THE THIRD ROOT
Heritage of Central America
By Kent C. Williams
©2001 - Kent C. Williams, Santa Rosa, California
Belize (formally British
Honduras) has been described as “a Caribbean nation in Central America”.
Unlike the other six Central American republics, Belize has a culture rooted
strongly in African and British traditions opposed to the Hispanic rooted
traditions of its neighbors. Several factors set Belize apart from the rest of
Central America. For example, Belize is the only country in Central America that
is “officially English
speaking”. It also has the smallest population of any Central American nation
(218,000) and only recently received its independence from Great Britain (1981).
Belize is also the most ethnically and racially diverse of the seven Central
American republics, with perhaps only Panama
coming close to the kind of mix of peoples that one can find in Belize.
Belize has the highest
percentage of persons of African descent of any Central American nation. Those
of African (or mixed African and European ancestry)
make up 30% of its population. They are known as
and are largely of mixed African, Scottish and English ancestry. The Garifuna community, which
is of mixed African and native American ancestry, makes up an additional 7% of
the population giving
Belize a total population of 81,000
persons of African descent.
Other ethnic groups in the
country include the fast growing mestizo
community who are of mixed native American, African and European ancestry. Mestizos
make up 44% of the population (96,000) and live in the northern areas of the
country close to the Mexican border, on some of the Cayes off the coast and in
certain inland towns and villages in the western part of the country. The first mestizos to settle in Belize were Mexicans fleeing from the Caste
Wars of the Yucatan Peninsula in 1847-’48. They founded the town of Corozal
(1849) and their descendants can be found living today. A second and larger mestizo
migration took place during the 1980’s with the arrival of thousands of
refugees from Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Many settled in the areas
around the towns of Orange Walk and Corozal. The mestizo
population continues to grow. As Creoles
immigrate to the United States an ethnic shift in the population has taken place
over the last 15 years. Some Creoles
are concerned about the “hispanization” of Belize. They fear their
Afro-British traditions, customs and way of life may be permanently altered if
Belize continues to become more mestizo.
Recent statistics show that for the first time in its history mestizos
now make up a larger percentage of the population of Belize than the combined
African descended Creole and Garifuna
The native American Maya
constitute 10% of the population. They live in the north and extreme south and
west of the country. Belize is
dotted with a number of ancient Mayan ruins that attract tourists from all over
the world. Persons of European ancestry are 5% of the population. They include
Germans of the Mennonite faith who
live and work in farming communities in the western Cayo District as well as in
the northeastern parts of the country (Neustadt) and around the town of
Shipyard. The Mennonites speak a dialect of German called Plattdeutsch that is spoken in parts of northern Germany. The
community started its migration to Belize from Mexico and Canada during the late
1950’s and now makes up 4% of the total population. The other 1% of the white
population of Belize is divided between English, Americans, Canadians and
Australians of European descent. North Americans continue to own large tracts of
During the late 1860’s East
Indians arrived as indentured servants to work on sugar plantations established
by former Confederate veterans who had immigrated with their families to Belize
from the American south. A second
wave of East Indian immigration took place during the 1970’s, and today 3.5%
of the population can trace its ancestry to India. Other Asian immigrants have
arrived in recent years from China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea along with a number
of Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians who came to Belize during the early years
of the 20th century. The Asian and Arab communities make up an
important part of the merchant class of Belize
City and are also found in smaller towns and villages.
Generations of mixing between all of these groups have made it almost impossible determine what ethnically a “typical Belizean” is. Even within a single family, grandparents will often have ancestors from a number of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Belizean youth are taught to be proud of their ethnic heritage as well as to appreciate the heritage of others. Being a Creole, a Maya or a mestizo is always second to being Belizean. Out of many different peoples a multi-racial and multi-ethnic society has developed into one of the most diverse in all the Americas.
Although standard English is
Belize’s official language used in business and government circles,
Belize Creole English is spoken by both the Creole
community as well as by most Garifuna, East Indians, Maya and mestizos.
Over 75% of the population speaks it. Another 15% of the population speaks
Spanish, mainly in the northern and western parts of the country. These speakers
are among the 25,000 persons who recently immigrated from the Spanish speaking
areas of Central America. The older mestizo families who have been in the country for 150 years speak
both a Creole influenced variety of Spanish as well as Belize Creole. Ten percent of the population in Belize is
tri-lingual. In 1991 there were 55,000 native speakers of Belize Creole and 158,000 others who spoke it as a second language
(40,000 additional speakers lived in the U.S.). Belize Creole is the lingua
franca of the nation. To speak it is to be Belizean.
