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Exiles No More

When I was a young man, and just learning about/getting to know the wonderful folk who lived in the many different villages in our beautiful country, I heard a story about the good people of Crooked Tree in the Belize River Valley. The story was that Crooked Tree people think dehn white, that dehn more British than the British. It isn’t fair to put all your stock in what people tell you, because that is only one-third of the story. One needs to also learn people’s stories as told by them. And if one will form a near complete canvas, one also has to make observations for one’s self.

Hart Tillett, the author of the novel in this review, is from Crooked Tree. After reading his very enjoyable, informative and gripping tale, I concluded, as you will too after you have read it, that Hart has no problem with loving the European part of his ancestry. That is not to say that Hart Tillett doesn’t love his African and Native American ancestors. They are treated extremely well, with love, in this story. But he doesn’t blush about his European heritage. (If he did, he might not have been able to write this book.) It must be remarked, that the white heroes we meet here, are not slavers.

Exiles No More, written by Hart Tillett and published by BlueGate publishing, is a fictionalized account of the people who lived in Brickland (British Honduras (Belize)) in the days leading up to that momentous day in 1797 when the leaders of the settlement had to decide if they would defend their turf, and the momentous, glorious day itself, when, after a heated debate in the Customs House, the decision was made to stay and fight.

In Exiles No More, Hart, a respected, well-liked, polished Belizean who has excelled in modern living – he has an honors degree in Economics (from Carleton University in Canada), and is a professional banker and insurance advisor – takes us into the lives of the settlers, reconstructs the life of the settlement as it was back in those tense days, in 1797.

If only for Hart’s intimacy with the English language and things British, and his amazing vocabulary, Exiles No More must be read by all high school students, and university students in Belize. The writer loves the story he is telling, and he describes scenes and places in Brickland, and people, as  few can.

What a story it is! For Soto, (Crisóstomo Blanco de Sagastume), a Mestizo whose ancestors fled cruel Spanish rule in Mexico, and his wife, Margie (Margianna Russelton), a freed slave who had African and Dutch ancestors in Barbados; for Tom McCroxley, a Carolinian boat builder who sided with the British in the American War of Independence, and his wife, Collette Adamson, a spirited lady from London; for Reds (Frederick Redmond), who brought his ferry, named “The Last Chance”, from Carolina to Brickland; for Hal Overton, an adventurer from a farming family in Killiekrankie, Scotland, and his devoted Scottish wife, Harriet, who came to Brickland because it was what her husband wanted to do; for Henry Jones, who had purchased his freedom with the help of white men who hated slavery, and his wife, Meredith; and many others,it is inconceivable that anyone could vote to evacuate Brickland.

But there are people, villains who are only here to plunder, to reap but not sow, people who cannot find an ounce of sense in risking their lives against an enemy who had invaded the settlement thrice before, and burned their properties to the ground and taken away the people in the settlement to jails on the Spanish Main and in Cuba.

For Tom McCroxley, who takes up the role as leader of the settlers who cannot countenance evacuation in the face of the threat from Spain, Brickland is too much to walk away from…Everyone, he thought, would lose something precious if the motion to evacuate succeeded. And that’s what’s going to happen if someone doesn’t light a fire under the behinds of those cowards on the council to let them see the havoc their dastardly proposal could wreak on all the people here who do not wish to leave!

Tom knows it will take a lot of organization to bring out the vote to counter those who are for quitting the settlement, and he formulates a plan to take advantage of the opportunities “Reds” has to meet people on the multiple daily crossings of the river on his ferry, the very aptly named, “The Last Chance”. With fourteen days to go before the date with destiny, Tom enlists “Reds” to energize the “no to evacuation” crowd, so they make a stand when the meeting is called.

The historic meeting is convened at the Customs House, a thatched building on the Northside that had “an appearance more of a barn than a government office.” Procedurally, the meeting mimicked “both the ceremony and the spirit and practice of the mother country, England”, because, it was said, “men needed a standard.” The chairman of the meeting was equipped with a gavel, and “there was even a Bearer of the Mace.”

When Tom spoke, he reminded the men of the things that made Brickland a better place than where they had come from. “Could a black man or mestizo or Moor address the assembly of Carolina, or vote in its proceedings as we have seen here during these past forty-eight hours?” he asked.”In America…when the war was over, there were winners and losers,” he said. “Here in Brickland, there are no Tories or Republicans to fight over the spoils of war. We have already decided the issue. As a unified people, we move on to build on the wealth of the country.”

When Hal Overton spoke, he reminded them of the reasons why they came back after the last war. “Why did you not remain where you were, or go somewhere else, to the Bahamas, or Jamaica or to New Providence?” he asked. “You came back here because this was your home and the home of your families, your wives and your children. You were no mere temporary lodgers…Your heart and soul had been melded into the fabric of this place.”

Unbeknownst to Tom, Collette also had a plan to spur on the vote to stay. During their riveting speeches to fire up the flame of patriotism in the breasts of their compatriots, Collette and a group of women were a cheering gallery outside, chanting their approval.

When the votes were tallied, after two long days of heated debate, the victory was for Brickland, by the slimmest of margins, 170 to 169.

It was a special moment, this decision to stay and fight, and the pride was felt by all of them, but maybe no one felt it more deeply than Soto (Crisóstomo Blanco de Sagastume), because he wasn’t white, nor spoke the Queen’s English, like the men who at the time held the leadership roles in Brickland. We can feel the patriotism surging within Soto, when he realized that “his voice mattered equally with those of the most highly respected men of the land”, and that “his single vote may have been the one to save Brickland.”

It can be glossed over that through an intervention from above, a yellow jacket that streaked down from the roof and stung the chairman on the neck during the proceedings, there was an interruption that caused an inaccurate recording of the votes. And that it was one John Barton who, too late, recognized the error.

Exiles No More, a passionate tale about a country that sounds so much like our own, is an inspiring read on an evening when you’re resting in a hammock in a shaded space, and have a cold glass of local blackberry wine at the ready. And just in case you worry that the heroes of the day are almost all white, be comforted that they were all anti-slavery, to the bone.

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