History of carnivals in Belize: A brief literature review

This article is an excerpt from a publication entitled Carnival in Caledonia: A preliminary ethnographic profile of carnival practices (2013). The paper describes and discusses the cultural forms and meanings of pre-Lenten carnival in Caledonia, Corozal. The publication is available at the Institute for Social and Cultural Research in Belmopan, Belize.

An appropriate definition of carnival is to say that it is a “fusion of street theatre, music, costume and dance” (Herne, Burgess-Macey, & Rogers, 2008, p. 265). A broader definition articulates that carnival is a “collective expression of the perceptions, meanings, aspirations, and struggles engendered by the material conditions of social life and informed by the cultural traditions of the group” (Green & Scher, 2007, p. 6). These perspectives are a challenge to classic definitions which identify carnival origins in Europe as ‘pagan’ practices (Briceño, 1981). However, pre-Lenten carnival practices in Belize are of mixed ‘origins’ comprised of various aspects of Maya, African, and European influences. It is a complex social phenomenon that is the result of syncretism and as such also has many cultural manifestations (Green & Scher, 2007).

This review of carnival practices in Belize reveals various cultural continuities, discontinuities, and innovations reflective of particular social contexts. Green and Scher (2007) rightly assert that the study of carnival ought to be “situated within migration patterns, diverse forms of colonialist discourse, forms of cultural resistance, and desires for cultural recognition” (p. 2). Whereas one is likely to say that pre-Lenten carnival in Belize is of Maya/Mestizo cultural traditions (Briceño, 1981), the literature suggests that it is a much more hybrid tradition. The evolution of carnival in Belize is complex and discursive. To re-trace a precise development of carnivals is a difficult, if not impossible, undertaking. Thus, this review cannot be held as comprehensive.

It is first necessary to make a conceptual distinction between the major forms of carnival in Belize. Previous writers (Briceño, 1981; Briggs, 1996) have written of “carnival in Belize” as if the term refers to one set of practices or one specified occasion. This is not the case. Carnivals in Belize can be classified into two ‘ideal types’. One way of highlighting this distinction is to describe carnaval (Spanish word) vis-à-vis carnival (in English).[1] The Spanish word carnaval is the common usage in northern Belize to refer to the local cultural forms of carnival festivities. This carnival occurs several weeks preceding the period of Lent but the major highlight is the Three Days of Carnival before Ash Wednesday (Briceño, 1981). On the other hand, the everyday usage of the English word carnival typically refers to the festivities during the September celebrations which are carried out across Belize and which has a nationalist underpinning (Briggs, 1996; Collier, 1994). Yet, this linguistic ‘difference’ is too ambiguous and impracticable in written form (Briceño, 1981; Magana, 1991). A better classification is ‘Pre-Lent Carnival’ vis-à-vis ‘Populist Carnival’. This classification provides a useful framework to the study of contemporary carnivals in Belize but should not be considered as fixed or dichotomous concepts.

To date “Carnival in Northern Belize” by Briceño (1981) is the only ‘scholarly’ article published on pre-Lent carnival in Belize. Besides his article, there are various articles in magazines and newspapers describing and rendering useful perspectives (Briggs, 1996; Collier, 1994; Nunez, 1994). These interpretations are helpful but limited by a nostalgic rhetoric not unfamiliar to the study of carnival in the Caribbean (Green, 2007). The approach here is critical and cautious; this allows us to recognize the interconnections and inner-dynamics of the social world often evaded by nostalgia and grand narratives (Baronov, 2004; Green, 2007).

Accordingly, pre-Lent carnival in northern Belize was practiced in many of the earliest villages established by refugees during the Caste War of Yucatan (1847-1901) (MC4302, 1948). It is important to stress that the thousands of ‘refugees’ that came to Belize did not occur in one specific year or set of years (MC4302, 1948; MC4303, 1968). During this expanse of period, there were various waves of migrations. Some communities were established primarily by Maya refugees, others by the Mestizos, while others settlements were more diverse including Spaniards and other Europeans (MC4302-4303, BARS). The village of Caledonia was a known timber camp by the 1850s. It was comprised of the “ancient Indians”, Caste War immigrants, Scottish families, Jamaicans and quite possibly Africans/Creole as laborers (MC4302, 1968). The internal migration patterns also make it difficult to date precisely the origin of Caledonia and villages in northern Belize.

