1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/British Honduras

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BRITISH HONDURAS, formerly called BALIZE, or BELIZE, a British crown colony in Central America; bounded on the N. and N.W. by the Mexican province of Yucatan, N.E. and E. by the Bay of Honduras, an inlet of the Caribbean Sea, and S. and W. by Guatemala. (For map, see CENTRAL AMERICA.) Pop. (1905) 40,372; area, 7562 sq. m. The frontier of British Honduras, as defined by the conventions of 1859 and 1893 between Great Britain and Guatemala, begins at the mouth of the river Sarstoon or Sarstun, in the Bay of Honduras; ascends that river as far as the rapids of Gracias à Dios; and thence, turning to the right, runs in a straight line to Garbutt's Rapids, on the Belize river. From this point it proceeds due north to the Mexican frontier, where it follows the river Hondo to its mouth in Chetumal Bay.

British Honduras differs little from the rest of the Yucatan peninsula. The approach to the coast is through the islets known as cays, and through coral reefs. It 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 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 pines with which they are covered. Farther inland these give place, first, to the less elevated "broken ridges," and then to what are called "cahoon ridges," with a deep rich soil 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 ft. high; and beyond these are the Cockscomb Mountains, which are about 4000 ft. high. No less than sixteen streams, large enough to be called rivers, descend from these mountains to the sea, between the Hondo and Sarstoon. The uninhabited country between Garbutt's Rapids and the coast south of Deep river was first explored in 1879, by Henry Fowler, the colonial secretary of British Honduras; it was then found to consist of open and undulating grasslands, affording fine pasturage in the west and of forests full of valuable timber in the east. Its elevation varies from 1200 to 3300 ft. Auriferous quartz and traces of other minerals have been discovered, but not in sufficient quantity to repay the cost of mining. The geology, fauna and flora of British Honduras do not materially differ from those of the neighbouring regions (see CENTRAL AMERICA).

Although the colony is in the tropics, its climate is subtropical. The highest shade temperature recorded is 98° F., the lowest 50°. Easterly sea-winds prevail during the greater part of the year. The dry season lasts from the middle of February to the middle of May; rain occurs at intervals during the other months, and almost continuously in October, November and December. The annual rainfall averages about 81½ in., but rises in some districts to 150 in. or more. Cholera, yellow fever and other tropical diseases occur sporadically, but, on the whole, the country is not unhealthy by comparison with the West Indies or Central American states.

Inhabitants.—British Honduras is a little larger than Wales, and has a population smaller than that of Chester (England). In 1904 the inhabitants of European descent numbered 1500, the Europeans 253, and the white Americans 118. The majority belong to the hybrid race descended from negro slaves, aboriginal Indians and white settlers. At least six distinct racial groups can be traced. These consist of (1) native Indians, to be found chiefly in forest villages in the west and north of the colony away from the sea coast; (2) descendants of the English buccaneers, mixed with Scottish and German traders; (3) the woodcutting class known as "Belize Creoles," of more or less pure descent from African negroes imported, as slaves or as labourers, from the West Indies; (4) the Caribs of the southern districts, descendants of the population deported in 1796 from St Vincent, who were of mixed African and Carib origin; (5) a mixed population in the south, of Spanish-Indian origin, from Guatemala and Honduras; and (6) in the north another Spanish-Indian group which came from Yucatan in 1848. The population tends slowly to increase; about 45% of the births are illegitimate, and males are more numerous than females. Many tracts of fallow land and forest were once thickly populated, for British Honduras has its ruined cities, and other traces of a lost Indian civilization, in common with the rest of Central America.

Natural Products.—-For more than two centuries British Honduras has been supported by its trade in timber, especially in mahogany, logwood, cedar and other dye-woods and cabinet-woods, such as lignum-vitae, fustic, bullet-wood, santa-maria, ironwood, rosewood, &c. The coloured inhabitants are unsurpassed as woodmen, and averse from agriculture; so that there are only about 90 sq. m. of tilled land. Sugar-cane, bananas, cocoanut-palms, plantains, and various other fruits are cultivated; vanilla, sarsaparilla, sapodilla or chewing-gum, rubber, and the cahoon or coyol palm, valuable for its oil, grow wild in large quantities. In September 1903 all the pine trees on crown lands were sold to Mr B. Chipley, a citizen of the United States, at one cent (½ d.) per tree; the object of the sale being to secure the opening up of undeveloped territory. Unsuccessful attempts have been made to establish sponge fisheries on a large scale.

