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The Growth of Black Consciousness in Belize 1914–1919 #537050
06/29/19 06:26 AM
06/29/19 06:26 AM
Joined: Oct 1999
Posts: 70,171
oregon, spr
Marty Offline OP

Marty  Offline OP
The Background to the Ex-Servicemen’s Riot of 1919

[Linked Image] Violence, whether spontaneous or premeditated, has an inherent attraction for both the historian and his reader. On the one hand there is the heightened colour of strong emotions unleashed in an individual or society exposed to unacceptable stress. On the other, the rare opportunity to perceive fully, perhaps for the first time, the processes in that individual or society which are most important to its functioning. Those processes and the psychological and ideological assumptions which regulate them may be only fully comprehended when the organism, be it individual or collective, makes war upon itself.

Violence, then, is revealing, and it is therefore somewhat difficult to understand successive historians’ neglect of the violent moments in modern Belizean history. The institutionalized violence of slavery has been well researched but often only as an exercise in revisionism – the post-emancipation upheavals of 1894, 1919 and 1934, however, have not been subject to a similar coverage. What has been written on the Labourer’s Riot of 1894 and the Soberanis “Disturbances” of 1934 have been largely the work of the present writer while the so-called “Ex-Servicemen’s Riot of 1919″ has only received scant mention in the existing histories of Belize.

The older general works of Donohoe, Gregg and Waddell contain no reference to it at all nor do the more recent histories of Ashcraft and Dobson, while Caiger’s brilliant, romantic perversion, British Honduras Past and Present, devotes only two lines to the event. Further brief references are contained in Shoman’s pioneering article on the origin of the nationalist movement, Grant’s more voluminous study, Fairweather’s history of the volunteer forces and in the controversial A History of Belize. The only substantial narrative and interpretation is to be found in the 1979 issue of Brukdown devoted to a survey of Belizean history. That material was largely based on two other sources – the present writer’s doctoral dissertation and W.F. Elkin’s studies of the origins of black power in the Caribbean. Bill Elkin’s work, while seminal, is primarily concerned with the regional aspects of the post-war black renaissance and the events in Belize are only dealt with by him in so far as they contribute to the general upheaval which took place in the British West Indies between 1918 and 1920. That contribution was substantial but for purely national reasons it is high time that the causes, course and consequences of the violence and the fascinating detail contained in the Colonial Office documents, the newspapers of the day, and in the memories of the surviving participants, were made available to those interested in Belize’s recent past.

In that past the riot was a crucial event because of the breakdown of 19thcentury social relationships and attitudes which it made manifest. It gave expression to the black consciousness which had been growing since 1915; it reflected the unprecedented doubt which had arisen among the Colony’s working class members about the validity of British tutelage; it signified the awakening of that class to its exploitation by the Belize merchant community and, on a wider canvas, it marked the beginning of Belize’s full participation in the 20thcentury historical development of the Anglophone Caribbean.

This paper seeks only to describe and analyse the causes of the violence of 1919; the course and consequences of the Riot will be narrated in a later paper.

The Background to the Riot:

1. The Contingents and World War I (1914-1918)

The Riot cannot be divorced from the European war which preceded it. The outbreak of hostilities which followed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in August 1914 was eventually to have traumatic consequences in Europe itself, but no less significant were the political, economic, social and psychological changes to which it gave rise in the constituent colonies of the various European empires.

In Belize its immediate effects were economic for it brought to an end the period of relative prosperity which had existed since the beginning of the century. From 1903 until 1914 the Belizean economy (its structural inadequacies accepted) had been in a fairly healthy state – mahogany and the new staple, chicle, had experienced a long period of “boom” while imports, exports, profits and wages had all attained record levels. These levels, particularly mahogany exports, however, could not be maintained once Europe was at war as the British merchant shipping necessary for the transport of the red wood to the U.K. was fully utilized in the provision of war materials to the metropolis. Mahogany production fell off immediately and although it recovered in 1916 when mahogany became the subject of an Admiralty quota, overseas earnings were only sustained by the sale of chicle in the U.S.A. The American market proved just as introspective in 1916, however, when the U.S. entered the War on the side of the Allies after the German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare. Not only were chicle exports from Belize thereafter strictly curtailed but, more importantly, a serious diminution in the Colony’s supply of basic foodstuff took place. The upshot, not surprisingly, was a substantial increase in the cost of living, which, when combined with periods of unemployment and mercantile profiteering, created increasing dissatisfaction among the Colony’s Creole labour force of mahogany workers and chicle collectors.