The earliest forms of carnival practices in Belize are recorded among the enslaved Africans. The first implicit evidence of carnival practices is from 1790 when a visitor recorded that “'a favorite custom among the Slaves [sic] to amuse themselves, by dancing about in the streets’” (cited in Bolland, 2003, p. 54). Gibbs (1883) also says that “they [the Africans] were made perfectly happy by the six-weeks carnival of dancing and dissipation annually granted [to] them at Christmas” (p. 4). There are many records which support the fact African groups had carnival practices (Bolland, 2003; Iyo, Froyla, & Humphreys, 2007).  This is not surprising given West Africa’s long standing cultural practices of masquerade, dance, and music (Iyo et al., 2007; Liverpool, 1998). There is no precise date as to when these carnival practices discontinued in urban Belize. Suffice it to state that two hypothetical and interconnected factors are the cultural repression by the colonialists and the ‘creolization’ phase that occurred post-emancipation (Bolland, 2003; Iyo et al., 2007).    

These African traditions likely impacted the expressions and transformations of pre-Lent carnival in Belize. During the period of the various waves of migrations from the Yucatan, there were already logwood camps established along the Rio Hondo, Corozal and New River (Iyo et al., 2007).  For instance, the census of 1861 estimated that about two-hundred African born individuals were working in the areas of northern Belize (ibid, 106). There is also evidence that cultural forms such as Bruk Down and Sambay (called ‘Sanbay’ by Mexicans) became part of Chetumal Quintana Roo’s (Mexico) folk culture during Christmas festivities (Canul, 2001; Rojas, 1996). Therefore, African cultural forms were not limited to urban Belize. This exchange and spread of cultural practices to Mexico was able to occur because of the many chicle and timber workers in the northern frontier (ibid).  Therefore, one can hypothetically assert that cultural interactions also took place in regard to carnival practices.

Marcus Canul (2001) provides rich historical and ethnographic evidence of the relationships between pre-Lent carnival practices found in the Yuctan and northern Belize to Afro-Spanish traditions in Cuba. At least three of the comparsas (theatric-dances) practiced in northern Belize are shown to have strong resemblance to its counterparts in Cuba, namely la culebra, el papalote, and la guaranducha. The word quaranducha (untranslatable) is said to be of Bantu origins but which found a peculiar expression in the location of Trinidad, Cuba (ibid). Anderson (2006) also support the view that carnival in Cuba is of predominantly African cultural heritage. Canul (2001) hypothesizes the migration route of pre-Lent carnival from Cuba is via a migration wave from Cuba to Campeche to Cozumel to Payo Obispo (Chetumal) to northern Belize.

The Spanish and Catholic influence also played a role in pre-Lent carnival in Belize and the Caribbean region. Carnival in Spain was known for “‘gambling, bull-fights, weddings, masquerade parties, and dances [...] in every town and vil-lage’" (Spicer,1937, quoted in Liverpool, 1998, p. 27). In Trinidad and Tobago, it was the Spaniards who legislated that the celebration of carnival be held for three days preceding Ash Wednesday (Liverpool, 1998).  Yet, the role of Moors (north Africans) occupation of many parts of Spain must also be considered as an influential factor in the development of carnival cultural practices before European arrival to the so called ‘New World’ (Canul, 2001; Iyo et al., 2007; Liverpool, 1998). Therefore, there are many factors that contribute to what we now observe as pre-Lent carnival in Belize. 

It must also be noted that pre-Lent carnival is not limited to inland territory of northern Belize. It is also carried out in the island town of San Pedro, Belize. Although it shares many similar comparsas with in land villages, there are also some notable differences. In San Pedro it includes the playful game of attacking participants with paint materials such as “flour, powder, blue [paint], lipstick and the black sooth that accumulated on the cooking pots” (Nunez, 1994, p. 22). The practices in San Pedro are also transforming at a faster pace. For instance, staged carnival competitions instead of door to door comparsas are much more recurrent practice in the island (ibid). Such features of pre-Lent carnival in San Pedro among others provides an opportunity for a comparative case-study.

