Slavery in Belize
hroughout the Caribbean, slavery was associated with sugar plantations. Sugar production made each island a single-crop economy, entirely dependent upon colonial trade. Large numbers of slaves worked on huge plantations and slave communities developed. As the slave population increased, large black majorities developed who were ruled by white minorities. This became the typical Caribbean society, divided by race, culture, and class.
In Belize, slaves were used for logging. Therefore, slavery and Belizean society developed differently from other parts of the Caribbean where slaves and their families worked and lived in plantations. Slaves in Belize worked in scattered gangs in the forests, separated from their families in Belize City.
But there were similarities. Belizean masters had control over the lives of their slaves, and treated them like mere property. But because of the kind of work they did slaves were able to maintain some control over their lives.
The earliest historical record of black slaves is from a Spanish missionary in 1724. He reported that they had been "introduced but a short time before from Jamaica and Bermuda".
Most of the slaves were brought to Belize in the late 18th century from the West Indies. Often they came through markets in Jamaica but some were brought directly from Africa, or from the United States. At that time most of the slaves bought by the British were taken from the Niger and Cross Delta regions in the Bight of Benin (present-day Nigeria) in West Africa, and from further south in the Congo and Angola.
In 1850, African slaves in Belize still identified themselves according to the tribes they came from in Africa. It was stated that there were in Belize "Congoes, Nangoes, Mongolas, Ashantees, Eboes, and other African tribes". One section of Belize Town was known throughout the first half of the 19th century as Eboe Town. In 1850 it was said to consist of "numerous yards, flanked with long rows of what are called negro houses, being simply separate rooms under one roof, which used to be appropriated to slaves, and now accommodate the poorer labourers".
African slaves were the majority of the population before the middle of the 18th century. An early census in 1790 showed that three quarters of the population were slaves, a tenth white, and the rest were free blacks and people of mixed races. Hundreds more slaves were brought to Belize before the slave trade was ended in 1807. But in the next 25 years the number of slaves declined from about 3,000 to 2,000, or from about three quarters to less than half of the population. This was because the free black and coloured population increased to almost half. The white population stayed at about one tenth of the total.
As long as slaves were imported into Belize their number increased. But after the abolition of the slave trade the numbers declined, in part because of the high death rates and low birth rates. The slaves died from disease, malnutrition, ill- treatment, over-work and accidents; sometimes they killed themselves. The birth rates were low because there were generally two or three men to every woman. Abortion was probably common because slave women did not wish to have their children born slaves. In addition, there were large numbers of slaves who escaped from the settlement. Between 1807 and 1834 approximately 200 slaves escaped. About 600 slaves gained their freedom in that period.
But, as in other parts of the Caribbean, slaves died mainly because of the horrible living conditions under slavery. Their populations were maintained only by the slave trade.
Slaves in Belize were initially used to cut logwood. Because of the way logwood was cut, a large number of small timber works developed along rivers, creeks, and lagoons in unsettled areas. The white settlers, with only one or two slaves, cut the logwood themselves.
When the settlers began to cut mahogany instead of logwood they needed more money, land, and workers. Mahogany trees were larger and grew farther inland and farther from each other than logwood. After 1770, 80 per cent of all male slaves aged ten years or older logged mahogany.
Woodcutting was seasonal and required the workers to spend long periods of time isolated in camps, away from their families. The mahogany trees had to be found, cut, and trimmed. Then logs were taken through temporary paths to the nearest riverside, at a place called the "Barquadier". The logs were formed into rafts and floated down the river, usually during the rainy season. The rafts were floated to a "boom" before reaching the mouth of the river. There they were squared for shipment to England.
Several different jobs were needed in this process. The huntsman's job was to search the forest to find the mahogany trees. Because this was an important skill, the huntsman was a very valued slave.
The axemen cut down trees. This was a very dangerous and highly skilled job because the axe was heavy and sharp. The axemen had to stand on a springy platform called a "barbecue" about 12 or 15 feet high. The rest of the gang had to trim the tree after it had fallen. They also had to clear the path through which the logs were dragged.
It was the cattleman's job to take care of the cattle used to pull the huge trunks to the river. Women and children prepared the food and looked after the provisions.
It was stated in 1809 that "The gangs of negroes employed in this work consist of from ten to 50 each; few exceed the latter number. The large bodies are commonly divided into several small ones, a plan which it is supposed greatly facilitates labour". This was another major difference between the work experience of the slaves in Belize and those who worked in large gangs on the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. The smaller gangs reduced the need for close supervision. The foreman, whose job was chiefly to coordinate the gang's activities, had some authority. But the whip-wielding drivers of the sugar plantations were unknown in Belize.
Apart from the jobs that were directly connected with woodcutting, slaves engaged in domestic work and some farming.