Initially, at least, that dissatisfaction was confined to a handful of “agitators” and it cannot be denied that at the outset of the War, despite the concomitant and unaccustomed hardships, the bulk of the Colony’s populace were solidly loyal to both the King Emperor and his representative in the Colony. Indeed so great was the wave of patriotism which engulfed Belize after August 1914 that there were immediate requests that an infantry force be recruited to supplement the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. Similar requests were dispatched to London from the rest of the British West Indian colonies but, for racial reasons, were ignored by the War Office until the King, George V, personally persuaded Kitchener (the Secretary of State for War) to increase a British West Indies regiment in order that his loyal Caribbean subjects might express that loyalty in a tangible form. Belize’s contribution to the British West Indies Regiment consisted of two contingents: the first of 129 men which left Belize City on the Verdela on 4 November 1915 and the second of 408 men which departed on the Magdalena on 15 July 1916. The two contingents were later incorporated into the 1st and 2ndBattalions of the British West Indies Regiment and served, as did the rest of the Regiment, in the Middle East theatre. “Our Boys” as the Clarion dubbed them were reported by that newspaper as providing sterling service in the Middle East army and in 1917 it waxed lyrical when it recorded that members of the British West Indies Regiment had been specifically praised in General Allenby’s dispatches after their participation in the Battle of Gaza.

In fact no member of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the British West Indies Regiment took part in that battle or any other, and the status, temper and disposition of the men of the Belize contingents was (and has been) misrepresented by contemporary journalist and modern historian alike. Their experience, far from being happy and distinguished, was one of humiliation, discrimination and bitterness, for while they had long been used to the subtle colour-class discrimination of their homeland, they had never before been exposed to the indignities of the blatant white racism they encountered during their war service.

Those indignities commenced as soon as the men set foot on the troop ships for, while trained as infantry, they quickly discovered that they were to join labour battalions and their eventual destination was the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates and not the Somme or Marne. They were later to learn that the reason for this change of role was racially inspired. The military authorities believed that it was “very doubtful if the West Indian Negro would prove reliable in action” and anyway it was “against a British tradition to employ aboriginal troops against a European enemy”. The West Indians’ aboriginal status was immediately brought home to them on their arrival in Mesopotamia. As labourers consigned to work in Inland Waterway Transport they found themselves disowned by most of their “white” officers (particularly Major Jeffery), subjected to the privations imposed by one particular racist (a Lt. Col. Wilson) and were slighted and humiliated by the European troops present.

In their evidence to the Commission convened after the Riot both Sergeant Grant and Corporal Haynes recorded that at Tanoma Camp they had been billeted with Indians and Hayes (who obviously kept a comprehensive written record of the indignities experienced) testified to a series of humiliations. He (and others) recorded that at camp after camp they had been allotted insanitary, unlighted, unheated quarters with primitive galleys (in contrast to those of the Europeans which were provided with electric light, solid floors and excellent cooking facilities); that the sick had received indifferent medical treatment and several contingent members had gone to untimely and unnecessary deaths through disease, that at several camps they had been forced to carry out fatigue duties for European troops; that they had often been transported for long distances in cattle trucks and that everywhere they had been excluded from white mess huts, playing fields and bathing quarters and subject to abuse from white troops. In one instance, because they were “niggers” and “sambos”, a white chaplain refused to administer communion to them in a church tent while at Gabbary Camp. Haynes recorded that when they marched into the camp to the strains of “Rule Brittania” they were accosted by white troops demanding to know “who gave you niggers authority to sing that”. They were subsequently evicted from the white billet as “only British troops were admitted here”. In this degradation even the Contingents’ Creole officers were not excluded; on the return trip home on the Veronej, RSM MacDonald was excluded from his rightful mess and quarters as it was the belief of the ship’s quartermaster that he could not billet a “coloured” man with Europeans or suffer him to eat at their table.

