by Melissa A. Johnson
In this essay, I explore the mutual constitution of the racial identity of Belizean Creoles and the natural landscapes that have been home to this population. The essay focuses on the nineteenth century, when racial discourse sedimented and the Belizean economy was dominated by mahogany extraction. The racial formation of Belizean Creoles was tightly associated with the “bush” and mahogany cutting, and with an “aversion” to agriculture, and served to limit the economic possibilities available for Belizean Creoles. I examine colonial racial discourse in descriptions of the colony at three different moments in the nineteeth century, at the height of slavery and the mahogany economy, shortly before abolition, and in the late-nineteeth century, when the mahogany economy waned. Despite this racial discourse, rural Belizean Creoles developed alternative systems of natural resource use based in part upon small-scale agricultural production. Colonial descriptions, some contained within the same documents used above, along with birth and death registries for the late-nineteeth century, reveal the varied ways in which rural Creole people lived in the natural environment. In some ways, by being excluded from control of large scale agricultural production, Belizean Creoles developed a relatively sustainable socioecology, which simultaneously conformed to the connections of Creoles with the “bush,” but refuted their status as consummate lumberjacks. These racialized ecological associations have interesting implications for contemporary Belizean Creoles, as cultural identity movements take hold in the country and as Belize becomes a central player in the burgeoning industry of ecotourism.
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Keywords: Belizean creole, race, community and culture, identity