“Of the five judges who were in their places, one was a mulatto. The jury was empaneled and two of the jurors were mulattoes; one of them, as the judge who sat next to me said, was a Sambo, or of the descending line, being the son of a mulatto woman and a black man. I was at a loss to determine the caste of a third juror and inquired of the judge, who answered that he was his, the judge’s brother, and that his mother was a mulatto woman. The judge was aware of the feeling which existed in the United States with regard to color, and said that in Belize there was, in political life, no distinction whatever, except on the ground of qualifications and character, and hardly any in social life, even in contracting marriages.”
- pg. 10, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas & Yucatan, Volume One, John L. Stephens, Rutgers University Press, 1949
An American by the name of John L. Stephens travelled by the “British brig Mary Ann” from New York City to British Honduras in 1839. From Belize, he travelled through parts of the republic of Honduras, Guatemala, and the Chiapas region of Mexico.
When Stephens reached Belize, the pilot who guided the brig through the Barrier Reef and into the harbor was a man who appeared white to him. But the pilot was accompanied by his young son, who was definitely “colored.” By the time he left here, Stephens had concluded that race mixing was a smooth process in Belize.
19 years earlier, in 1820, however, there had been a fairly serious slave revolt on the Belize Old River. The rebellion was not as violent or as large as the 1773 slave uprising, but it was quite significant, and was occasioned by ill-treatment and abuse being meted out in the mahogany camps by the rebels’ slaveowner. The 1820 slave rebellion is especially significant because it took place 22 years after Belize’s slave population supposedly sided with their Baymen slaveowners to fight off the Spanish (Yucatán) invaders of September 1798.
In a letter dated May 16, 1820, Lieutenant-Colonel George Arthur, the Superintendent of the Settlement of Belize, wrote the Earl Bathurst as follows: “It is with much concern I … report to your Lordship that on the 24th ultimo I received a communication from the magistrates apprising me … that a considerable number of slaves had formed themselves into a body in the River Belize, and being well armed, and having already committed various depredations, the most serious consequences were to be apprehended.”
Later, Arthur goes on: “ In my progress up the river I was much concerned to ascertain that the negroes who had first deserted, and excited others to join them, had been treated with very unnecessary harshness by their owner, and had certainly good reasons for complaint …”
Just five months later, nevertheless, on October 7, 1820, Arthur has to report to Bathurst as follows: “In my Report to your Lordship of the 16th May last, upon the insurrection which had taken place in the interior of the colony, I represented that it had originated from the harshness with which some of the slaves had been treated, and that I was not without hope that the consequences of that occasion would have had the beneficial tendency of exciting a greater degree of humanity towards these unfortunate people:- I am much distressed, my Lord, that my expectations have not been answered; and such is the increasing severity and cruelty which is now practiced with impunity …” In this letter, Arthur is specifically referring to “the result of a trial, which was instituted on the 6th instant against an inhabitant for excessive cruelty towards a poor slave …” Arthur opines that the trial, that of a free woman of color, named Duncannette Campbell, for “excessive cruelty towards a poor slave, absolutely excludes every hope, under the present system of jurisprudence, of bringing offenders to punishment when guilty of the most flagrant acts of inhumanity and oppression.”
Another very high profile case of abuse of slaves took place in September of the following year, 1821. Dr. Manfield William Bowen, an ancestor of the late, famous Barry Bowen, was tried for cruelty to slaves before the Magistrates, one of whom was James Hyde, a Scotsman who was my great great great great grandfather on my father’s side.
At some point in the future, Inshallah, I will reproduce the testimony in the Campbell and Bowen cases.
In my ancestry, I have both people who were slaves and people who owned slaves. In the settlement of Belize in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, there were a fair amount of “free people of color” who owned slaves. My great great great great grandmother on my father’s side was a free woman of color, Adney Broaster, whose mother, Eve Broaster, was a Mandingo slave from the Niger coast of West Africa.
In part because of 1820 and 1821, I have questions about the Battle of St. George’s Caye narrative. My purpose is not to undermine patriotism. My problem is that I do not like to be made a fool of. I believe that there have been people in power in this territory who had reasons to create the narrative they created for 1798, and that narrative became tradition, and then it became sentimental. The narrative is now embedded, so to speak. There’s little to be done about this anymore where popular discussion is concerned. People have taken their various positions. But, in academic circles our scholars should be searching for the truth, no matter how embarrassing it may turn out to be.
We Belizeans love our country, and we cherish our history. But, truth be told, the Emory King sagas were fairy tales. After slavery was abolished here in 1834 or 1838, whatever, a privileged class of non-whites began to emerge in our society. The seeds of that elitist tree were what John L. Stephens was seeing in 1839.
For me, I believe that there were institutional changes that had to be made, that have to be made, so that we can achieve a level of freedom, justice and equality in this land. The Queen and her heirs and successors are not interested in any changes: they like things just fine the way they are. But there is also a class of privileged Belizeans who don’t give a damn about the oppression and suffering of the Belizean masses. You can’t get them to support anything.
The problem is still about skin color. You can see that if you visit the prison at Hattieville. You can hear that if you listen to the news, where the perpetrators always seem to be “dark-complexioned males…”
But, the problem today is more complicated than color. It is about a class of our people who are condemned to punishment from the time they are born, or when they start school. I have been angry for a long time about all the PUDP political propaganda I have heard about skills-training for young adult Belizeans. It’s too late for education once the youth start cohabiting and reproducing. If you don’t fix the schools for the children, then our blood will continue to run in the streets. One blood.
Power to the people.