In regard to populist carnival in Belize, its development occurred in 1975 (Collier, 1994). It started as an initiative by a group of women with support of their husbands to revitalize cultural traditions and depoliticize the National Day celebrations (Collier, 1994; “Belize Kolcha”, 2011). According to Henry Young, “carnival started a little after me and my wife and Winston Smiley and his wife we visited Trinidad in 1975 and we saw the Carnival and we came back and I thought it would be something good for the young people of Belize” (“Belize Kolcha”, 2011). It started out as a small parade mostly of children and women and gradually transformed into a national celebration. By the 1990s, it counted with participation of government departments and local businesses and was sometimes carried out in other district towns (Briggs, 1996). The nationalist element of Trinidad and Tobago’s carnival (Green & Scher, 2007) was a foundational feature of September carnival celebrations in Belize. This populist carnival is now considered a celebration of national importance (Briggs, 1996). This form of carnival is equally understudied but also likely impacted the development and transformation of pre-Lent carnival in northern Belize.

This review of the literature shows that carnivals in Belize are part of local and global histories, experiences and contingencies. There are notable features of Maya, African, and European culture in different phases and forms of carnival traditions in Belize. Carnival is not a static cultural form and will therefore continue to change. The practice of carnival is about “innovation, novelty, and the new” (Green, 2007, p. 70). While, this ethnographic case study is designed to increase the current perspectives of carnival in Belize, it does not claim to be the final interpretation of a dynamic cultural festivity.
Cocom, R. (2013). "History of carnivals in Belize: A brief literature review". In Carnival in Caledonia: A preliminary ethnographic profile of carnival practices. Research Reports in Belizean History and Anthropology. Institute for Social and Cultural Research. Retrieved from: http://belizeanminds.blogspot.com/2013/09/history-of-carnivals-in-belize-review.html

Useful Sources:
Anderson, T. F. (2006). Carnival, Cultural Debate, and Cuban Identity in" La comparsa" and" Comparsa habanera". Revista de estudios hispánicos, 40(1), 49-78.
Baronov, D. (2004). The conceptual foundations of social research methods. Colorado: Paradigm Publishers.
Bolland, N. (2003). Colonialism and resistance in Belize: essays in historical sociology. Mexico: Cubola.
Briceño, J. (1981). Carnival in Northern Belize. Belizean Studies, 9(3), 1-7.
Briggs, J. (1996). Carnival in Belize. Explore, 29, 28.
Canul, M. R. (2001). Música y músicos tradicionales de Quintana Roo: Instituto Quintanarroense de la Cultura.
Collier, J. (1994). Costumes, parades, and lots of glitter. Belize Currents, 22, 23-26.
Gibbs, A. R. (1883). British Honduras: an historical and descriptive account of the colony from its settlement, 1670: S. Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington.
Green, G. (2007). Authenticity, Commerce, and Nostalgia in the Trinidad Carnival. In G. Green & P. Scher (Eds.), Trinidad carnival: the cultural politics of a transnational festival. USA: Indiana University Press.
Green, G., & Scher, P. (Eds.). (2007). Trinidad carnival: the cultural politics of a transnational festival: Indiana University Press.
Herne, S., Burgess-Macey, C., & Rogers, M. (2008). Carnival in the Curriculum. International Journal of Art & Design Education, 27(3), 264-278. doi: 10.1111/j.1476-8070.2008.00588.x
Iyo, A., Froyla, T., & Humphreys, F. (2007). Belize New Vision: African and Maya Civilizations, heritage of a new nation. Belize: Factory Books.
Liverpool, H. U. (1998). Origins of Rituals and Customs in the Trinidad Carnival: African or European? TDR (1988-), 42(3), 24-37. doi: 10.2307/1146677
Magana, R. (1991). Carnival in Progresso Village. [Transcribed by Phylicia Pelayo]. ISCR/NICH, Belize.
MC4302. (1948). History of Northern and Other Districts.  Belize: Belize Archives Records & Services.
MC4303. (1968). Writing of Local History.  Belize: Belize Archives Records & Services.
Nunez, A. (1994). San Pedro Carnival: An Island Tradition. Belize Currents, 23, 21-22.
Rojas, D. (1996). Bailes populares de México Quintana Roo.   Retrieved June 23, 2013, from http://quintanaroo.webnode.es/news/bailes-de-quintana-roo-por-instituto-cultural-raices-mexicanas-/


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