Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Naming and History: Aspects of the Historiography of Belize

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Naming and History: Aspects of the Historiography of Belize

Article excerpt

"Historiography is often the most potent expression of history."

- P.E. Hair


The act of naming is an aspect of power and empowerment. That is, it is usually the one or the group in a position of control that is more likely to do the naming that will become recognized. And, all too often, the tendency is for this naming to reflect favourably on the initiator, as it is typically unfavourable, distorted or demeaning to the subordinate. This is not to say that the subordinate is not also engaged in naming. But this is usually done behind the scenes, in sequestered areas away from the domain of the powerful, and, in James Scott's words, not likely to stick as the "public transcript".1 Or, to shift position slightly, not likely to become the "keyword".2

Frantz Fanon obviously understood the nature of naming and history when he enjoined the colonized or "Third World" people to write their own history. To him, this will "bring into existence the history of the nation - the history of decolonization".3 In the process, third world historians should carefully re-evaluate the textual content of the histories of their countries written by the colonial masters. The text is always, in Fanon's words, "not the history of the country which he [the settler] plunders but the history of his own nation in regard to all that she skims off, all that she violates and starves".4

By the same token, the evaluation process should not rest with the explication de texte. In fact, it should begin with a careful scrutiny of the name of the country. Many colonized countries were given their names - or rather, were re-named - by the colonizers. In early modern history, it all began with Columbus in the "New World". We observed him skipping from island to island in the "Caribbean" or the "West Indies", confidently renaming or giving new names to places and peoples, with little or no regard whatever for existing indigenous names. All the names Columbus gave to these "new" territories reflected Spanish religiocultural heritage, which was soon to destroy, for the most part, that of the perplexed indigènes. Much of the same type of re-naming was done in many parts of Africa during the colonial period. Thus, it is not surprising that with the decolonization of that continent came the re-naming of many of the newly independent countries, all registering a return to traditional African names - the first step, these nations seem to be proclaiming, in wresting their country from the colonial past.5

Unravelling of Norn encla turai Theories

It is our intention to examine the name "Belize". The country we call Belize today has been variously rendered "Bay of Honduras", "Honduras", "British Yucatan" and "British Honduras", among others. All the designations with "Honduras" are derived from Columbus, representing the depth of the waters along this cape, while "Yucatan" is what the Spaniards thought they heard the Maya say the place was called. But what is the origin of the name "Belize"? In the attempt to answer this question we will confront many theories that have been advanced. However, the one that has come to stick - that has surfaced as the public transcript or the keyword - is the story which claims that the name originated from one Captain or Lieutenant Wallice or Willis, or, more often, Wallace, a Scottish buccaneer. This proposition asserts that Wallace or Willis became the eponym of Belize, but there are variations as to the date and the manner in which this happened. One version claims that Wallace was with the buccaneers who infested the island of Tortuga (situated to the north of present-day Haiti) until 1638 or 1640, when the French, who had gained the upper hand on this island, expelled him and his followers. Wallace and his comrades then settled at an area vaguely described as around the Bay of Honduras, along the mouth of a river, to which he soon gave his name. Another, somewhat more romantic tale, asserts that Wallace was not really expelled from Tortuga, but was shipwrecked somewhere around the same vaguely defined Bay of Honduras, along the same unnamed river, to which he eventually gave his name. …

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