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1773, 1798, 1823, 1838, and 1898

Editorial1773, 1798, 1823, 1838, and 1898

The history of the Battle of St. George’s Caye, when the Baymen repelled a Spanish attack from Yucatan in 1798, was first memorialized in 1823, in a document before the British Parliament entitled THE DEFENCE OF THE SETTLERS OF HONDURAS AGAINST THE UNJUST AND UNFOUNDED REPRESENTATIONS OF COL. GEORGE ARTHUR, LATE SUPERINTENDENT OF THE SETTLEMENT. The inhabitants, refuting Arthur’s charges of slave cruelty, seized on the event: “One of the strongest proofs of … the contentment and good condition of the slaves of this country, is evidenced by their conduct in the last descent made by the Spaniards on the Settlement, in 1798.”

– pg. 223, ELITE REPRODUCTION AND ETHNIC IDENTITY IN BELIZE, by Karen H. Judd, Ph. D., City University of New York, 1992 – a doctoral dissertation printed by University Microfilms International (UMI)

Following Emancipation, however, the battle fell into obscurity, until the late 1880s, when a group of expatriates took to celebrating, somewhat haphazardly, its anniversary. A GUARDIAN columnist regretted their toasts to the memory of heroes killed at the battle, “when, as a matter of fact, the only ones who were killed on that day were the Spanish invaders, so that what was intended as a patriotic toast was, inadvertently, converted into a toast to the memory of the invaders!” (9.1.1888). The editor, noting that “some of the members of the Civil Service have commended the custom of commemorating the glorious 10th of September” decided it was “expedient that they should become acquainted with the events of the day they commemorated” and reprinted the account from the ROYAL GAZETTE published in “the Defence of the Settlers.” The next year he described a “Poke-and-do-boy” Entertainment at the Colonial Club in which white creoles joined expatriate officers in reciting the Battle of Culloden and the Battle of Inkerman followed by songs sung by “gents dressed as cutters,” which the next day was presented as a free matinee for the public (10.5.1889).

– pg. 225, IBID.

There is an official narrative concerning the Battle of St. George’s Caye in September of 1798, and clearly that official 1798 narrative, which has come to include the “Flowers Bank 14” story over the last decade or so, is heavily supported by the leaders of the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP).

In the late 1950s, the leaders of the ruling People’s United Party (PUP) began to poke holes in the official narrative which had been handed down from British colonial days at the time of Centenary in 1898. The skepticism expressed by PUP leaders about the Battle of St. George’s Caye never received a proper academic airing, because that skepticism became public shortly after PUP Leader George Price had been sent home from London “in disgrace” in 1957 because of discussions he held with a Guatemalan official. In addition, the most aggressively “Belice es nuestro” Guatemalan President ever, Ydigoras Fuentes, was elected in 1958 and began frightening the stuffings out of Belizeans with his threats and his activities.

So then, PUP skepticism about the battle story became subsumed by party politics, as is the case with most historical debates in Belize. Party politics is excessively consuming in Belize, because ours is an economically depressed society and there are so many thousands of jobs at stake when general elections are held here. In the 1950s and 1960s, intense electioneering was limited to the year or two before the general election itself, but nowadays electioneering intensity is a feature of the entire election calendar. The electioneering never stops. It goes on and on and on.

The leaders and supporters of the Opposition National Independence Party (NIP) interpreted PUP skepticism about 1798 as an attempt to undermine British traditions in the colony and introduce pro-Guatemalan thinking. It did not matter that Mr. Price’s argument was that the 1798 propaganda was demeaning to the populations of the Corozal and Orange Walk Districts, who were all ignorantly referred to as “Spanish” back then, and that the 1798 propaganda made it more difficult for him to unite the Belizean people and build the new Belizean nation. If you questioned the “battle myth” in the late 1950s and the decade of the 1960s, it was interpreted to mean that you were pro-Guatemalan.

