1902 Encyclopedia > British Honduras (Belize)

British Honduras

BRITISH HONDURAS is the name given to the English establishment or colony of Belize, on the eastern shore of the peninsula of Yucatan, fronting the Bay of Honduras. It probably derives its name of Belize or Balize from the French balise, a beacon, as no doubt some signal or light was raised here to guide the freebooters, who at one time infested the bay, to some common rendezvous. Its boundaries, as defined by the convention between Great Britain and Carrera, president of Guatemala, in 1859, were fixed as "commencing at the mouth of the river Sarstoon, in the bay of Honduras, ascending that river to the rapids of Gracias a Dios, thence turning to the right in a straight line to Garbult's Rapids in the river Belize, and thence due north to the Mexican frontier." These limits give a terri-tory about 160 miles long by 60 miles wide at its broadest part, with an area of 7562 square miles.

The approach to the coast is through cays and coral reefs, and is both difficult and dangerous. For some miles inland the ground is low and swampy, thickly covered with . mangroves and tropical jungle. Next succeeds a narrow j belt of rich alluvial land, not exceeding a mile in width, beyond which, and parallel to the rivers, are vast tracts of sandy, arid land, called "pine ridges," from the red pine with which they are covered, and which are favourite resorts of wild animals. Further inland these give place to what are called " cahoon ridges," with a deep, rich soil j covered with myriads of palm trees. Next come broad savannas, studded with clumps of trees, through which the streams descending from the mountains wind in every direction. The mountains themselves rise in a succession of ridges parallel to the coast. The first are the Manatee Hills, from 800 to 1000 feet high; and beyond these are the Cockscomb Mountains, which are about 4000 feet high.

No less than sixteen streams, large enough to be called rivers, descend from these mountains and crests to the sea, between the Hondo and Sarstoon. Behind the Cockscomb range there is a succession of valleys and hills, with a varied elevation of from 1200 to 3300 feet above the level of the sea. This tract, of which but little is known, consists of open, grassy lands, with interesting park-like scenery, and could no doubt support a large number of cattle, as all the conditions of climate, &c, are most favourable.
Many aboriginal remains are found, such as fortified hills, crumbling walls, and buildings subsiding into ruins. The ruins of extensive cities, with monoliths, statues, and carved stones of fine finish are said to be hidden among the yet unexplored forests. They are all, however, more or less similar to the remains found in the neighbouring states of Honduras and Yucatan, and doubtless are the work of the same race or races. The mineral resources of the colony have been but little developed. There are, however, among the hills many indications of gold, silver, and coal.

The climate generally is hot and damp, but favourably influenced by the trade winds. The mean temperature for 1878 was 79'75° Fahr. ; the rainfall for the same year was 105-49 inches, which, however, was remarkably high. The country is not troubled by hurricanes, nor has it suffered from earthquakes. It has never been afflicted by epidemics, except cholera. Yellow fever occurs, but only sporadically. The climate is superior to that of Jamaica and the other West Indian Islands, and the high grounds of the interior are unquestionably healthy.

The population is mainly negro, introduced originally as slaves, whence has sprung a hybrid race from inter-mixture with Europeans and Indians. These are engaged in cutting mahogany and dyewoods, and in fishing. As woodmen they are most efficient, and no class or race of men has been able to excel them. A few only cultivate the soil. There are no aboriginal tribes within the limjts of Belize, and of the pure Indians there are but few, | belonging principally to the tribes of Yucatan. There are j some Carib settlements. The scanty white population is engaged in commerce, and on the sugar plantations. The total population in 1871 was 24,710, of which 12,603 were males and 12,107 females, against a total of 25,635 in 1861, showing a decrease of 925, which can be accounted for from the fact that while the political troubles in the adjacent states caused many of their citizens to take refuge here, these, on the troubles being settled, returned to their homes.