Belize Creole is very different then standard English. It developed partially from an earlier Creole called Dahufra that was spoken in Belize during the 17th and 18th centuries. Belize Creole is also related to the Creole varieties of English spoken in Nicaragua (Moskito Coast Creole), Tobago and Jamaica. African slaves who arrived in Belize in the 1780’s from the Mosquito Coast, together with their Scottish and English “masters” had a strong influence in the development of Belize Creole. The centuries of mixing between Africans and Europeans in the country resulted in the blending of the diverse languages of West Africa with a number of English and Scottish regional dialects to form Belize Creole. There are also words that have been incorporated into the language from Spanish, as well as from the native languages of the Miskitos. The areas of Belize where the greatest number of native speakers of Belize Creole live are in Belize City, along the coast and inland waterways and in the many small rural towns and villages of the country.
An example of a Belize
Creole word that entered the popular vernacular of American English can be
found in the word “juke-box”. In Belize
Creole the word “jook” means a “stick”. It also means to copulate or
have sex. This word migrated north into southern black communities (perhaps
through the port of New Orleans) where a “box” playing music in a
“jook-house” was known as a
Important Belizean Creole
writers include James Martinez,
who writes poetry in Belizean Creole, Hugh F. Fuller, Zee
Edgell and Zoila Elli.
Historically the African
descended Creole community and its
culture have been dominant in the history of Belize. The music, dance, folklore,
food and language of Creoles show many
African influences. Culturally Creoles
have had much more in common with the English speaking islands of the Caribbean
than with their neighbors in the rest of Spanish speaking Central America.
Belizean youth for example look to Jamaica for musical inspiration. Videos of
carnival time in far off Trinidad and Tobago are viewed and their contents
adopted for the September celebrations in Belize City. How did this “Caribbean
nation in Central America” come to be?
The 17th Century:
Although claimed by the Spain during the 16th century, Belize was never permanently settled by the Spanish. Because of its geography and lack of minerals the Spanish largely ignored it. The barrier reef off its coast also made it a dangerous place for the large Spanish ships. The first Europeans to set foot in Belize were a crew of shipwrecked Spanish sailors who landed in northern Belize in 1511. Captured by the Mayas five were quickly “sacrificed” and the rest made slaves. After the Spanish conquest of Guatemala, thousands of Mayans fled into Belize. The few Spanish missionaries who did venture south of the Yucatan attempted to establish missions and convert the natives. None were successful, and most were killed and their churches burned to the ground.
The Mayans got along
much better with the Scottish and English wood cutters who first arrived in
search of logwood. During the early 17th century English and Scottish
wood cutters and pirates arrived on the shores of the Bay of Campeche in
southeastern Mexico and on the Yucatan Peninsula. In 1638 the Scottish buccaneer
Captain Peter Wallace (who at one
time had served under Sir Walter Raleigh) sailed his ship the Swallow
into the shallow coastal area that is near today’s Belize City. Called
“Ballis” by the Spanish, he gave his name to the nearby Belize River and
soon (on nearby on St. George’s Caye) a small settlement developed around the cutting
logwood. Logwood was made into red, gray and black dyes used at the time in the
British woolen industry. Scottish and English pirates were attracted to the area
because the barrier reef provided a good and inaccessible place to hide after
raiding Spanish ships. Once inside the reef their “loot” could be divided up
and transported to the Bahamas, Bermuda or Jamaica. Some of these early settlers
might have also been refugees expelled by the Spanish in 1641-42 from
British logwood settlements located off the Honduran and Nicaraguan
The cutting of logwood
proved to be a lucrative “part-time job” for the pirates and soon
others arrived on St. George’s Caye. After the British take over of Jamaica in
1655 a number of disbanded British soldiers and sailors arrived. The permanent
settlement of Belize by Europeans dates from this year. The arrival of
Africans in the settlement also most likely dates from around this time.
The settlement at St. George’s Caye was located at the mouth of the Belize
River allowing for upriver logging camps to float their logwood down stream to
In 1667 the British signed a treaty with Spain giving Great Britain freedom of trade on the seas if Britain would suppress piracy. Many “part-time” wood cutters now settled down to become full-time settlers and cutters. They called themselves the Baymen and their settlement was known as the Bay Settlement. The British government made no claim on the settlement at this time but did try to secure protection for the woodcutters through several treaties with Spain. By 1700 there were 300 Baymen logging wood around the mouth of the Belize River. There were very few European women in the settlement and some of the settlers took Maya women as “common-law” wives. Their offspring were the first Belizean mestizos.
