"Before I proceed, let me say this. There is a scholar in Belize who is an expert on the Caste War. His name is Dr. Angel Cal, but he never, ever participates in any kind of public discourse on that conflict which is so historically relevant to the history of Belize. The reason Cal never engages in public discourse in his area of expertise, I submit, is because he is a professional academic, and he is concerned about his career in Belize, this being a country where academics are intimidated by politicians." -Evan Hyde, “From the Publisher”, Amandala, 13 December 2013.
Hyde’s comment stimulates my thinking about Angel Cal’s role as a historian in Belize and more specifically on my encounter with him at the University of Belize (UB). In 2008, UB made a long overdue step to establish a History and Anthropology Program. It has a long way to go (if it does not go away!) and the anthropology component is yet to become effective. The program was a revolutionary experience in my academic and personal ‘development’. In retrospect, the supposed simplicity and sanctity of history became a matter of more serious concern, triviality, and dedication. In this short piece, I want to describe how I entered the history program at the University of Belize and share my impressions and reflection of Cal in this context; and my encounter with Joseph Iyo.
Cal’s position as lecturer/historian at UB was instrumental in how I became a student of history. In Semester 1 of 2008, I enrolled in a double major of Biology and Chemistry (Bio-Chem) program at UB. I took this path based my good performance in the sciences at Mopan Technical High School. I did not like my orientation into the Bio-Chem program. No ‘core’ courses were available for me to take and the supervisor was not friendly. I sat five general courses: Computer studies, Algebra, Economics, Spanish and History. The course I came to enjoy the most was history. It was exciting in many ways. It was the notion of understanding and changing the Belizean society which captivated me the most. I also want to acknowledge Shoman’s Thirteen Chapters which kept these notions alive during the course. I also reasoned that since the history program was new, I would have better job opportunities versus doing what everyone else was doing. Furthermore, I was impressed by the success of Cal to have been the president of the University of Belize and that history could lead to studies in areas such as Law. It seemed like a good deal.
However, the History Program was conceived as a Bachelor’s Program which meant that tuition is extremely higher. I had received a scholarship based on my CXC performances but it was for studies in an associate program only. I was able to get the equivalent of that scholarship in the form of a grant through the Ministry of Education after several back and forth. Cal also suggested that special funding would be available afterwards (something that did not materialize for many of us in the program).
I always questioned whether the history program was right for me; it was a risk. My parents were supportive of my pursuits. I was allowed to change program and chose to do what I want. My dad’s only concern was whether I’d able to live off my degree in history. Logically, what will you do with a history degree? Why study history? I was more optimistic.
Cal has remained at the sideline of the history program since its opening. I never again had him as a lecturer in the history program. Instead, Joseph Iyo would become a central intellectual influence on my thought. I did not expect this. Actually, I struggled to understand his accent and abstract articulations. I could not understand why the University had a foreigner teaching us. And who was this “Hegel” and “Marx” he referred to? Iyo lectured us that semester in a course called “Introduction to History” which was more akin to “Are sure you want to do this?”. Iyo really scared some of us. His course was the “dungeon of history”, as some of "us" began saying. One felt “tortured” for not doing readings and thinking critically. Our “history bible” was E.H. Carr’s “What is History?”. It was like reading the Old Testament, -King James Version. It made little sense, at the time. Iyo was always passionate about the study of history and expected a lot from us. By the end of the course, I came to truly value his intellectual thinking and was relieved with a pass in his course. Iyo remained an intellectual icon during my years at UB, and continues to be influential in my intellectual pursuits.
But back to the point which started this discussion, - I am not sure to what extent I would agree that Cal’s disengagement form the public sphere is because of his interest to be a professional scholar. Cal is a very articulate person. I think he remains very proud of his work in Belizean history and at the University. Additionally, Cal, like me, happened to have done history ‘accidentally’; he found himself doing history rather than having any lifelong dream of becoming a historian. He also has some radical ideas at the back of his head; but has kept them there. Moreover, Cal does engage with the public through his religious devotion. We are all positioned within discourses that influence our actions or inactions. There is nothing wrong with this; it is the way it is. There is no law that says that the historian or any scholar must change society. And from the looks of it, there is little guarantee, that as students of history, we will be as radical as we initially imagined. I understand this; but my disappointment is: how can someone study a war of this nature and not want to fight one? Why don’t scholars or ‘intellectuals’ play a more active role in re-structuring our society, if at least in radical writing? Cal has not written any new materials in recent times. Nonetheless, Cal’s historical works and role in planning/coordinating the history program remain positively acknowledged in my mind to varying extents.
Bear in mind, this is just a partial perspective of the story that continues to be written…
I also recently shared some thoughts on Assad Shoman in the context of what his works and activism means for Belizean historiography and social change.