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Thursday, September 24, 2020
Home Editorial For the slaves, September 11 was just another day in bondage

For the slaves, September 11 was just another day in bondage

September is usually a festive month in Belize, with the nation having two national holidays in this month, one to mark the Battle of St. George’s Caye, which took place between September 3 and September 10 in 1798, and the other to mark the birth of our nation, on September 21, 1981. This year, because of the pandemic, the loud music and reveling, the Carnival and J’ouvert, have been toned down, and so this September becomes more a month for reflection than celebration of these two important events in our history.

Looking at the first big day of the month, September 10, there is some division in our country over its importance.

The settlers in the Bay of Honduras, whose main dwellings were at the mouth of the Belize River, were mostly slave-owning white men who had roots in the British Isles and, according to the story about the battle, their victory was substantially aided by their slaves.
It is unlikely that many slaves would have voluntarily helped the defense initiative of the slave masters. More likely the slaves were forced to help make the settlement battle-ready, and between September 3, when the battle began, and September 10, when the Spanish invaders headed back to Mexico, they were bystanders, not combatants.

The free coloreds in the settlement who owned property voted in a public meeting on June 1, 1797, where a decision was made, by a vote of 65 to 51, to defend the settlement against Spanish aggression, and these same free coloreds took up arms to go and fight “shoulder to shoulder” alongside the rulers of the settlement during the Battle of St. George’s Caye.

We know that after September 10, 1798, Spain, a declining superpower at the time, never invaded the settlement again, and that because the settlers did not flee, English is the official language of Belize, our legal and governance systems are from the British, and we fought alongside the British in the two world wars.

We know that the white rulers of the settlement, and to a lesser extent the free coloreds, were the big winners. The white rulers remained in control of Belize during the settlement years, during the years after the settlement became a colony in 1862, and until the colony became an independent nation, in 1981.

The slaves didn’t gain anything from the Battle of St. George’s Caye. History records that there were slave uprisings in British Honduras throughout the 1700s, and that the slaves also rose up against the slave masters in 1820, a little over twenty years after the battle. None of these uprisings were successful, and the slaves who didn’t escape from the settlement did not get a form of freedom until August 1, 1834, under the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

Between 1834 and 1838 the slaves remained in servitude to the slave masters, in a system called apprenticeship, which was reportedly set up so that they could be taught a trade that would enable them to fend for themselves and their families as free people.

In fact, the slaves were highly skilled in many areas, and the four-year apprenticeship period was actually set up to help the slave masters transition from being slave owners to employers. They received even more help in the form of substantial remuneration that was given to them for the loss of their “property.” When the slaves in the settlement were finally freed in 1838, they had no land, they had no money, and so, to survive, they hired themselves out to their former “owners”. Being nominally free, some former slaves did move to the countryside to work small plots, but because they were not allowed to own land, they didn’t prosper.

Belize is a country with many races, and September 10 has its glory, but for the slaves, sadly, September 11 was just another day of living under the worst conditions ever known by man.

In the midst of the pandemic, Hurricane Nana increased our pain

Preliminary reports from the south of the country after Hurricane Nana hit early last Thursday is that the farmers in that area suffered some serious losses, at a time when we can least afford it. The Government of Belize is tapping every friendly country and lending agency to help provide relief funds for the thousands who are out of work because of the pandemic, and the nation’s foreign reserves are dwindling fast because the tourism industry is dormant and most of our major agro-industries are underperforming, have been underperforming for years.

The number of small farmers who suffered losses, and the extent of their losses, has not yet been reported, but it is known that no farm in the area where the hurricane passed escaped unscathed. This is just the worst time for our people to be suffering these losses, and we can only hope that the government can find the resources to help them recover quickly. The avocado trees, it will be a year before they have mature fruit again; the plantains will also need a full year to recover, and it will be more than four months before the farmers are looking at a corn crop. To make things worse, some farmers in the south also lost rice harvests due to floods a couple weeks ago.

The banana industry has been just about the only major agro-industry that is performing well. Preliminary reports are that 960 acres, about one-sixth of the total acreage in the country under banana cultivation, has been destroyed. The cost of rehabilitating the plantations that were devastated will run in the millions. It will take a full year before that section of the industry is in full production again, and until such time the people who worked in the packing sheds on the farms that were damaged will be out of jobs, and our country will lose one-sixth of the critical foreign exchange that we would have earned.

Hurricane Nana could have been worse, and in this difficult time when we are in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must be truly grateful that it wasn’t. It did make life in Belize a bit harder. We are living in truly difficult economic times.

Our local food supply took a hit from Nana: the crops of small farmers in areas where the hurricane passed were badly damaged, and so were the banana plantations which have increasingly provided plentiful, cheap, healthy food for many tables in Belize since the epidemic began. And with one-sixth of the plantations down, our foreign exchange earnings will hurt even more.

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