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Home Features The Growth of Black Consciousness in Belize 1914–1919

The Growth of Black Consciousness in Belize 1914–1919

The Background to the Ex-Servicemen’s Riot of 1919

Violence, whether spontaneous or premeditated, has an inherent attraction for both the historian and his reader. On the one hand there is the heightened colour of strong emotions unleashed in an individual or society exposed to unacceptable stress. On the other, the rare opportunity to perceive fully, perhaps for the first time, the processes in that individual or society which are most important to its functioning. Those processes and the psychological and ideological assumptions which regulate them may be only fully comprehended when the organism, be it individual or collective, makes war upon itself.

Violence, then, is revealing, and it is therefore somewhat difficult to understand successive historians’ neglect of the violent moments in modern Belizean history. The institutionalized violence of slavery has been well researched but often only as an exercise in revisionism – the post-emancipation upheavals of 1894, 1919 and 1934, however, have not been subject to a similar coverage. What has been written on the Labourer’s Riot of 1894 and the Soberanis “Disturbances” of 1934 have been largely the work of the present writer while the so-called “Ex-Servicemen’s Riot of 1919″ has only received scant mention in the existing histories of Belize.

The older general works of Donohoe, Gregg and Waddell contain no reference to it at all nor do the more recent histories of Ashcraft and Dobson, while Caiger’s brilliant, romantic perversion, British Honduras Past and Present, devotes only two lines to the event.  Further brief references are contained in Shoman’s pioneering article on the origin of the nationalist movement, Grant’s more voluminous study, Fairweather’s history of the volunteer forces and in the controversial A History of Belize. The only substantial narrative and interpretation is to be found in the 1979 issue of Brukdown devoted to a survey of Belizean history. That material was largely based on two other sources – the present writer’s doctoral dissertation and W.F. Elkin’s studies of the origins of black power in the Caribbean. Bill Elkin’s work, while seminal, is primarily concerned with the regional aspects of the post-war black renaissance and the events in Belize are only dealt with by him in so far as they contribute to the general upheaval which took place in the British West Indies between 1918 and 1920. That contribution was substantial but for purely national reasons it is high time that the causes, course and consequences of the violence and the fascinating detail contained in the Colonial Office documents, the newspapers of the day, and in the memories of the surviving participants, were made available to those interested in Belize’s recent past.

In that past the riot was a crucial event because of the breakdown of 19thcentury social relationships and attitudes which it made manifest. It gave expression to the black consciousness which had been growing since 1915; it reflected the unprecedented doubt which had arisen among the Colony’s working class members about the validity of British tutelage; it signified the awakening of that class to its exploitation by the Belize merchant community and, on a wider canvas, it marked the beginning of Belize’s full participation in the 20thcentury historical development of the Anglophone Caribbean.

This paper seeks only to describe and analyse the causes of the violence of 1919; the course and consequences of the Riot will be narrated in a later paper.

The Background to the Riot:

1. The Contingents and World War I (1914-1918)

The Riot cannot be divorced from the European war which preceded it. The outbreak of hostilities which followed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in August 1914 was eventually to have traumatic consequences in Europe itself, but no less significant were the political, economic, social and psychological changes to which it gave rise in the constituent colonies of the various European empires.

In Belize its immediate effects were economic for it brought to an end the period of relative prosperity which had existed since the beginning of the century.  From 1903 until 1914 the Belizean economy (its structural inadequacies accepted) had been in a fairly healthy state – mahogany and the new staple, chicle, had experienced a long period of “boom” while imports, exports, profits and wages had all attained record levels. These levels, particularly mahogany exports, however, could not be maintained once Europe was at war as the British merchant shipping necessary for the transport of the red wood to the U.K. was fully utilized in the provision of war materials to the metropolis. Mahogany production fell off immediately and although it recovered in 1916 when mahogany became the subject of an Admiralty quota, overseas earnings were only sustained by the sale of chicle in the U.S.A. The American market proved just as introspective in 1916, however, when the U.S. entered the War on the side of the Allies after the German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare. Not only were chicle exports from Belize thereafter strictly curtailed but, more importantly, a serious diminution in the Colony’s supply of basic foodstuff took place. The upshot, not surprisingly, was a substantial increase in the cost of living, which, when combined with periods of unemployment and mercantile profiteering, created increasing dissatisfaction among the Colony’s Creole labour force of mahogany workers and chicle collectors.

Initially, at least, that dissatisfaction was confined to a handful of “agitators” and it cannot be denied that at the outset of the War, despite the concomitant and unaccustomed hardships, the bulk of the Colony’s populace were solidly loyal to both the King Emperor and his representative in the Colony. Indeed so great was the wave of patriotism which engulfed Belize after August 1914 that there were immediate requests that an infantry force be recruited to supplement the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. Similar requests were dispatched to London from the rest of the British West Indian colonies but, for racial reasons, were ignored by the War Office until the King, George V, personally persuaded Kitchener (the Secretary of State for War) to increase a British West Indies regiment in order that his loyal Caribbean subjects might express that loyalty in a tangible form. Belize’s contribution to the British West Indies Regiment consisted of two contingents: the first of 129 men which left Belize City on the Verdela on 4 November 1915 and the second of 408 men which departed on the Magdalena on 15 July 1916. The two contingents were later incorporated into the 1st and 2ndBattalions of the British West Indies Regiment and served, as did the rest of the Regiment, in the Middle East theatre. “Our Boys” as the Clarion dubbed them were reported by that newspaper as providing sterling service in the Middle East army and in 1917 it waxed lyrical when it  recorded that members of the British West Indies Regiment had been specifically praised in General Allenby’s dispatches after their participation in the Battle of Gaza.

