Sunday, September 10, 2000 Amandala Belize
The Battle of St. George’s Caye was not celebrated until one hundred years later, on September 10, 1898. That celebration was organized, it is said, by a “Creole” citizen of British Honduras by the name of Simon Lamb. Into the twentieth century, then, the “Creole” people referred to the Tenth of September as “Centenary.” (Over the years. , Amandala has found the “Creole” designation for certain Belizeans of some African extraction to be imprecise, confusing and ambiguous, hence the quotation marks around it.)
This weekend Centenary comes up, and the celebrations have changed a great deal. The commemoration of the Battle of St. George’s Caye is no longer the centerpiece of the September celebrations. Carnival has taken over as the biggest event of the September celebrations, with perhaps an argument from the Independence Day afternoon jump-up on September 21, which ends the celebrations.
This year’s September celebrations will actually go on, after a fashion, until September 29, which marks the 50th anniversary of the ruling People’s United Party, the country’s first mass political party and the party which led Belize to political independence in 1981.
The so-called Battle of St. George’s Caye was not considered as significant at the time as it later turned out to be. There were no known casualties on September 10, 1798, whereas in armed confrontations with the Spanish in 1763 and 1779, British Hondurans had actually been killed and taken away in chains. No one knew in 1798 that the abortive invasion of Arturo O’Neil’s armada from Yucatan would be the last armed attempt to dislodge the so-called Baymen from the “settlement of Belize in the Bay of Honduras.”
Belize is a small country with a large amount of divisive fault lines — ethnic, religious, political, etc. There are also an extraordinary amount of more powerful countries which have a special interest in Belize — Great Britain, the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, even now Salvador. We mention these divisions and these interests to provide some framework within which you can understand. why the question of Centenary, or St. George’s Caye Day, has become so controversial, in fact confining, over the last four decades or so.
The settlement of Belize became consolidated in 1798 when the black population here, which had been playing off the Baymen against the Spanish across the border in Mexico, decided to commit to a military alliance with the British Baymen. 64 years later the descendants of the 1798 Baymen decided, for financial reasons, to give up their sovereignty and become a colony of Great Britain.
The situation on the northern border of British Honduras changed drastically in the last half of the nineteenth century because of the Caste War in Yucatan between the ruling Hispanic “ladinos” and the rebellious Maya Indians. The British and the Baymen, who made a great deal of money supplying arms to both the warring parties, later decided to accept refugees from both sides into the northern districts - Corozal and Orange Walk, and it was these refugees who introduced the sugar cane cultivation technology into Belize. There has been a special relationship between business/industrial leaders in British Honduras and Yucatan ever since that time. It went on to include mahogany extraction of an unofficial nature, the same way this type of forestry exploitation created business linkages between powerfUl people in the Guatemalan Peten and their British Honduran counter parts.
The Centenary episode of 1898 involving Simon Lamb is one of the strangest of events, to our mind at this newspaper. It would be relatively easy to understand if he were only a paid stooge hired by the ruling mercantile and British colonial elite in the colony — the “backra man.” We don’t think so. But you can’t say for sure about anything that happened in the l9th century and the first half of the 2Oth century in British Honduras, despite Emory King’s breezy attempts to the contrary. The reason is that everything we know of the British Honduras of that time, apart from the opinions of Spain, Mexico, and Guatemala, comes directly from the white minority elite at the very top of the colonial/mercantile socioeconomic pyramid in the colony. There was no Amandala back then to give expression to the feelings of the black/brown working masses of the people. They were faceless, voiceless, and yet powerful in a way which has not been properly appreciated, mostly - because it was never documented.
If we grant the possibility that Simon Lamb may have been acting spontaneously, in an inspired, adult and popular manner, then there are all sorts of intriguing speculations in which we can indulge. But the history of the Belizean masses was completely oral, not written, and so there is a problem. The bottom line is that Centenary survived, became an annual event, and in the first half of the twentieth century, inspired British Honduran poets, musicians, dancers, and other artists. This is a historical fact.
The nationalist politicians of the PUP felt that the Centenary celebrations of the late 1950’s, had too much of a pro-British flavour, and so they sought to deride the actual Battle of St. George’s Caye as a myth. The Battle became a political football in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and Carnival finally decided the issue in the 1990’s. The Battle became primarily an excuse to “fete”, as the masses of the Belizean people do not really care about the specifics of the historical debates and quarrels.
The transformation of the Opposition party from the NIP into the UDP in 1973, diluted the support for the Battle of St. George’s Caye. Of the UDP leaders since then, it was Equivel, strangely enough, who cherished the Tenth pomp and circumstance the most. Lindo and Aranda only paid lip service. Barrow was originally doing the same, only paying lip service, but became a little Bayman-ish last year.
Beginning in the 1950’s, and increasing torrentially since Hurricane Hattie in 1961, “Creole” Belizeans have been migrating to the United States, to the point where “Creoles” are now clearly a minority in Belize.
At September time, many nostalgic Belizeans return from the United States in search of the Centenary flavour. It is now apparent, however, that they took much of that flavour along with them when they went to Americas Those of us who remained in Belize have had other, more deadly demons to battle, and the 1798 Battle has become lost in the mix.
The heyday of Centenary was in a different time and era. It was in the days when the economy of British Honduras was mahogany and chicle dominated, and the mystique of Britain and “God Save The King” still ruled from the Hondo to the Sarstoon. Today mahogany and chicle are dead: Tourism rules, and the relevant anthem begins, “Oh say, can you see...” Think about it.