- Becoming Creole: Nature and Race in Belize by Melissa A. Johnson
The lagoon- and river-crossed coastal plain of the eastern Central American isthmus has endured a long and uneven relationship with European and other imperialist powers. Largely underpopulated for an indentured labor supply 400 years ago, and barren of the richer mineral veins found in the central Mexican plateaus or Andean South America, the littoral agricultural, forest and water resources have been less coveted than other areas of the New World. At the same time, though, the watery lowlands along the Caribbean Sea have not been a tabula rasa either. Instead, indigenous knowledge has ebbed and flowed with episodic European rule, an infusion of African-slave material and non-material culture, periodic immigration from other Caribbean islands, and rapacious North American and European companies tapping into fishing, forestry, and sport hunting. More recently, we must consider neoliberal regimes of conservation and tourism. Belize (formerly British Honduras) attests to the transnational racial assemblage that has shaped how blackness, brownness, and whiteness coalesce around Creole Belizeans' knowledge of, and interaction with, their natural environment.
Johnson, an anthropologist, sets out to "focus [on] connections between the human, the more than human, and processes of racialization in Belize…socionatural becomings are themselves entangled with processes of racialization in the context of transnational capitalist economic logics" (pp. 4–5). She drills down deeper a few pages later, stating that although most studies of places like Belize "emphasize how global forces influence and create local subjectivities, [the author] argue[s] that Belizean Creoles have been creating alternative socionatures… since this place was first settled" (p. 6). While the work's thesis statements entail multiple geographic and intellectual scales, readers remotely familiar with the study site should be willing to overlook such vagaries. But this reader asks whether this statement is not so axiomatic that it could be stated about virtually every place, provided an environmental ethnography is penned not from the top down, but rather from the bottom up, as this ethnographer has done.
I found the book most engaging in discussions of the patchy records of the historical, economic, and cultural geography of Belize. Wood hewers harken back to "wild Indian" Mayan activity, who raided British buccaneer camps (p. 25) for a good two centuries. British and U.S. firms targeted natural resources, ranging from chicle (boiled down from the sopadilla tree) to precious woods. Many Belizeans today still rely on plant-based Mayan medicinal remedies and can identify Mayan roots in their family. Shallow seas along the coast offered shelter from imposing maritime powers as well as a place to gather staples such as deer, other game meat, turtle meat and shells, fish, and an array of shellfish. [End Page 307] The hemispheric conquest introduced Old World livestock such as horses, cattle, pigs, chicken and goats, while okra, rice, plantain and other plants took hold in local agricultural production and diet.
Early post-Conquest settlers were a motley crew of mixed-raced folks ranging from white British men, freed coloreds and blacks, and Mayans. Wealthier Brits opted to settle for higher ground while the bug-infested coastal lands were left to the less-than-well-to-do Brits and non-whites. By the late 1700s, logwood production began lagging behind mahogany extraction, and both activities primed demand for African slaves, allowing for commentary about race and landscape to be embedded in narratives about why certain places in Belize were more valuable than others. Colonial discourse "encoded the association of blackness with swamps, woodcutting, and the inability to develop agriculture" (p. 35). Glimpses of counter-narratives about people, race and productivity surface in the book with references to the more populous settlements of the Miskitos in northeastern Nicaragua. Garifuna or Black Caribs move into place in the early 1800s as they flee persecution in Honduras and St. Vincent. Later, Yucatec Wars drive Mestizos into Belize who further add to...