Features — 18 January 2013 — by Michael Finnegan

I featured Maya Ortega in my last contribution highlighting Belize’s football heroes. In this edition I wish to reflect and pay tribute to one of his contemporaries who to my mind shared traits characteristic of Caribbean intellectuals who led our region’s nationalist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, and anti neo-colonial efforts.

In the context of the development of the sport of football this athlete was visionary and progressive. He was as much a revolutionary in his time as were intellectual giants of our Caribbean civilization such as Walter Rodney of Guyana; Maurice Bishop of Grenada; Ralph Gonsalves, the current Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines; Professor Neville Duncan of the University of the West Indies; and our own Evan X Hyde.

Such leaders were strident in their opposition to neo-colonialism, they challenged the status quo, were independent in their thinking, provocative in their advocacy for a new international economic order and confident in our ability to be masters of our own destiny. Their novel thought and activism came at great personal expense but they were always brave and courageous making sacrifices to advance the cause of the masses. Walter Rodney was assassinated; Maurice Bishop was executed brutally; Evan X was tried for seditious conspiracy; and no doubt Prime Minister Gonsalves and Professor Duncan experienced severe economic hardships brought on by the victimization of those who would defend their privilege rather than heed the advice of these leaders in promoting and protecting the rights of the “lumpen proletariat.”

It is in this manner that I compare Bembe the Mugger Garbutt as a revolutionary. His challenge was to the elitism and privileged of the then Belize Football Association. He challenged the establishment in ensuring that the lucrative proceeds from the admission fee to the games were evenly distributed for the benefit and the good of all the players.

Bembe the Mugger fought for the right of the ordinary players to be given voice in the deliberations of the Football Association. He opposed the hitherto cosy arrangements within which the then Football Association “wined and dined” in sumptuous luxury, making decisions without any representation from the football players.

Things reached a boil when the football team sponsored by James Brodie and Company became the national football champions. In 1963 Bembe the Mugger Garbutt broke away from the “Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles” team sponsored by the Belize Estate and Produce Company (B.E.C.) to form Independence, which was under the sponsorship of Maestre’s Industries for that season. Independence was later funded by the Government of Belize through the Ministry of Sports.

On one occasion, the Football Association demanded that Independence play a friendly match against the champions, Brodies. Bembe laid down a challenge to the Association, demanding that they receive a just portion of the proceeds from the gate. The Association, in response, suspended Bembe and all his Independence team mates from participation in a part of the following year’s competition because they refused the demand of those from the football status quo and were vigorous in their opposition to its request.

During the period of the suspension, the then “Rocking R” football team, which included the legendary Maya Ortega whom I featured in my last contribution, entered the competition and created football havoc and pandemonium at the M.C.C Grounds. Rocking R was inches away from winning the championship; they had only one remaining game left to play against Arsenal, then managed by then colorful and now deceased Racoo Craig. The period of suspension of the Independence players was lifted one week before the scheduled game with Rocking R and Arsenal.

Arsenal was thought to be the weakest team in the football league and a Rocking R victory was inevitable. Racoo Craig, as clever as he was, saw an opportunity which presented itself with the end of the suspension against the participation of the Independence players, and he recruited former Independence players, including Bembe the Mugger Garbutt, to play with his team Arsenal.

The match with the now reinforced Arsenal was really what they expected of it and Rocking R was first to “draw blood.” Rocking R maintained the 1-0 goal lead in the game up to the point when there were only ten minutes of regulation time remaining. It seemed as if Rocking R were sure to win the championship. If they lost the match or it ended in a draw, the B.E.C. Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles would become the champions. A win for Rocking R was a must.

Arsenal was awarded a corner kick. The corner was kicked by Big Mole (Serapio Alvarez) and was kicked off by the Rocking R defence, so another kick was awarded to Arsenal. After Big Mole made the first corner kick, Bembe called him and was engaged in a discussion which obviously ended in an agreement that Bembe kick the second corner. When spectators realized that Bembe would kick the second corner, it was hurray and pandemonium on the Barracks because everyone believed that Bembe would have created some colorful injection from the corner spot. Bembe the Mugger put the ball back into play from the southeastern end of the “Garden” and William “Hanny” Robinson, Arsenal’s right winger, then headed home the equalizer.