As elsewhere, the masters in Belize had slaves to clean their houses, sew, wash and iron their clothes, cook and serve food, and raise their children. Most of these domestics were women and children.
Slaves were often obligated to cultivate provisions, known as "making plantations". This allowed the master to save money by having the slaves grow their own food. Most of the slaves making plantations were women and old men. The young, strong men were used for the harder work of woodcutting. Many slaves also farmed on their own in their spare time.
There were other occupations among slaves, including sailors, blacksmiths, nurses and bakers. But most slaves had no choice and little freedom in their jobs. Young boys and girls started work waiting on their master's table, where they were taught to behave and obey their masters. Most of the young men joined the woodcutters, and the young women continued in domestic work. As they became older or sick, men were transferred to plantation work.
In Belize, a few settlers owned most of the slaves. In 1790, 20 estates owned over 100 slaves each, or more than half of the total. About a fifth of the settlers had no slaves. In the early 19th century the five largest owners owned 669 slaves, or over one quarter of the total.
Superintendent Arthur reported in 1820 that many settlers treated their slaves with "extreme inhumanity" and "increasing severity and cruelty". In 1824, the settlement's chaplain stated that "there are instances, many instances, of horrible barbarity practiced there". There are descriptions in the Belize Archives of horrible cruelty to slaves. In Belize, the Superintendent, the head of the colonial administration, was in charge of the management of the slave system. Even if sometimes he and the settlers disagreed, they usually agreed on how to control the slaves. He would call the British navy for support when the slaves revolted. But the slaves were also controlled socially and psychologically by practicing the principle of "divide and rule".
Divide and Rule
The Colonial administration and the British settlers succeeded in dividing slaves from each other, African-born from Creole, blacks from brown, skilled and favoured from unskilled and unfavoured, converted Christians from "heathen", and so on. They also managed to divide the slaves from the "freed blacks and coloured" by giving the freemen just enough privileges and favours to make them identify with the whites.
The "free people of colour", as they were called, had some privileges but not as many as the white settlers had. They were free, but they could not hold commissions in the military. Their economic activities were restricted. They could not become judges or even sit on a jury. They had to own more property and live in the area longer than the whites in order to vote in elections. Many of the coloured people petitioned for more privileges. They stressed their loyalty and their "whiteness", and tried to keep separate from the black African slaves. By 1832 there were about 1,800 free coloured and black people in Belize (1,000 free coloured, 800 free black). This was almost half the total population.
The freemen of Belize were among the last in the British West Indies to receive equal rights with the white settlers. The white settlers controlled the early legislative assembly called the Public Meeting. In response to petitions, they allowed only one free coloured person at a time to become a member. They did not want the free people of colour to have power, but they expected the free coloureds to take their side against the blacks.
Once the free coloured in other British colonies in the Caribbean were accepted as equals, the Colonial Office in London pressed for change in Belize. The Office threatened to dissolve the Assembly if they did not agree. As a result, on July 5, 1831 the Public Meeting of Belize granted civil rights to "coloured Subjects of Free Condition".
The colonizers also succeeded in separating all the people of African ancestry from the Maya and Garifuna peoples, and the Maya and Garifuna from each other. In 1817 the magistrates of Belize were afraid that escaped slaves would join with the Maya and overpower the British. There is no recorded evidence that this ever happened, but it is believed that some runaway slaves were assisted by the Maya in their escape.
The Slaves' own actions tell us how they viewed slavery. They took drastic and dangerous actions, such as abortion, suicide, murder, desertion, and revolt to escape from slavery.
There were four recorded revolts and many desertions of slaves in Belize. Three revolts took place during the period between 1760 and 1770. During this time the price of logwood fell. The settlers had a difficult time getting the provisions they needed to feed the slaves. Because they tried to export more logwood to make up for the lower price, the two thousand or more slaves in Belize had to work harder, but were fed less. They revolted in 1765, 1768, and 1773. The third revolt was the biggest. It began in May on the Belize River. Captain Davey arrived in St. George's Caye and reported in June:
"The Negroes before our people came up with them had taken five settlements and murdered six white men and were joined by several others the whole about fifty armed with sixteen Musquets, Cutlasses, etc. Our people attacked them on the 7th inst. but the Rebels after discharging their Pieces retired into the woods and it being late in the afternoon we could not pursue them". Unfortunately, there are no records giving the slaves' side of the story.
Fourteen rebels surrendered soon after, but Davey could not take the rest. The revolt continued through October. Davey reported that trade in the area had stopped, and that the white settlers were scared and "in a very bad situation". If they did not stop this revolt, they feared other slaves might run away or decide to revolt also.
