Spain was in control of the Caribbean up until the beginning of the 17th century. However this was challenged by other European powers and by the middle of the 17th century Spain had lost hegemony, which allowed France and Britain to succeed in gaining dominance in the region.
Until 1655, when disbanded English sailors and soldiers came from Jamaica, there was no permanent settlement in Belize. On May 23, 1667, Spain signed a treaty with Great Britain granting her the freedom of trade, if Britain would suppress piracy. Thus, humanitarianism was not the motivating factor in Britain's agreement to end piracy. Rather, the need for trade and the discovery of logwood had opened a whole new industry from Campeche to Nicaragua. At the end of the seventeenth century, as the textile exports from England rose, the logwood trade boomed since the best dye for cloth was obtained from Belize's logwood. (26)
Settlements spread along the Atlantic coast, from the western side of the peninsula around Yucatan, along the north-facing coast of what is now the Republic of Honduras, and down the coast of Nicaragua. Spain granted the English rights to cut logwood and mahogany in Belize in 1786.
"The shift in the 1770's from logwood to mahogany...altered the entire settlement. As the mahogany tree is much bigger than logwood, it is scattered over a much larger area and cannot be exported in chunks, its export required more capital and especially, more labour". (27)
This meant, in the case of Belize, more slaves. Belize then became a majority black society with African-rooted culture and with developing socio-political institutions that reflected the demographic change, rather than just a way-station for the British to extract and export wood. As the British went farther inland in search of trees they would encounter the Maya, who were to have a significant effect on the development of the settlement. (28) The Spaniards attacked and removed the Belize settlers a number of times, but never sought to follow up their successes with settlement. The period of attacks by the Spaniards was between 1716 and 1754, the last eviction almost resulting in a war between Britain and Spain. The settlers did not return until one year after this last attack, upon Spain promising to make restitution, and permitting them to cut logwood in the Bay. (29) The British navy had gained in strength and exceeded the Spaniards in power. Therefore, Spain had lost the capacity to remove the English from the Central American coast. However, had Spain decided to do so in 1730 when it was capable, it would have perhaps ended British occupation. Because Belize was never of any economic significance to Spain, she was not prepared to commit the number of forces needed to control the area. (30) European treaties affected the status of the settlement as a result of wars fought in the Caribbean and Europe. Spain, nevertheless, in 1763, through the Treaty of Paris granted permission for the cutting of logwood by the British in Belize. The Treaty nevertheless declared Spanish sovereignty very clearly of the settlement that now formed, but without definite boundaries. (31) In spite of this the Spaniards continued to attack the settlement, until 1783 when the Treaty of Versailles was signed by Spain and Britain. This treaty once again gave Britain the right to cut logwood. But there was one critical addition: within defined limits between the Hondo and the Belize River. The Baymen complained that the area allocated to them by Spain was not big enough. Hence, in 1786 Spain agreed to extend the cutting up to the Sibun area, and in addition to logwood mahogany cutting was also permitted. Mahogany was quickly superseding logwood as an article of export. In return, the British had to agree to evacuate the Mosquito Shore in Nicaragua and the islands adjacent to the American continent. Further conditions put in place by the Spaniards were:
The settlers were not to establish sugar, coffee, or similar plantations, or to set up industries; nor were they to ‘meditate' the formation of a system of government. "Further than such regulations as their Britannic and Catholic Majesties may hereafter judge proper for maintaining peace and good order among their respective subjects". (32)
The Battle of St. George's Caye was the last attempt by the Spaniards to oust the British settlers from the settlement. It culminated on September 10, 1798, when fourteen of the largest Spanish ships sailed in and approached St. George's Caye, about nine nautical miles from Belize City. After two and one half hours, the battle was over, the attack repulsed with not one of the British defenders having been killed. This assured the future of the settlement. "The eighteenth century ended, therefore, with the defeat of the last attempt of Spain to dispossess the British settlers by force of arms, with the settlers securely ensconced in the area between the Hondo and the Sibun, already, apparently, overstepping, or prepared to overstep, those boundaries, and no longer subject to the supervision of Spanish officials. (33)
After this victory, the British settlers asserted that "the sovereignty of British Honduras was acquired by conquest". This of course was completely unacceptable to Spain since it conformed neither with the facts of the situation between 1800 and 1814 nor with the terms of the treaties under which peace was restored with Spain. (34) The treaty of Amiens, of 27 March 1802, was the first of these treaties bearing on the history of the Bay settlement. Great Britain, under Article 3, agreed to restore all Spanish possessions or territories conquered or occupied by the British in the course of the war, excluding the island of Trinidad. (35) After war broke out again between England and Spain, in 1809 through the Treaty of London, they agreed (Article 1) to an ‘entire' and lasting oblivion of all acts of hostility done on either side, in the course of the late wars'; and by the Treaty of Madrid (Additional Article I), signed in 1814, it was agreed that all treaties of commerce which existed in 1796 between Great Britain and Spain were to be considered as ratified and confirmed. (36)
