Baron Bliss Day – Belize

March 9

Baron Bliss.

Sounds like the name of a Batman character, and its eccentric, British, paralyzed bearer could have easily been one.

Little is known of Henry Edward Ernest Victor Bliss’s early life. He was born in Buckinghamshire, England in 1869 and became an engineer. He received the title “Fourth Baron Bliss of the Kingdom of Portugal” in adulthood, probably through his relation to war veteran Sir John Moore, though some historians dispute this.

Baron Bliss
Baron Bliss

He had hoped to retire early and sail the world, but he was paralyzed from the waist down at the age of 42. Still determined, he used a yacht, the Sea King, to travel around the British Isles. The Sea King was commandeered during World War I.

After the war Bliss built a new yacht, the Sea King II. He left a good amount of his fortune with his wife Ethel (They had no children) and pursued his lifelong dream. He spent five years in the Bahamas, fishing. Then moved on to Trinidad, where the unfortunate Bliss experienced a very bad case of food poisoning.

After recovering slightly, the ship sailed for the shore of British Honduras—what is now Belize. Bliss spent several weeks off the coast of the small Crown Colony just southeast of Mexico. Bliss fell in love with the area. He remained onboard his ship, but was often visited by the locals.

It is no secret why Bliss fell in love with the coast of what would one day become known as Belize. To this day Belize is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful stretches on shoreline on earth. For scuba divers, Belize is second only to the Great Barrier Reef.

Baron Bliss continued fishing there until his health took a turn for the worse. When his doctors informed him he had only a short while to live, he rewrote his will, leaving the bulk of his massive fortune to the small colony.

Bliss passed away on March 9, 1926. He requested he be buried underneath a lighthouse. The grateful Belize government used part of the inheritance to build the famous 50-foot Baron Bliss Lighthouse, as well as the Bliss Institute, the Bliss School of Nursing, and several other projects that strengthened the colony’s infrastructure. Also, the country holds a yearly regatta in his honor, as requested in his will.

(Bliss Institute)

Today Baron Bliss Day is still immortalized with a holiday in Belize—a country in which he never set foot.

For more info:

Baron Bliss Day

Bliss of Belize

The Lighthouse and Legacy of Baron Bliss

Baron Bliss — Find a Grave – Helaine M. Cigal

Panama Martyrs Day

January 9

On the anniversary of the murder of Raud the Strong in Norway, Panama’s Martyrs Day remembers a tragedy half a world away and a thousand years later. The oppressors this time? The good ol’ U.S. of A.*

On January 9th, 1964 two-hundred Panamanian high school students marched to Balboa High School in the U.S. Canal Zone to raise the Panamanian flag in what was expected to be a peaceful protest.

By the end of that day, twenty-two Panamanians lay dead, and the city was in chaos.

very low-res cover of Life Magazine, 1/24/64, © Life Magazine
Tensions had increased over the early 1960’s between Panamanians and “Zonians,” the term used to refer to the highly patriotic group of U.S. citizens and supporters residing in the Canal Zone. The clash of identities and national pride was symbolized by an ongoing debate about flying the US and Panamanian flags at public institutions within the Canal Zone.

“In 1960, after a series of riots in Panama, President Eisenhower ordered that Panama’s flag should fly side by side with the Stars and Stripes at the U.S. Canal Zone building.”Life Magazine

Other sources point out it was actually Kennedy’s decision to fly the Panamanian flag with the U.S. flag throughout the Canal Zone. However, this policy had not been carried out at the time of Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.

The patriotism of the Zonians was fueled by the recent assassination and by a Molotov cocktail attack on the U.S. Embassy in Panama City the month before.

The chief architect of the Panama Canal Company was suing to prevent the flying of the Panamanian flag at his site, and a temporary compromise was imposed–that satisfied no one and angered everyone. The compromise was to fly no flag, either U.S. or Panamanian at sites in the Canal Zone.

On January 7th Zonian students at Balboa High School in the Canal Zone protested this compromise by raising the U.S. flag at the school. Officials took down the flag, but the students walked out of class to raise it again and posted their own guards to prevent its removal.

Panamanian students with flag 1964

On January 9th a group of 150-200 students from the Panamanian Instituto Nacional (high school) marched from Panama proper to Balboa High to raise a Panamanian flag in protest.

