In a column last week, I said that the African slaves in the settlement of Belize, during the September days of conflict in 1798, saw the battle as being between two sets of Europeans: the British and the Spanish. Such a statement, I think, requires some clarification and elaboration.
For us as Belizean students, six decades ago in my case, we did not understand a difference between the Baymen “settlers” and the British as such. When the pressure threatened to come from the Spanish in the Yucatan, the settlers appealed for help to the British authorities in Jamaica, which was the seat of British hegemony in the Caribbean. But it seems reasonably clear that not all the settlers in the Bay were British, as such.
We know, for instance, that the ancestral patriarch of the mighty Bowen & Bowen business empire was a German, Dr. Manfield Bowen, who settled in Belize, presumably in the early 1800s. (We do not have a record of his participating in any of the September 1798 action.)
I think those of us who have been skeptical about the Centenary story, need to appreciate the unique nature of some relationships between men in some situations. When I wrote KNOCKING OUR OWN TING in 1969, it was in a spirit of anger because of the fact that the story of the 1773 slave rebellion on the Belize Old River had never been told to us Belizeans, but had remained hidden in the archives written by a British Governor in the 1920s. I totally rejected the idea that the same people who rebelled in 1773 would fight in 1798 for those against whom they had rebelled.
We must concede, however, that the possibility is that there were some slave masters who may have had a special relationship with their slaves, slave masters whom these slaves held in such respect that if those slave masters made a special request of them, such as the request for their participation in the Battle of St. George’s Caye, their slaves would have responded favorably. I am saying today that we have to concede such a possibility.
At the same time, nevertheless, the historical record indicates that the most prominent of the slave masters involved in whatever action took place in September 1798, Thomas Paslow, was someone who had abused, mutilated in fact, his slaves.
Regarding at what point in the nineteenth century it was that the settlers in the Bay became “British,” where the histories and documentaries are involved, the dates we can get ahold of are 1862 and 1871, when the settlers, as I understand it, accepted British control of the finances and military of the Belize settlement.
It is important to understand that the British have a record of skillful diplomacy in the activities which began taking place in the Atlantic (and other oceans) after Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World in 1492. The Europeans began exploring southwards and invading the territories they found roughly in the middle of the fifteenth century, when the Portuguese began sailing southwards. In 1492, the Spanish monarchy financed Columbus, an Italian, to sail westwards. The Portuguese and the Spanish began accumulating wealth from their conquests and possessions in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The British were latecomers where slavery and all the pillaging were concerned.
What the British did, under Elizabeth I (1558-1603) especially, was have the state become business partners, so to speak, with pirates/privateers like Drake, Raleigh, Morgan, and so on. The British state made huge profits, but held no state-to-state responsibility for the nefarious deeds of the pirates/privateers. (We have not even mentioned the slave trade.)
Study the British East India Company, which looted many trillions from India. Their partnership with the British state was intimate, but not acknowledged at the state-to-state level. This was a secret partnership, or so it appears to me.
So then, the settlers in Belize (who were originally pirates) were not the state responsibility of Great Britain, but the settlers here screamed for help from the British in Jamaica when the Spanish began threatening in 1797.
I would have to close by suggesting that the relationship between Lord Michael Ashcroft and the British state, if we are to judge from the history of the last five centuries, may well be much more intimate than any of us innocent Belizeans realize.
Power to the people.