From colonial domination to the making of the Nation. Ethno-racial categories in censuses and reports and their political uses in Belize, 19th – 20th centuries

From colonial domination to the making of the Nation. Ethno-racial categories in censuses and reports and their political uses in Belize, 19th – 20th centuries

  • From colonial domination to the making of the Nation. Ethno-racial categories in censuses and reports and their political uses in Belize, 19th – 20th centuries

by Elisabeth Cunin and Odile Hoffmann


Because of its recent national construction (it became independent in 1981), its history of intensive and diversified migrations and its small size (322,000 inhabitants), Belize offers exceptional conditions for analyzing the contexts of the introduction, dissemination and appropriation of terms and categories referring to the concepts of race, ethnicity and nation. The existing sources allow then to analyze the relations between the socio-historical contexts and the census logics, as well as follow the counting strategy implemented over time and evaluate the capacities of the colonial or national state to build population monitoring tools such as the censuses.


In this article, we will focus on racial and ethnic categories which are used in the population censuses. We will neither work on the categories created and used by social actors in their daily interactions or in specific mobilizations, which have led to the publication of numerous works (Daugaard-Hansen, 2002; Moberg, 1997; M. Palacio, 1995; J. Palacio, 2005; Stone, 1994; Wilk, Chapin, 1990). We will not present an ethnography of the colonial and later national administration, which remains to be done. Our main objective is to study census categories, not as a result or a cause of social dynamics (what they are of course), but in their autonomous administrative logic in two ways:

-Making a long term genealogy of the construction of ethnic and racial categories of census, while questioning what these tools teach us about the capacities and strategies of   the   colonial   then   national   state   apparatus.   This   is   the   analysis   of   the implementation – or non-implementation- of the “national regimes of otherness” (López Caballero, 2011) which involve forms of domination, the definition of otherness and the demands of citizens/ citizenship.

-Stepping out from the vision of the “all ethnic” or “all racial” of the majority of studies on Belize, while showing that ethnic and racial argumentations appear and disappear, and change in their uses and meanings.



Several authors, for the most part Belizean, U.S. and British, have explored the question of nation building in Belize, and have emphasized history, geo-political negotiations, international relations, and more recently globalization, that is to say the main areas relating to the formation and recognition of “the Nation” in classical terms. In his work, Nigel Bolland (1986, 1997, 2003) analyses the configurations of a colonial society marked by slavery and capitalist extractive exploitation,  the  concentration  of  power  and  the  emergence  of  a  “Creole  culture”.   Assad Shoman (1987, 1995, 2000), a major player in the political transition of the years 1970-80, studies the history of the twentieth century, and shows interest in the long road to independence and  the  institutional  and  political  construction  of  the  new  nation. Joseph  Palacio  (2005) emphasizes the country’s ethnic diversity, from the standpoint of the case of the Garifuna. Anne Mc Pherson (2007) highlights the role of women in the hectic and decisive period of the first half of the twentieth century, while Richard Wilk (2006) places the emerging national dynamics in the broader context of globalization(s). With these studies as a starting point, we wish to emphasize here some of the concrete practices of the “construction of the nation”, in this case those practices used to describe, name and thus distinguish the “one” from the “other” in a country inhabited by peoples and groups from extremely diverse backgrounds and today known as “creoles”, “Garifuna”, “Maya”, “East-Indians”, etc. (see below).


We propose an approach based on a criticism of the specific instruments of the colonial and later national construction, in particular the administrative techniques of the description and classification of the society. As Benedict Anderson reminds us, the very definition of the borders of the State supposes the identification and counting of the individuals and groups that comprise it. “The fiction of the census is that everyone is in it, and that everyone has one – and only one – extremely clear place” (Anderson 2003:166).


Three general sets of questions guided our thinking:


-How is the concept of “diversity”— of origin, nation, religion, “race”, ethnicity, etc. — adjusted over time? How do the instruments of population control take into account (or not) the diversity of the population?

-How do these instruments and objectives vary depending on the political-institutional framework (colony, self-government, independence) that produces them?

-If we consider that the question of the census is at the core of the techniques of “making the nation” in the sense expressed by Anderson, how is the question of the Nation, which traditionally equates a territory with a “people” and a “shared culture”, expressed in a particularly original colonial context that does not correspond or corresponds wrongly with this scheme?


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How to Cite:


Cunin, E., & Hoffmann, O. (2013). From Colonial Domination to the Making of the Nation: Ethno-Racial Categories in Censuses and Reports and their Political Uses in Belize, 19th-20th Centuries. Caribbean Studies.  Retrieved 2, 41, from

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