The were met by a large crowd of Zonian students, adults, and police at the high school. The situation worsened as the Zonian students refused to allow the Panamanians access to the flag pole and sang the

An altercation between Panamians and Zonians broke out in which the Panamanian flag was torn. This particular flag had a historical significance; it had been used in 1947 to protest the Filos-Hines Treaty.

Panama students and Canal Zone troops - 1/9/64

“As word of the Balboa flag desecration incident spread, angry crowds formed along the border between Panama City and the Canal Zone. At several points demonstrators stormed into the zone, planting Panamanian flags. Canal Zone police tear gassed them. Rocks were thrown, causing minor injuries to several of the cops. The police opened fire.” — Eric Jackson

The first person killed was Ascanio Arosemena, a 20 year-old college student, who had not participated in the demonstrated, but was on his way to a movie when he came upon the scene. A photo (below) shows him helping to evacuate an injured student moments before he was shot in the back.

Angry Panamanians demonstrators set fire to Canal Zone cars, shops, and buildings, tore down sections of the “fence of shame” separating the Canal Zone, and used Molotov cocktails on the house of the US District Judge. Police initially used tear gas to stop the crowds. Then bullets.

When the onslaught was over, 22 Panamanians lay dead. Six of the them had been trapped when the American Airlines building was set on fire. One victim was an 18 month-old baby girl killed by excessive tear gas. Hundreds were wounded.

U.S. Army officials insisted bullets were never directly fired into the crowd, but one source says claims the military expended 450 .30 caliber rifle rounds, close to a thousand rounds of birdshot, and over 7,000 tear gas canisters.

By 8pm the pandemonium had spread throughout the country including the city of Colon, where riots broke out and three U.S. soldiers were killed.

Panama broke off relations with the United States, and the U.S. action and policy toward Panama was multi-laterally condemned by France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and China. The tragedy of January 9, 1964 had long-lasting repercussions which paved the way for the 1977 treaty that transfered the Canal Zone to Panama in 1999.

Torrijos-Carter Treaties

[Another factor that fueled the conflict: President Lyndon Johnson’s notion that Communist agents were inciting the unrest in Panama–as opposed to it being an authentic expression of anger against U.S. policy in the region. Members of Panama’s leftist party were indeed involved in demonstrations, but not in the mayhem that followed.]

It seems remarkable and tragic that a debate over a flag would, within hours lead to a confrontation so bloody.

Statue of dedication - Panama Martyrs - 1/9/64
Statue in memory of 22 Panamanians who died in the fight

But such devotion to the symbolic value of a nation’s flag is echoed in the national anthems of countries across the world. The United States’ own national anthem doesn’t ask about democracy, peace, the President, free markets, or American government. It simply asks “…does that star-spangled banner yet wave…O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Eric Jackson’s The Martyrs of 1964

The History of Panama by Robert C. Harding

The History of Panama (Google preview)

American Heritage article

La Prensa article (Spanish)

Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe

December 12

“…one may no longer consider himself a Christian, but you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe.”

— Carlos Fuentes

It’s been said that Mexico came into being not in 1821–the year Spain recognized its independence–but nearly 300 years earlier, in 1531, when a recently widowed peasant-farmer named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, beheld the most spectacular vision in Mexican history.


On December 9, he was out walking near the ruins of Tepeyac Hill, where Aztecs once worshipped the mother goddess Tonatzin, when a young incarnation of the Virgin Mary appeared before him encompassed in a halo of light. She spoke to Juan Diego in his native tongue of Nahuatl, and asked him to deliver a message to the Mexican bishop: to build a church on the ground where she stood.

Upon hearing Juan Diego’s story, the bishop had his doubts. So the next time Juan Diego saw the Virgin, he confessed to her his failure to convince the bishop. She told him to pick some flowers at the top of the hill–even though it was December and no flowers should have been blooming. There he found Castilian roses, native to the bishop’s hometown in Spain. The Virgin arranged them in his tilma (apron), but when Juan Diego opened his tilma to the bishop, it held not flowers but the lifelike image of the Virgin of Guadalupe upon it.