The H.M.S. Garland was sent to Belize. Nineteen of the surviving escaped slaves were trying to reach the Spanish territories in the north. Captain Judd of the Garland sent some marines to stop them. Eleven of them, however, succeeded in reaching the Spanish port in the Rio Hondo and were not returned. These slaves had crossed about one hundred miles of bush in the five months since they began the revolt.
The last slave revolt in Belize took place in 1820 on the Belize and Sibun rivers. The Superintendent declared martial law because a "considerable number of slaves" were well armed. He sent troops up the river. He discovered that "the Negroes who had first deserted and had excited others to join them, had been treated with very unnecessary harshness by their owner, and had certainly good grounds for complaint".
About ten days after the revolt began, Superintendent Arthur offered rewards for the apprehension of two black slaves, Will and Sharper, who were supposed to be the leaders. He offered "a free pardon to any of the other runaways, who will at this time voluntarily come in and deliver themselves". This revolt lasted for about one month.
Even when there was not a revolt the white settlers were scared that one would develop, so they kept what they called dangerous slaves away from the settlement. In 1791 the settlers were said to be "panic struck" when a French ship carrying over 200 rebels from Saint Domingue (Haiti) arrived. It was decided that "they should not be permitted to land so infectious a cargo". In 1796 the Belize Magistrates prohibited the landing of five Jamaican slaves who were suspected of having been Maroons, and in 1800 a Public Meeting discussed the settlers' "apprehension of internal convulsion and the horrors of Saint Domingo" happening in Belize.
Apart from the four recorded revolts, we know the slaves were discontented because they ran away across the borders or created their own communities in the interior of Belize. It was relatively easy for the slaves to escape because they lived in small groups scattered in isolated parts of the country, and many slaves, like huntsmen, knew the bush well. In the 18th century, many slaves escaped north into Yucatan where the Spanish offered them freedom. Some of these former slaves even helped the Spaniards attack the British settlers in 1779. When the Belize settlement expanded to the west and south early in the 19th century, the runaways went through the bush to the Peten in Guatemala, and by boat down the coast to Omoa and Trujillo in Honduras. In 1823, for example, masters complained that in a little over two months, 39 slaves had escaped to the Peten where there was a community of blacks who had left Belize. This happened over and over again.
Some of the runaways began independent communities within the Belize area. In 1816, such a community was reported "near Sibun River, very difficult to discover and guarded by poisonous snakes". The following year, Superintendent Arthur reported that "a considerable body of runaway slaves are formed in the interior." In 1820, he mentioned "two slave towns, which it appears have long been formed into the Blue Mountains to the Northward of Sibun." We cannot find the exact site of those towns now, but there is a tributary of the Sibun River called Runaway Creek. These communities provided a place to which other slaves could run.
This shows that slaves in Belize, like those elsewhere, rejected the system of slavery whenever they had the chance. They revolted, fought against their masters, ran away, and even killed themselves. But the slaves in Belize did not succeed in freeing themselves.
Indeed, the only known case in human history of a successful slave revolt is the one which began in Saint Domingue in 1791, and ended with the Declaration of Independence of the new nation of Haiti in 1804.
End of Slavery
Belize, like other British colonies, lasted as a slave society until 1838, when slaves were emancipated throughout the British empire.
With the growth of industrialization in Great Britain came the need for a free market economy, where labourers were paid wages. By paying wages capitalists could make more profit by selling products to workers who now had their own money to spend. The slave system did not provide this.
Religious people and humanitarians had campaigned for the abolition of slavery since the 18th century. By 1831, increased humanitarian concern, the new economic interests in Britain, and slave revolts in the Caribbean combined to bring about the Act for the Abolition of Slavery. This was passed in Britain in June 1833.
The Abolition Act, however, did not produce drastic changes. Slavery was abolished, but land and labour were still controlled by Europeans. The Act included the introduction of the "apprenticeship" system, which was used to keep control over the workers and condition them to accept this control. Under this system, all slaves over the age of six years became "apprenticed labourers," and were forced to continue to work for their ex-masters without pay. This system lasted from 1834-1838 when it was abolished. The Abolition Act was generous and sympathetic to the slave owners but not to the slaves. The slave owners were even paid compensation by the British government for the loss of their slaves, but the slaves, even when they were legally free, still had to depend on their former owners for jobs, and were unable to own any land.
Until 1858 free land grants were given by the Superintendent but after 1858 the Colonial Secretary in Britain made it clear that Crown land would no longer be granted. He said that allowing the ex-slaves to obtain land might "discourage labour for wages."
The former masters in Belize controlled their ex-slaves by denying them land and by developing a system of labour laws, as we will see in Chapter 9. By these methods, the people of Belize, whether African, Maya or Garifuna, remained in a dependent situation, dominated by the British colonialists.