Chief Towns and Communications.—Belize (pop. in 1904, 9969), the capital and principal seaport, is described in a separate article. Other towns are Stann Creek (2459), Corosal (1696), Orange Walk (1244), Punta Gorda (706), the Cayo (421), Monkey River (384) and Mullins River (243). All these are administered by local boards, whose aggregate revenue amounts to some £7000. Telegraph and telephone lines connect the capital with Corosal in the north, and Punta Gorda in the south; but there are no railways, and few good roads beyond municipal limits. Thus the principal means of communication are the steamers which ply along the coast. Mail steamers from New Orleans, Liverpool, Colon and Puerto Cortes in Honduras, regularly visit Belize.

Commerce and Finance.—Between 1901 and 1905 the tonnage of vessels accommodated at the ports of British Honduras rose from 300,000 to 496,465; the imports rose from £252,500 to £386,123; the exports from £285,500 to £377,623. The exports consist of the timber, fruit and other vegetable products already mentioned, besides rum, deerskins, tortoiseshell, turtles and sponges, while the principal imports are cotton goods, hardware, beer, wine, spirits, groceries and specie. The sea-borne trade is mainly shared by Great Britain and the United States. On the 14th of October 1894, the American gold dollar was adopted as the standard coin, in place of the Guatemalan dollar; and the silver of North, South and Central America ceased to be legal tender. Government notes are issued to the value of 1, 2, 5, 10, 50 and 100 dollars, and there is a local currency of one cent bronze pieces, and of 5, 10, 25 and 50 cent silver pieces. The British sovereign and half sovereign are legal tender. In 1846 the government savings bank was founded in Belize; branches were afterwards opened in the principal towns; and in 1903 the British Bank of Honduras was established at Belize. The revenue, chiefly derived from customs, rose from £60,150 in 1901 to £68,335 in 1905. The expenditure, in which the cost of police and education are important items, rose, during the same period, from £51,210 to £61,800. The public debt, amounting in 1905 to £34,736, represents the balance due on three loans which were raised in 1885, 1887, and 1891, for public works in Belize. The loans are repayable between 1916 and 1923.

Constitution and Administration.—From 1638 to 1786 the colonists were completely independent, and elected their own magistrates, who performed all judicial and executive functions. The customs and precedents thus established were codified and published under the name of "Burnaby's Laws," after the visit of Admiral Sir W. Burnaby, in 1756, and were recognized as valid by the crown. In 1786 a superintendent was appointed by the home government, and although this office was vacant from 1790 to 1797, it was revived until 1862. An executive council was established in 1839, and a legislative assembly, of three nominated and eighteen elected members, in 1853. British Honduras was declared a colony in 1862, with a lieutenant governor, subject to the governor of Jamaica, as its chief magistrate. In 1870 the legislative assembly was abolished, and a legislative council substituted—the constitution of this body being fixed, in 1892, at three official and five unofficial members. In 1884 the lieutenant governor was created governor and commander-in-chief, and rendered independent of Jamaica. He is assisted by an executive council of three official and three unofficial members. For administrative purposes the colony is divided into six districts—Belize, Corosal, Orange Walk, the Cayo, Stann Creek and Toledo. The capital of the last named is Punta Gorda; the other districts take the names of their chief towns. English common law is valid throughout British Honduras, subject to modification by local enactments, and to the operation of the Consolidated Laws of British Honduras. This collection of ordinances, customs, &c., was officially revised and published between 1884 and 1888. Appeals may be carried before the privy council or the supreme court of Jamaica,

Religion and Education.—The churches represented are Roman Catholic, Anglican, Wesleyan, Baptist and Presbyterian; but none of them receives assistance from public funds. The bishopric of British Honduras is part of the West Indian province of the Church of England. Almost all the schools, secondary as well as primary, are denominational. School fees are charged, and grants-in-aid are made to elementary schools. Most of these, since 1894, have been under the control of a board, on which the religious bodies managing the schools are represented.

