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From The Publisher

PublisherFrom The Publisher

The institutions which the governments in post-colonial societies like ours are most nervous about are the army and the university. This is why when the Belize government was going to have a Belizean take over leadership of the Belize Defence Force after our 1981 independence, they passed over Charlie Good and sent Tom Greenwood of the Belize Volunteer Guard to train at Sandhurst for leadership of the BDF. The Belize government was nervous about Good’s charismatic leadership abilities. 

It was important for our British colonial masters to control education, which is to say, knowledge. After Belize’s self-government in 1964 and our political independence in 1981, things changed minimally in our education system.

I give credit to the University College of Belize (UCB) for bringing Rigoberta Menchu to Belize in the 1990s. When I was chairman of the new University of Belize (UB) between 2000 and 2004, we brought Ivan van Sertima to Belize.

But, since that time, no brilliant, controversial figure like Professor Cornel West has been invited to Belize. I had recommended Penn State University Professor Matthew Restall for an invite to Belize some years ago, but I was not at all surprised to be totally ignored.

Sean Taegar, the younger son of the late Dr. Leroy Taegar and his wife, made it his business to obtain a copy of a book about the Caste (Social) War, which began in 1847 in the Yucatan north of us, because he knows this war is a great interest of mine. It is a great interest of mine because in 13 years of education in Belize, this very important war was completely ignored by my educators. This became a bone in my throat, and helped to spark my personal rebellion.

I immediately started reading Sean’s gift. I read slowly these days, mindful always of Stretch Lightburn’s wise words: “Black is beautiful; tan is grand; but white is the color of the Big Boss Man.” But, if you are a serious Belizean student in 2024, knowledge of the Maya may be more important than any other knowledge in our historical and sociological context.

Sean Taegar’s gift is entitled MAYA-BRITISH CONFLICT AT THE EDGE OF THE YUCATECAN CASTE WAR. It is written by Christine A. Kray, professor of anthropology at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. The book is published by the University Press of Colorado (2023).

I am already marking up the book so that I can refer to important passages in the future. There is so much that is vitally important here. I have said that you simply have to read Nelson Reed’s THE CASTE WAR IN YUCATAN. I am still in the Introduction, but I know already you have to read Christine Kray’s book.

In this column, I will quote three of her passages, the first from pages 5 and 6, the second from page 8, and the third from page 10.

“At the outbreak of the hostilities, Yucatecan elites characterized the conflict as a Caste War (guerra de castas). The name has persisted, even though most contemporary scholars acknowledge that it is problematic. This book’s title employs the term for the purpose of recognizability. However, as some other scholars have done, in the pages of this book I use the term Social War, because of three characteristics of the conflict neatly summarized by Wolfgang Gabbert. First, ‘Caste War’ implies a division rooted in ethnic descent. However, a fact which is central to this account is that, over time, hundreds of thousands of people of Maya descent fought against the rebels. In addition, the rebels included – both as leaders and foot soldiers – many people who were of mixed ethnic background and even some who were legally vecinos (rights-bearing townspeople: in effect, non-Indians). Finally, by characterizing the conflict as a race war, Spanish-descended Yucatecans could blame ‘racial hatred’ and draw attention away from the (legitimate) political and economic complaints of Yucatecan peasants. For these reasons, and to keep economic factors squarely in view, I use the broader term Social War.”     

”In the mid-nineteenth century, once the rebellion was underway, Indigenous people predictably moved back and forth across the Hondo River to maximize their safety and prosperity, in accordance with evolving conditions. One group of people who were a key link between Yucatan and the British settlement at this time – and who are critical to the developments described in this book – were those whom O. Nigel Bolland and Grant Jones identified as the San Pedro Maya. They were a group of Maya speakers who moved southward from Yucatan into the British-claimed zone in the late 1850s and early 1860s, settling several villages in the Yalbac Hills region, with a political center at San Pedro. The Maya rebels in Yucatan had by this time, split between those committed to the rebellion (the Kruso’ob) and the Pacificos. The San Pedro Maya subsequently broke away from the Pacificos centered at Chichanha, and therefore became a third group of Maya actors within a complex set of shifting political alliances at a time of intense insecurity and mutual apprehension. This widespread insecurity was sustained and fed over time by a post-independence power vacuum in the early national period; successive waves of raids in Yucatan; a regional build-up of arms and ammunition; broken promises; brittle military alliances; disputed territorial boundaries; and a sparsely populated frontier zone that served as a safe haven for rebels, pioneers, commercial woodcutters, refugees, thieves, war profiteers, deserters, escaped prisoners, and runaway debt servants, alike.”

“In the United States, two of the most intractable myths about Indigenous people are that they ‘do not understand the concept of property,’ and relatedly, that they ‘do not view land as property.’ There is a kernel of truth in these myths, in that pre-colonial native North and Central Americans often used land in accordance with use-rights – that one could use the land by virtue of membership in a social group. The myth that Indigenous people ‘do not view land as property’ is often repeated by well-meaning Americans who indirectly critique the logics of consumer capitalism by holding up Indigenous use-rights as an alternative cultural model. However, Maya people combined ideas of use rights and ownership of land in the late pre-hispanic and early postconquest periods. Moreover, they adapted new strategies of land tenure within the contexts of Spanish and British imperialism. It is worth noting that if one’s romanticism leads one to appreciate Indigenous people for their supposed differences (e.g., egalitarianism and environmentalism), one denies them the opportunity to leverage resources for their own purposes.

“During the Social War, Kruso’ob and Pacifico Maya leaders treated lands as (collective) property, charging rent from British woodcutters and small-scale farmers in order to finance their war efforts and achieve the sovereignty and political autonomy that were their end goals. Their demands, when backed with threats of and use of force, outraged British officials and woodcutters, ultimately triggering the British military campaign and demands of total surrender and relinquishment of land claims in 1862. At root, the British seemed reluctant to view Indigenous people as people who could legitimately hold and wield property rights. While they were willing to pay the Mexican government for timber harvest contracts, they found the Maya leaders’ demands ‘absurd’ and ‘Blackmail.’ They failed to envision the Maya as coequal partners in business transactions; this racist vision thereafter became enshrined in official policy.”     

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