Word spread of the miraculous vision and the image on the cloth. What the event suggested to the descendants of the Aztecs, many of whom had been made to feel unworthy by the strange pushers of this new faith due to the color of their skin, was that the Virgin revealed herself not to a Spanish bishop, but to a common, dark-skinned peasant. And Guadalupe herself was not the pale icon that had been forced upon the people by Europeans, but a mestizo, a mixture of races that would come to represent Mexico.

Old Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico City

During the Mexican War of Independence in the 1810’s, the Lady of Guadalupe became the symbol of the new-born nation and the country’s patron saint.

In 2002, Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego as well. His feast day is December 9, the anniversary of the day he first saw Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is December 12, the last day she appeared to him.

Today Mexico is still overwhelmingly Catholic, but as Gustavo Arellano points out:

You don’t have to be Mexican or even Catholic to celebrate Guadalupe. Heck, you don’t even have to believe in God. All you need is a belief in the equality of people that’s in the core of Guadalupe’s message and you will surely feel her redeeming love.

On December 12, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans gather in churches and communities throughout North America and celebrate the symbol of the people of Mexico and patron saint of the Americas.

Balboa Day

September 25

There are two separate holidays on September 25, celebrated in 4 hemispheres, that collectively mark the beginning and the end of colonialism.

Balboa Day

Balboa plays wave-jumping in the Pacific
Balboa plays "wave-jump" in the Pacific

Vasco Nunez de Balboa was 26 in 1500. It was only 8 years after Columbus’s first voyage, and the young Spaniard sought adventure in the New World. Balboa joined the crew of an expedition headed west to Hispaniola (Cuba) and on to Colombia with the purpose of establishing a settlement.

Due to lack of men, the Spanish were unable to maintain a colony in Colombia. Balboa returned to Hispaniola and pursued Plan B: pig farming. Evidently, Balboa was not a very good pig farmer. He went broke, and was even unable to join the next mission to Colombia because he owed so much money.

The following year he didn’t ask. He snuck aboard a ship carrying supplies to the new settlement.

When the ship arrived in South America the newbies found the Spanish colony deserted. Unable to defend the colony or to sustain their food supply, the Spanish settlers had hightailed it back home. Balboa, who had some familiarity with the land, recommended the group move west, where the indigenous tribes were more peaceful. Thus, the stowaway became the group’s unofficial leader.

Balboa and his crew had many riotous adventures, making slaves of the native populations, stealing gold, and setting wild dogs upon 40 natives exercising the “foulest vice” of male-love. (Right)

In 1513, Balboa heard rumors of a sea to the south, across what is now Panama. Balboa led a group of 90 men southwest across the isthmus. On September 25, 1513, Balboa scaled the highest summit and became the first European to set eyes upon the eastern half of the Pacific Ocean.

Unable to fathom its vastness, he called it the “South Sea” because it appeared to follow Panama’s southern shore.

It was downhill from there for Balboa, literally and figuratively.

A few years later a new governor arrived in town, appointed by the King of Spain. To ensure Balboa would not usurp him, the governor accused Balboa of treason. Balboa and 4 of his men were tried and beheaded in 1519.

Armed Forces Day – Mozambique

From the Northern and Western Hemispheres we move half a world and four and a half centuries later to the coast of Africa.

In the 1500s, Portugal owned half the world (’cause the Pope said so). By the 1960s, the former Iberian powerhouse was tightly clenching its few remaining colonies.

Spurred on by success in Tanzania, FRELIMO, Mozambique’s anti-colonialist liberation party, formed (illegally) in 1962, and received support from China and the Soviet Union. On September 25, 1964, FRELIMO went militant, attacking a Portuguese base in Cabo Delgado.

The fight for independence would be bloody and costly, lasting over a decade. Ultimately, Mozambique won independence, like other Portuguese colonies, because of a government coup in Portugal in 1974. Thus ending almost 500 years of Iberian colonialism in Africa and the Americas.

In memory of that bloody first day, September 25 is Armed Forces Day in Mozambique.

Independence Day – Central America

September 15

After 300 years of Spanish rule, the Captaincy General of Guatemala cut ties with the Old World in a declaration of Independence on September 15, 1821. The Spanish colony consisted of what is now Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The proclamation was made in the capital, Guatemala City, in the northwestern corner of the isthmus. But Costa Rica, in the southeast, didn’t learn of its independence until a month later.

