Commonwealth Day

In 1862 the settlement of Belize in the Bay of Honduras became the Crown Colony of British Honduras. In 1950, after the British Governor, Sir Ronald Garvey, used his “reserve power” to devalue the British Honduras dollar, reducing it to seventy cents on the American dollar where it was previously on par, the people of British Honduras began to agitate and fight against British colonialism in the quest for political independence. That independence took thirty-one years to achieve, and even when it was achieved in 1981, the new nation of Belize became independent “within the (British) Commonwealth.”


Each year, we Belizeans are instructed to celebrate May 24 as Commonwealth Day. A strange word - “Commonwealth”, because for all those non-white subjects of the Queen of England, the wealth has never been common. As it had been under slavery, so it was under colonialism, and so it has been under the Commonwealth – the wealth went to Britain and we natives spend our time quarrelling about the little that is left.

In the twentieth century there were two so-called world wars fought. World War I lasted from 1914 to 1918, and World War II from 1939 to 1945. In both these wars, it was considered that the principal antagonists were the British and the Germans, even though, from the standpoint of their barbarian tribal origins - Normans and Angles and Saxons – they can be considered first cousins. Britain is supposed to have won both world wars, both of which involved German challenges to British imperial/colonial power.

A relatively small island nation, England produced great fighting men and the best navies in the world. She sent her soldiers and sailors all over the world to raid, invade, conquer and rule. England’s violent men were so successful that it was famously said that the British Empire was so large, the sun never set on it. Amongst the former colonies of Great Britain which are now independent countries “within the Commonwealth”, are Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Guyana, the British Caribbean island nations, and many more – more than 50 nations in all.

All over planet earth, British subjects drank the same tea and cocoa in the morning – Brooke Bond and Bourneville, gave their babies the same gripe water to drink – Woodward’s, rode the same bicycles – Raleigh and Rudge and Hercules, drank the same whisky – Johnnie Walker, wore the same shoes –Bata’s, and bathed with the same soap – Lifebuoy.

All British subjects used Royal Readers and took primary school leaving exams after Standard Six. Those who went to high school took the Cambridge School Leaving Certificate to get “Ordinary Level” passes in various subjects. If you wanted to go to university, you had to go up to Sixth Form to take subjects at “Advanced Level”. This was whether you were an Indian, a Nigerian, a Jamaican or a Belizean. We were all British subjects. We were all children of the Queen. We were all ruled by white supremacy.

Next week, then, we will once again “celebrate” our subjection and our inferiority. We will express our gratitude all over the planet for the fact that the British have “civilized” us. We will set aside the fact that the British also conquered and impoverished us in the process of enriching and glorifying themselves. No, we Anglophiles will praise God that we have been “civilized”, that we have been blessed with the British “gift” of Westminster parliamentary democracy.

British military technology is so advanced, we are told, that a British warship could anchor outside English Caye and lob huge artillery shells directly and precisely into the presidential palace in Guatemala City. Our point, dear readers, is that British power in real terms is so great that the British can afford to be “laid-back” and unobtrusive. The British are considered great diplomats. This is so because they are dealing from a standpoint of strength. They can enforce their will on you if they must. But over centuries of imperialism and colonialism, the British have found that it is less expensive to practise diplomacy rather than to wage war. This is a lesson the Americans, who were British colonial subjects until 1776, have not really chosen to learn.

It was important for American president George Bush to have British prime minister Tony Blair accompany him in the invasion of Iraq, but you will have noted that the military invasion created more political problems for Blair in Britain than it did for Bush in America. Britain’s participation in the Iraq invasion was important for Bush, because the Americans are considered generally clumsy and overbearing. The British have more international respect.

Twenty four years ago, it went unnoticed that the Heads of Agreement process, which led to uproar in Belize, began with a visit by then British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, to Washington for talks with the American president, Ronald Reagan. On her return to London, Mrs. Thatcher immediately summoned Belize prime minister, George Price, to London. Mr. Price signed the Heads of Agreement, in March of 1981, in return for a promise of independence for Belize. The people of Belize rejected the Heads of Agreement, rejected them violently. Independence ceremonies were held on September 21, 1981, under a state of emergency declared by the British Governor in early April that year.

Three years ago, there was another attempt to “solve” the Guatemalan claim to Belize. Belize was represented by Sir Shridath Ramphal; Guatemala by American corporate lawyer, Paul Reichler. Ramphal is a Guyanese national who is a high-ranking academic in jurisprudence and other such matters. He is known to be an Anglophile. The Ramphal/Reichler proposals crashed on the reefs of Guatemala politics. In the almost immediate aftermath, Ramphal surfaced in Belize in the company of one Jeffrey Prosser, Ramphal’s business partner. Prosser and BTL, as most of you know, represent an unhappy saga which is still unfolding.

A new wrinkle in the Ramphal/Reichler proposals, as compared to the Heads of Agreement, was a free trade agreement between Belize and Guatemala. In pursuance of their business, diplomatic and other strategic interests in Central America, the British have been financing and organizing various initiatives to bring the Belize and Guatemala business classes together. The exercise is most intriguing. It may also be insidious. The British are such masters of the game.

And so, we humble and poverty-stricken Belizeans will follow instructions on Monday. We celebrate, Commonwealth Day 2005. We celebrate the rule of Gallon Jug and Market Square. They drink the champagne – we drink the “shake up”. Come, mek wi celebrate.