imperialists. The “Negroes” now had a teacher who was showing them that they were somebody, and could achieve whatever they wanted, especially if they were united. Hence the importance of the UNIA motto – “One Aim, One God, One Destiny.” Unless black people come together, unite and support each other, we will achieve nothing.
Times have changed since his time, and the way we choose to fight for our rights today must be different. But the core message of self-respect and self-awareness remains as true and as vital today as it was in 1921 when Marcus Garvey spoke here. It is the duty of our generation to take Marcus Garvey’s message and reinterpret it to take us further along the road to freedom, justice and equality.
Peter Ashdown, Garveyism in Belize
Maryse Conde, Tree of Life
Anna Grimshaw (ed.), The C.L.R. James Reader
F.R. Augier et al, The Making of the West Indies
Evan X Hyde, The Crowd Called UBAD
Evan X Hyde, Knocking Our Own Ting
The Clarion, July 7, 1921 and July 14, 1921
Eleanor Hermann, Origins of Tomorrow