Today the five nations celebrate their collective independence. One relatively new tradition is the Torch of Independence relay across hundreds of miles of the Pan-American highway. The relay follows the symbolic path by which word of independence was spread from Guatemala to Costa Rica.  Across Central America, schoolchildren in towns and cities take part in parades and processions, dressed in traditional attire and performing regional dances.

The 5

Guatemala is the Heart of the Mayan Empire. The country’s large indigenous population speaks 23 Mayan-based languages. Guatemala Antigua was once the capital of the entire region, stretching from the southern border of Mexico down to the tip of South America. It was founded in 1542 after a mudflow from the Agua Volcano flooded the previous capital, now called “Ciudad Vieja” (Old City). In 1773, Guatemala Antigua was mostly destroyed by earthquakes, and the current city of Guatemala was built nearby.

El Salvador is the home of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero was assassinated in 1979 and though not yet a saint, is sometimes called the patron saint of the Americas. The brutal 12-year civil war that erupted following his death took the lives of an estimated 75,000 El Salvadorians.

Honduras is the only volcano-less country of the five and is the only one that is totally self-sufficient in terms of electricity. Though spared the bloodshed and violence of the civil wars that rocked its neighbors, Honduras and El Salvador clashed in the 100-hour “Soccer War” of 1969, and Honduras was used as a base and training ground for U.S.-backed forces against Nicaragua in the 1980s. In 1998 Hurricane Mitch killed 5000 Hondurans and wiped out 70% of the country’s crops.

Of the five, Nicaragua has arguably been most effected by U.S. interests, beginning in 1855—when Tennessee entrepreneur William Walker hired an army of mercenaries, overthrew the Nicaraguan government and set himself up as President—all the way up to the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s, and the CIA mining of three Nicaraguan ports in 1984. According to the World Bank, as of 1995, Nicaragua’s per capita GDP was the same as in 1945.

Costa Rica is the only country in the Americas not to have a military, and is one of the most eco-friendly countries in the world. Covering only .03% of the earth’s land surface, Costa Rica contains 5% of the world’s biodiversity.

Timeline of U.S. Intervention in Central America

Liberation Day – Nicaragua

July 19

Nicaragua has been the focus of U.S. foreign policy more than most Americans realize.

In the 1850’s, the country was invaded and briefly ruled by a U.S. lawyer-doctor-journalist named William Walker.

At the turn of the 20th century, the country was the proposed site of the canal connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific, until Congress opted for Panama.

During the 1920’s and ’30’s, the U.S. Marines occupied Nicaragua making it “safe for democracy” (i.e., “business interests”).

But the United States’ most enduring impact on Nicaragua (outside of Mickey Mouse and Coca-Cola) may have been the support of the Somoza dynasty which ruled the country either directly or indirectly from the 1930’s through the 1970’s.

The final Somoza was President Anastasio Sonoza Debayle, whose mishandling of Nicaraguan finances in the 1970’s, and particularly after the 1972 earthquake, infuriated the Nicaraguan public. The socialist Sandinista Liberation Front (named for Augusto César Sandino) gained popularity as a militant opposition movement against Somoza’s government.

The revolution killed approximately 50,000 Nicaraguans and climaxed in 1979, by which time Somoza had lost U.S. support and the Sandinistas had gained control of most of the country outside of the capital Managua. Somoza fled to Miami on July 17, which is celebrated in Nicaragua as “Día de la Alegría”.

Two days later the Sandinistas took power.

On July 19, 2009 the country celebrates the 30th anniversary of that takeover, alternately known as Liberation Day and Sandinista Day.

Ironically, the celebrations come as the opposition accuses Sandinista leader Ortega – who lost power in 1990 but returned 17 years later – of promoting “a new family dictatorship” in Nicaragua, currently the second-poorest country in Latin America…

For writer Sergio Ramirez… “[Ortega] wasted the opportunity that history put in his hands, to use his leadership to transform Nicaragua socially and to provide it with better democratic institutions… What there is now is a populist government with a conduct that is confusing in many aspects, that has a demagogic left-wing discourse and a right-wing behaviour in economic policy…”

Sandinistas Celebrate 30th Anniversary of Revolution

As Valdivia, another revolutionary, put it…

“We were idealistic people. We were in love with the revolution… But we don’t see now that it was worth it. … The cost in human life, in destruction of property, was a lot higher than the benefit.”

