Thirty-Seven years may not seem like a long time, but for Belize and her many friends around the world, it represents a lifetime of Independence.
How time flies! Could it really already be thirty-seven years since Belize shrugged off the fetters of colonialism, embraced change, and confidently strode into the United Nations as an independent, sovereign nation founded on the hopes, aspirations, ambition and, yes, love of her people?
For many Belizeans the memories are still fresh and the excitement surrounding that long awaited day very much alive – as seen in the enthusiasm already rippling throughout Belize this month.
In towns, villages and Belize City, people are joining together to celebrate the achievement and to acknowledge the dedication, hard work and perseverance that resulted in the birth of a nation.
Achievement is the key word here, for Belizean Independence didn’t just happen, nor was it “granted” by the mother country. As with their neighbours to the north, Belizeans fought for their independence – long, hard and smart.
And while it may not have been as famous or bloody as the American Revolution, Belize’s road to nationhood was longer and fraught with challenges that, one after another, were met and overcome.
The first steps towards nationhood were taken on September 10 1798, off a tiny island near the Belize Barrier Reef, known as St George’s Caye. On that day a ragtag band of mostly British and African woodcutters, farmers, hunters and shipwrights engaged and defeated a much larger and better equipped professional Spanish military force attempting to invade and subdue the rough English-speaking settlement at the mouth of the Belize River.
This diverse little militia threw class differences aside and stood “shoulder to shoulder” as history recounts, displaying copious amounts of audacity, bravery and skill to send the Spanish on their way and discourage them from ever returning.
Today, “The Battle of St George’s Caye” is a national bank holiday celebrated every 10th of September in Belize and considered to be the official start of the September Independence Celebrations.
Belize’s month long celebrations actually start at the beginning of September with a number of events, and begin to peak with Carnival.
Like everything else in “The Little Country That Could,” Belize’s September Carnival started off small, and has grown into a fete folks in Trinidad or Rio wouldn’t be ashamed to participate in – even down to the J’ouvert bacchanal that begins the night of the 7th and culminates with mud-smeared revellers either fitting in a nap or carrying on for the Carnival proper taking over the streets of Belize City from 1pm the next day.
The fun continues with the 22nd annual Belize Expo held 15-16 September, and, closer to home at Chaa Creek, San Ignacio’s inaugural family-friendly West Fest.
Our readers would be forgiven for thinking that, by now, Belizeans would have had enough partying and celebrating. But they’d be wrong. The national appetite has merely been whetted for the biggest celebration of all...
Starting with the Flag raising ceremony on the 20th, all across Belize people will be gathering to celebrate Independence Day on the 21st. Bells will peal, drummers will drum, churchgoers of all denominations will gather to pray, and by noon the celebrations will be in full swing.
Of course, independence involves much more than celebrating, and this is a time when Belizeans reflect on the struggle and acknowledge the national visionaries and heroes who gave so much in service of the ideal of freedom. And while many people contributed, two stand out:
Philip Stanley Wilberforce Goldson, (July 23, 1923 - October 3, 2001) Namesake of Belize’s international airport, Philip Goldson was a newspaperman turned activist and politician whose writings sparked and then fuelled the national hunger for independence. After being sentenced to a year of hard labour for sedition after his newspaper famously published “There are two roads to self government, Evolution and Revolution. We are now trying Evolution,” which the British Colonial Government deemed as threatening armed rebellion, Goldson went on to serve his country as a politician and social justice warrior.
George Cadle Price (January 15, 1919 – September 19, 2011) Considered to be the “Father of Modern Belize” George Price was another tireless activist who became the country’s first Prime Minister. He was a union organiser, Mayor of Belize City (1956 – 1962) and cofounder of the People’s United Party, which for years agitated for the political and economic self-determination of British Honduras, and later, for the country’s independence as Belize. While having risen to regional and international recognition, becoming a member of the United Kingdom’s Privy Council, and as the first recipient of Belize’s highest honour, The Order of National Hero, George Price retained his common touch as an ordinary Belizean.
In fact, Chaa Creek’s founding co-owner, Lucy Fleming, recalls hitchhiking on the Western Highway when the driver of a dusty Land Rover, little flags fluttering on the fenders, pulled over to give her a lift. It was George Price.
And that anecdote sums up Belize and Belizean Independence.
From a colourful past as port of call for the actual Pirates of the Caribbean, a hardscrabble settlement determined to make and live by its own rules, a multicultural populace that agitated for fair treatment of workers, self determination and then independence, Belize never lost sight of its roots while looking towards the future.
It was only fitting that, when Belize finally achieved independence in September 1981 and moved from a farming and fishing economy to tourism, it became a recognised leader in green, sustainable tourism based on environmental protection, education, and support for local communities. As a new, developing country in need of foreign investment, Belize instead concentrated on a slower, homegrown development that encouraged smaller, family owned and operated businesses that better reflected – and protected - those things that make Belize unique.
And, for example, allowed two young settlers who were farming and starting a family on the banks of the Macal River to – also in 1981 – open their doors to travellers and build a few cottages that also evolved into a model of green, sustainable tourism. Today The Lodge at Chaa Creek employs 160 Belizeans, offering training, career development and education while introducing thousands of travellers from around the world to the natural and cultural wonders of Belize.
When you think about it, it has been an amazing a thirty-seven years.
You’ve come a long way, and the journey’s just beginning...