The 18th Century:
Conflicts continued into the 18th century regarding the right of British loggers to cut logwood in the region. British wood cutters were scattered in settlements stretching from the Bay of Campeche (Mexico) to the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua. Much of the 18th century was marked by a series of attacks by the Spanish on the small settlement. Starting in 1717 (when logwood cutters from the Bay of Campeche and Belize were expelled) and continuing until 1798 when the Bay Settlement was attacked by the Spanish for the last time.
In 1733 the Spanish governor of the Yucatan (Antonio de Figueroa y Silva) attacked Belize Town driving the Baymen and their slaves into the forests. The Baymen soon returned and re-established their logging operations. In 1754 the Spanish sent a force of 1,500 men from Guatemala to destroy the settlement. This time a British force of 250 men repulsed the attack. The following year the British built a fort to defend the settlement from future Spanish incursions.
From the early 1770’s mahogany started to be cut in the coastal and inland rain forests. Mahogany proved to be far more valuable than logwood and was used in the making of furniture in England and the American colonies. More Scottish and English settlers began to arrive during the early years of the 18th century, with the Scottish element being strongly represented. Many of these settlers arrived from Jamaica and they brought African slaves with them to work in the mahogany and logwood camps. Other slaves were brought in from Bermuda, Barbados and other parts of the West Indies. Most were born in Africa. Within a few years the slave population outnumbered whites in the settlement by ten to one.
Slavery in Belize during these years was somewhat different then what was found in the other British colonies at the time. Cutting logwood and mahogany was seasonal work. British settlers would take a group of slaves up-river to set up a logging camps. Each settler required only one or two slaves to cut logwood (which grows in clumps). After the move to mahogany (during the last quarter of the 18th century) larger numbers of slaves were needed. After 1770 about 80% of all male slaves over the age of ten were engaged in the cutting of mahogany or logwood. Slaves called “huntsmen” were highly skilled and valued. They located the trees while others called “axmen” cut the trees down. Another group trimmed the trees and prepared them to be hauled to the riverside where they were floated on rafts down river during the rainy season. In the logging camps each slave was given his own tent and was issued a machete or ax. A few were issued pistols and muskets. In the Bay Settlement slave women (and their children) were used as domestics. Others were blacksmiths, bakers, sailors or nurses.
The laws regarding slavery in Belize were also unlike those found in other British settlements. Slaves worked no more than a five day work week and if they worked on a Saturday they had to be paid. Many slaves bought their freedom this way. Any black man who arrived on his own in Belize was declared “free” unless proven otherwise. If a white settler took a female slave as his “common-law” wife she was also declared free. By the end of the 1700’s a good percentage of the population was listed in the census as “of mixed colour”.
Slaves also remained
virtually without any legal rights. The chaplain of the settlement reported
“instances, many instances, of horrible barbarity” against the slave
population and several small scale slave revolts took place. During one such
uprising six white men were killed and a dozen slaves escaped north to
the Yucatan. In fact, during the 18th and early 19th
centuries, there was a steady flow of runaway slaves escaping to Mexico,
Guatemala and Honduras. They eventually added their genes to the mestizo
populations in those countries. Some runaways established small communities in
the more remote areas of Belize. One such maroon
community offering refuge to escaped slaves was located near the
Sibun River. The last of the slave uprisings in Belize took place in 1820.
It was led by two slaves Will and Sharper and involved a number of other well-armed slaves who had
been treated with great cruelty by their “master”.
During the American Revolutionary War Spain declared war on Great Britain and used the opportunity to attack and destroy the British settlement at Belize. In September of 1779 a Spanish force from Bacalar in the Yucatan attacked and captured the settlements at St. George’s Caye and Belize Town. The latter was burned to the ground. Most of the settlers escaped into the forests, but the ones living on St. George’s were captured by the Spanish and forced to march 300 miles north to the Yucatan. Many died along the way, and those who survived were transported to jails in Havana (Cuba) where many did not survive. With the end of the war, the remaining prisoners were released (1782). After the signing of the Treaty of Versailles (1783) the remaining Baymen returned to their homes in Belize after a one year hiatus in Jamaica. A provision of the 1783 treaty was that the British had the right to cut logwood between the Hondo and Belize Rivers. By the time the treaty was signed logwood had already been replaced (since the 1770’s) by mahogany as the colony’s most important export.
