When British Honduras Became Belize 1971–73: A Peace Corps Memoir
by Ted W. Cox (Sierra Leone 1969–71); Belize (1971–73)
Old World Deli, Publications Dept.
Reviewed by Barbara E. Joe (Honduras 2000-03)
Years ago, my curiosity about Belize was aroused during a brief stopover at the primitive tree-canopied Belize City airport. So I picked up When British Honduras Became Belize with considerable anticipation. I was surprised by the book’s heft (456 pages) and puzzled when first thumbing through its vast collection of photos, memos, letters, deeds, certificates, and tables dating from the author’s service. Interspersed were reconstructed conversations and present-day commentary in such large type that I didn’t need my glasses to read it. What was this all about?
At first glance, this unconventional book looks much like a scrapbook or collage. It contains five maps, including one of Sierra Leone, author Ted Cox’s first Peace Corps post, and a whopping 288 numbered photos (one repeated), some taken by the author, some derived from other sources, as well as an epilogue and an index. It’s a formidable and challenging work, but one I came to appreciate more as I delved into it more deeply. The book is also apparently for sale in Belize, as its price there appears alongside its U.S. price. With so many photos documenting the Belize of four decades ago, the book should attract considerable attention and historical interest inside that small and seldom chronicled country.
The book has qualities of a first draft or a work-in-progress (containing even some penciled additions), yet the wealth of material reproduced, most of it collected during the author’s actual service, gives it a raw reality, completely direct and unfiltered. This is not an easy read or a story in which the reader gets lost. It’s definitely not bedtime reading. Rather, it takes some imagination to connect the disparate pieces, yet the effort ultimately proves rewarding. I felt I had a better understanding of — and a much better feel for — Belize after my immersion experience in this book.
The first 26 pages are devoted to the author’s two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone. From there, the Corps sent him directly to Puerto Rico to inexplicably study Spanish, even though Belizeans speak English or an English patois. He went next to Belize, then known as British Honduras, as the title indicates. While most of the book’s material is arranged chronologically, occasional historical references and photos are interspersed. In both of his Peace Corps posts, Cox served as a physical education teacher and a track and field coach, an athlete in his own right, often appearing in photos in shorts and shirtless suggesting his role as an actual participant, as well as a coach and organizer. His tasks included such practical basics as setting up fields of play and measuring out racing tracks, improvising with materials at hand. Many of his student charges, both boys and girls, raced barefoot, according the photos.
Belize has always been a sparsely populated country, with only something over 100,000 inhabitants when Cox served there in the Peace Corps, a number that has tripled today, though the entire population is still smaller than that of a moderate-sized American city. Most Belizeans are related to the Afro-descended Garífunas of neighboring Honduras. In what was then a self-governing British colony, Cox’s first Peace Corps director there was not an American, but a Jamaican representing the British Commonwealth. Early on, Cox bought a motorcycle, but abandoned it because of trouble getting spare parts. At one point, he fell in love, smiling in a photo with his girlfriend, but sadly ended up with a broken heart. Later, traveling by bus through Mexico on vacation back to California, he met a woman from Belize intending to make an illegal crossing into the United States. He later learned that the border patrol had apprehended her and sent her back to by bus to Belize, where she was robbed en route.
Guatemala had long claimed British Honduras and unsuccessfully tried to take over the territory during the author’s stay, but its incursion was staved off by British troops. The colony apparently made a gradual transition to independence, with the formal name being changed to Belize at the end of Cox’s Peace Corps tour, though final independence didn’t come until 1981.
Coincidentally, a college Cox attended is a small institution where I once studied briefly as well, Chaffey College, in Ontario, California. However, after the Peace Corps, he ended up moving from California to Oregon, where he now lives. He made several return trips to Belize, including once in a small plane that survived a lightning strike. In his continuing devotion to Belize and its people, he had hoped to establish an outdoor school dedicated to sports and nature study, but financial obligations to his restaurant business back in Oregon caused him to reluctantly abandon the project. He describes his Peace Corps service in Belize as “an unforgettable and extremely rewarding chapter in my life,” a sentiment shared by many other former PCVs.
Cox is the author of two other books, both on Oregon history, The Toledo Incident of 1925 (2005) and Murray Loop: Journey of an Oregon Family 1808-1949 (2009). You can buy all of his books at: www.oldworlddelipublications.com
Barbara Joe (Honduras 2000-03) is a Spanish interpreter and translator working in schools and hospitals in Washington, DC, also a great-grandmother, long-time Amnesty International activist responsible for the Caribbean, facilitator of a Spanish-speaking parental bereavement group, and regular medical brigade and humanitarian volunteer in Honduras, mostly recently in February 2014. She is the author of two memoirs, Triumph & Hope: Golden Years with the Peace Corps in Honduras and, just out this year, Confessions of a Secret Latina: How I Fell Out of Love with Castro & In Love with the Cuban People . Her lifelong motto is “Walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”