Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 31


Description of Belize.

When the English first came to the Honduras shore to cut logwood and mahogany, the wants of the settlers at Belize were so few that the ships generally came out in ballast, which they used to throw out promiscuously in the mouth of the river, so as to increase the bar and impede the navigation: it was afterwards decreed that all ballast should be discharged at a certain spot about half a mile from the right shore; where, being accumulated by time, and increased by marine substances, it had formed the island on which the fort was built:—this island is therefore genuine British soil.

The town is situated on each side of the river's mouth, and connected by a wooden bridge. At the southern extremity is the church, a neat ornamental building, and the governor's house which is handsome and substantial, upon a small elevation, close to the sea shore. I was particularly struck with the airiness and comfort of this abode: a spacious hall with wide staircase led to the first floor, in which two net hammocks were suspended so as to catch the benefit of the sea breeze, which, by opening the drawing room door, might pass directly through the house. There was no kind of draperies or carpets, all the articles of furniture looking hard, cold, and plain, and even the floors were made of some sort of wood answering that description; the only inconvenience was that they were not a little slippery. On the whole, I would recommend any body proceeding to those parts, who might want to build a house for their accommodation, to take the one in question for their model. With three or four moderate exceptions, all the rest of the town is composed of wooden buildings stuck upon posts, without any ground floor, and seldom with more than one story: they stand close upon the edge of the beech, and look as if they had been left there by the ebb, after having been floated away, by some extraordinary high tide, from the banks of the Thames between Rotherhithe and Blackwall.

My hospitable friend, Major Schaw, had great difficulty in getting any house at all: that which he now occupied was intended for a school: in shape and materials it was like the child's toy purporting to represent Noah's Ark; for it was built entirely of wood, with the roof sloping uniformly the whole length down each side from the centre: it was eighty feet long, fourteen wide, and thirteen high. The Major was living there under sufferance, as the boys wanted the school-room;—but he had, I believe, contracted to have his house sent out to him from New York: indeed the best houses in the town were most of them built there.

The inhabitants of Belize are dealers only in the raw material: the mahogany tables of my hostess were manufactured in England, whilst the wood from which they were cut had travelled upwards of 15,000 miles before they reached the spot of their ultimate destination, that being the same shore on which they had grown. One of the largest of the logs ever imported into England, was bought at Liverpool for £378, and was supposed to have returned to the manufacturer at least £l,000. If cut into veneers, £550 of this sum would be paid in wages to British mechanics.

To the north of the town lie the barracks, behind which, and all round, within the circumference of three or four miles, the country is closed in with woods and marshes, rendering it perfectly inaccessible either to friend or foe. As it is liable therefore to attack only from the sea-board, and as the fort has room enough in it to be made capable of holding artillery sufficient to repel a formidable fleet, Belize ought to be considered a very important key to this part of the continent.

The European inhabitants, who may not exceed thirty families, are divided into two classes: the elite party had given a ball to which the other had not been invited; and the latter were busily engaged in making preparations to outvie, by the strength of their purses, the entertainment from which they thought they had been so unreasonably excluded. These jealousies had been going on for some time; but no body could tell me the precise grounds upon which they were founded: some were, however, bold enough to say that their neighbours, the high party, (I do not pretend to vouch for the truth,) were smugglers to a vast extent; that they dreaded the chance of a settled government in Guatemala, when they could not run their goods as they had been in the habit of doing, for so many years, at Omoa, and Izabal;—and, in fact, that they wished to keep every thing snug and quiet to themselves; abominating the idea of the new commission-houses which were forming from the Havannah and other parts, and to which, as it should appear, my informants were avowedly and warmly attached. The latter party were great slavery abolitionists, and advocates for free labour; and the former, they affirmed, were the more inimical to the Central Republic, on account of its having passed its act emancipating not only the slaves within its own territory, but those of other states who might pass over into it. This was certainly a very serious evil, which required redress; for the slaves belonging to the British inhabitants of Belize had passed over to Guatemala to the number of between two and three hundred. It is but justice to General Codd, the intendant of the colony, to repeat that he used his best exertions to procure their restoration, though without effect. It was my firm but humble opinion that the Guatemalan government ought to have restored them; and it was hoped that the matter would be speedily and satisfactorily adjusted in a treaty between Great Britain and that republic.

As a British settlement, this colony is not of so much importance on account of the specific advantages which it derives from the liberty of cutting logwood and mahogany, by virtue of the treaty of Versailles 3d of September 1786, as from its being the natural entrepôt between Great Britain and the Central Republic.

The river Belize is navigable for pitpans till within two days' land carriage of another river which falls into the Lake of Terminos, communicating with the river Tobasco, which also unites with the Guasacualco; the latter being, by means of the river San Juan, brought into close contact with Alvarado:—so that, in case of a war with Mexico or any other power which might cause the gulf to be blockaded, the town of Belize might supply Tobasco, Oaxaca, and the whole kingdom of Mexico with dry goods, all by inland navigation, with only two days' land carriage. A plan of this settlement was made by actual surveys of Du Vernay, and published by Laurie and Whittle.

The mahogany exported by British settiers may be calculated at about sixty square-rigged vessels at 120,000 feet each, value about £400,000 annually; and the value of Guatemalian produce, such as indigo, cochineal, &c. exported, amounts to three times as much again. It is supposed that the sales of one commercial house at Belize average £15,000 currency per month, which is one twentieth part of what is sold, and would make the sales of British dry goods imported for the supply of that colony and Guatemala at least £2,500,000 currency, or about £1,500,000 sterling. The greatest part of the import and export trade of Guatemala is carried on by the port of Izabal, at the bottom of the Golfo Dulce, and by that of Omoa, on the left of the entrance of that gulf. The goods are conveyed between the English settlement of Belize and those parts in small schooners drawing about seven feet water, from four to seven tons burden, and charging for the freight from 150 to 200 dollars per trip each way. They average from four to ten days in making the voyage; being incommoded one way by the stream running out of the gulf, and the other by the north-east wind which blows down it nine months out of the year. The distance, which is about 200 miles, might be performed by a steam-boat in twenty-four hours.

Sunday, 14th August. To-day, one of these schooners arrived from Izabal with four passengers and merchandize. The parties brought us letters from the capital, and, amongst the rest, one for Don Eugenio, by which we were happy to find that his little sister had recovered her spirits and was much better. These passengers were commercial men, and having been ten days from Izabal, seemed exhausted by their trip. The only accommodation they had on shore was a small out-house on the quay, about twelve feet square, in which three of them were lying down on the floor with their nightcaps or handkerchiefs on their heads and nothing on their bodies but a shirt and linen trowsers: one was too much exhausted even to smoke, and all four of them seemed as if they would hardly recover the effects of the exertions they had undergone, and the heat which they were now enduring.

The Guatemalians suffer exceedingly in these trips to Belize: they consider it a journey of great peril, and it is asserted that three persons out of five are sure to fall victims to it; but I think this is an exaggerated statement; perhaps one in three would be nearer the fact; though, in the instance of the diplomatic and official characters who arrived there, from the United States, whilst I was in the country, two out of three died from the effects of the climate: the return from Belize to Guatemala is worse than the voyage thither: the difficulty of going up the narrow straits and the gulf, owing to the strong current, renders the voyage most tedious, whereas, however opposite may be the wind, you cannot help drifting down with the stream.