With the shift from logwood
to mahogany the ethnic makeup of the settlement changed. Mahogany trees are much
larger than logwood (being scattered over a much larger area) and could not be
removed in “clumps” like logwood. More capital was also needed as well as
more labor and this meant the importation of larger numbers of slaves. As early
as 1724, a Spanish missionary had
noted that the British were bringing in larger numbers of slaves to the
settlement. Most of the slaves brought to Belize during these years had spent
only a short time in the West Indies and were
mostly African born, coming from the areas around the Bight of Benin, the Congo
and Angola. Members of the Ebo
(Ibo) tribe seem to have been most numerous. One district of Belize Town during
the 19th century was called “Eboe
Town” (Yarborough). Here what were known as “Negro Houses” were built.
These were long rows of separate rooms having a single roof. The Garifuna and
East Indians lived in an area known as “Queen
Charlotte Town” (also known as “Frenchman Town”).
With the signing of the Treaty
of Paris in 1763, the British had agreed to evacuate their coastal
settlements in Honduras and Nicaragua in exchange for the Spanish concession
that “cutters of logwood and their workmen” would continue to have the right
to cut and export logwood from Belize. The logwood cutters would technically
remain under the sovereignty of the Spanish Crown but now had the freedom to
develop their logging operations without Spanish interference. It was not until
1787 that the British finally evacuated all of their settlements along the
Mosquito Coast of Honduras and Nicaragua (Convention
of London). At this time employees of the
Chartered Company which exploited the pearl fisheries in the region, as well
as the logwood cutters, began to arrive in the Bay Settlement. Over 2,000
eventually relocated in the Bay Settlement with many bringing their African and
Jamaican born slaves who helped in the rebuilding of the community after its
almost complete destruction at the hands of the Spanish in 1779. Within a few
years the number of blacks and whites living in the settlement reached 3,000
persons. The beginnings of Belize Creole English date
from this migration. At the time of the destruction of the settlement in 1779
African descended persons in the settlement accounted for 86% of the settlements
The Convention of London (1786) expanded the area in which the British
could cut logwood and mahogany.
From the Hondo River (in the north)
to the Sibun River (in the south) the
British expanded their presence in the area. The Convention also limited the British in that no plantation
agriculture (sugar, coffee, etc. ) could be developed in the colony. The peace
of the 1780’s was short lived and war clouds were again gathering on the
In 1796 another war between
Spain and England erupted. The civic leaders of the Bay Settlement (both white
and free black) met to decide if they should stand and defend themselves against
the inevitable Spanish attack, or evacuate to the remote inland areas of the
country, abandoning their homes and properties to the Spanish. A vote was taken
and it was decided 65 to 51 to remain and defend the settlement. The deciding
votes to stay and defend the settlement were cast by a group of free blacks led
by Adam Flowers.
On September 10, 1798 the
Spanish Governor General of Yucatan leading a flotilla of 500 sailors, 2,000
troops and 32 vessels (including 16 heavily armed man
o’ war) attacked the Bay Settlement at St. George’s Caye. Under the
leadership of General O’Neil a multi-racial force that included armed slaves,
dug in on St. George’s. When the Spanish attempted to land they quickly found
themselves pinned down under a heavy barrage fire. Boatloads of free blacks and
slaves attacked the Spanish without having received orders from O’Neil. The
sight of large numbers of Africans armed and coming towards them with guns and
machetes struck a terror into the Spanish ranks and they fled never to return
again. The two and half hour battle ended with not a single defender of the
settlement killed. The successes of those brave men of color are remembered each
year on St. George’ s Caye Day,
a national holiday with parades, dancing and the
“Queen of the Bay” beauty pageant.
The Belizean’s victory at the Battle
of St. George’s Caye marked the start of a new era of peace in Belize that
has lasted for over two centuries. Belize has never had a military coup and like
Costa Rica, does not have a standing army only a small defense force
(Belize Defense Force). When
Mexico and Guatemala obtained independence from Spain in 1821, both claimed that
as successor states to Spain Belize was a part of their sovereign territory.