In fact no member of the 1st and 2nd  Battalions  of the British West Indies Regiment took part in that battle or any other, and the status, temper and disposition of the men of the Belize contingents was (and has been)  misrepresented by contemporary journalist and modern historian alike. Their experience, far from being happy and distinguished, was one of humiliation, discrimination and bitterness, for while they had long been used to the subtle colour-class discrimination of  their homeland, they had never before been exposed to the indignities of the blatant white racism they encountered during their war service.

Those indignities commenced as soon as the men set foot on the troop ships for, while trained as infantry, they quickly discovered that they were to join labour battalions and their eventual destination was the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates and not the Somme or Marne. They were later to learn that the reason for this change of role was racially inspired. The military authorities believed that it was “very doubtful if the West Indian Negro would prove reliable in action” and anyway it was “against a British tradition to employ aboriginal troops against a European enemy”. The West Indians’ aboriginal status was immediately brought home to them on their arrival in Mesopotamia. As labourers consigned to work in Inland Waterway Transport they found themselves disowned by most of their “white” officers (particularly Major Jeffery), subjected to the privations imposed by one particular racist (a Lt. Col. Wilson) and were slighted and humiliated by the European troops present.

In their evidence to the Commission convened after the Riot both Sergeant Grant and Corporal Haynes recorded that at Tanoma Camp they had been billeted with Indians and Hayes (who obviously kept a comprehensive written record of the indignities experienced) testified to a series of humiliations. He (and others) recorded that at camp after camp they had been allotted insanitary, unlighted, unheated quarters with primitive galleys (in contrast to those of the Europeans which were provided with electric light, solid floors and excellent cooking facilities); that the sick had received indifferent medical treatment and several contingent members had gone to untimely and unnecessary deaths through disease, that at several camps they had been forced to carry out fatigue duties for European troops; that they had often been transported for long distances in cattle trucks and that everywhere they had been excluded from white mess huts,  playing fields and bathing quarters and subject to abuse from white troops. In one instance, because they were “niggers” and “sambos”, a white chaplain refused to administer communion to them in a church tent while at Gabbary Camp. Haynes recorded that when they marched into the camp to the strains of “Rule Brittania” they were accosted by white troops demanding to know “who gave you niggers authority to sing that”. They were subsequently evicted from the white billet as “only British troops were admitted here”. In this degradation even the Contingents’ Creole officers were not excluded; on the return trip home on the Veronej, RSM MacDonald was excluded from his rightful mess and quarters as it was the belief of the ship’s quartermaster that he could not billet a “coloured” man with Europeans or suffer him to eat at their table.

It was later contended by both the Colonial Office and the Governor that the Contingent’s humiliations in Mesopotamia were solely the responsibility of the white officers and troops stationed there as those Europeans did not understand that black West Indians “have been accustomed, rightly or wrongly, to receive treatment in the West Indies differing from that usually meted out to Egyptians, Arabs and natives of Africa.” In fact, however, as this apologia itself unwittingly reflects, the local practice of racism by white soldiers against blacks only gave material form to the racial assumptions of the authorities in Whitehall. There had been the initial assumption that black West Indians were not fit to mix with white troops and this official  endorsement of a supposed inferiority was reinforced throughout the War in the allocation of pay, pensions and allowances.

Indeed the provision of the latter caused the Governor some anxiety soon after the 2nd Contingent’s departure as, on re-reading the “Army Council Instructions to the Colonial Authorities”, he noted that it was not “altogether clear that the  Imperial Authorities contemplated the grant of pensions for the widows of the British West Indies Regiment troops”. His fears were not misplaced and on relaying this news to the Legislative Council he evoked a degree of consternation in that body. One of its members, Colonel Cran (who had been largely instrumental in organizing the British Honduras Contingents) expressed the view that no man would have volunteered had they known that pensions and disability allowances would be subject to a test of skin colour – Cran felt that he had “broken faith, however unwittingly, with these men” and believed that “scarcely a single one would have come forward [to enlist]  had they known that such a distinction depending entirely on race and not on merit or service was contemplated.” That principle, that extra-remuneration was to be withheld from those “not of pure European parentage” found further expression in Army Ordinance Number 1 of 1918 which increased the pay and allowances of white and black troops differentially. Thereafter the former received 1/6d a day but the latter only 1/- so that  RSM MacDonald, in his evidence to the Riot Commission, could point to the anomalous situation whereby his pay was less than half that of his white subordinates when he was chief clerk at the regional H.O. at Baghdad. These anomalies, it was true, were rectified prior to the men’s return to Belize (Army Ordinance Number 1 was countermanded and the Legislative Council agreed to find the money for death and disability pensions) but there was no doubt that this official stigmatization of their inherent inferiority angered the men of the Belize Contingents as the depositions of several witnesses to the Riot Commission testified.

(To be concluded next week.)

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