It was later contended by both the Colonial Office and the Governor that the Contingent’s humiliations in Mesopotamia were solely the responsibility of the white officers and troops stationed there as those Europeans did not understand that black West Indians “have been accustomed, rightly or wrongly, to receive treatment in the West Indies differing from that usually meted out to Egyptians, Arabs and natives of Africa.” In fact, however, as this apologia itself unwittingly reflects, the local practice of racism by white soldiers against blacks only gave material form to the racial assumptions of the authorities in Whitehall. There had been the initial assumption that black West Indians were not fit to mix with white troops and this official endorsement of a supposed inferiority was reinforced throughout the War in the allocation of pay, pensions and allowances.

Indeed the provision of the latter caused the Governor some anxiety soon after the 2nd Contingent’s departure as, on re-reading the “Army Council Instructions to the Colonial Authorities”, he noted that it was not “altogether clear that the Imperial Authorities contemplated the grant of pensions for the widows of the British West Indies Regiment troops”. His fears were not misplaced and on relaying this news to the Legislative Council he evoked a degree of consternation in that body. One of its members, Colonel Cran (who had been largely instrumental in organizing the British Honduras Contingents) expressed the view that no man would have volunteered had they known that pensions and disability allowances would be subject to a test of skin colour – Cran felt that he had “broken faith, however unwittingly, with these men” and believed that “scarcely a single one would have come forward [to enlist] had they known that such a distinction depending entirely on race and not on merit or service was contemplated.” That principle, that extra-remuneration was to be withheld from those “not of pure European parentage” found further expression in Army Ordinance Number 1 of 1918 which increased the pay and allowances of white and black troops differentially. Thereafter the former received 1/6d a day but the latter only 1/- so that RSM MacDonald, in his evidence to the Riot Commission, could point to the anomalous situation whereby his pay was less than half that of his white subordinates when he was chief clerk at the regional H.O. at Baghdad. These anomalies, it was true, were rectified prior to the men’s return to Belize (Army Ordinance Number 1 was countermanded and the Legislative Council agreed to find the money for death and disability pensions) but there was no doubt that this official stigmatization of their inherent inferiority angered the men of the Belize Contingents as the depositions of several witnesses to the Riot Commission testified.

(To be concluded next week.)


Re: The Growth of Black Consciousness in Belize 1914–1919 [Re: Marty] #537106
07/03/19 06:09 AM
07/03/19 06:09 AM
Joined: Oct 1999
Posts: 70,171
oregon, spr
Marty Offline OP

Marty  Offline OP
That anger, perhaps somewhat ameliorated by the expectations of demobilization and their return to Belize, was reactivated on the long journey home by the so-called “Incident at Taranto.” That incident which was brought to light by C.L. Joseph and W.F. Elkins and is in need of further investigation – involved the revolt of some 50-60 members of the 9th Battalion of the British West Indies Regiment at the British Army transit camp at Cimino near Taranto in Italy in December 1918. Apparently, on December 6th members of the 9th Battalion, exasperated by weeks of discrimination in the camps, canteens and cinemas, humiliating fatigue duties and the overbearing arrogance of the South African camp commandant, attacked their officers and severely assaulted their unit commander. The revolt, once instigated, continued for several days – men refused to work, a shooting and a bombing took place and a generally insubordinate spirit prevailed. That spirit was only dissipated by the dispatch to Taranto of a white battalion and Machine Gun Company, the arrest and long imprisonment of the mutineers, the disbandment of the 9th Battalion and the subsequent disarming of all British West Indies Regiment battalions. Consequently when the 1st and 2nd Battalions arrived at Cimino in May 1919 their members found themselves confined to camp, kept strictly segregated in their own quarters and were generally treated with hostility and suspicion by the camp commandant.

The reasons for the authorities’ hostility could hardly have gone unexplained to the members of the Belize Contingents and there must have been considerable clandestine discussion of the events of the previous December. Indeed it may be that during this time at Taranto that the “plot” to stage a coup d’etat in Belize was first formulated (if such a plot ever existed) and that it was there that some Belizean NGOs joined the so-called “Caribbean League.” This association, which was quickly suppressed after its discovery by the military authorities, expressed black aspirations for self-determination and did not shrink from the use of force.

