From The Publisher, Amandala
Author: Evan X Hyde
A few months ago I was watching Amado Chan’s show on Plus TV in Belmopan. It may have been a repeat, but that doesn’t matter. I assume Mr. Chan is of Maya descent, and from the content of the conversation, I would say his two guests were also Maya. The host and his guests were lamenting the fact that Belize City Belizeans have chosen to live in the lowlands or swamps, while the Maya always preferred the highlands.
After Hurricane Hattie in October of 1961, then First Minister George Price, who was at the height of his political power and popularity at the time, quickly decided that his government would build a new city to be the capital of the country, instead of rebuilding the old capital which we now know as Belize City. (In 1961, today’s Belize was still British Honduras, and Belize City was just plain “Belize.”)
In 1961, the colony was maybe 70 to 75% black, and the capital city had an even larger percentage of blacks, mostly Creoles. I would tend to believe that in 1961 there continued to be regular shipping and airplane contact between Belize and Kingston, the capital of Jamaica. Ships would steam back and forth at least once a month, while planes of the British West Indian Airways (BWIA) were making the trip between British Honduras and Jamaica at least weekly.
I will rely, con permiso, on the librarian Lawrence Vernon or the archivist Charles Gibson to tell us when exactly it was that ships ceased to travel and airplanes stopped flying directly between British Honduras and Jamaica. At the time these two things happened, there was no real public or media murmur or discussion about their significance. That may have been because people expected the rupture of transportation contact with Jamaica to be only temporary. Remember, almost everything that came out of England and Europe on the way to Belize, had passed through Jamaica. Jamaica was our door to England, the “motherland.” Jamaica was like our big brother. Whenever there was trouble in Belize, the colonial officials here looked to Jamaica for counsel, instructions, and reinforcements. This was a state of affairs which had existed from the seventeenth century.
Belize began as a haven for pirates, mostly British ones. They preyed on the Spanish flotillas which regularly left Havana in Cuba and Vera Cruz and Campeche in Mexico to take gold, silver, jewels and other valuables from the aforementioned Cuba and Mexico (New Spain) back to their motherland in Spain. The pirates discovered that Belize was a very good place to run and hide out after they had perpetrated their nefarious deeds. The main reason for this was the fact that when the Spanish ships chased them, the Spanish had an impossible time trying to deal with the Barrier Reef and all the other shoals and reefs inside of the Barrier Reef itself.
It is important for Maya people to understand that when they see the unhealthy swamps of Belize City, it is only a stone’s throw outside of the Haulover Creek delta to the most beautiful and bountiful blue seas you can imagine. At least, that was the way it used to be, even as late as a couple decades ago.
In retrospect, one imagines that Mr. Price envisioned the new capital would quickly become a bustling, industrial and agro-industrial metropolis, while Mr. Price’s political opponents saw the diversion of reconstruction funds to the Cayo District as a serious blow to the future prospects of the old capital. In fact, ten years after Hattie when I ran as a Belize City Council candidate with the NIP/UBAD coalition in December of 1971, the decision to build Belmopan and essentially ignore Belize City was still a prominent issue where the Opposition was concerned. (Belmopan had officially begun life in August of 1970.)
I would suggest that the most important reason why Belize City survived and proceeded to spread all over the place in the last 40 years is because the major banks decided to keep their headquarters in the old capital. The second reason, I submit, has to do with the Caribbean Sea and the Barrier Reef, which were the foundation of the tourist industries of San Pedro Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, and have continued to feed the Belize City population. So, Belize City is where the money is, and Belize City sits right next door to major crab, conch, lobster, and scale fish maritime fields.
Arguably, the most important economic development over the last 40 years in Belize has been the dazzling growth of San Pedro Ambergris and, to a lesser extent, Caye Caulker. These two “towns” now do almost all their financial, construction, transportation and other business with Belize City.
In the last 40 years, the value of real estate in the downtown areas of Belize City has exploded through the roof. Business people from the Middle East, India and China have bought out these properties, and “roots” Belizeans have sold and moved to the United States, and to the new housing developments outside of the original Belize City. In a generation or two, everything going west to Gracie Rock and north to Sandhill will be considered Belize City.
Personally, I’ve grown to cherish the highlands. I can see where Amado and the Mayas are coming from. But there is a Belize City story outside of the swamps. It is a story which began in the blue and used to stretch all the way to Jamaica. A lot of things have changed. But, the blue remains. Because we, the people, want the blue to remain, we have issues with the oil companies. They threaten our way of life at the mouth of the Haulover Creek. That is the bottom line here on Sunday morning, March 27, 2011.
Power to the people. Power in the struggle.