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THE EMANCIPATION JUBILEE AND PEOPLE’S HALL PROJECT, 1888–1893

GeneralTHE EMANCIPATION JUBILEE AND PEOPLE’S HALL PROJECT, 1888–1893

On 1 August 1888 those Belizeans who identified themselves as descendants of slaves celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation, presenting themselves to the governor as representative of ‘‘the coloured population of this Colony.’’ Organized by an all-male committee headed by laborer Simon Lamb, along with ‘‘a considerable number of women’’ and several schoolteachers, the Emancipation Jubilee indicated the capacity for black-identified self- organization involving black and mixed- race women and made no mention of 1798 as a date of any significance for black Belizeans.

Organizers asked for an educational institution rather than political rights, but they did not look to middle-class Creoles as their spokesmen. Three notable features of the jubilee parade were the pairing of ‘‘woodcutters’’ and ‘‘Baymen,’’ the inclusion of women, and the presence of blackface minstrels. The band of ‘‘woodcutters’’ led off, carrying axes and paddles as ‘‘the emblems of their occupation,’’ while the ‘‘Baymen’’ carried a banner with the old coat of arms reading ‘‘Sub umbra floreo [In the shade we flourish].’’

In the 1898 myth, the ‘‘Baymen’’ would be coded as white slaveowners, but here their identity was less clear and potentially subversive, as they were played by ‘‘coloured people’’ and could perhaps be seen as sharing a common black ancestry with the woodcutters. The first of three groups of women was a ‘‘large army of females’’ in red dresses, ‘‘snowy white muslin pinafores,’’ and straw hats trimmed with red; the others were in white with blue and white with pink respectively. Although distinct from male ‘‘citizens,’’ women were at least present, unlike in the battle centennial parade a decade later.

Two carts of ‘‘amateur Christy’s Minstrels dressed in appropriate costume with countenances as hideous as could be desired by their greatest admirers’’ brought up the rear. Whether the parade organizers had sanctioned the blackface players’ presence is as difficult to know as their reactions to the minstrels: indifference, suppressed outrage, or hilarity at whites’ attempt at mimicry seem equally plausible. One could even speculate that black Belizeans played Baymen in a reverse minstrelsy.

Although there were gestures of racial humility and even empire loyalty in the speeches presented to the governor, they also defied dominant biologized racism by linking improvement through education to ancestral values and Creole pride. Lamb’s committee praised William IV and Queen Victoria, who ‘‘set our ancestors at liberty,’’ and gave thanks that since emancipation ‘‘our rights as a freed people have been maintained and honoured.’’ Grateful that fifty years of enlightenment had enabled ‘‘the majority of Creoles of this town, though not highly educated,’’ to read the Bible, the committee thanked the governor for his aid in starting an emancipation institute.

The ‘‘schoolchildren’s’’ speech, undoubtedly written by the teachers who signed it, diverged in describing slavery as ‘‘misery . . . cruelty . . . [a] galling yoke . . . humiliation . . . degradation,’’ a memory that the middle class would consistently deny. Yet it too attributed emancipation to Queen Victoria and expressed gratitude for ‘‘education, liberty, all supported by Britain.’’ The speech concluded, ‘‘As the children of a people remarkable for loyalty we desire to grow up more intelligent than our ancestors, and to inherit their magnanimity,’’ and thanked the governor for his commitment to help with the emancipation institute. Gahne’s coverage of the jubilee in the Colonial Guardian emphasized its orderliness. This was clearly an expression of relief, for a few days earlier he had warned the organizers not to allow memories of slavery to provoke unrest. A feature in the newspaper argued that ‘‘the slavery of British Honduras . . . was unlike that of the other British colonies in the New World, as slavery but in name.’’

The ‘‘evidence’’ presented to support this view is familiar to most adult Belizeans today as part of the battle myth. Although armed and isolated in the woods with their masters, male slaves did not attack whites. Indeed, according to this view, the slave gang was in fact more like a colonial militia, ready to protect its officer’s ‘‘life and property against marauders from Yucatan,’’ or like the clansmen of a Scottish chief. Thus, ‘‘the hatred of race and of class which arose in other portions of the British Empire where slavery existed’’ never developed in British Honduras, and ‘‘the Creole labouring class’’ had neither the desire nor capacity to engage in ‘‘crimes of violence.’’

On 1 August 1889 Lamb’s committee and a group of women wearing the red and white costumes of 1888 marched to an empty lot in the center of Belize Town where the governor granted ownership to the group. Here the promised emancipation institute, now dubbed the People’s Hall, was to be built by private donations.

Little progress had been made by early 1892, when Gahne called for the return of the lot to the government for a general colonial museum. In August 1892 the People’s Hall Committee met with Governor Moloney to discuss its financial insolvency. A veteran of the colonial service in West Africa, Moloney demonstrated a sympathetic understanding of the causes of slavery and the meaning of emancipation and committed the administration to aiding the project.

The People’s Hall was partially complete by March 1893, when Moloney withdrew support, now advocating Gahne’s idea of a general museum that would ‘‘recognize no distinctions of class or colour’’ and would not ‘‘keep alive the memory of those atrocities.’’ The governor implied at an open meeting that suspicions of racial motives, and of the project being by and for members of the Wesleyan Church, had hampered its success.

The committee members voted to turn over the project to the administration but then withdrew their resignations. The passions and goals motivating this reversal are undocumented, but we do know that Gahne roundly disapproved of the committee’s persistence. By July 1893 the People’s Hall was almost complete when a severe tropical storm razed it. The committee held a final fundraiser at Christmastime in 1893 and then vanished. Middle-class Creoles, lacking any desire to commemorate slavery and emancipation, or to identify with their black ancestry, made no effort to revive the project. Gahne’s criticisms of it as sectarian and racially divisive heralded middle-class claims to be generally representative and racially neutral.

Macpherson, Anne. 2003. “Imagining the Colonial Nation: Race, Gender, and Middle-Class Politics in Belize. 1888-1898.” Pp 114 – 116

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