While there is no hard evidence, at the moment, to link any of the Belize soldiery with this association, there can be no doubt that its aims and objectives were viewed sympathetically by the members of the various West Indian contingents whose war service had brought them face to face with blatant white racism. In 1915 no more loyal subjects of the King Emperor could be found among the members of the Empire contingents – three years of humiliation, discrimination and degradation had reversed those loyalties – in 1919 there were many in the Belize Contingents who abhorred everything the Monarch and his Empire represented.

To be continued


Re: The Growth of Black Consciousness in Belize 1914–1919 [Re: Marty] #537160
07/06/19 06:20 AM
07/06/19 06:20 AM
Joined: Oct 1999
Posts: 70,171
oregon, spr
Marty Offline OP

Marty  Offline OP
The Background to the Riot

II. White Racism and the Growth of Garveyism

In Belize itself a similar disillusionment had come to pass in the minds of many who had suffered the privations of war, but in the homeland the growth of a black consciousness was a more insidious process brought about by the spread of Garveyism and the appearance of an Establishment racism unknown since the days of slavery. That there had been a certain racial tension between the Colony’s black Creole Labour Force and its white and off-white elite of officials, merchants and land owners since Emancipation was probably undeniable – witness the Labourer’s Riot of 1894 and the racial outbursts of Governor Wilson – but these antagonisms appeared to have subsided, if not actually disappeared, during the prosperous years from 1900 to 1914. That subsidence may also be partly attributable to the characters of two exceptional governors (Sweet-Escott, 1904-06; Swayne, 1906-1913) for the old hostilities of race and class returned co-incidentally with the advent of two successive governors who made little attempt to hide their prejudices. Swayne’s successor, Sir William Collet, governed Belize during most of the War (1913-17) and one of his first actions after his promotion was to supervise the passage through the Legislative Council of Ordinance Number 20 of 1914, the Prevention of Crime Ordinance. This was designed to incarcerate “good-for-nothing” people who wished to stir up the labourers and instigate a general rising of the blacks against the whites. Collet reported to his superiors that he had been informed that a “Young Belize Party” had been formed, several prominent white citizens had been threatened and the wife of one such citizen had been subjected to an armed holdup. There were rumors too, he insisted, that the Drill Hall with its arms cache was about to be raided and, in consequence the martial law powers contained in the Ordinance were necessary as the local populace were apt “to be misled by any non-Belizean colored man.” Such fears proved groundless and Collet’s dispatches were more revealing of his racist attitude towards his charges than of the revolutionary potential (real or imaginary) of those charges. It was common knowledge that the Governor was averse to seeing coloured gentlemen rising above their “proper station” in life – an aversion he demonstrated blatantly in November 1915 on the eve of the departure of the 1st Contingent for Mesopotamia. At the departure ceremony held on the Court House verandah, H. H. Vernon, a prominent Creole citizen and treasurer of the Contingent Committee was refused access to the Governor’s entourage on the verandah because, as he related in a letter to the Clarion, he was “not white.”

Such blatant discrimination did not go unnoticed or unanswered. The Governor himself was protected from personal assault by the majesty and mystique of his office but one of his subordinates was not so fortunate. Colonel W.J. Slack – a prominent white lawyer and Commander of the Belize Defence Force (whose name belied his authoritarian administration of that force) – was extremely unpopular and in June 1916 he was murdered by one Johnston whom he was prosecuting for debt. While the Establishment could only evince shock and revulsion at Slack’s demise, its Mouthpiece, The Clarion, was at least cognizant of the changing mood and noted that “some said that this foul deed was a brave act.”

