In my column last weekend, I used the adverb “vaguely” to compare the societal collapse in Afghanistan recently, when the Americans were pulling out, with the deterioration in law and order in Belize after our colonial masters, the British, basically pulled out after Belize’s political independence in 1981.
I thought I had covered my back, so to speak, by using the adverb “vaguely,” because the recent Afghan situation and Belize’s political independence are different scenarios. I was well aware that the British had maintained armed forces in Belize after our independence, even though they refused to give Belize a defence guarantee. (The British pulled out their troops in 1993, just before the June 1993 general election.)
One of my classmates from St. John’s College Sixth Form, however, took me up on my American/Afghan and British/Belize comparison. In her read, the “vaguely” was not enough to justify any comparison between the two scenarios.
Well, I won’t get into any more back and forth with my dear classmate, but I’m going to look at British Honduras in the 1950s, for the benefit of our younger readers especially.
I’m not sure about the spelling of his name, but there was a man named Marcus O’Brien who was hanged in the colony in 1949 or thereabouts. Hanging at the old Belize City Prison was a very big community deal in British Honduras when I was a child. All these murder trials were held in the upstairs Supreme Court, Supreme Court No. 1, with juries. Crowds would gather around the Supreme Court steps, on Regent Street, and in Central Park, to see for themselves men who were condemned to die as they descended the steps after being convicted by a jury of their peers.
When I was a child, women would visit each other in the evenings to converse, and go home 10, 11, 12 o’clock in the nights. They were absolutely safe at all hours in those days. We children would stay up to eavesdrop. One of the favourite conversation topics was notorious murderers, like O’Brien, and, if I remember correctly, a man named Sebastian who had killed people on one of our southern cayes.
Marcus O’Brien had killed a lady cousin of his and her two young nephews with a paddle on the river somewhere in the Rancho Dolores/Black Creek area. Remember, I was just a child eavesdropping. It was said that when he was about to be hanged, Marcus had tested the trap door for the hanging to make sure it was properly functional. The sensational nature of O’Brien’s confrontation with his hanging death led some people to suspect he may have been slightly deranged.
I thought of Marcus recently when the Cuculik situation occurred recently in Cayo in San Ignacio or Santa Elena, I’m not sure which. Cuculik made a video days before he did what he did. He said what he would do before he did it. It seemed so incredible to see the sequence of events in which he had been involved.
In British Honduras in the early and middle 1950s, there was a Chief Justice by the name of Alfred Crane who was notorious for hanging murderers. One story was that he sentenced to death a man who had witnessed a stabbing murder and who had encouraged it with the words, “Dale uno para mi.”
In my childhood, self-defence was no excuse for murder. The late Smokey Joe always used to lament the hanging of a youth named Sydney Middleton who had killed a habitual bully.
There are more anecdotes I can share, but the point is simple: there was total law and order in British Honduras in colonial days. When Belizeans took over the judiciary, a deterioration began very quickly. It was not all the fault of Belizeans. The European Union was bringing pressure on us to exercise “human rights.”
I do not participate in the debate on capital punishment, don’t think I ever have. I simply make the point that we Belizeans have proven incapable of disciplining ourselves. It is clear that the most powerful people in our judiciary are defence attorneys. If you can find enough money, it seems you can beat any rap.
In closing, I would say to my classmate that I don’t take myself so seriously as I used to do when I was younger. I have not heard anyone mention Marcus O’Brien for many decades. I suppose almost all the Belizeans from that time are in the United States, the United Kingdom, or dead.
And the academics of Belize were always so intimidated by the politicians, they never dared to record and analyze that crucial transition era when we were moving from colonialism to independence, and the British were leaving us on our own. Belize is now the playground of slick defence attorneys. This is how many of us Belizeans see it.
Power to the people.