In a few weeks, St. John’s College will begin its second year of African and Maya history courses. Our reports are that things are going well, with a great deal of enthusiasm coming from the students.
As a student in primary school, high school, and sixth form in British Honduras from 1952 to 1965, I had not been taught anything about Africa, the homeland of many of my ancestors, or about the Caste War in the Yucatán, the war which caused the ancestors of the populations in our Corozal and Orange Walk Districts to move south from the Yucatán in the second half of the nineteenth century.
When I was born here in 1947, the British still controlled our education system and decided what could be taught in the curricula of our schools. We were not taught any history in primary schools back then, but if and when we went to high school we were taught some British and European history, basically fifteenth and sixteenth century. If we went on to sixth form, we could learn some more British and European history, seventeenth and eighteenth century.
When the Rt. Hon. George C. Price took over the leadership of the anti-colonial People’s United Party (PUP) in 1956, Belize was a much different place from what it is today. The clear majority of the population, especially in Belize City, was of African descent, mostly what was/is called “Creole.” The public service, which was the largest employer in the colony, was dominated by Creoles, though a few British expatriates remained at the very top.
The Maya, Mestizo, and Carib (now Garifuna) sections of Belize’s population were hardly represented in that public service. But the Roman Catholic faith probably had already become the largest religion in British Honduras. The Mestizos were solidly Catholic, and most of the Caribs, who were the smaller of our two African groups, had become Roman Catholic during their previous time in the republic of Honduras, while a number of Creoles had been converting to Catholicism.
The evidence is that Mr. Price wanted to build a nation “on the Central American mainland in the heart of the Caribbean basin.” As a Roman Catholic himself and the son of a mother of Maya descent, Mr. Price was quite aware of the effective discrimination against the Maya, the Mestizo, and the Carib populations, and he wanted to do something about it, which he did.
The British and Mr. Price were in serious conflict in 1957 and 1958 (the British shipped Mr. Price home from London in disgrace and then tried him for sedition in the Supreme Court), but by late 1959 Mr. Price had begun to concede that Belize’s independence would take place within the British Commonwealth. Mr. Price’s moves to open up the public service to non-Creole Belizeans had caused his political opponents to accuse him of “Latinizing” Belize.
At some point in the early 1960s, Mr. Price began to speak publicly about our Maya past. It appears he was seeking some historical legitimacy for the new Belize, outside of the British pirate past which had been the narrative for centuries. It is doubtful, however, whether Mr. Price himself knew that much about the Maya past. Nelson Reed did not publish his classic study of the Caste War (The Caste War of Yucatán) until 1964, and the Maya hieroglyphics were not “broken” and deciphered until Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov did so around 1967. (See Michael D. Coe’s Breaking the Maya Code, published by Thames & Hudson in 1992.) If Mr. Price knew little about the Maya past, Belize’s majority black population knew absolutely nothing about it. What Mr. Price was talking about, was gibberish to us.
The fact of the matter is, nevertheless, that Belize’s working class black masses basically remained politically loyal to Mr. Price. The Maya and Mestizo of the North were overwhelmingly loyal to Mr. Price’s PUP until the early 1970s, when the Catholic Church suspected Mr. Price of encouraging a form of communism in the PUP.
When Mr. Price began to question the authenticity of the Battle of St. George’s Caye story in the late 1950s and then began to refer to the Maya past, it was easy for the black middle classes to feel threatened and to react by clinging more tightly to the Centenary story and traditions, which had earlier in the twentieth century inspired a body of exciting music, especially march music. Mr. Price was not able to wipe out the Tenth of September traditions, but he eliminated ethnic discrimination in the government service.
The thing is, Mr. Price did not significantly reduce ethnic prejudice in Belize, because he did not introduce the study of African and Maya history in the school curricula in Belize. There was a reason why the British did not teach African and Maya history. They wanted the two main sectors of the native population to remain divided by ignorance. They did not want the African, the Maya, and the Mestizo to see the commonalities in our history. And they wanted us, the masses of the Belizean people, to believe that slavery and colonialism had been necessary, civilizing experiences for us, as pagans and savages. It was not intended that we should learn of the fabulous African and Maya civilizations of our ancestors, superior to anything the Europeans had developed before slavery and the Conquest.
Mr. Price erred when he did not move for African and Maya history. This was a demand the upstart UBAD began to make in 1969 and 1970. Mr. Price, as we pointed out earlier, got into political trouble with the Church because of embracing Assad Shoman and Said Musa in the early 1970s. Perhaps this was enough controversy for him to deal with at the time. The Church, he knew, certainly was not supporting African and Maya history back then. Things have changed somewhat.
Power to the people.