COLONIAL STAGNATION AND CRISIS:
The Genesis of Modern Politics, 1931-54

Source: U.S. Library of Congress

The Great Depression shattered the colony's economy, and unemployment increased rapidly. The Colonial Report for 1931 stated that "contracts for the purchase of mahogany and chicle, which form the mainstay of the Colony, practically ceased altogether, thereby throwing a large number of the woodcutters and chicle-gatherers out of work." On top of this economic disaster, the worst hurricane in the country's recent history demolished Belize Town on September 10, 1931, killing more than 1,000 people and destroying at least three-quarters of the housing. The British relief response was tardy and inadequate. The British government seized the opportunity to impose tighter control on the colony and endowed the governor with reserve powers, or the power to enact laws in emergency situations without the consent of the Legislative Council. The Legislative Council resisted but eventually passed a resolution agreeing to give the governor reserve powers in order to obtain disaster aid. Meanwhile, people in the town were making shelters out of the wreckage of their houses. The economy continued to decline in 1932 and 1933. The total value of imports and exports in the latter year was little more than one-fourth of what it had been in 1929.

The Belize Estate and Produce Company survived the depression years because of its special connections in British Honduras and London. Since 1875 various members of the Hoare family had been principal directors and maintained a controlling interest in the company. Sir Samuel Hoare, a shareholder and former director, was a former British cabinet member and a friend of Leo Amery, the British secretary of state for the colonies. In 1931, when the company was suffering from the aftereffects of the hurricane and the depression, family member Oliver V.G. Hoare contacted the Colonial Office to discuss the possibility of selling the company to buyers in the United States. The British government rescued the company by granting it an area of virgin mahogany forest and a loan of US$200,000 to erect a sawmill in Belize Town. When the government almost doubled the land tax, the large landowners refused to pay. The government accepted some virtually worthless land in lieu of taxes and in 1935 capitulated completely, reducing the tax to its former rate and annulling the landowners' arrears by making them retroactive to 1931. But small landowners had paid their taxes, often at a higher rate.

Robert Turton, the Creole millionaire who made his fortune from chicle exports, defeated C.H. Brown, the expatriate manager of the company, in the first elections for some of the Legislative Council seats in 1936. After the elections, the governor promptly appointed Brown to the council, presumably to maintain the influence of what had for so long been the colony's chief business. But Brown's defeat by Turton, one of the company's chief local business rivals, marked the decline of old British enterprises in relation to the rising Creole entrepreneurs with their United States commercial connections.

Meanwhile, the Belize Estate and Produce Company drove Mayan villagers from their homes in San Jose and Yalbac in the northwest and treated workers in mahogany camps almost like slaves. Investigators of labor conditions in the 1930s were appalled to discover that workers received rations of inferior flour and mess pork and tickets to be exchanged at the commissaries, in lieu of cash wages. As a result, workers and their families suffered from malnutrition and were continually in debt to their employers. The law governing labor contracts, the Masters and Servants Act of 1883, made it a criminal offense for a laborer to breach a contract. The offense was punishable by twenty-eight days of imprisonment with hard labor. In 1931 the governor, Sir John Burdon, rejected proposals to legalize trade unions and to introduce a minimum wage and sickness insurance. The conditions, aggravated by rising unemployment and the disastrous hurricane, were responsible for severe hardship among the poor. The poor responded in 1934 with a series of demonstrations, strikes, petitions, and riots that marked the beginning of modern politics and the independence movement.

Riots, strikes, and rebellions had occurred before, during and after the period of slavery, but the events of the 1930s were modern labor disturbances in the sense that they gave rise to organizations with articulate industrial and political goals. In 1894 mahogany workers rioted against a cut in their real wages caused by devaluation. In 1919 demobilized Creole servicemen protested British racism. But British troops soon stopped these spontaneous protests, which were indicative of discontent but had little lasting effect. In contrast, a group calling itself the Unemployed Brigade marched through Belize Town on February 14, 1934, to present demands to the governor and started a broad movement. Poor people, in desperation, turned to the governor, who responded by creating a little relief work--stone-breaking for US$0.10 a day. The governor also offered a daily ration of two kilograms of cooked rice at the prison gates.

