I knew that I was going to like this book when I opened the inside leaf and saw a quote from Alice Walker’s “Possessing the Secret of Joy.” As began working my way through “Thirteen Chapters of A History of Belize,” I realized that the book is different from most historical texts because it presents the history of a people from the perspective of the common man – and even more rare – the common woman. In his Introduction, Shoman makes pointed reference to an old African proverb: “Until lions have their own historians, histories of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. I have tried to tell the story with the lions in mind, the majorities who endured oppression and exploitation and survived and passed on to their children the will to struggle. Wherever possible, I have used their own voices and always I have tried to show that whatever glory there is is theirs.” The book demonstrates that this promise was kept. It eloquently combines broad-based themes with detailed factual accounts, including an extensive resource list and numerous footnotes.
The underlying theme of “Thirteen Chapters” is the impact of colonialism on the cultures and peoples of Belize, beginning with the Spanish conquest of the ancient Mayan civilizations. Shoman discusses how, contrary to popular belief, Mayan resistance to the Spanish, and later, the British occupiers of what is now modern Belize continued for several hundred years.
“Thirteen Chapters” includes detailed discussions of the brutality of the colonial slave society built by the British pirates and their descendants in Belize. A substantial section of one chapter presents a graphic description of several lawsuits brought unsuccessfully against wealthy slave owners for the torture and murder of their female slaves. Shoman does not spare the sensibilities of those who prefer myth to reality, including the myth of “benign” slavery and slaves who worked and even fought “shoulder to shoulder” with their wealthy white owners. Rather, as Shoman demonstrates, the enslaved people resisted in every possible way, sometimes by fleeing and often with armed struggle against a cruel, oppressive and racist system. Shoman introduces the reader to a lengthy list of individuals and organizations who participated in such resistance.
The Maya peoples who originally populated Belize and the African peoples taken to Belize to work as slaves viewed the land as belonging to the community as a whole, to be preserved for future generations. In contrast, the Spanish and British colonizers viewed land as something to take, to “own” and to plunder for immediate personal gain. Shoman believes that these strikingly different attitudes towards the land had, along with the institution of slavery, a continuing and negative impact on Belize and elsewhere in the formerly colonial world; since they are the root of the grossly disparate systems of labor and ownership that persist to this day.
Several of the “Thirteen Chapters” are devoted to a description of the Belizean workers ‘and social movements of the late nineteenth and twentieth century. Shoman’s discussion of those movements include the importance of women’s organizations in the struggle of Belizeans for economic, social and political justice. The book offers a detailed discussion of the interrelationships between workers’ movements and the nationalist movement that ultimately resulted in Belize becoming an independent nation in 1981; as well as the development of modern Belizean political parties.
Assad Shoman, a former legislative representative, senator and minister who is no longer active in party politics, believes in the importance of history. In the “thirteenth chapter” that concludes this book, he states that: “historical amnesia, imposed and to a large extent internalised, is that mind-set which allows people to forget those things in their past which are most capable of providing them with the intellectual, spiritual and emotional tools needed for present struggles.” This book is evidence of his determination that they will not be forgotten.
“Thirteen Chapters of A History of Belize” is an educational experience that should not be missed by anyone who is interested in history, politics, economics or sociology, not only of Belize, but of Central America, the Caribbean, or elsewhere in the developing world, including Belizeans in and out of Belize, visitors, scholars, educators and of course, those who are active in the struggle for social, political, economic, environmental, racial and gender justice. – Review by Susan Guberman Garcia
Update June 2011 Edition
Seventeen years after Thirteen Chapters of a History of Belize was published in 1994, author Assad Shoman launched the second edition of the book under the title, “A History of Belize in Thirteen Chapters”. In the new edition, Shoman preserves much of the content of the first book but has updated most of the data – some chapters are updated up to February 2011. This second edition book also includes a more comprehensive overview of the Guatemalan territorial claim to Belize. Shoman also takes a more detailed look at the economic situation of the country and what he calls the conceit of succesive Belize governments throughout the years.
Assad Shoman – Author
“I am not referring only or not even mainly to corruption in the sense that we talk about in Belize; that is to say that somebody in office whether a civil servant or a Minister takes money to do favours for other people, that happens, we know that happens.
“I was more referring to a corruption of the mind, of having bought into these neoliberal concepts, these ideas about how an economy should work when we have seen over the years that it does not work for the benefit of the vast majority. There are more rich people in Belize today than there were in 1981 but there is a hell of a lot more poor people too. What is it you want? What kind of economy, do you want? One that grows and grows but few people benefit? Or do you want an economy that is solid, that is sustainable, that is fair in the sense that those that work get the benefit.
“The neo liberal policies are precisely those that will lead to a greater gap between the rich and the poor that will benefit give advantage to those that have and those that know how to manipulate money and power and it will always go against the interest of people and working class people so that should come as no surprise as that has happened as a result of those policies.
“It’s called A History of Belize in Thirteen Chapters. Their was a first edition seventeen years ago which was called Thirteen Chapters of a History of Belize. This one is much bigger than the last edition because I’ve included a lot more material on the territorial disputes we have with both Guatemala and Mexico. It’s a lot richer in every sense, every stage of it, you know, both the old history as well as everything including the mediation, the Webster Mediation and everything as it flowed after that until the present day that is brought up to date completely.
“And I also go into the border dispute we have with Mexico which is still outstanding and then I include a lot more material on what has happened in Belize since independence. In particular the economics, everything that has happened in, well not everything but an explanation. Remember this has to be fairly brief because you’re covering a huge period of time and you’re really just introducing students and others to the subject.
“I have a very extensive, I believe, bibliography there which I believe will allow people to delve deeper into the issues which they have to do because all we can do in a book like this, of this sort, which is just like skim the surface, you know and point to issues that need to be researched more and discussed more and debated more, you know. So that is the essence of what I’ve done. I’ve cut down a little on earlier periods to give more time, more space to the later period and questions of governance and questions of economy and also an attempt to, as I did in the earlier part of the book and also in this latter part, to show how Belize fits into the world economy and the world governance so to speak.”