n the early days of the settlement of Belize, the relationship between the foreign settlers and the Maya was clear. The Maya were independent forest dwellers, engaged in agriculture, hunting and trade, far removed from the influence of the British. Conflict arose when the British first tried to force the Maya to work for them, and later brought African slaves. Slaves, and later workers, attempted to gain more control over their lives and improve the conditions under which they worked. The employers were often unconcerned with the welfare of their employees, and cared more about their own profits. Throughout the history of Belize, workers and employers have often been in conflict.
In this chapter we will discuss how the working class in Belize resisted the unfair wages and the unfair labour laws.
We have seen how very few people were able to own land and how most people were forced to work for the foresters. Wages were kept very low. In 1836, the mahogany workers were paid between $12 to $15 per month, plus rations - seven quarts of flour and four pounds of pork a week. A century later the wages were still the same. Through the "advance system" the employer paid the worker some of his wages before he started working. The worker signed a contract by which he agreed to work for a certain period of time, often nine to eleven months. The contracting was done in Belize Town before Christmas. The workers used their advance money to spend Christmas with their families, then returned to the mahogany camps.
Once at the camps the labourer had to pay back the advance he was given. If he needed extra goods he had to buy them from his employer at high prices. The book-keeper debited his account for the costs. He also charged the worker fines if he was late to work, sick or absent or for being "lazy" or disrespectful to the supervisor. When a labourer finished his work for the season he would usually owe his employer money. He would then have to sign a contract for another year. All these injustices made the mahogany workers dependent and poor.
These were some of the ways the workers were controlled. Since the majority of the workers in Belize were scattered around the country in isolated mahogany camps, it was difficult for them to unite and revolt against the unfair practices. In the camps they also had to worry about their families who were left behind, and the consequences of a revolt.
The "Masters and Servants" laws of 1852 and 1885 were very harsh. It imposed a penalty of three months in jail with hard labour for anyone who did not work according to his contract. The employer was allowed to take any worker back by force if he left the work site for any reason. Workers were fined or sentenced to prison for up to three months for missing a day of work, for leaving a job unfinished, or for disobeying an employer or a supervisor. Any person who encouraged a worker to break the agreement with the employer could be sent to prison for three months. Most of the laws continued until the 1940's.
The contract and labour laws were enforced by District Magistrate. In 1869, for example, the Magistrate at Corozal reported that all of the 26 cases decided by him under the labour laws consisted of discipline imposed on the workers, mostly for "absenting themselves from work without leave". Not a single decision was made in favour of the workers.
Working Class Riots
Belizean workers still found ways to rebel against the difficult conditions under which they lived. Sometimes they protested violently. In late 1894 when the mahogany workers returned to Belize Town from the camps, they felt the effects of a currency devaluation. This devaluation had already caused a revolt by the Jamaican policemen who were stationed in Belize. Workers found that their pay worth even less - about half as much. They could not even afford the food they needed.
Under the leadership of John Alexander Tom, a group of workers went to see the Governor. The employers would not raise their salaries and the Governor said nothing could be done. The assembled workers rioted when they heard this announcement. They broke store windows and looted. Troops from a British warship stationed in the harbour landed and protected the merchants. Most of the leaders fled to Mexico because they realized they would not get a fair trial in Belize. The import houses and the mahogany companies were forced to increase wages to prevent more riots.
In 1919, when black Belizean servicemen returned from fighting in Europe during World War I, they rioted to protest the unequal, racist treatment they had received while fighting a war for the British. They destroyed many businesses owned by white merchants, and demanded that "British Honduras should be a Black man's country". Again British troops were brought in to stop the riots.
An important leader of the 1919 riot was Samuel Haynes. He became a follower of Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born black nationalist leader who formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica and the United States. Haynes also wrote the words of a song, "Land of the Gods" that later became Belize's national anthem, "Land of the Free".
A brief economic boom created by World War I provided a few more jobs in the forest industry. But in 1914 food prices were rising, and after the war ended in 1918 unemployment increased again. In the mid 1920's the invention of the tractor made it easier to haul logs. The mahogany work season was cut from eleven to six months and fewer workers were needed.
The Great Depression
In 1929, a major economic crisis started in North America, Europe and other industrialized countries of the world. It had far- reaching effects in Belize as well. In the industrialized countries millions of people lost their jobs and country after country restricted the importation of foreign goods.
Belize felt the effects of the Great Depression. Export prices were reduced, imports dropped sharply and government finances collapsed. Unemployment increased. In 1931, a major hurricane added physical destruction to the social and economic problems.
The colonial government sponsored work programmes, but they were temporary and only provided limited relief. Throughout Belize, people suffered extreme poverty and near starvation, especially in Belize City. Rice lab, a porridge consisting of boiled rice with sugar, was distributed to the public at the gates of the Belize City prison to keep the people from starving.
In February 1934, a group who called themselves the "Unemployed Brigade" organized a march through the streets of Belize City to the office of the Governor. He replied by asking all the unemployed to register. When nearly 1,800 did, he offered jobs to only 80 persons, breaking stones at 25 cents a day on the northern road. The leaders of the Unemployed Brigade became discouraged and resigned in an open letter to the governor.
Soberanis and the Labour Movement
Antonio Soberanis, one of the demonstrators, felt that the brigade should not simply give up. He declared that he would prefer to be "a dead hero than a living coward". He began to hold regular meetings at the Battlefield, now Battlefield Park in Belize City, demanding work for the unemployed. He also attacked the B.E.C., the rich merchants, the colonial officials, and the colonial system for not helping the people. By July he had formed the Labour and Unemployed Association (LUA). In September, he organized pickets and boycotts against some of the most important merchant houses. In late September he travelled to Dangriga where he succeeded in raising the wages of dock workers loading grapefruit from 8 cents to 25 cents an hour.
Back in Belize City, Soberanis organized a picket of the B.E.C. sawmill to convince its workers to strike for more pay. On October 1, 1934 the picket turned into a riot. A demonstrator was shot in the neck. The sawmill and several business places were closed down by the rioters. The Acting Governor promised the demonstrators $3,000 for immediate "outdoor relief", then imprisoned 17 of the demonstrators. When Soberanis went to post bail for the demonstrators, he himself was arrested. He was not granted bail for over a month. One of the leaders of the riot was later sentenced to three years hard labour.
During the five weeks that Soberanis spent in jail, a split developed in the movement. Many of the other leaders left LUA. Soberanis recruited new officers. In April 1935 he urged road workers in Dangriga to strike for more wages. This almost started another riot.
The colonial administration passed three new laws in 1935 which allowed the police to ban processions, gave the Governor powers in the event of an emergency, and did not allow criticism of the government. These laws were used against Soberanis in October 1935, when he addressed a crowd in Corozal Town. He condemned the Belize merchants as "bloodsuckers", and called the Governor and the King "crooks." This led to his arrest, and on his appearance before a sympathetic judge, to a fine of only 25 dollars.
After the split in the leadership, Soberanis' movement was not very strong. The two sides wasted their energy talking against each other. But although this movement was short- lived, it gave Soberanis the opportunity to confront the important social and economic problems of the day.
He attacked the colonial officials and questioned the need for Crown colony government. Most importantly, Soberanis took the movement out into the districts, so that the entire country began to think about the rights of all workers.