The unemployed, demanding a cash dole, turned to Antonio Soberanis Gómez (1897-1975), who denounced the Unemployed Brigade's leaders at a meeting on March 16, 1934, and took over the movement. For the next few weeks, Soberanis and his colleagues of the Labourers and Unemployed Association (LUA) attacked the governor and his officials, the rich merchants, and the Belize Estate and Produce Company at biweekly meetings attended by 600 to 800 people. The workers demanded relief and a minimum wage. They couched their demands in broad moral and political terms that began to define and develop a new nationalistic and democratic political culture.

Soberanis was jailed under a new sedition law in 1935. Still, the labor agitation achieved a great deal. Of most immediate importance was the creation of relief work by a governor who saw it as a way to avoid civil disturbances. Workers built more than 300 kilometers of roads. The governor also pressed for a semirepresentative government. But when the new constitution was passed in April 1935, it included the restrictive franchise demanded by the appointed majority of the Legislative Council, which had no interest in furthering democracy. High voter- eligibility standards for property and income limited the electorate to the wealthiest 2 percent of the population. Poor people, therefore, could not vote; they could only support members of the Creole middle classes that opposed big-business candidates. The Citizens' Political Party and the LUA endorsed Robert Turton and Arthur Balderamos, a Creole lawyer, who formed the chief opposition in the new council of 1936. Working-class agitation continued, and in 1939 all six seats on the Belize Town Board (the voting requirements allowed for a more representative electorate) went to middle-class Creoles who appeared more sympathetic to labor.

The greatest achievements of the agitation of the 1930s were the labor reforms passed between 1941 and 1943. Trade unions were legalized in 1941, but the laws did not require employers to recognize these unions. Furthermore, the penal clauses of the old Masters and Servants Act rendered the new rights ineffectual. Employers among the unofficial members at the Legislative Council defeated a bill to repeal these penal clauses in August 1941, but the Employers and Workers Bill, passed on April 27, 1943, finally removed breach-of-labor-contract from the criminal code and enabled British Honduras's infant trade unions to pursue the struggle for improving labor conditions. The General Workers' Union (GWU), registered in 1943, quickly expanded into a nationwide organization and provided crucial support for the nationalist movement that took off with the formation of the People's United Party (PUP) in 1950. The 1930s were therefore the crucible of modern Belizean politics. It was a decade during which the old phenomena of exploitative labor conditions and authoritarian colonial and industrial relations began to give way to new labor and political processes and institutions.

The same period saw an expansion in voter eligibility. Between 1939 and 1954, less than 2 percent of the population elected six members in the Legislative Council of thirteen members. In 1945 only 822 voters were registered in a population of over 63,000. The proportion of voters increased slightly in 1945, partly because the minimum age for women voters was reduced from thirty to twenty-one years. The devaluation of the British Honduras dollar in 1949 effectively reduced the property and income voter-eligibility standards. Finally, in 1954 British Honduras achieved suffrage for all literate adults as a result of the emerging independence movement. This development was a prelude to the process of constitutional decolonization.

The origins of the independence movement also lay in the 1930s and 1940s. Three groups played important roles in the colony's politics during this period. One group consisted of working-class individuals and emphasized labor issues. This group originated with Soberanis's LUA between 1934 and 1937 and continued through the GWU. The second group, a radical nationalist movement, emerged during World War II. Its leaders came from the LUA and the local branch of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. The group called itself variously the British Honduras Independent Labour Party, the People's Republican Party, and the People's National Committee. The third group consisted of people who engaged in electoral politics within the narrow limits defined by the constitution and whose goals included a "Natives First" campaign and an extension of the franchise to elect a more representative government.

In 1947 a group of graduates of the elite Saint John's College won control of the Belize City Council and started a newspaper, the Belize Billboard. One member of this group, George Cadle Price, topped the polls in the 1947 election when he opposed immigration schemes and import controls and rode a wave of feeling against a British proposal for a federation of its colonies in the Caribbean. Price was an eclectic and pragmatic politician whose ideological position was often obscured under a cloak of religious values and quotations. He has remained the predominant politician in the country since the early 1950s.