That racial antagonisms had become obvious and worthy of comment was further evidenced by the testimony of Reverend Cleghorn (a Methodist minister and a member of the Legislative Council) who in March 1916 at a recruiting meeting found it necessary to explain that the current universal conflict was “not for a moment a white man’s war.” Such a view which demanded unquestioned loyalty from all colours and classes of the populace for the duration of the war was not as appealing to Belize’s Creole work force in 1916 as it had been two years earlier. By 1916 there were many, particularly among the unemployed, who could see no benefit to them accruing from the ultimate victory of the Anglo Saxon powers. Such creeping disloyalty manifested itself again in the last year of the War when in August 1918 the Public Building caught fire and burned to the ground. The conflagration was obviously the work of an arsonist (although no miscreant was ever brought to book) and the Clarion agreed that the populace of the City had done little to save the government edifice. The general attitude had been let it burn, the fire brigade had been jeered and its hoses sabotaged and there had been some looting of deserted stores. Acting Governor Walter who witnessed these events believed there to be “a dangerous and ugly spirit abroad.”

While this decidedly unpatriotic spirit was partly a negative response to the institutionalized racism of the Establishment which had blossomed under Collet it was also, perhaps in greater part, a positive reaction brought about by the awakening of a black consciousness among the despised and exploited Creole work force of the City. Since 1914 pride in black achievement and potential, and resentment at widespread black humiliation had been reaching a sympathetic audience through the pages of the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s Negro World and its offshoot in the Colony, the Belize Independent. The uplifting doctrines of Garveyism which, as a matter of necessity, invoked some criticism of the European colonial empires and their racist assumptions, forced the Acting Governor to prohibit the import and sale of Garvey’s mouthpiece in Belize in January 1919. Walter’s excuse for this prohibition was the Negro World’s failure to print within its pages the names of the U.S. publisher and printer but his real reason was the journal’s “tendency to incite racial hatred.”

Particularly galling to the King’s representative was the February 1919 issue in which one article attacked colonialism declaring that the European colonies were, in reality, “the property of the blacks,” and they should revert to their rightful owners “even if all the world is to waste itself in blood.” Such sentiments also prompted Walter into requesting the British Embassy in Washington to seek a United States injunction against the Negro World’s dissemination and while this was refused he was able to curtail the circulation of “this inflammatory rubbish” in Belize. His suppression of the journal was however only partially successful as copies were smuggled in after January 1919 through Mexico and Guatemala, but the ban did inconvenience those avid readers who had freely purchased the journal direct from the United States. After some 2000 copies had been confiscated by the Post Office, Walter was obliged to face a deputation of citizens arguing for a revocation of the ban on the grounds that the Negro World circulated freely in the rest of the British West Indies and that it enabled Negro to keep in touch with Negro.

The leader of that deputation was H. H. Cain, the leader of the “radical, coloured, anti-white faction” in the Colony and the editor of its second newspaper, the Belize Independent. The Independent, which first appeared in 1914, although not as inflammatory as the Negro World, sought to acquaint black Belizeans with the black experience elsewhere in a manner never attempted or contemplated by the older, pro-Establishment Clarion. Unlike its more respectable rival, the Independent ignored the fatuous social activities of the British ruling class or the tedious (and often trivial) cases in the Supreme Court and concentrated instead on reporting significant local news and the successes and failures of blacks throughout the world. Alongside accounts of the previous days’ proceedings in the Legislative Council (common to both newspapers) were reports of black achievement and humiliation in the U.S.A. and Europe and of the activities of the UNIA in Jamaica and North America. Cain himself may well already have been a member of one of the UNIA branches in the U.S, for the Negro World was obviously scrutinized weekly and its most interesting observations summarized in a column in the Independent written by Luke Kemp under the pseudonym of “The Garvey Eye.”

From the circulation figures given in the Blue Books it can be seen that from its inception in 1914 the Independent was as widely read as the Clarion and its message probably reached a wider audience – it was the newspaper of the poor and copies (or oral reports of its contents) were exchanged and borrowed in stores and rum shops. That message (complemented by one similar, but more explicitly stated in the Negro World) stressed the need for blacks to take pride in black history, culture and achievement, to stand up and be counted and to resist white arrogance and oppression. It was a message not unwelcome in 1919 to either, the populace of the City, who had grown tired of their exploitation by the Belize white and off-white “forestocracy”, or to the returning soldiery of the 1st and 2nd Contingents who had three years suffered grievously at the hands of the racist military authorities. It was a message which in July 1919 produced a violent upheaval in Belize City which was more than a riot and may very well have been an attempted “coup d’etat.”


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