Quoted by Matt O’Brien, Revolutionaries Live With Pride and Regret

But for the most part, Nicaraguans celebrate Liberation Day with parades, fireworks, and official ceremonies. Many still remember—or were victims themselves—of the violence, censorship and corruption that characterized much of the 20th century.

Juan Santamaría Day – Battle of Rivas

April 11

If you grew up in El Norte, chances are your history books skipped the chapter on William Walker and Juan Santamaría. The two men could not have been more different.

Juan Santamaría was a poor laborer, an illegitimate son raised by a single mother in the impoverished district of Alajuela, Costa Rica. He joined his country’s army as a drummer boy in the 1850’s.

William Walker was born to a well-to-do family in the American South and graduated from college summa cum laude at age 14. He went on to study at some of the most prestigious universities in Europe before earning his doctorate in medicine at age 19. He briefly practiced law in New Orleans before moving to San Francisco where he explored the field of journalism.

Despite their different upbringings, the fates of these two men would become inextricably woven at Rivas, Nicaragua in April 1858.

While in San Francisco, Walker had conceived of a political opportunity south of the border—he gathered a group of pro-slavery supporters to help him establish slavery-friendly zones in Mexico and Central America.

For whatever reason, the government of Mexico had issues with Walker’s notion. When they didn’t capitulate, Walker raised an army and took Baja California by force. He proclaimed it part of a larger pro-slavery region that would be called the Republic of Sonora. Later defeats caused Walker to retreat. He was put on trial in the United States for inciting an unsanctioned war. And was acquitted by a jury in eight minutes.

William Walker

The William Walker story doesn’t end there. It worked so well in Mexico, he figured why not spread the love to Central America.

Walker set his sites on Nicaragua. Before the Panama Canal, Lake Nicaragua was the gateway between the Atlantic and Pacific. The overland route could chop months of a trip around the Tierra del Fuego. Nicaragua had just undergone a serious period of destabilization—15 presidents in six years—making it ripe for exploitation.

With an invitation from one of the feuding Nicaraguan political parties, the Democrats, Walker and 57 men invaded Nicaragua. They captured the city of Granada. With the support of the Democrats, Walker set himself up as de facto ruler of the country.

At this time, the President of Costa Rica, Juan Rafael Mora, sensing Walker’s future ambitions, made a pre-emptive decision—to cross over into Nicaragua and attack, not on the country of Nicaragua itself but Walker and his forces.

The climactic battle between Walker and Mora was the Second Battle of Rivas. The inexperienced Walker made multiple military blunders prior to the battle, forcing the small army to hole up inside a thatched-roof hostel.

Enter Juan Santamaria. There couldn’t be a more compelling antidote to the overeducated and overprivileged Walker. At the time of the Battle of Rivas, the day laborer was a 25 year-old drummer boy in the Costa Rican army.

Though Walker’s forces were outmanned at Rivas, their position in the hostel gave them a distinct shooting advantage. Costa Rican General José María Canas called on a volunteer to approach the hostel and light the roof on fire with a torch. It was a suicide mission. Santamaría stepped forward, asking only that should he die, someone look after his mother.

Under heavy fire, Santamaría reached the hostel and threw the torch, igniting the roof. Santamaría was struck dead by enemy fire; however Walker’s men were forced to flee. Santamaría’s last act was the beginning of the end for Walker, and marked a symbolic turning point in the repulsion of foreign forces from Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Walker was executed by firing squad in 1860.

Sadly, the heroics of the Battle of Rivas were overshadowed by a devastating cholera epidemic that killed a tenth of the population of Costa Rica. But in the decades that followed, Santamaría’s legend emerged as the leading heroic figure symbolizing the unity of the Costa Rican people against imperialist forces. Because Costa Rica hadn’t fought for independence from Spain, the battle against William Walker became event that solidified the nationalist spirit.

Even today, the young drummer boy from Alajuela is the only Costa Rican to be honored with his own national holiday—April 11, the anniversary of his death and of the Battle of Rivas.

Juan Santamaría statue, Costa Rica
Juan Santamaria statue

William Walker: King of the 19th Century Filibusters –

Independence of Nicaragua

Costa Rica in 1856: Defeating William Walker while creating a national identity

The Saga of William Walker