This book is a social, cultural, and economic history of Africans and people of African descent in the peninsula of Yucatan. My temporal focus is the colonial period, technically 1541-1821, although my discussion ranges from the 1530s to the 1830s, and the sources I have found are concentrated on the mid-to-late colonial period (roughly 1640-1820). This book’s purpose is to tell a story that has never before been told; Africans in colonial Latin America as a whole are understudied and in Yucatan almost completely unstudied. This story not only transforms our understanding of Yucatan’s history, but opens a new window onto Spanish America and African America. THE BLACK MIDDLE is thus intended as a contribution to the history of the African diaspora, as well as to the histories of Mexico and of colonial Latin America.
– pg. xi, THE BLACK MIDDLE, by Matthew Restall, Stanford University Press, 2009
About fifteen or twenty years ago, Carnival, introduced around 1975 into Belize City, was becoming bigger than Centenary itself, which is the annual celebration of the Battle of St. George’s Caye fought in September of 1798. Before Carnival became so big, Centenary celebrations began annually with the selection of the Queen of the Bay, around the end of August. A series of events followed, such as singing contests, cultural shows, athletic contests, and so on, which culminated with the Citizens’ Parade on the Tenth of September.
Around 1958 or so, the ruling People’s United Party (PUP) began to de-emphasize the Battle of St. George’s Caye (although a copy of the 1959 National Day Celebrations program in our possession, a program organized by the Belize City Council, included a “pilgrimage to the tomb of Simon Lamb”), and de-emphasize the overall Baymen’s Clan atmosphere. The PUP crowned a queen who was called Miss Belize Independence, and their program of events culminated with a march on the Tenth of September, which became known as National Day on the PUP calendar.
In other words, Belize began to have two programs of events in September – the National Day celebrations organized by the ruling PUP and the traditional Battle of St. George’s Caye celebrations, which the Opposition National Independence Day (NIP), along with the Loyal and Patriotic Order of the Baymen (L&POB), worked hard to organize without government funding, but which enjoyed enthusiastic popular support.
When Carnival was introduced in 1975, with a parade which began at Cinderella Plaza, the then Opposition United Democratic Party (UDP), which had been established in 1973, controlled the Belize City Council for the first time in history. Carnival was introduced by a UDP business element, presumably with the support of the Belize City Council, led by UDP Mayor, Paul Rodriguez.
Belize achieved political independence in 1981, and live television broadcasts were introduced in 1982. There are basically two generations of Belizeans who have grown up since then. Television has changed the mores and the morals of Belize a lot since 1982, especially the mores and morals of our youth, Crack cocaine and the gang culture invaded Belize in the latter part of the 1980s. Tourism took a firm hold in Belize during the 1990s. Overall, life speeded up significantly in the urban centers of Belize, especially for younger Belizeans.
The parades with which the separate September celebrations culminated had been Carnival-like events, featuring live band music, the public drinking of alcohol, uninhibited dancing, and so on. Carnival became a wilder event, with the most titillating aspect of Carnival being the skimpy attire of the revelers.
After Independence, the ruling PUP shifted their focus to the Independence Day parade on September 21, so Tenth of September became the domain of the UDP, which had absorbed the NIP in 1973 and formed their first national government in 1984.
The socio-economic conditions in Belize are such, have been such from slavery days, that the September celebrations are exercises in what the Romans used to call “bread and circuses.” Centenary, introduced in 1898, was a time when the British colonial administrators and the power structure spent some money to entertain the oppressed masses. When the local politicians began to divide on the issue of the Battle of St. George’s Caye, the oppressed masses of the Belizean people supported both sets of celebrations, and both parades.
The fact that Carnival was becoming the biggest event in the Tenth of September celebrations in the early twenty-first century, was an indication of the low level of real political education amongst the masses of the Belizean people as we entered the third millennium. A strong pushback from patriotic elements kept Carnival in its place, so to speak, where the Centenary celebrations were concerned. But, that is only this newspaper’s opinion.
Now, as Belizeans prepare to celebrate Centenary, Carnival, Independence, and everything else that brings fun and pleasure in September, our national lack of political education will be more evident than ever before. That is because this is the last bunch of Centenary, Carnival, and Independence celebrations before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) referendum on April 10, 2019. Belizeans have a critical decision to make with respect to the ICJ referendum, but there is a lot of ignorance about the history of the Guatemalan claim and the different implications of a “yes” or “no” vote.
As a matter of fact, there are some educated Belizeans who actually believe that the Battle of St. George’s Caye has something consequential to do with our situation in independent, sovereign Belize today. It is futile to argue with such Belizeans, but let us analyze the situation in these parts in 1798.
The Yucatan, from which the Spanish armada came in September of 1798, was a part of Mexico, which was owned by Spain as a colony in 1798. The leader of the armada was an Irishman, General Arturo O’Neil. (The Irish have always had issues with the British.) It is possible that there were former slaves from Belize, or descendants of slaves from Belize, in O’Neil’s armada, because it is to the Yucatan that most slaves who escaped from Belize had been fleeing from ever since. It is also possible that there were Haitians in O’Neil’s armada, because more than a hundred Haitians had been shipped by the King of Spain to the northern Yucatan in 1796.
If educated Belizeans still believe that the skirmish on September 10, 1798, was decisive where Belize’ssovereignty and territorial integrity are concerned, when in fact it is the 1859 Treaty between Great Britain and the Republic of Guatemala which is the crux of the matter, one cannot be harsh on uneducated Belizeans who are confused about the upcoming ICJ referendum.
The colonial British and the merchant/mahogany contractor power structure created a narrative when they introduced Centenary in 1898. That narrative encouraged the majority black people of Belize to believe that they had defeated “the Spanish” in September 1798. In Belize Town, the black masses saw everything north of Crooked Tree (Orange Walk and Corozal) as “Spanish,” when many of the new Belizeans who came here in the second half of the nineteenth century were actually Mayans. But that made no difference to Creoles. Supposedly, we had beaten them all.
Today, these so-called “Spanish” are 52 percent of Belize’s population. If you are to believe some of the Centenary proponents, you would think they are still our enemy, when they are really the backbone of the new Belize, independent with territorial integrity. In 2018, the Guatemalan people who claim our land are neo-Europeans who consider all of us in Belize, all of us, inferior. How do we strengthen the new Belize if Centenary is more important to you than Independence? Understand this: Centenary and Carnival are mere tourist attractions. The real deal is April 10, 2019. Does Belize live, or does Belize die?
Power to the people.