Settlers in Belize at this time were also starting to settle further inland
establishing themselves as far south as the Sarstoon
River. All territory between the Belize and Sarstoon Rivers was now claimed by the British (1836). At a
convention held with Guatemala in 1859, the British agreed to build a road from
Guatemala City to the Caribbean coast in exchange for Guatemala’s recognition
of British sovereignty over Belize. The British never completed the road nor did
Guatemala ever ratify the agreement. Guatemala continued to claim that Belize
was a part of its national territory and did not give up its claim until 1992
when a treaty was signed by Guatemala recognizing Belize’s independence and
territorial integrity. Mexico renounced its claim on Belize as early as 1897.
The 19th Century:
The early 19th century saw a continuation of the importation of African slaves from Jamaica and the West Indies. A number of Africans involved in a slave rebellion on the island of Barbados were brought to Belize at this time. At the same time a gradual slow down in logwood and mahogany exports was taking place eventually resulting in a lack of work for many slaves during these years. Between 1816 and 1825 the population of the settlement increased from 3,825 to 4,100 persons but during the same years the slave population declined from 2,740 to 2,470. Part of this decrease was due to an increase in the number of free blacks in the colony.
All free men in Belize
could vote regardless of property or color. Most whites and “free coloreds”
lived nine miles off the coast on St. George’s Caye where cooler breezes made
it a more desirable place to live. The slave population lived on the mainland in
“Belize Town”. In the poorer south side area of Belize Town African
religious practices such as obeah were
common. The all night playing of gombay drums was outlawed by the British authorities here. Anglican,
Methodist and Baptist missionaries also worked in these areas converting many
and slowly African religious practices became less pronounced, but not all
together abandoned, by the Creole
There was not only a geographical division between those living on St. George’s Caye and those living in “Belize Town” there was also a social division between lighter skinned Creoles and their darker skinned cousins living on the “mainland”. The white minority purposely sought to divide the black community by giving free Creoles certain limited privileges that slaves did not have. Many of these “free coloureds” were of mixed African and European parentage and this mixed race community was a sort of “racial buffer” between the small white ruling class and the much larger black slave population. On July 5, 1831, seven years before the end of slavery in Belize, all “coloured subjects of free condition” were granted full civil rights. This ethno-social division within the black community of Belize exits to this day, a legacy of British colonialism. The lighter-skinned landowning and merchant families of mixed African and British ancestry made up the “social elite” of the country along with a small community of whites from Europe.
A dozen or so of the older English and Scottish families were refereed to as “Old Baymen”. With names like Hyde, Haylock, Usher and Fairweather, these families intermarried with the local Creole population during the 19th century to form a social and economic class that continues to play an important role in the political and economic life of the country. Many are doctors, lawyers and influential business people. By the 19th century the racial amalgamation between black and white in Belize was well on its way. The American archaeologist John L. Stephens visited Belize Town in 1839 and noted in his journal (to his surprise) that British army officers dinned with “mulatto” women. In Belize Town he said “color was considered mere matter of taste” and that among the judges of Belize’s “Grand Court” there sat a doctor of “mulatto” heritage.
When slavery was abolished in 1838 most blacks in the colony had already gained their freedom. The British had passed an act to end slavery in their colonies in 1833 and a five year transitionary period took place in which an “apprenticeship” system was introduced. This essentially gave the slave owners an additional five years of free labor. The freedom of Belize’s slaves left most in a dependency relationship with their former “masters”. A small white elite of around 300 persons continued to rule the country for the rest of the century and into the next.
In 1862, with the United States deeply involved in its own civil conflict, the British government officially recognized Belize as a “colony” giving it the name of British Honduras (British Honduras was declared a “Crown Colony” in 1871). Peoples from various parts of the British Empire came to settle in small numbers adding to the Belizean “melting pot”. Although Belizeans now had the official recognition of London, their economy continued to decline. After 1860 the supply of wood was starting to thin out and many blacks in the colony were left unemployed and in poverty. Immigration from abroad was promoted by the British in an effort to develop the colony’s agriculture. The story of the “lost Confederates” and their efforts to colonize Belize after the American Civil War is a fascinating one that also includes the only example of settlement in Central America by African-Americans from the United States.
At the end of the American Civil War (1865) a number of Confederate soldiers and their families decided to escape life under “yankee” rule through immigration to Latin America. Some 7,000 American southerners left the former “Confederate States” between 1866 and 1870. They settled mainly in Brazil, Mexico and Belize. Steamship service was started between New Orleans and Belize Town in 1866 and between 1867 and 1869 two steamships were bringing 100 settlers per trip to the British colony. Most were ex-Confederate soldiers and their families, as well as a number of recently freed African-Americans who arrived with these families.
