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Home Editorial George Price Day, January 15

George Price Day, January 15

By a recent government decree, Belize, on January 15 each year, beginning in 2021, will celebrate a public and bank holiday, George Price Day, to honor our first Prime Minister, George Cadle Price.

We salute the man called “The Father of the Nation” on the much-deserved recognition for his services, and offer this brief look at his formative years and his role in the making of the modern Belize, this independent nation in the heart of Central America and the Caribbean Basin, proud member of the United Nations.

George Price is the third eldest of eleven children, and for a time it seemed his life’s vocation was to serve as a Roman Catholic priest, but he returned home before completing his studies to work as a secretary and translator for Robert Turton, a Belizean millionaire who had made his fortune in mahogany and chicle, and other businesses. At Turton’s enterprises, Price worked with great mariners, woodsmen, and engineers of the day, and he was exposed to the builders of our nation all across the country.

Price first entered electoral politics in 1944, then in 1949, he and a group of friends who shared the vision of an independent Belize, and who found a catalyst in the decision by the colonial government to devalue our dollar, formed the People’s Committee. The group, bolstered by the General Workers’ Union, would later become the People’s United Party, the most successful political party prior to independence, in fact the only political party to hold government in pre-independent Belize.

Price and some senior leaders of the PUP split in 1956 over the proposal that Belize join the proposed West Indian Federation, a political union that was actually established with the British Caribbean Federation Act of 1956. Price, a light-skinned Creole/Mestizo, was opposed to joining the federation, and he was accused by the Afro members of the party of having an agenda to Latinize Belize.

Divorcing ourselves from the always controversial race discussion, it can be argued that Price was right in his view that Belize stay out of the federation, for the political union collapsed just six years later, in 1962.

Abdul Rob, in a 2016 article published on the website blackhistorymonth.org.uk, said, “the Bahamas, Bermuda, Belize, the British Virgin Islands, and Guyana opted not to join because they believed that their future lay with becoming North American.” The article further stated that the West Indian Federation had a weak structure and, among its weaknesses was the fear of smaller members that the large island economies would overwhelm theirs, and the worry of the larger provinces “about mass migration from the smaller islands.”

Belize gained self-government under Price’s leadership in 1964, and the PUP set about acquiring large foreign estates and identifying other unused lands which they distributed to landless Belizeans. Although this land reform program was mainly in the northern districts and the Cayo District, the popularity the PUP gained was sufficient to catapult them to victory after victory in general elections.

Price fought hard for Belize’s independence, and despite his popularity being on the wane after he had served as the country’s leader for two decades, he managed to hold on to power in the 1979 general election and oversee the flag of Belize flying proudly alongside those of other nations of the world.

Why Freedom Day instead of Emancipation Day?

Among the list of “public and bank holidays” for 2021 that was published in the Belize Gazette dated December 30, 2020, and signed by new Minister of Home Affairs and New Growth Industries, Hon. Kareem Musa, is, for the first time in Belize, August 1, the day recognized and celebrated throughout the British Commonwealth as Emancipation Day. It is a move that, overall is welcomed. There are, however, two bones of contention for some. In Belize this year, August 1 falls on a Sunday, so the holiday will be observed on August 2 instead; and, for whatever reason, the name of the new holiday listed in the Gazette is “Freedom Day,” and not “Emancipation Day,” as most people expected.

And not everyone is happy. It is quite normal, when a holiday falls on a weekend, for the holiday to be celebrated on the closest weekday. But the perceived name change, from Emancipation Day to Freedom Day, is another matter. The thing is, you can’t change something that never was, and there was never an officially endorsed Emancipation Day holiday in Belize, only a celebration by a group recognizing the day and agitating for it to be endorsed by official authorities.

And they were not alone. According to one Wikipedia page on the observance: “Emancipation Day is observed in many former European colonies in the Caribbean and areas of the United States on various dates to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people of African descent.”

