A tale of two mysteries
(The date chosen for Belize’s Independence and the origin of the name “Belize”)
Belize originally should have been politically independent in the mid 1960s; at least that was what the UK hoped during the government of Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home. The Prime Minster wanted to join the European Common Market and his chances would have been improved without the encumbrance of colonial territories. However, Alec Douglas–Home was Prime Minister for less than a year, so his successor, PM Harold Wilson, had to continue the task which was first offered to Colonial Secretary, Anthony Greenwood (he came to Belize in October of 1965 to inaugurate the city of Belmopan). Greenwood refused the offer and threatened to resign if his hand was forced. He was moved to Ministry of Overseas Development and Duncan Sandys accepted the post of Colonial Secretary and was able to get rid of eleven colonies. Belize would have been #12 but for the territorial dispute with the Republic of Guatemala.
Sandys was eager to do the job and in a secret memo to his staff he is quoted as saying, “Britain has no desire to hold on to her remaining colonies a day longer than is necessary. Politically, they involve much unwelcome controversy with the outside world and economically we draw no profit from our sovereignty.”
The Webster Proposals insisted that Belize become independent by 1970. The United Nations General Assembly “suggested” that Belize become independent by 1980. During the government of Margaret Thatcher, the Minister of State in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Nicholas Ridley, the driving force behind The Heads of Agreement and a quick constitutional conference, made it known, “like it or not”, Belize will be “forced” into independence. On 20th June 1981 he took the Belize independence bill to the House of Commons which was debated until almost 1:00 a.m. the following day. The Bill was passed with the date in September left blank. Ridley and his government insisted that the PUP victory of November 1979 was a mandate; therefore was no need for a referendum on the issue.
Because of Cabinet confidentiality we cannot be sure when the choice of a date for Belize’s independence was discussed, but we speculate that it was in 1979, because that was the reason given by Minister Santiago Perdomo why he resigned from the People’s United Party (he held 3 Ministries during his time). He joined the United Democratic Party in June 1980 and shortly thereafter came to one of our Freedom Committee public Sunday afternoon meetings held in the basement of the St. Mark’s United Methodist Church at #2017 Beverly Road in Brooklyn, New York. Mr. Perdomo asked to be allowed to address the audience and he then elaborated on the reason for his leaving the PUP: it was because September 21st was chosen instead of September 10th, which the Party traditionally labeled as our National Day. He gave all the reasons we speak of today, i.e., too many holidays, the significance of the day in 1798, the cost in treasury and logistics for a poor country to undertake holiday after holiday, etc. There was never given an official reason or rationale for the choice of the 21st. You will hear that the Battle of St. George’s Caye was a myth; you can glean the reason from the editorials of The Belize Times over the decades since that time, that the day commemorates the mandate given to the People’s United Party for “manifesto of Belizeans First”. There is also the suggestion that the date is based on astrology and the occult (à la Nancy Reagan, who reportedly suggested to her husband, President Ronald Reagan, what would be the best date to travel or take an operation, etc.)
It was a different Santiago Perdomo, a loyal PUP, I met in Washington DC in April of 1968 on the occasion of Bethuel Webster’s presenting his 17 Proposals to the Belize delegation. The delegation left Belize on April 23rd. I arrived in Washington from New York on April 26th, in time for the big “End of Mediation” banquet on the night of April 26th laid on by U.S. businessmen who had interests in Guatemala. The following morning for some reason I sat or was placed across from Santiago at the same breakfast table in the restaurant of the hotel where we all stayed, and he began ribbing me, asking, “How many tamales and how many panades the New York Belizeans had to sell” to pay for me to come to Washington. Truth be told, I paid all my own expenses. Professor Bloomfield, however, complained to me that Premier George Price had promised to pay all his expenses for coming from Canada, but he did not receive a penny.
For the record, it is important to note that the Belize delegation was “set up” by both the British and the Americans. The Guatemalan government was given the Proposals on April 18th; they rejected them on the 23rd, even before the Delegation left Belize City; their Foreign Minister, Emilio Arenales Catalan, even tried to “blackmail” the U.S. government by refusing to lobby his superiors on accepting the Proposals unless the U.S. would assist him to become President of the United Nations General Assembly. The British rejected the Proposals on June 18th, long after the riots in Belize City.
Arenales did become president of the United Nations General Assembly, but he passed away within a year in April of 1969. It was because of this elaborate charade that the British Honduras Emergency Committee invited Dean Lindo and me to a special meeting held at the House of Commons in London on May 8th to explain to interested members of Parliament what transpired. I remember Dean, who at that time was shadow minister of finance, telling the parliamentarians how Mr. Price paid for four nights in hotels, meals and airfares for the group of eleven members of the Belize delegation, funds which could have been better spent on the local needs of Belizeans.
Among the Belize delegates arriving for the delivery of the Bethuel Webster Proposals in Washington on April 27th, 1968, only Dean Lindo and I are still alive.
Following are the names of delegation members:
FOR THE PUP – George Price, Alexander Hunter, Lindbergh Rogers, Santiago Ricalde, Santiago Perdomo.
FOR THE NIP – Philip Goldson, Dean Lindo, Edwin Morey.
THE SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE – Woolrich Harrison Courtenay
HEAD OF THE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE – Ismael Gomez
REPESENTATIVE OF THE JUDICIARY – Horace Young
Professor Louis M. Bloomfield of Canada – invited by Premier George Price
Chairman of the British Honduras Freedom Committee – Compton Fairweather, invited by Richard A. Frank, US State Department legal advisor to Ambassador Webster.