The event that precipitated Price's political career and the formation of the PUP, was the devaluation of the British Honduras dollar on December 31, 1949. In September 1949, the British government devalued the British pound sterling. In spite of repeated denials by the governor that the British Honduras dollar would be devalued to maintain the old exchange rate with the British pound, devaluation was nevertheless effected by the governor, using his reserve powers in defiance of the Legislative Council. The governor's action angered the nationalists because it reflected the limits of the legislature and revealed the extent of the colonial administration's power. The devaluation enraged labor because it protected the interests of the big transnationals, such as the Belize Estate and Produce Company, whose trade in British pounds would have suffered without devaluation while it subjected British Honduras's working class, already experiencing widespread unemployment and poverty, to higher prices for goods--especially food--imported from the United States. Devaluation thus united labor, nationalists, and the Creole middle classes in opposition to the colonial administration. On the night that the governor declared the devaluation, the People's Committee was formed and the nascent independence movement suddenly matured.

Between 1950 and 1954, the PUP, formed upon the dissolution of the People's Committee on September 29, 1950, consolidated its organization, established its popular base, and articulated its primary demands. Belize Billboard editors Philip Goldson and Leigh Richardson were prominent members of the PUP. They gave the party their full support through anticolonial editorials. The PUP received the crucial support of the GWU, whose president, Clifford Betson, was one of the original members of the People's Committee. Before the end of January 1950, the GWU and the People's Committee were holding joint public meetings and discussing issues such as devaluation, labor legislation, the proposed West Indies Federation, and constitutional reform. The GWU was the only mass organization of working people, so the early success of the PUP would have been impossible without the support of this union. On April 28, however, the middle-class members of the People's Committee (formerly members of the Christian Social Action Group, to which the founders of the Belize Billboard belonged) took over the leadership of the union and gave Betson the dubious honorific title of "patriarch of the union." A year later, George Price, the secretary of the PUP, became vice president of the union. The political leaders took control of the union to use its strength, but the union movement declined as it became increasingly dependent upon politicians in the 1950s.

The PUP concentrated on agitating for constitutional reforms, including universal adult suffrage without a literacy test, an all- elected Legislative Council, an Executive Council chosen by the leader of the majority party in the legislature, the introduction of a ministerial system, and the abolition of the governor's reserve powers. In short, PUP pushed for representative and responsible government. The colonial administration, alarmed by the growing support for the PUP, retaliated by attacking two of the party's chief public platforms. In July 1951, the governor dissolved the Belize City Council on the pretext that it had shown disloyalty by refusing to display a picture of King George VI. Then, in October, the governor charged Belize Billboard publishers and owners, including Richardson and Goldson, with sedition. The governor jailed them for twelve months with hard labor. Soon after, PUP leader John Smith resigned because the party would not agree to fly the British flag at public meetings. The removal of three of four chief leaders was a blow to the party, but the events left Price in a powerful position. In 1952 he comfortably topped the polls in Belize City Council elections. Within just two years, despite persecution and division, the PUP had become a powerful political force, and George Price had clearly become the party's leader.

The colonial administration and the National Party, which consisted of loyalist members of the Legislative Council, portrayed the PUP as pro-Guatemalan and even communist. The leaders of the PUP, however, perceived British Honduras as belonging to neither Britain nor Guatemala. The governor and the National Party failed in their attempts to discredit the PUP on the issue of its contacts with Guatemala, which was then ruled by the democratic, reformist government of President Jacobo Arbenz. When voters went to the polls on April 28, 1954, in the first election under universal literate adult suffrage, the main issue was clearly colonialism--a vote for the PUP was a vote in favor of self-government. Almost 70 percent of the electorate voted. The PUP gained 66.3 percent of the vote and won eight of the nine elected seats in the new Legislative Assembly. Further constitutional reform was unequivocally on the agenda.

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