Hero is Celebrated in Belize: Marcus Canul – An Icaiche Maya!
On September 1st 2014, a group of people gathered before a monument in the town of Orange Walk, Northern Belize, to commemorate the life and death of an Icaiche Maya leader and hero, Marcus Canul.
With people all over the country preparing to celebrate the long and successful journey to Belizean Independence this month, it’s a good time to pause and take a look at this unheralded Maya hero.
Anyone familiar with Chaa Creek’s Belize Travel Blog, or Belize in general, would understand why September is such a big deal. During this month people celebrate Belizean Independence Day and commemorate the battle of St George’s Caye – two events integral to the development of present day Belize.
And on September first, another memorial took place in the town of Orange Walk in Belize’s north as people commemorated the death of Icaiche leader Marcus Canul on that date in 1872.
Readers will be forgiven for not immediately recognising Mr Canul, or his historical significance to not only the Maya, but to all citizens of Belize. Even many Belizeans are unfamiliar with the man and his deeds, as he was woefully ignored in history books and classrooms for many years. And what was taught about Canul, the Battle of Orange Walk, and the Maya resistance in general was often misleading.
We won’t debate that aspect of the Canul legend here, except to remember that history is usually written by the victors, and while the British portrayed Canul and his band as bandits and thieves, he was revered by some people in Belize, Mexico and Guatemala as a freedom fighter seeking justice and compensation for losses suffered by what is today known as ethnic cleansing.
We do know that when the British were consolidating their settlement and expanding the logging of mahogany, logwood and other timber back in the 18th century they began encountering stiffer resistance from the indigenous Maya. As the British brought in African slaves and embarked upon a campaign to subjugate and drive the Maya away by burning their villages and crops, the Maya retaliated with raids.
It’s a fascinating period, with the Yucatan Caste War (1847–1901) in Mexico resulting in the decimation of the Yucatan Maya population there and a massive exodus of Maya to present day Belize. While the intricacies of this period are too complex to do justice here, it’s enough to say that events led to a series of attacks and counter attacks between the Maya and British forces. Marcus Canul emerged as an indigenous leader, and demanded that the British pay rent for land they occupied and provide compensation for the crops they burnt.
After Canul’s group defeated a British detachment, killing five and wounding 16 other soldiers, things began heating up, with the British determined to subjugate the Maya or drive them out all together by further burning houses and crops.
However, Canul and his men fought on, eventually taking Corozal Town on 1870.
In 1872 they attacked the British barracks at Orange Walk on the New River and Canul was mortally wounded. The Maya retreated, and, with their charismatic leader gone, this was the last major attack on British forces.
Again, this is a thumbnail history that does not do justice to the many ins and outs of this long struggle and the events surrounding it, but suffice to say that, although Canul has long been seen as a hero by a small minority, most histories either labelled him a criminal or bypassed him completely.
That is, until the 1960s when historians began taking a fresh look with a new perspective on indigenous people during European settlement in the New World. Just as North American Native American leaders such as Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and others where seen in a different light, so were local indigenous leaders such as Canul.
Fast forward to 2014 and a group of people are laying a wreath and holding a memorial service at Canul’s monument on Queen Victoria Avenue in Orange Walk.
Events such as this one, along with a drive to have the Maya better represented in classrooms and history books, are giving people a new understanding of the complexities of Belize’s rich, multicultural history. If one considers the combined history of the Maya, Baymen, African slaves, Garifuna, Europeans, the development of Creole and Mestizo cultures and the arrival of other ethnic groups from around the world, including Asia, the East Indies, Lebanon, Germany and other diverse locales, you begin to get an idea of what makes little Belize such an amazing country and such huge example in multicultural and racial harmony.
We’ve always been proud of how modern day Belize developed as a model of environmental sustainability and responsible travel.
During the month of September and beyond, it’s time we also celebrated Belize as a model of a multicultural nation where the contributions of every group are acknowledged and celebrated.
And in this spirit we acknowledge Icaiche hero Marcus Canul. Respect