A recurring theme in the plays of William Shakespeare is the matter of constituted, legitimate authority, and the societal implications and impacts of attempts to question, challenge, subvert, defy, or even overthrow that constituted and legitimate authority.
Shakespeare, the greatest playwright ever in the English language, wrote during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) in England. This was a time of much turmoil in England, because English Catholics, encouraged by the Pope and supported by the King of Spain, were challenging the authority of Elizabeth, who was the head of the English Church because her father, Henry VIII, had made such a constitutional change in 1534, declaring that the king (or queen) of England would henceforth be the head of the Church of England. For all the previous centuries, England had been a Roman Catholic country wherein the Pope of Rome ruled in religious matters.
In 1170, a Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury by the name of Thomas a Becket had been murdered by followers of King Henry II because a Becket was challenging Henry II where the rules and privileges of the Church were concerned. Then, a mere half century before Shakespeare’s creative heyday, King Henry VIII in 1535 had tried and beheaded Sir Thomas More, who had been the Lord High Chancellor of England from 1529 to 1532, for refusing to recognize Henry as head of the English Church. At his execution, More is reported to have said, “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.”
England had developed a monarchy as its form of legitimate authority roughly around the time when the first millennium (A. D.) ended, I would say. The legitimate authority invested in the king would have derived from the king’s prowess and command on the battlefield. England as a nation-state grew out of the coalescing of various barbarian tribes, and authority amongst barbarian peoples is a function of muscle: the “baddest man,” the greatest warrior, rules.
The first-born son of the king would be considered as having the right to succeed the king when the son became of age. In cases where the king died before his first son reached maturity, a group of so-called regents would normally run the kingdom until the new king came of age. This tradition of royal succession within a single, specific family experienced ups and downs, to put it mildly. Perhaps the most outrageous of such “downs” occurred in 1483 when Edward IV died. His brother, Richard III, imprisoned and is believed to have murdered his two royal nephews in order to seize power for himself. On Edward IV’s death, Richard had been named Lord Protector of the realm for Edward V, Edward IV’s twelve-year-old son and successor.
Another sensational case was that of Mary Queen of Scots, the Queen of Scotland. She was the “first cousin once removed” of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Mary was Catholic, while Elizabeth was Protestant. In the second half of the sixteenth century, English Catholics and English Protestants were at war. Mary had claimed Elizabeth’s throne and was considered the legitimate sovereign of England by many English Catholics, including participants in a rebellion known as the Rising of the North. When Mary had to run from Scotland and sought a haven in England, Elizabeth put her under a form of house arrest and, though reluctantly to be sure, ordered her beheading in 1587. It was that kind of time.
The most dramatic challenge to the legitimacy of royal authority occurred in 1649 when Oliver Cromwell, a parliamentarian and military leader, had Charles I beheaded.
Shakespeare’s plays spend a lot of time considering the turmoil which sometimes surrounds legitimate monarchical authority, an authority which had a kind of almost religious aura for the common people. There were European kings who actually began to declare a postulate called “divine right”: they were saying that the king’s authority came from God himself, and was therefore sacred and inviolate.
There was no doubt, however, that kings were human beings, even if their authority was divine. And so, when kings behaved in abusive and outrageous ways, their behavior created crises such as those which claimed the lives of Archbishop a Becket and Sir Thomas More.
With that said, let’s jump to 1919 in Belize Town in the colony of British Honduras. Supposedly legitimate authority would have been considered as residing in the person of the British Governor, appointed by the King of England.
The problem with colonial authority, which presumes the right of one group of human beings to subjugate and rule another group of human beings, is the question, ultimately, of colonial authority’s legitimacy. For sure, military and naval power, such as that possessed by the British Empire in 1919, gave the Governor authority. But, was it legitimate authority? The case of British Honduras was unique because it was the entrenched settler and merchant class in the settlement of Belize which had actually sought British colonial status in 1862. Where our third millennium consciousness of human rights would be a fly in the 1862 ointment, nevertheless, is where the rights of the black majority of the people in the settlement in 1862 were concerned.
On the night of July 22, 1919, the aforementioned black majority in Belize Town overthrew constitutionally legitimate authority and established a rule of their own for two days. The insurrectionists have left no written document to justify their overthrow of the colonial government. After two days, they negotiated a truce with the colonial government which involved the insurgents’ voluntarily relinquishing their power and submitting themselves once more to the white supremacy of the colonial government. Subsequent generations of Belizeans in elected authority have arguably behaved as if the insurrection of July 1919 is something for which Belizeans should be apologetic.
Phenomena like the July 1919 uprising need to be discussed and placed in historical context by our scholars and thinkers. In February of 1970, the People’s United Party (PUP) government represented legitimate authority. The PUP had been elected in a free and fair general election in December of 1969. The rhetoric of the cultural UBAD movement was perhaps explosive, and the newly elected PUP administration, representing a political party which had been in Cabinet power since 1961, apparently considered that rhetoric to be incendiary. The PUP charged the publishers of the UBAD newspaper with sedition, which is a political crime. Indirectly and eventually, that arrest led to a July 1919-type insurrection, on a smaller scale, in May of 1972 in the streets of Belize City. UBAD rebelled against a government with legitimate authority. It is for history to decide whether UBAD’s grievances justified their rebellion.
In July of 2017, the United Democratic Party (UDP) government of Prime Minister, Rt. Hon. Dean O. Barrow, constitutes legitimate authority in Belize. There is an ongoing question as to whether the present government, as is the case with all of Belize’s governments since political independence in 1981, does not, at its Governor General core, constitute a disguised form of British monarchy.
As the Belize constitution is written, the implicit understanding we are given is that there is no sin or crime an elected government can commit which would legally justify that government’s overthrow by non-electoral means. So that, as things stand, it is the Cabinet, and the Governor General, who have the power. Their authority is constitutionally legitimate. After general election day every five years, the people of Belize completely give up their power for five long years. This is referred to as parliamentary democracy in Belize. On July 19, 2017, the people of Belize are powerless. Power to the people.