Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 30


Feelings on arriving at a British settlement.—Disappointment in not finding a passage by the Mahogany Ships.—Attacked with the fever.—Make acquaintance with the Intendant and Inhabitants.—Yellow fever rages at Jamaica.—Gulf of Florida swarming with Pirates.—Take passage in the Margaret, Trader.

It was about five o'clock in the evening when we landed at Belize; on passing close by the fort which protects the mouth of the river as well as the whole town, I was much struck with the chubby appearance of some children belonging to the soldiers of the garrison. We were shown to the only inn in the place, kept by Mrs. Ebrington, a fine English woman, fat, fair, and forty, and the widow of an English officer: the apartments bore also the peculiar characteristics of English comfort. The side-board was covered with drinking glasses of every shape and figure, from the champaigner with its dandified waist down to the broad-bottomed rummer: spruce looking mahogany tables with attendant chairs were arranged in symmetrical order, inviting the guests to their snug, exclusive, repasts: I sat down at one of them, and took up a newspaper; it was the "Times", and, with a feeling of satisfaction which I cannot express, began to fancy myself already in England. Two smart little negro boys officiated as waiters; the landlady was out, but the contents of a cold larder were placed before us, to which we did ample justice, having been almost starved for the last two days: my Guatemalian companions were delighted with the bottled porter, preferring it to the champaign and the rarer specimens of the cellar. In the course of the evening, our good hostess returned, and installed us in possession of the whole house, having requested two other gentlemen who were her guests to remove to some apartments which she provided for them in the town: we were comfortably lodged; but could not help regretting that the rooms were so small and low pitched.

The climate of Belize is exceedingly hot: indeed, the average of the thermometer, night and day, was about 95°, during the period of our stay; which proved at least a fortnight longer than I had intended. The fact was, that the mahogany ships were all on the point of sailing, being obliged to do so, by their charter, by the 1st of the month. I was diligently employed during the whole evening, in endeavouring to get a passage in one, but had the mortification to find that there was no accommodation left: I was the more distressed at this circumstance, from finding myself attacked, the next night, with a bilious fever; Don Eugenio was also confined to his bed, and the prospect of our departure became more and more uncertain. I had, on that day, the honour of dining with the intendant, General Codd, where I met Major Schaw, his aid-de-camp, a gentleman to whose kindness and hospitality I have much pleasure in bearing testimony, as also to that of his good lady: they contributed greatly to my gratification during my residence at this port.

Monday, 8th August. This day we made an aquatic excursion up the country. Two large pitpans were hired for the purpose, one containing the company and the other our provisions. About twelve miles up the river, which bears the name of the town, we disembarked at a negro's hut to breakfast, and then proceeded about seven miles farther, where we spent the day in gipsy fashion, in one of those sequestered verdant spots with which the banks of the river abound. In our progress we met nothing but some negroes with rafts of mahogany trees which they were bringing down to the beach, where they are trimmed with large axes into square sides, previously to embarkation: at this time, most of the ships were loaded and ready to sail; but there were logs to the amount of some hundreds in different states of readiness for embarkation, and the supply for the next general, or any chance, shipment was thus being made ready. The fever with which I had been attacked was of a very dangerous nature; the patient usually recovers or dies within the twenty -four hours. Having got over it, I found myself much debilitated, but in good spirits; which this little excursion greatly tended to promote.

Wednesday, 10th. I fell in company with a trading captain from Jamaica, who said that the yellow fever was raging with a violence almost unprecedented; that many of the officers of his Majesty's ships lying there had been invalided and had leave to go home to England: he mentioned the names of two in particular who had just died, whom I remembered to have seen in Mexico; and he added that there was little chance of any of his Majesty's ships coming down to Honduras for some weeks. There were only three or four ships now left at Belize: two of them were about to sail singly to England; these were the Maria and the Margaret, and the two others were bound to New York and Boston.

I had heard most dreadful accounts of the piracies in the Gulf of Florida; but, appalling as they were, they did not seem much worse than the plan of going to Jamaica and waiting for a passage to England. My object was to get home with my Report, and I resolved, at all risks, to take my passage in one of the ships now lying in the road. With this view, I hired a pitpan to go on board them, but had not proceeded far before it became evident that our feeble bark could not stand the sea which we were about to encounter: I stated my apprehensions to the two boatmen, and with difficulty persuaded them to put back and provide a larger one, which they did: it was three times the burden of the former, and yet was nearly being upset in consequence of the swell occasioned by the bar of the river. With the greatest difficulty we got on board the different ships; for the sea was extremely rough, owing to a great ground swell and a bore which was setting in.

On returning, I remarked to the two negroes who were rowing, that the little pitpan would certainly have been swamped: they both agreed, with the utmost indifference, that it would, but they added with a smile of intellectual satisfaction, "Massa know to swim!" I replied that if I did, it might be of little use owing to the number of sharks, for the bay was full of them,—was it not? "O yes, yes, massa, plenty shark;" with another grin, was their reply.

The American captain was a civil man, and wanted me much to proceed with him, as also did a young merchant who had come from Boston to Belize with a cargo of dried fish and other articles, intending to sell a portion of them at Jamaica, but he had now renounced all intention of proceeding thither, for fear of the fever. They both admitted the probability of being attacked by pirates, but said that, with the addition of my party, we might possibly be able to encounter them with success; making, at the same time, a display of their ammunition, which consisted of two small cannons, three muskets, one horse pistol, and three swords.

The English vessels were a little better armed, but as I did not speculate altogether on the advantages they afforded of this redoubtable description, and as the Maria sailed the next day, I had no choice but to fix upon the Margaret, this being the only vessel now remaining. She had been built in the United States for the Colombian government, burden 280 tons; she carried four twelve pounders, was a remarkably fine strong vessel, but as she had been lying some months at Belize, the bottom of her was covered with barnacles, which would impede her sailing; she had also the misfortune, whilst detained in harbour, to lose two captains; one of whom died of the fever, in the house of my landlady, and the other was lost upon a reef, a week before our arrival, being out on a party of pleasure to one of the quays with which the town is environed; the boat having been upset by the breakers, and the survivors being of opinion that they saw the poor man carried away by a shark. Whether these circumstances had any effect upon the sailors of Belize, who were probably not less superstitious than those of other parts, it cannot be determined, but it afterwards appeared that there were only four hands engaged out of the twelve necessary to man her, at the time I took my passage. She was, however, obliged to sail on the 15th, as the hurricane season was commencing: the other vessels sailed on the 1st, but the Margaret was allowed a fort-night later by her insurers, on account, as I was informed, of being so fine a sailer. The interval which I spent at Belize was now employed in collecting such information respecting the nature of its trade as might bear upon the connexion it had with Guatemala.