Around 300 Confederates followed the Reverend B. R. Duval of Virginia and founded the town of New Richmond (near San Pedro). Another group of settlers from Louisiana established sugar plantations on the New River south of Orange Walk Town. Here indentured East Indians were brought in to cut sugarcane. Around the town of Punta Gorda Confederate veterans received land grants from the British government and established more sugarcane plantations. There are still two white families in this area today descended from these North American colonists. In all around 1,500 white and black southerners immigrated to Belize during the late 1860’s. African-Americans lived in these communities with the idea that job opportunities would be better in Belize then in the post Civil War south.
Living conditions in Belize were harsh and many southerners or their children returned to the United States after only a few years. Others however stayed on in Belize and within a few generations this transplanted Confederate community had all but lost its “social cohesiveness”. White families that stayed on in Belize eventually intermarried with local Creole and mestizo families. The rigid racial segregation of the American south was not found in Belize, and today a number of Belizean families can trace some of their lineage to these Confederate soldiers who’s descendants have blended into the Belezean melting-pot.
During the late 19th century Belize continued to be opened up for settlement. In 1879 the Englishman Henry Fowler explored the inland areas of the country resulting in increased settlement by both blacks and whites during the late 19th century.
The 20th Century:
The 20th century witnessed a growing sense of black identity within the Creole community. Nationalism and the movement for Belizean independence was at the forefront of a peaceful struggle for self determination.
During World War I six hundred (mostly Creole) soldiers enlisted with the British army for service in Europe. The first and only group of Central Americans to serve militarily outside the region, they were sent instead to dig ditches in the Middle East. Upon returning to Belize in 1919, tensions and resentments started to build between them and the British colonial government. The prejudices that many soldiers experienced during their service to “King and Country” left a mark upon them that resulted in the riots that took place shortly after their return home. Two weeks after returning from the Middle East a sports event was held in their honor at a local golf club. No Creole soldiers were invited to attend the event. Within two weeks riots had broken out in Belize City with soldiers smashing shop windows and beating up merchants. Three thousand people were involved in the rioting and looting continued until a British gunboat was sent in.
The Belize City riots of 1919 led directly to the establishment in 1921 of a branch of Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvment Association. The Pan-African nationalist Marcus Garvey (b. Jamaica) came to Belize and spoke to the black community that year. He made a return visit in 1929. During the 1930’s Creoles organized a “Natives First” movement and were able to gain seats on the Belize Town Board in 1939 and 1941. Joseph Blisset was the founder during these years of the Belize Labor Party, among some of his more radical proposals was the forced expulsion of all Europeans from the colony, and the admission of Belize as a state of the USA. Fighting between the Labor Party and the white loyalist group known as the Unconquerables landed Blisset in jail for a period of time. By the end of World War II the tide of anti-British colonialism was growing throughout the British colonies. But the possibility of an invasion of Belize by Guatemala if granted independence was granted played a role in maintaining a British presence in the country until the early 1980’s. It was not until 1994 that the last of the British army left the country.
In 1950 George Price organized the People’s Unity Party (PUP). He worked steadily for the next 31 years for the complete independence of his nation. In 1964 a national strike led to the adoption of a new constitution and internal self-government. On September 21, 1981 the Union Jack was lowered for the last time and the Belizean national flag (which depicts two woodcutters, one black and one white, standing in front of a mahogany tree) was raised ending 119 years of “official” British colonial rule. George Price became the nations first Prime Minister. He served until 1993 when Manuel Esquivel was elected on the United Democratic ticket.
Areas of settlement:
Creoles are settled throughout the country, but are more heavily concentrated in Belize City (where they make up 50%of the population), in the coastal towns, on the cayes and in the inland towns of the north and center of the country. Those who were brought as slaves to Belize during the 18th and early 19th centuries tend to be more concentrated in the southern coastal areas, the far northern areas, along the banks of the Belize River and in Belize City (45,000) and in the capital Belmopan (6,000). The capital was moved from Belize City to the inland town in 1961 after a devastating hurricane. The Afro-Antillean community in Belize (mainly from Jamaica) arrived during the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century. They settled in Belize City and along the central coast and inland areas as well as in the west central parts of the country near the Guatemalan border.
Other important Creole towns include Placencia and Punta Gorda. Placencia was founded in 1740 by refugee French Huguenots from Nova Scotia (Canada) who had originally fled religious persecution in France. The Huguenots abandoned the settlement in 1820 and it was re-settled by Creoles. Punta Gorda has a highly varied population that also includes Garifuna, East Indians and Maya. It was founded by English Puritans during the 17th century. Other important Creole communities include Maya Beach, Sittee River, Ladyville and Sand Hill.