It was contended by the British that "The Anglo-Spanish Treaty" of 1786 (which extended the boundaries of the settlement of Belize while reserving sovereignty over it to Spain) was "put an end to" by the subsequent state of war with Spain "and that when peace was re-established between Great Britain and Spain no Treaty of a political nature or relating to territorial limits revived those treaties between Great Britain and Spain which had previously existed". It is of course true that the treaties of 1802, 1809, and 1814 were not treaties relating to territorial limits, nor were the treaties of 1783 and 1786 specifically treaties of commerce. "But it is reasonable to contend that they were partly of a commercial nature". (37)
Meanwhile, effective Spanish sovereignty in Mexico and Central America had been swept away. In Mexico, on 24 February 1821, a young creole officer pronounced for the independence of his country and three years later on October 4, 1824 it was declared independent. These events affected the neighbouring Captaincy-General of Guatemala and on 1 July 1823, Guatemala declared that the provinces of which the Kingdom of Guatemala was composed were free and independent both of Old Spain and of New Spain, and that together, they formed the United Provinces of Central America. A new constitution was adopted on 22 November 1824 for the United Provinces of Central America.
From the turn of the century until the Mexican and Central American independence of the early twenties, the mercantile community in Belize had enjoyed dramatic growth. Spain's inability in her twilight years of American empire to control commerce afforded shippers in Belize the opportunity of supplying goods and, in exchange, acquiring much needed livestock and agricultural produce for their colony. (38) This trade between London and Central America, by way of the Belize settlement, continued to expand even after Central American independence. The new Federation allowed the British to import and retail on the domestic market in spite of challenges from local merchants, who claimed that the British had two competitive advantages that would be the ultimate ruin of their establishments: sheer volume, and the freedom from payment of most of the local taxes which they were forced to pay. So long as the British were allowed to retail goods on the local markets, the local merchants could not survive. It was felt that it would only be fair if the British trade were limited to wholesale, but the new Federal Government, for a time, turned a deaf ear to the protests from the provinces. (39) The Bay settlement welcomed the establishment of the Federation, seeing in this turn of events a chance for free legal trade with the new Republic and economic development of their own Settlement as a result. Equally promising, was the possibility of obtaining recognition of their boundaries and wood-cutting rights, if not their own sovereignty. (40)
The National Assembly of the Federation met in Guatemala City in April, 1823, and at this meeting, in a surprise move, the members decreed the abolition of slavery. This was a radical move at this time in history and done, the Belizeans thought, to deliberately encourage the defection of Belizean slaves who, by this time, constituted a large percentage of the work force of the lumber industry and represented an extensive capital investment. A delegation of lumbermen from Belize met with representatives of the Federation to discuss ramifications of the law, but after heated debate the two sides were unable to resolve their differences. (41) This move undoubtedly caused many slaves to escape to Central America for their freedom.
After 1825, the Federation began to display an increasing awareness of the threat of territorial encroachment by the British Settlement and a strong desire to contain it. Based on their position as Spain's successors and heirs, the Republic now began threatening the Settlement with the withdrawal of wood-cutting rights in Belize, which they claimed to have inherited from Spain stemming from treaties of 1783 and 1786. The loggers were seen as trespassers and the Belize Settlement was considered as a province of the new Federation of Central America. After sending a plenipotentiary in 1825, Britain pointed out that the Central American Revolutions were "acts of populations rather than of juridical areas; hence the rebellious peoples obtained rights only over the lands which they actually possessed or occupied at the time of their independence". (42) Furthermore, it was felt that the settlers of Belize had a claim to their land by right of effectual and continuous occupation of an undeveloped land, claimed, but never settled, by Spain. Also, the English had been in Belize nearly two hundred years before the Central American independence was attained.
Since the failure of the Central American Federation in 1838, the Republic of Guatemala, as a successor state, had taken up the claim to the territory of Belize. Of course, by the same argument, Mexico had claimed an equal right based on its inheritance of former Spanish sovereignty.
Previous | TOC | Next
Top of Page
1997 Janine Sylvestre and Copyright © Naturalight Productions Ltd.