In July 1919, 339 members of the contingent returned to the colony, and on 22 July Sergeant Hubert Vernon led a section of the contingent through the streets of Belize Town, breaking the plate glass windows of the major merchant houses and assaulting selected officials and employers. They were soon joined by 3,000 Belize Town residents, who rioted and looted through the night and into the next morning. Governor Hudson feared “that all was up,” especially when he became convinced that the police and the volunteers of the territorial force had sided with the rioters.
Newspaper reports on the evidence given to the commission appointed to investigate the riot show that the civilians were more incensed and active than the servicemen. The Governor testified that “the crowd incited the men (contingent members) to further violence …” The loyal police and Territorials, who were called in to put down the riot, “incurred the abuse and threats of some of their number and also of the town’s people … After the riot I was informed that there were grievances against the merchants in Belize for alleged profiteering.”
And Police Sgt. Major Blades reported that the crowd “was composed of men, women, and boys and a few Contingent men.” Another witness testified that the crowd of about 300-400 outside Brodies, a major store, “seemed to be against the merchants, and against late European arrivals. I heard the remark several times ‘white son of a ____.’ Most of the time it was coming from boys and women.”
– pg. 180, 13 CHAPTERS OF A HISTORY OF BELIZE, by Assad Shoman, Angelus Press Limited, 1994
July 21/22, 2017 will mark the 98th anniversary of the Ex-Servicemen’s Riot of 1919 in Belize Town, as Belize City was known back then. Over all the years since we discovered the late British historian Peter Ashdown’s chronicle of the two days and nights in the summer of 1919 when black soldiers, just returned from the Mesopotamia World War I theater, absolutely took over the capital of British Honduras, no other media house in Belize ever discusses the uprising. (I believe Ashdown’s account of the incidents was published in an academic journal here in the early 1980s.)
I understand why the education system during colonial times tried to obliterate the July 1919 events from the historical memory of native people. The British colonial authorities were embarrassed and humiliated by the Ex-Servicemen’s Riot.
In January of 1964, Belize achieved self-government, and the ruling People’s United Party (PUP) moved swiftly to change the summer school holidays from April and May to July and August. The change was implemented in the summer of 1964, so as to have Belize’s school holidays become simultaneous with the summer holidays in the school system of the United States.
In September of 1981, Belize gained political independence, which theoretically meant that we native Belizeans began to control our education system, if self-government had not already given us that right when we thought it did, and we could decide what our schoolchildren should be taught with respect to the history of Belize. The revolutionary Assad Shoman, who played prominent roles during the 1970s and early 1980s in PUP governments of Premier/Prime Minister, Right Hon. George Price, and then led the free thinking Society for the Promotion of Education and Research (SPEAR) after he left the PUP in late 1984, published a Belizean history in the early 1990s which was accepted as a high school textbook in the Roman Catholic school system. Shoman dealt with the July 1919 revolt in his history book.
But, half of our children never attend high school, and half of those who do, do not attend Catholic high schools. Hence, there is a responsibility incumbent upon the Belizean media to look at this major event from time to time, especially on the occasions of its annual anniversary.
A noteworthy aspect of the Ex-Servicemen’s Riot is that it took place just 21 years after the first major celebration of the Battle of St. George’s Caye – the 1898 “Centenary.” The Ex-Servicemen’s Riot gave the lie to the narrative spun by the organizers and promoters of Centenary who were focused on the idealized “shoulder to shoulder” mythology of 1798 and thereafter.
They say that if you don’t know your history, you are condemned to repeat it. To a certain extent, the UBAD uprising the night of May 29, 1972, was a repetition of July 1919. None of the UBAD insurgents knew anything about July 1919. On May 29, 1972, UBAD was responding viscerally and spontaneously to a set of circumstances which appeared to be oppressive and intimidating.
Today, thirty six years after political independence and two years away from the centennial of the Ex-Servicemen’s Riot, Belize has powerful political leaders in the United Democratic Party (UDP) government who resemble the Ex-Servicemen of July 1919 where skin color is concerned. So, why is it that the present leaders, in power for nine years and counting, have never organized even the most token of public events to consider the 1919 uprising and place it in a proper historical context? It seems to me that there is some terrible force which would become unhappy with the UDP Cabinet if they ever contemplated such a discussion. And, it surely must be that the brilliant politicians of the ruling UDP have never seen any kind of political mileage to be gained from such an exercise in information and education. Why is this so?
There are stories told, you know, of several Belizeans of color who became somewhat militant while attending university in the Caribbean during the 1970s decade of black consciousness. On their return to Belize to live and work, however, these luminaries became Belizean “don’t-rock-the-boaters.” They are all now highly placed in the local galaxy of wealth, power, respectability, and religious conformity. And, life goes on …
Needless to say and as you should expect, yours truly is tired of singing the same song for so long. This is not a matter of fomenting third millennium anger and insurrection. It is now merely a matter of academic truth and historical honesty. The most sensational event of the twentieth century in Belize, apart from perhaps the 1931 and 1961 hurricanes, was the Ex-Servicemen’s Riot. Why do the other media houses pretend it never happened?
Another huge social uproar took place in Belize just fifteen years after the Ex-Servicemen’s Riot. A half-Mexican by the name of Antonio Soberanis led furious demonstrations of unemployed Belizean workers in 1934. Within a couple years, similar uprisings would take place in various British Caribbean possessions (islands), and Caribbean historians still don’t know that the very first of such labor rebellions in the British Caribbean in the 1930s took place in Belize.
I have pointedly mentioned that Soberanis was half-Mexican because I have felt that his part-Mexican background may explain some of his courageous militancy during those dark colonial days. The Mexican republic had entered a bloody revolution in 1910. In fact, at the time of the Ex-Servicemen’s Riot in Belize, Mexico was still in the throes of wild violence. Emiliano Zapata had already been killed, and Pancho Villa had been defeated by Alvaro Obregon, but the Russian Revolution of 1917 had increased revolutionary ardor at the workers’ base in Mexico. Some of that “vibe” may have reached Belize in 1919.
What is for sure is that the black pride teachings of Marcus Garvey had influenced the Ex-Servicemen, and we are always told of how Garvey himself came to Belize in 1921 and took Samuel Haynes away to work for him in the New York headquarters of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Haynes remains the only personality whose name is discussed in connection with the 1919 insurrection, but my reading of Ashdown and other scholars suggests that Haynes was the one who made the peace between the rebels and the colonial authorities. There were other soldiers who actually led the rebellion, and some of them ended up in Her Majesty’s Prison.
After he left British Honduras by sailing ship, Haynes had an impressive career in the UNIA and in the labor movement in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He never returned to Belize, however, and it seems he may have had a problem with airplanes. It is a pity, because Samuel Haynes took a lot of critically important information about 1919 to the grave with him in 1971.