When I reminded Bembe of this game, he said to me, “Damn, you are sending chills up my spine. I remember that game as clearly as you are speaking with me right now.” The game ended at 1–1 goal draw and Rocking R was deflated. Arsenal was in its glory and the Inter-continental Ballistic Missilies went on to win the championship.

Hanny Robinson, years later, was accused of the murder of a policeman which took place on the Belize City Swing Bridge. In the court trial he was found guilty and was condemned to the death penalty. The Hanny Robinson fiasco is a story by itself.

Football hero, Bembe the Mugger Garbutt was a man before his time. He was self-educated but visionary, and always an ardent defender of the rights of the players and a champion for social justice.

I will never forget the 1965 Football Knockout tournament; Bembe’s Independence team played against the Landivar selection and the winner of this match would face off against the Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles, who awaited the game’s outcome. The game was scheduled to begin at 4:00 p.m. Present among the spectators were Crammy, Del Sol, Mambique, Perto and the Hardest Top, all dressed elegantly in their “Sunday best” to witness this showdown between Independence and Landivar.

The stadium was packed to capacity. Thousands of fans filled the M.C.C. “Square Garden,” and when I observed the crowd on that Sunday, I was convinced that Bembe the Mugger was justified in the demand for the players’ fair share he had made on the Football Association a few years before.

The game began at 4:00 p.m. sharp and the Independence side, led by the Mugger, quickly tallied a record four goals within the first fifteen minutes of play. Those arriving late at the game could not believe their ears on being told that Bembe’s side had racked up a 4-0 score shortly after the ball went into play, and wondered whether Belize had switched to Daylight Savings Time! The game ended with a 4–1 final score. Independence advanced to play the B.E.C. Missiles, and lost.

I tracked down Bembe in New York with the help of Linda Faber, who kindly gave me a telephone contact for Nelson “The Roo” Robinson, who in turn gave me a number to the Mugger. In my conversation with him, Bembe emphasized that Government should do more for sports than they are doing presently. He was very adamant in his suggestion. In our conversation I sensed his irritation, similar to that expressed by Maya Ortega, at the fact that our Caribbean partners, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, have succeeded by today becoming F.I.F.A. World Cup qualifiers while Belize hasn’t even been competitive in CONCACAF though Belize teams used to prevail over other Caribbean teams during outings in the 1960s.

Bembe took me back to the 1963 visit of the Belize National Team to Jamaica and heaped praises on the high caliber performances of Gilly Dunn, Pops Hamilton, Tiempo Barrow and other players who executed their game so well against the Jamaican opposers.

Bembe is today a sick man, ailing with kidney problems and being kept alive with the assistance of haemodialysis machines. When I spoke with him his voice was meek and I was aware that he was not in the best of health. He was discharged from hospital only four days before our conversation, but his mind was still strong. His fight for the small man to reach the top still lies within his heart and his fight for social justice was still echoing in his mild voice. To repeat his echo, “Have the Government do more for football and sports; please ask them to answer my cry.”

I sensed from Bembe that despite the low caliber of football now being played in Belize there are still some current players with good talent which we should develop and promote to advance football in belize, but he is convinced that the Government of Belize must play its part to elevate the standard of football with those who can carry us to higher heights.

During our conversation, I asked Bembe who in his assessment was the best among the footballers of his era, and like Maya Ortega, the name of Angus McPherson Vernon came whistling from his lips. “Chico Ellis was the best centerfielder, and best penalty kicker in the world. Palmer Davis was the best goalkeeper in the whole world.”

In closing, that was the story of Louis Garbutt, whom we Belizeans affectionately call Bembe “the Mugger” Garbutt. And on that note, you will hear from me again when I spotlight softball and reintroduce the famous Dunrite team.

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