Straddling Civilizations – Prince Harry’s visit to Belize

Prince Harry dancing BelizeIt was the first stop on a sweeping tour to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s March 2012 Diamond Jubilee – this visit to “The Jewel” of Belize. Prince Harry’s arrival fell just days before Baron Bliss Day, an annual holiday dedicated to the old Scottish patron saint.

To honor him, Belize dished up its generous spirit and heritage. When the motorcade arrived in Belmopan, the nation welcomed him with a block party showcasing Garifuna drumming, dancing, and a tent of food, tables stretching the length of a house.

Although Belize’s ties with the British Empire were severed in 1981, the warm reception for the royal family revealed how much Belizean identity still hangs upon a fawning relationship with the distant mother country.

“It is not so much about royalty,” Director of Tourism, Yashin Dujon told me while enjoying a panoramic view from the press booth at the mouth of the crowd. “It is about history.”

Dujon – the progeny of two generations of lawyers trained in the United Kingdom, his father also a football star of certain acclaim in Jamaica – credited imperial rule with having a unifying effect on Caribbean culture.

But beyond colonialism, the history of the Bay of Honduras is defined by the coming of migrant groups. First came the pirates; then Baymen, Scottish refugees from the Irish potato famine; the Garifuna, maroons deported from the island of St. Vincent; the Maya from the Yucutan across Northern and Western borders fleeing Mexico and Guatemalan Wars; and of course, the Africans, from East and West of the Continent, and via Jamaica, eventually melding into a class of free mixed black Creoles who came to dominate Anglophile society.

And add to this list for good measure the Confederate pioneers swept into the Belize City harbor in 1861. One particular speculator was the first of hundreds of Southerners – mostly Louisianans – to travel in temporary exodus to Belize after their secession from the Union during the U.S. Civil War.

In a letter home, the Confederate observed that the free black Creoles of Wesley Methodist Church of Wesley Church in Belize City were genteel, well-mannered and well-dressed. Even dark-skinned blacks were refined and cultured, he noted with surprise.

Another migrant remarked that “the Southerner will at first, experience a certain degree of repugnance when he finds the negro raised to a certain extent to quasi equality with himself.”

Whether or not they thought themselves equal to whites, the Belizean Creoles accepted the bouquet of culture, enlightenment, and freedom extended by them Her Majesty the Queen. Like the Creoles of Louisiana, they stood their ground, but standing it meant straddling cultures and civilizations.

Today, many Belizeans remain shy about distinguishing themselves by race, answering simply that they are “Belizean.” Taxis and vendors wear cookie cutter culture on their sleeve, ready with rice and beans, tacos and Creole proverbs.

If only becoming Belizean were that simple. Prince Harry made a charming effort, standing next to the Queen’s representative, the Governor General, inviting the crowd to “Mek We Party,” and then offered an impressive swaying of hips to the punta drums.

Harry would not have been the first to exchange a bit of his royalty for the flavors of Belize. But the locals, awestruck and nostalgic for the visit of his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, would not let him forget his imperial roots.

One woman was reportedly so enamored after her encounter with his Highness that she refused to wash her hands. The first lady, Kim Simplis, posted photos on Facebook of his visit with children with special needs. Afterwards, a chorus of comments flooded her page. “It’s not every day you get to meet a real Prince!” said one.

While the cultural groups flashed their colors like peacocks for Harry, he seemed to enjoy his whirlwind visit. Perhaps he let his guard down long enough to shrug off the seven centuries of empire upon his shoulders, to cross the line for the two minutes that it took him to twirl a Mestizo dancer as her skirt billowed up in the breeze.

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