The Afro-Amerindian Garifuna population is concentrated in the coastal town of Dangriga (Stann Creek) and in the coastal towns located south of Dangriga (to the Guatemalan border). There is also a Garifuna community in Belize City.
A great variety of popular and folk music traditions can be found it Belize. Most music is played for dancing with ethnic groups in the country enjoying several different styles of popular music. Mestizos for example, play Mexican and Afro-Cuban influenced dance music such as ranchera or salsa. Mayans still play the African derived marimba during fiestas and on special occasions.
The music of the Creole
population shows the strong Afro-Caribbean influence of the English speaking
islands of the West Indies. Raggae and
Dance Hall from Jamaica, Soca
from Trinidad as well as Creole Cungo
are all popular with the younger generations of Belizeans. Among older
generations a traditional Belizean form of Calypso known as Brukdown
is popular at house parties and on
Brukdown has a long history and could easily be called the “national folk music” of Belize. Brukdon was born in the mahogany camps of the early 1840’s. Slaves from Jamaica, Barbados and Bermuda developed their own songs and dances blending African and European elements. Although they won their freedom in 1838, most blacks lived and worked under many of the same conditions that existed before the emancipation. The only difference was that they were now being paid something for their labor. There also was more time after work and on weekends to play and develop new styles of music.
The predecessor to Brukdon was a musical style called Buru. It included dance as well as lyrics satirizing everyday life in the logging camps. When these songs about events and people were taken home to Belize Town they took on a more “urban” flavor but still maintained their characteristically earthy playfulness. Over time Buru song and dance was accompanied by banjo (an instrument of African origin), drums and other percussion instruments such as the donkey’s jawbone.
Buru eventually came to be known as Brukdon. The name might derive from “broken down calypso” for Calypso rhythms and styles are closely related to Brukdon in melodies, lyrics and rhythms. Jamaican Mento is a close relative of Calypso and it seems possible that Brukdon could be related to Calypso through Mento. Large numbers of Jamaicans arrived in Belize during the 19th century and they had a strong influence on Belizean folk and popular music. Brukdon music is played by groups ranging from duets of voices with guitar to quartets made up of accordion, drums, chaca maracas and tambourine. The so called boom and chime groups also include congas, electric guitar, bass and the traditional donkey’s jawbone.
Brukdon brings together elements of traditional African and British folk and popular music. There are two styles currently being played in Belize, one is a more African influenced style and the other a more British or “whitened” variety. Popular groups include The Mimi Female Duet, Brad Pattico, The Tigers and The Mahogany Chips. An interesting CD of Brukdon called Shine Eye Gal (1994) is highly recommended.
The Garifuna community makes
up around 7% of the population of Belize. Living in the southern coastal towns
of the country, the Garifuna are descended from the Carib and Arawak Indians of
South America and shipwrecked and escaped slaves from West Africa (mainly
Nigeria) who mixed together racially on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent
during the 17th and 18th centuries. Forcibly deported
after several wars with the British, the Garifuna or “Black Caribs” were
banished by the British to the island of Roatan off the coast of northern
Honduras in 1797. Within a few years many had made their way to towns along the
coast of northern Honduras.
An abortive takeover of
Honduras by a royalist coup in 1823 resulted in a number of Garifuna finding
themselves on the losing side. In 1832 after several years of ethnic and
political persecution, a group of Garifuna under the leadership of Alejo Benji left Honduras for the shores of
Belize. Arriving at the mouth of the North Stann Creek River near the
town of Dangriga (Stann Creek) they
soon became an important element in the population of the area.
As early as 1803 some 105 Garifuna were already living in Stann Creek. The landing of the Garifuna in 1832 is considered the first large scale migration of the Garifuna to Belize. They continued to arrive at Stann Creek in their dugout canoes for the next several years. By 1841 Stann Creek was a thriving community and Garifuna villages spread south so that today the Garifuna can be found living all along the south coast from Dangriga to Punta Gorda (near the Guatemalan border). In Punta Gorda nearly half the population of the town is Garifuna. When the American John Stephens visited here in 1839 he described the town as producing “a great variety of fruits and vegetables” and having a population of 500. Today the Garifuna are using 40 acres of nearby land to build a “conservation of culture project” that includes a small museum, restaurant and arts and crafts shop. Some other well known Garifuna fishing villages along the coast include Hopkins, Seine Bight and Monkey River Town, the latter also has an important Creole community.