In regards to the relevance of the August 1 date to former colony British Honduras, now Belize, it says:

“The Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which abolished slavery throughout the British Empire…, came into force the following year, on 1 August 1834. Only slaves below the age of six were freed. Enslaved people older than six years of age were re-designated as ‘apprentices’ and required to work, 40 hours per week without pay, as part of compensation payment to their former owners. Full emancipation was finally achieved at midnight on 31 July 1838.”

According to current UBAD Education Foundation (UEF) chairperson Yaya Marin Coleman, the first Emancipation Day celebration in Belize was spearheaded by patriot Simon Lamb back in 1888, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Emancipation, which occurred in all British colonies in 1838. With the colonial emphasis on Tenth of September celebrations, starting with the Centenary of the Battle of Saint George’s Caye in 1898, Emancipation Day had been pretty much ignored in Belize, until then UEF chairperson Virginia Echols proposed the rekindling of efforts to mark this important milestone with an early morning ceremony and celebration at the Yabra Green seashore on August 1, 2014.

Since then, UEF has kept the annual Emancipation Day Jubilee celebration going, and has been lobbying for the day to receive national recognition. Though not yet achieving a holiday in honor of the historical date, UEF did receive some official support for Emancipation Day in 2019, when the then (UDP) Deputy Prime Minister, Hon. Patrick Faber, publicly acknowledged the significance of the day, stating that, “While today is not a public and bank holiday, it is a day where I want to ask all Belizeans to call to mind the fact that the enslavement of African people was a reality here in Belize and other places in this hemisphere…” (from “UEF celebrates Emancipation Jubilee Day 2020” by Marco Lopez, Amandala)

Well, a new PUP government was elected on November 11th of 2020, and it would seem that they have attempted to “put their money” where the past UDP government only “put their mouth.” While the obvious assumption is that the Minister decided to change the name from Emancipation Day to Freedom Day, such was never stated in the Gazette — only that a holiday would be celebrated on August 2 “in lieu” of August 1. And, whatever is the case, some folks, including UEF chairperson Yaya Marin Coleman, are not at all pleased with the name change. If the intention is to highlight the historical significance of Emancipation, then why change the name of the holiday to Freedom Day? And if the intention is NOT to celebrate Emancipation Day, the question is, why not? One possible explanation could be that the desire was to detract attention from the painful memories of slavery unavoidably associated with “Emancipation,” and direct the nation’s attention and focus instead to the universally positive idea of “Freedom.”

But if so, why? Why haven’t the Jews tried to obliterate their memory of the Holocaust?

Many citizens are glad for a holiday for any purpose, and will not make a fuss about the name, especially if their nonchalance is fueled by ignorance of the issue; but many others put great value on the potential of the name being a vehicle for enlightenment and empowerment of a people already victimized by a system of “brainwash education.”

An Emancipation Day holiday is not a new concept, and Belize would not be blazing any trails here.

According to one historical source, Trinidad and Tobago  became the first independent country in the world to declare a national holiday to commemorate the abolition of slavery on August 1, 1985, and in this Caribbean nation, Emancipation Day replaced Columbus Discovery Day, “which commemorated the arrival of Christopher Columbus at Moruga on 31 July 1498, as a national public holiday.”

Some other countries celebrating Emancipation Day on August 1 include Anguilla, The Bahamas, Barbados and Jamaica; while others which use a day or days in early August to celebrate Emancipation Day include Antigua & Barbuda, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Canada, Dominica, Grenada, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

In Belize, it would at first appear we were following the example of Trinidad and Tobago, because our previously celebrated October 12 holiday, known first as “Columbus Day” and then as “Pan-American Day,” has been removed and replaced with the August 1 holiday, thus the assumption that the August date is marking Emancipation Day. But the name “Freedom Day” makes it all so unclear. And again the question, why?

Perhaps it is not too late for those in authority to “wheel and come again.”

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