The government is in the hands of a lieutenant-governor, with an executive and legislative council; and there are the usual judicial establishment, a lands title registry office, a public hospital, a lunatic asylum, and an alms-house. There is also an agricultural board for distributing infor-mation relative to the cultivation of suitable products, &c. The town of Belize, at the mouth of the river of the same name, has ordinarily about 6000 inhabitants ; but the num-ber is more than doubled during the Christmas holidays, when the mahogany cutters come in. The dwellings of the wealthy inhabitants are large and commodious. Besides the Government houses, court-house, barracks, and jail, there are several churches, Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian. There are also some large and costly fireproof warehouses. The place was formerly important from being the commercial entrepot and depot of the neigh-bouring Spanish states of Yucatan, Guatemala, and Hon-duras ; but this source of prosperity has been mainly dried up, from the opening of direct communication between several of these states and the United States and Europe, and from the diversion of trade on the Pacific to Panama. The principal product of the country is mahogany, of which the export for many years was 20,000 tons annually, but the demand for it is said to be diminishing. Its logwood ranks high, and from 14,000 to 15,000 tons are exported annually. Besides these, it produces rosewood, sapodilla, Santa Maria, and numerous other woods of value. The cahoon or coyol palm is abundant, producing clusters of nuts, from which is extracted a valuable oil. Several varieties of cotton are produced, some of which are of superior quality. Sarsaparilla and vanilla are found in the interior. The animals of the country comprise many fur-bearing species, as ounces, panthers, &c, and the forests abound with various species of monkeys. Manatees and alligators are found in the lagoons and rivers. Among the birds are turkeys, ducks, macaws, parrots, pelicans, and humming-birds. There is also a small black bottle-fly, whose bite is most venomous, and which, with the wood-tick, is a source of great annoyance in the forest. There are also several species of venomous snakes and scorpions. Fishes of many varieties are plentiful, as are also turtles, lobsters, and other shell-fish. Cattle and horses are kept in sufficient numbers for all needful pur-poses. Present statistical information indicates, instead of improvement in the colony, a considerable falling off during the past ten or fifteen years. Its sugar plantations are, however, in a flourishing condition, having increased in their yearly product from 4035 cwt. in 1860 to 38,667 cwt. in 1877. The rate of duty on the principal articles of import is an average of about 10 per cent., principally ad valorem. Machinery, coal, and books are imported free. The gross amount of revenue for 1877 was £41,588, against =£27,398 in 1863. The public expenditure for the same year was £39,939, and the public debt £5041, the latter showing a decrease of £34,000 in nine years. The total tonnage of all kinds entered and cleared in 1877, exclusive of that employed in the coasting trade, was 73,974 tons, of which 46,168 tons were British. The value of imports, including bullion and specie, for the ten years ending 1877 was £1,781,175, and for that year £165,756, of which £84,540 came from Great Britain. The exports for 1877 amounted to £124,503, of which £94,548 worth of domestic produce went to Great Britain.

