Belizeans held their breaths as the dispute between the multinational owners of the Tower Hill sugar mill and the largest association of cane farmers became more and more confrontational this month.
In my lifetime, I cannot recall any situation where one of my Creole people gave his or her life for a cause. About fifteen years ago, a Mestizo or Maya/Mestizo or Maya cane farmer from the village of San Victor gave his life fighting for the cause of cane farmers.
As a society, we have found a way to gloss over and forget the courageous death of Danny Conorquie, a Creole young man, defending Belizean sovereignty at the Caracol tourist site some years ago. This occurred to me after I had written the first sentence of this column’s second paragraph. Conorquie’s bravery has been erased from our history by the powers that be in Belize, and their various collaborators.
Insofar as the cane farmers are concerned, and our Mestizo and Maya/Mestizo and Maya citizens in Corozal and Orange Walk are concerned, however, we Belizeans of my generation have felt that these are Belizeans who are prepared to stand and fight for their cause, whenever and wherever.
The people who design the curricula and choose the books for the reading lists of our high schools, sixth forms, and universities have a great deal of power, when you stop and think about it. These people, and they are very much in the shadows, decide what those of our youth who reach these educational institutions will know, and what they will not know.
My generation grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, at a time when the country we know as Belize was a colony controlled by the United Kingdom. All the high schools and sixth forms in Belize were run by religious denominations, except for the Belize Technical College (established in 1952) and Belize Technical College Sixth Form. Our British colonial masters established BTC when they were in complete control of British Honduras, so they were the ones, we have to presume, who made the curriculum decisions. British Honduras became a self-governing colony in 1964. I have no idea if curriculum control was handed over to the native Belizean government immediately, or when it was.
But, as I have said, all the other schools were run by religious denominations — Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Adventist, Baptist, Nazarene, and so on. As religions, their primary purpose was/is to propagate their specific religious beliefs, so this is the dominant consideration in their curriculum designs.
In the specific area of history, we students of my generation who went to high schools and sixth forms, studied British and, to a lesser extent, European history, in order to take the Cambridge certificate examinations at Ordinary and Advanced Levels. (There was no Belizean university in my time.)
No doubt there would have been cooperation, so to speak, between the British-run Education Department and the religious schools. At Roman Catholic St. John’s College, where I attended both high school and sixth form, the textbooks we used were, I have to assume, biased in favor of the Anglican British, whose primary enemy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was Roman Catholic Spain. After all, the British were our colonial masters.
I remember very little of my year and a half doing British and European history at the sixth form level. I remember more of my high school years where history is concerned.
In any case, it has taken me all this time to reach the point: the point that, even though Belize became politically independent in 1981, nothing changed in the history curricula of our schools. In fact, when the University College of Belize, our first university, was established in the middle 1980s, history was not of primary concern. UCB’s focus was on business and tourism hospitality courses.
My personal beef was that almost all the inhabitants of Corozal and Orange Walk, whether they were Hispanic, Mestizo, or Maya/Mestizo, were refugees or descended from refugees from a war called the Caste War in the second half of the nineteenth century in the Yucatan. The education powers here, colonial and self-government, did not feel it served their interests to teach us about that war. Instead, we Belizeans were taught about the fifteenth century War of the Roses between the British Houses of Lancaster and York, for instance. How quaint! But, power is power, Jack.
Perhaps there were not adequate Caste War texts available in the English language. It seems that Nelson Reed’s The Caste War of Yucatan, published in 1963 by Stanford University Press, was the first major work in English about the war. Personally, I did not read Mr. Reed’s book until 1993, when I bought a copy while on a trip to Merida. (Mr. Reed published a revised edition of his book in 2001.)
The Caste War began in Yucatan in 1847. The Mexican priest, Miguel Hidalgo, led a revolution in 1810 which sought to gain independence from Spain. Mexico became independent in 1821, but there was a process of internal turmoil between then and 1847. That turmoil included war with the United States. You have to understand something of that turmoil before you can understand the causes of the Caste War.
There was a war between the central Mexican government in Mexico City and the people of the Yucatan, principally Merida and Campeche. It is complicated, but somewhat similar to the American Civil War, in which the central government in Washington sought a “more perfect union,” a centralized government, whereas the southern Confederate states wanted “states’ rights,” a federal-type government. The Yucatecans wanted independence from the turmoil in Mexico City which featured mercurial personalities like General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Having suffered early defeats, the ruling Ladino class in Yucatan invited support from the oppressed Indio class. The Mazehual proved to be very good fighters, and thus was born the idea of fighting against those who had been crushing them in Yucatan itself from time immemorial.
I will have to continue this narrative in some other column(s). I will close this episode with a quote from Enrique Krauze’s Mexico: Biography of Power, published in 1997 by HarperCollins:
”Following the initial emergence of these caudillos in 1810 came an ephemeral, tragic, but meaningful period filled with political and religious tensions, and then an age (1831-1855) dominated by typical Latin American creole caudillos, resembling those to be found elsewhere throughout the former Spanish colonies. One of them, acclaimed as ‘the Man of Destiny,’ loomed over his time like a melodramatic colossus: the uncrowned monarch, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
“But there was something in the creole mentality — in Santa Anna himself and other caudillos and not only military commanders but also intellectuals like Alaman and Mora — that prevented them from consolidating a nation. Although they had the capacity and intellectual powers to establish a new order — some looking toward the future, eager for a state that would be republican, secular, democratic, and constitutional; others turning toward the past, nostalgic for a Catholic, hierarchical, centralized society — none of them could carry it off. And worse, they presided over a time of anarchy, economic impoverishment, the loss of national territory, and, above all, violence: revolutions, foreign interventions, civil struggles.”