Most of the early
Garifuna settlers were fishermen and farmers. Others found work alongside slaves
as cutters of mahogany. In 1857, British
authorities informed the Garifuna that they must obtain leases for the lands
that they lived on or they would risk losing both their properties and homes.
The Crown Lands Ordinance of 1872 set
up “reservations” for the Garifuna and the Maya preventing both groups from
owning their own land and providing the English with an on going source of
Garifuna Settlement Day (November 18th and 19th)
is celebrated as a national holiday in Belize. The day commemorates the landing
at Stann Creek of chief Benji and his followers 167 years ago. A re-enactment of
the landing at Dangriga takes place every year and traditional Garifuna music
and dancing keeps the town rockin’ all day and night. Garifuna flags of
yellow, black and white can been seen all over town. Among the many ethnic
groups in Belize, the Garifuna are perhaps the most dedicated to preserving
their unique culture and way of life. The African origins of these traditions
make the Garifuna a sort of “New
World African tribe” with its own
language, music, foods and religious practices.
During the Settlement Day celebrations, as well as at Christmas, traditional
dancing can still be seen in Dangriga. The famous Waribagabaga Dancers go door to door performing the Yoncunu
(“John Canoe”) or Maladio Wanaragua dance.
The dancers wear painted masks resembling European faces with pencil-thin
mustaches. The dance represents the fight of the Garifuna against the British
rulers of St. Vincent. The Punta (Bunda or
Landani) is also danced. One of the most popular social dances in Central
America, the traditional Garifuna Punta
was originally part of a tribal ritual that was performed to keep the spirit of
a deceased relative on earth. It also was danced to invoke fertility through the
male-female courtship ritual. In the Insight
Guide To Belize (1997) the following description of the Punta
is given “A couple circles each other shaking only their hips and plowing the
earth with their toes as they alternately propel themselves towards and away
from each other”.
Skilled artists and craftsmen are also an important part of the Garifuna community. Benjamin Nicholas is one of the better known painters in the community. He depicts the everyday life of the Garifuna people in vibrant colors. Pen Cayetano (a Punta Rock musician) is also an accomplished painter. He now lives in Germany, but still comes home to Dangriga once a year where he owns an art studio. Austin Rodriquez is a well known maker of traditional Garifuna drums made from cedar stumps.
Most of the Garifuna still live in the Stann Creek and Toledo Districts of southern Belize. During a revival of Garifuna culture in the 1980’s the town of Stann Creek changed its name to Dangriga. In the Garifuna language Dangriga means “here the sweet water is close at hand”. Originally the town was founded by English Puritans from the island of New Providence (Bahamas) who farmed on nearby Tobacco Caye. Today the fishing village of Dangriga (pop. 10,000) is the Garifuna “capital” of Belize. There is a Garifuna Museum here as well as “culture tours” that introduce visitors to local Garifuna crafts (including drum making) , dance rituals and the traditional Garifuna meals called hadut.
The Garifuna religion is rooted in the religions of West Africa. Although Roman Catholic, African religious influences are still strong among the Garifuna. The practice of obeah, in which forces of good and evil are directed towards people through “spells” requires the assistance of a shaman or buyei. During a ritual called the adugurahani (dugu) people communicate with deceased ancestors. A part of the dugu is the hunguhungu which uses three drummers as well “call-and-response” and chanting. Drumming, chants and “speaking in tongues” are all important parts of Garifuna religious practices. One of the better known percussion groups is Chatuye. They have recorded several CD’s and currently live in Los Angeles, CA.
In 1991 there were 12,300 persons in Belize who spoke Garifuna as their first language. Some speak only Creole English, while others are multi-lingual speaking Garifuna, Creole, Spanish and Maya.
Belize remains unique among the nations of Central America. Its traditions are firmly rooted in both African as well as British traditions, making it culturally much closer to the English speaking islands of the Caribbean then the rest of Spanish speaking Central America. African rooted traditions are better preserved here then in any other part of Central America. A vibrant mix of peoples and traditions is one reason Belize has become so popular as a tourist destination over the past two decades. Along with having the second largest coral reef in the world, as well as some of the finest Mayan ruins in Central America, Belize can offer the traveler an opportunity to experience a part of the African Diaspora that is just starting to be discovered by the outside world.
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