History.—"Her Majesty's Settlement in the Bay of Honduras," as the territory was formerly styled in official documents, owes its origin to logwood-cutters who frequented the coast of Yucatan and Central America, after the decline of piracy in the sea of the Antilles. Most of these had been free companions, and were well acquainted with the coast. The district was rich in dyewoods, and became a principal resort of the English cutters. Although thus industriously occupied, they so far retained their old habits as to make frequent descents on the logwood establishments of the Spaniards, whose attempts to expel them were generally successfully resisted. The most formidable of these was made by the Spaniards in April 1754, when, in consequence of the difficulty of approaching the position from the sea, an expedition, consisting of 1500 men, was organized inland at the town of Peten. As it neared the coast, it was met by 250 English, and completely routed. The logwood-cutters were not again disturbed for a number of years, and their position had become so well established that, in the treaty of 1763, between England and Spain, the former power, while agreeing to demolish "all fortifications which English subjects had erected in the Bay of Honduras," nevertheless insisted on a clause in favour of the cutters of logwood, that " they or their workmen were not to be disturbed or molested, under any pretext whatever, in their said places of cutting and loading logwood ; and for this purpose they may build without hindrance and occupy without interruption the houses and magazines necessary for their families and effects." They had also assured to them the full enjoyment of these advantages and powers in the Spanish coasts and territories. To insure the observance of this treaty, the British Government sent out Sir William Burnaby, who not only settled the limits within which the English were to confine their wood-cutting, but also drew up for their government a code of regulations or laws known as the " Burnaby Code." Successful in their contests with the Spaniards, and now strengthened by the recognition of the crown, the British settlers assumed a corresponding high tone, and, it is alleged, made fresh encroachments on the Spanish territory. The Spaniards, alarmed and indignant, and asserting that the settlers not only abused the privileges conceded to them by the treaty, but were engaged in smuggling and other illicit practices, organized a large force, and on September 15, 1779, suddenly attacked and destroyed the establishment, taking the inhabitants prisoners to Merida, and afterwards to Havana, where most of them died. The survivors were liberated in 1782, and allowed to go to Jamaica. For two or three years the establishment seems to have been abandoned, but in 1783 a part of the original settlers, with a considerable body of new adventurers, revisited the place, and were soon actively engaged in cutting woods. On September 3d of that year anew treaty was signed between Great Britain and Spain, in which it was expressly agreed that his Britannic Majesty's subjects should have "the right of cutting, loading, and carrying away logwood in the district lying between the river Wallis or Belize and Rio Hondo, taking the course of these two rivers for unalterable boundaries." These con-cessions " were not to be considered as derogating from the rights of sovereignty of the king of Spain" over the district in question, and all the English dispersed in the Spanish territories were to concentrate themselves within the district thus defined within eighteen months. Affairs, notwithstanding the explicit stipulations of the treaty, do not seem to have proceeded favourably ; for, three years after, a new treaty was made, in which the king of Spain makes an additional grant of territory, embracing the area between the rivers Sibun or Jabon and Belize, so that collectively the grants embraced the entire ooast between the river Sibun in lat. 17° 20' on the south and the Rio Hondo in lat. 18° 30' on the north, a coast-line of about 90 miles, with the adjacent islands and bays. But these extended limits were coupled with still more rigid restrictions. It is not to be sup-posed that a population composed of so wayward and lawless a set of men at a distance from England was remarkably exact in its observance of the letter or spirit of the treaty of 1786. They seem to have given great annoyance to their Spanish neighbours, who eagerly availed themselves of the breaking out of war between the two countries in 1796 to concert a formidable attack on Belize, with a view to the complete annihilation of the establishment. They con-centrated a force of 2000 men at Campeachy, which, under the com-mand of General O'Neill, set sail in thirteen vessels for Belize, and arrived off that place July 10, 1798. The settlers, in anticipation of their approach, and aided by the English sloop of war '' Merlin," had strongly fortified a small island in the harbour, called St George's Cay, whence they maintained a determined and effectual resistance against the Spanish forces, which, after a contest of two days' dura-tion, were obliged to abandon their object and retire to Campeachy. This was the last attempt to dislodge the English. The defeat of the Spanish attempt of 1798 has been adduced as an act of con-quest, thereby permanently establishing British sovereignty. But those who take this view overlook the important fact that, in 1814, by a new treaty with Spain, the provisions of that of 1786 were revived. They forget also that until possibly within a few years the British Government never laid claim to any rights acquired in virtue of the successful defence ; for so late as 1817-19 the Acts of Parliament relating to Belize always refer to it as "a settlement, lor certain purposes, under the protection of his Majesty." After the independence of the Spanish American provinces, Great Britain sought to secure her rights by incorporating the provisions of the treaty of 1786 in all her treaties with the new states. It was, in fact, incorporated in her treaty with Mexico in 1826, in the project of a treaty which she submitted to Senor Zebadua, the representative of the republic of Central America in London in 1831, and also in the project of a treaty with New Grenada in 1825. Great Britain was, therefore, without any rights in Belize beyond those conveyed by the treaties already quoted, which define with the greatest pre-cision the area within which these rights might be exercised. But it appears from a despatch of Sir George Grey, colonial secretary, dated in 1836, that claims had then been set up to an additional wide extent of territory, including the entire coast as far south as the river Sarstoon, and as far inland as the meridian of Garbutt's Falls on the river Belize. This anomalous state of things has no doubt had a prejudicial influence on the prosperity of Belize; but while Great Britain's right of sovereignty might be questioned, it cannot be doubted that the enterprise of her subjects has rescued a desolate coast from the savage dominion of nature, and carried in-dustry and civilization where none existed before, and where, if left to the control of the Spanish race, none would have existed to this day. It was perhaps this consideration that induced Mr Clayton, the American secretary of state, to consent to the exclusion of Belize from the operation of the convention of 1850 between Great Britain and the United States, whereby both powers bound themselves not to occupy, fortify, or colonize any part of Central America.

See Balize or British Honduras, by Chief-Justice Temple, read before the Society of Arts, London, January 14, 1847 ; Notes on Central America, by E. G. Squier, New York, 1855 ; A Narrative of a Journey across the Unexplored Portion of British Honduras, by Henry Fowler, Colonial Secretary, Belize, 1879. (E. G. S.)

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