Defence.—The Belize volunteer light infantry corps, raised in 1897, consists of about 200 officers and men; a mounted section, numbering about 40, was created in 1904. For the whole colony, the police Dumber about 120. There is also a volunteer fire brigade of 335 officers and men.

History.—"His Majesty's Settlement in the Bay of Honduras," as the territory was formerly styled in official documents, owes, its origin, in 1638, to log-wood cutters who had formerly been buccaneers. These were afterwards joined by agents of the Chartered Company which exploited the pearl fisheries of the Mosquito coast. Although thus industriously occupied, the settlers 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 British, and completely routed. The log-wood cutters were not again disturbed for a number of years, and their position had become so well established that, in the treaty of 1763 with Spain, Great Britain, while agreeing to demolish "all fortifications which English subjects had, erected in the Bay of Honduras," insisted oh a clause in favour of the hitters 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." Strengthened by the recognition of the crown, the British settlers made fresh encroachments on Spanish territory. The Spaniards, asserting that they were engaged in smuggling and other illicit practices, organized a large force, and on the 15th of September 1779, suddenly attacked and destroyed the establishment at Belize, taking the inhabitants prisoners to Mérida in Yucatan, and afterwards to Havana, where most of them died, The survivors were liberated in 1782, and allowed to go to Jamaica. In 1783 they returned with many new adventurers, and were soon engaged in cutting woods. On the 3rd of September in that year a new 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 concessions "were not to be considered as derogating from the rights of sovereignty of the king of Spain" over the district in question, where all the English dispersed in the Spanish territories were to concentrate themselves within eighteen months. This did not prove a satisfactory arrangement; for in 1786 a new treaty was concluded, in which the king of Spain made an additional grant of territory, embracing the area between the rivers Sibun or Jabon and Belize. But these extended limits were coupled with still more rigid restrictions. It is not to be supposed that a population composed of so lawless a set of men was remarkably exact in its observance of the treaty. They seem to have greatly annoyed 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. They concentrated a force of 2000 men at Campeachy, which, under the command of General O'Neill, set sail in thirteen vessels for Belize, and arrived on the 10th of July, 1798. The settlers, aided by the British sloop of war "Merlin," had strongly fortified a small island in the harbour, called St George's Cay. They maintained a determined resistance against the Spanish forces, which were obliged to retire to Campeachy. This was the last attempt to dislodge the British.

The defeat of the Spanish attempt of 1798 has been adduced as an act of conquest, 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 the earlier treaty were revived. They forget also that for many years the British government never laid claim to any rights acquired in virtue of the successful defence; for so late as 1817-1819 the acts of parliament relating to Belize always refer to it as "a settlement, for certain purposes, under the protection of His Majesty." After Central America had attained its independence (1819-1822) Great Britain secured its position by incorporating the provisions of the treaty of 1786 in a new treaty with Mexico (1826), and in the drafts of treaties with New Granada (1825) and the United States of Central America (1831). The territories between the Belize and Sarstoon rivers were claimed by the British in 1836. The subsequent peaceful progress of the country under British rule; the exception of Belize from that provision of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (q.v.) of 1850 which forbade Great Britain and the United States to fortify or colonize any point on the Central American mainland; and the settlement of the boundary disputes with Guatemala in 1859, finally confirmed the legal sovereignty of Great Britain over the whole colony, including the territories claimed in 1836. The Bay Islands were recognized as part of the republic of Honduras in 1859. Between 1849, when the Indians beyond the Hondo rose against their Mexican rulers, and 1901, when they were finally subjugated, rebel bands occasionally attacked the northern and north-western marches of the colony. The last serious raid was foiled in 1872.

Bibliography[edit]

For all statistical matter relating to the colony, see the annual reports to the British Colonial Office (London).

For the progress of exploration, see A Narrative of a Journey across the unexplored Portion of British Honduras, by H. Fowler (Belize, 1879); and "An Expedition to the Cockscomb Mountains," by J. Bellamy, in Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, vol. xi. (London, 1889).

A good general description is given in the Handbook of British Honduras, by L.W. Bristowe and P.B. Wright (Edinburgh, 1892); and the local history is recounted in the History of British Honduras, by A.R. Gibbs (London, 1883); in Notes on Central America, by E.J. Squier (New York, 1855); and in Belize or British Honduras, a paper read before the Society of Arts by Chief Justice Temple (London, 1847).

(K. G. J.)