The Cultures of Belize: The Creole People
The history of Belize is haunted by the memory of slavery and directed by its role as a pawn in England’s imperial ambitions in the Caribbean. But history constitutes more than just shifting territorial lines on a political map, and Belize’s Creole people are living proof of that. As the descendants of both enslaved Africans and their English enslavers living under shifting and often suffocating laws of discrimination, their relationship with larger Belizean society has often been complex. That’s only more true as the country’s population diversifies.
Where Creole people used to constitute a firm majority of Belize’s total population, that number has dropped to a mere 24% in large part thanks to migration from Belize to other Central American countries and the United States.
Modernization has made Belize more available to travelers than ever before, but it’s also offered a significantly wider range of mobility than most Belizeans had ever experienced. It’s important to remember that every Creole experience is different and that there are populations throughout the Caribbean and Central America each with its own distinct history and heritage. This is the story of the Belize Creole — often also known as the Kriol.
A Rough History of the Kriol
Belize’s first Creole was likely born shortly after English buccaneers established the land whereBelize City now stands as a base of operation for logging operations. While they had started with piracy, these English colonists quickly saw the benefit of lumber — at least as long as they didn’t have to do the labor. Many of the men would have experience selling enslaved people from West Africa in Jamaica, but they were now buying their own for the burgeoning operations.
By the middle of the 1800s, slaves constituted three-quarters of the population. While primarily West African, these enslaved people represented a broad swath of cultural, ethnic, and religious groups that speak a distinct array of languages. English enslavers paid little heed to these distinctions, but communication was critical to the survival of the enslaved. Over time, these distinct cultures began to blend with one another and create a shared cultural identity. It’s one that would expand to take on various European influences. It came to draw inspiration from the Chinese that arrived when lumber and mahogany gave way to sugar plantations. It would even draw in influences from Belize’s traditional Maya people.
The Looseness of Kriol Identity
The one thing that every Belize in Creole has in common is an ancestor who was kept as a slave — and while that may make the notion of Creole identity seem vague to outsiders, a shared experience of discrimination can be a powerfully binding thing. Creole after the abolition of slavery may have spread to the varying corners of Belize in varying numbers, but their varied ethnic identities still left them subject to gross systemic injustice. The fight of the Kriol in the early through middle 20th century was one defined by political justice. Riots and protests on part of Kriol identity activists led to the formation of the first trade unions, and it was Kriol who formed the People’s United Party — the first national political party in Belize. Even as Creole populations in the country dwindle, their sense of identity is rooted in the fight for justice and self-determination.
The Kriol Language
English is the official language of Belize, but there’s almost always at least a little Kriol in it. Similar to the Creole people themselves, the Kriol language superficially resembles Jamaican patois and other blended languages — but it’s also a language uniquely its own. While English serves as a base, this language ladles on influences from various West African and Caribbean languages in addition to the Nicaraguan Miskito language and Spanish. As a land that has grown organically from the arrival of slaves and followed its way through centuries of both struggle and progress makes it hard to always identify which influences came from where. It can also make Kriol hard to pin down for foreigners. The Kriol language is as diverse as its people — and for many Creoles, Kriol and English are two points on the same spectrum. Code-switching is common depending on circumstances and company.
Kriol and Garifuna
The Garifuna people have an even more complicated history than the Belize Creole. Hailing from Saint Vincent, these descendants of liberated West Africans and indigenous Caribbeans were refugees who had been exiled from their homeland but arrived in Belize free from the laws of slavery. As Creole culture developed principally in Belize City, the Garifuna made their home along the coast in settlements like Hopkins Village and Stann Creek, the latter of which would become known as Dangriga. While these two ethnic groups have shared cultural influences with one another, the early development of their cultures in Belize happened largely in isolation. Today, they still represent linked but distinct cultural groups.