Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8/2

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CHAPTER II.

Belize,—Population,—Government,—Commerce,—Soil,—Insects,—Climate,—Diseases,—Emigration.


The view of the town from the roadstead is interesting, and some parts of it highly picturesque. Its principal street stretches along the shore for a considerable distance, and consists of tolerably good houses built of wood, the lower stories occupied as stores and the upper as dwellings: cocoa nut trees interspersed among the buildings relieve the prospect, and give to the whole the character of West Indian scenery. The bay derives its chief interest from the number of pleasure boats doreys and pit pans, passing and repassing on its still waters. The latter, a species of long narrow canoe propelled by paddles, are novel to an European eye.

This settlement contains between five and 6000 souls,[1] consisting of about 2400 slaves, 1400 free negroes, 1000 coloured creoles, and from 3 to 400 whites.

The slaves are chiefly employed up the rivers in the cutting and trucking of mahogany, and are generally well treated. Their owners are probably afraid of harshness from the many opportunities the negroes have of escaping to the neighbouring Guatimalian territory and becoming free.[2] The free negroes are only remarkable for their excessive indolence and pride. The moral effects of slavery are but too visible in their character. The coloured Creoles of the country, descendants of Europeans by African women, carry on mechanical trades, or keep small stores in the back streets. Many of these possess considerable property. The white population consists of merchants and their clerks, and of individuals employed in civil or military capacities by the governor. The internal regulations of the settlement are confided to the Superintendent appointed by his Britannic majesty and seven magistrates annually elected by the settlers. The market is generally ill supplied. The want of energy is so great that although every kind of fruit and vegetables would grow almost spontanteously, there is often a considerable scarcity. Turtle is procured in abundance, but like every thing else very dear.

The trade of the place is considerable; employing annually about 16000 tons of British shipping. The neighbouring Spanish provinces are supplied with British manufactures; and cedar, fustic, hides, indigo, logwood, cochineal, mahogany, sarsaparilla, tortoise shell and specie are exported: commerce is also carried on with Omoa, Truxillo, and the Golfo Dulce.

The soil is generally good, an abundance both of heat and moisture, favouring the putrefaction of a mass of organic substances, while it often proves the cause of disease, produces a stiff deep loam, capable of bringing to perfection all kinds of European vegetables, as well as the productions of the torrid zone. The difficulty of obtaining labourers is the only obstacle to the production of every thing calculated to administer to the comforts or luxuries of life. “The cactus, upon the leaf of which the cochineal insect subsists, grows spontaneously in the woods; the cotton tree, the indigo plant, the palma christi or castor oil plant, and the sugar cane all thrive on the soil, and might be cultivated advantageously.” But the free negro will not work. With a hook and line he can in half an hour provide sustenance for himself and family for the day, and with this he is content. No stimulus will arouse him. He will undertake no employment but at an exorbitant rate of wages, and even then he is careless about finishing what he commences.

Considerable quantities of land are covered with pine of a superior quality. Where these abound the soil is sandy and not so productive; it would, however, be well adapted to the cultivation of the coffee plant.

The neighbouring woods are rich in objects of natural history, and it is much to be regretted that a field which promises so much should so long have remained untrodden.

Belize, like many other settlements similarly situated, abounds with insects, which by their number and venomous properties, become a complete pest. Swarms, or rather myriads of ants, darken every household utensil, and leave no corner of any dwelling free from their intrusions; hundreds of cockroaches (the Blatia Americana) appear in the evening, in almost every apartment; the very chambers of the houses are not free from the unwelcome visits of lizards, centipedes, and scorpions, to say nothing of the mosquito, or of that most fruitful of all the insect tribe, the nigus. This last diminutive little worm exercises its malignant powers chiefly upon the black population, who are always without shoes or stockings; it enters the foot between the cutis and the cuticle, where it breeds with the greatest rapidity. The only remedy is to pick them out with a needle, and pour oil into the wound.

The climate is, on the whole, more favourable than that of the West India islands. The average heat is from 82° to 85° Fahrenheit, in the shade. Europeans chiefly suffer from remitting and intermittent fevers, caused probably by the numerous swamps which surround the settlement. The ravages of small pox are not great, as vaccination is now universally practised. In the year l826, great numbers of children were carried off by the measles, but this disease has not since that time made its appearance. Hooping cough prevails much among the younger part of the community, and dysentery and rheumatism are not unfrequent among the full grown negroes; yet, on the whole, they may be esteemed healthy, and sometimes attain to a great age. The strong sea breeze, which blows freely nine months in the year, contributes mainly to the health of the inhabitants.

Still the heat is by far too great to make any part of this province desirable as a place for emigration; and had the memorable cacique of Poyais, McGregor, had any intention of colonizing, (which there is little reason to believe,) it is very problematical how far he could have succeeded. The miserable condition of the unhappy wretches who were deluded by his golden promises, is but too well known, and it is but justice to say, that they received, in the hour of their distress, every kindness from the settlers in Belize.[3]

  1. From a census taken in the year 1827 the population of Belize is as follows.
    Males. Females
    Whites 267, Whites 65
    Coloured 585, Coloured 452
    Free Negroes 1044, Free Negroes 374
    Slaves 1606, Slaves 804
    3502 1695
    Troops 456.
  2. Since the Revelation in Guatimala from one to two hundred slaves have absconded from their masters and taken refuge in the American territory. Their owners have repeatedly applied to the Government of the Republic in order that they may be given up, but after several debates in Congress the request has been refused. Putting the rights of humanity out of the question, it seems difficult to reconcile such a demand with the common principles of reciprocity among nations. So long as England maintains the noble principle that to breathe British air is to be free, any other nation not only has a right but honours herself by following the example. It is needless to add that the application was never sanctioned by the government at home.
  3. The Poyais territory, where this adventurer talked of establishing his deluded followers, is not literally in the province of Honduras, but consists of unappropriated territory on the banks of the Rio Tinto, or Bleek River, which discharges itself into the Atlantic, near Cape Camaron. Since the failure of this expedition, it has been included in the tract of country claimed by the Columbians.