When the United Black Association for Development (UBAD) came on the scene in early 1969, the organization’s first public request was that there be a joint parade on September 10th with both the PUP and the NIP celebrating as one, instead of Mr. Price and Mr. Goldson leading separate parades. Remember, back in the late 1950s/early 1960s, Mr. Price and the PUP had continued to march on September 10th, but they now called it the “National Day” and pointedly ignored the Baymen business. UBAD insisted that the two parties march as one, but that did not suit the political expediencies of the PUP and the NIP. The matter became so controversial that it ended up in a fight between UBAD and CIVIC, CIVIC being an activist arm of the NIP, in early August of 1969 at the Harley’s Open Lot on Regent Street. In the end, UBAD ended up having to march by itself on September 10, 1969, so that for the first time there were three parades.

At what precise point in 1969 it was that UBAD President, Evan X Hyde, discovered the story of the 1773 slave rebellion, the largest in the settlement of Belize’s history, in Burdon’s Archives, it is now impossible to say. Hyde proceeded to publish his Knocking Our Own Ting in the latter part of 1969, and in that booklet he discussed the 1773 slave rebellion and analyzed the events of September 1798, twenty five years later, in the context of that massive slave rebellion.

For more than 175 years, Belize was significantly and inexplicably different from the British Caribbean possessions we basically shared a common heritage with, because Belize never officially celebrated Emancipation Day – 1838. Emancipation Day was always a big deal in the British Caribbean, and no one ever asked the question publicly, why was it that British Honduras/Belize, with a majority African population until as late as 1980, did not celebrate the end of slavery in 1838.

A few years ago, activists in the UBAD Educational Foundation (UEF), led by Ya Ya Marin Coleman, began an Emancipation Day celebration here, and that celebration, ignored by the official power structure, has been growing in size. One of the distractions has been that August 1, Emancipation Day, for some unknown reason, was chosen in 1970 as the birthday of Belmopan, the new capital of Belize.

This week, official preparations began for the September celebrations, which were expanded to include September 21, Independence Day, after 1981. It was never clearly explained to the Belizean people why Mr. Price chose September 21 as Independence Day instead of going with September 10, which would have united the Belizean people and cost us less public money on festivities and frivolities, but that is what he did, and Mr. Price in those days didn’t have to explain anything to anybody. So then, Belize celebrates officially from September 1 to 21, three round weeks, and now the celebrations have become a “tourist attraction.” And since tourism now rules in Belize, it is what it is: 1798 and 1898 Centenary forever! Officially, 1773 and 1838 are ignored.

It is important to note that the movement of escaping African slaves was always from Belize north to Bacalar. In the case of the original 50 slave rebels of 1773 on the Belize Old River, 19 succeeded in reaching Bacalar. In the Yucatan, black Belizeans became free once they accepted Catholicism, the official religion. Matthew Restall, the Penn State University Professor, points out that in the vast majority of cases, African men took Mayan wives, and their offspring, from generation to generation, became simply Mexicans. It is for this reason that you will see Mexicans in the Yucatan with African physical characteristics. Interestingly enough, Tihosuco, where the Caste War began in 1847, lies just one hundred miles north of Bacalar. It is well known that one of the most famous Caste War chieftains of the Santa Cruz Maya, Crescencio Poot, was of African descent.

In Haiti, where a massive slave rebellion began in 1791 and enabled a former slave, Toussaint L’Ouverture, to take over Haiti in the mid-1790s, there were Haitians who had supported the Spanish on the western side of the island of Hispaniola, what we now know as the Dominican Republic. The Yucatan being one of his possessions at the time, the Spanish King shipped some of these “loyalist” Haitians to San Francisco de Ake, on the northern coast of the Yucatan. In Haiti they would have been killed. They began a new life at San Francisco de Ake in 1796.

What we know of the Battle of St. George’s Caye has only been told from the British side. In 2017, Belize is independent and sovereign, and the existential challenge to our survival does not come from the Yucatan: that challenge comes from Guatemala City in the west. The history of Belize which must be researched and taught can not be a British colonial history: it must be about resistance and rebellion. This is what 1773 was about, and this is what 2017 should be about.

Power to the people.

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