Who owned San Pedro?

By Peter Laws,
Curator, Ambergris Museum The land disputes which arise constantly on Ambergris Caye are not a recent phenomenon. Documents held in the National Archives at Belmopan show that the private ownership of the Island has often been a source of controversy. The first mention of a European owner of the Island is an intriguing reference to something called the Belize Agricultural Company which owned the Island in the 1830s and was trying to establish cotton plantations. We have no further information about this enterprise and what became of it. The Company may have been an initiative of the British Government because in 1842 the Superintendent in British Honduras, Colonel MacDonald, granted ownership of the Island to one Mr. Welsh. It later emerged that MacDonald had acted beyond his authority in giving the land to Welsh, but no attempt was made to recover the Island for the British Crown.

Whether his claim to the Island was legitimate or not Mr. Welsh played an important part in the reception of Mestizo refugees from the war in the Yucatan. He owned land on the Belize side of the Hondo River. A report of January 1850 tells how he gave good terms to "upwards of three hundred" Mestizo farmers to settle there, and defended them from harassment by the Mexican authorities. It seems very likely that Welsh was equally interested in encouraging refugees to settle on Ambergris Caye to develop his property. His ownership of the Island coincides with the birth of the community of San Pedro.

Subsequently Ambergris Caye came into the hands of an enterprise called Putnam Ohlafen & Co. In 1873 one Antonio Mathe obtained title to the Island but died almost immediately thereafter leaving his mortgage unpaid. To clear Mathe's debts the Island was sold by public auction in 1874. James Hume Blake bought the Caye, almost 14,000 acres, for $625. The only land he did not own was reserved for the construction of a church in the village. Through a succession of marriages between the Blakes, Parhamss and Alamillas a dynasty was established which controlled the lives of the islanders for almost a century.

Resentment of the power their landlords wielded over their lives was expressed by San Pedranos in a desperate letter sent to the Governor of British Honduras in April 1932. It read as follows:

For a number of years prior to 1908 considerable discontent existed among the inhabitants of the town of San Pedro Ambergris Caye, caused by the manner in which Mrs. Maria Exaltation Andrade de Mendez conducts herself and her agents.

Prior to that year the inhabitants have been deprived of their rights; some have been expelled from the lots they occupied, and many taxed far above their means.

In this state of things the feelings of the people were aroused and made a petition to His Excellency The Governor in Charge for the time being, in the fullest confidence that His Excellency would see justice done to them.

Unfortunately, the petition failed in its object; because His Excellency the Governor, told the petitioners that for certain considerations the town of San Pedro has been ceded to Mrs. Maria Exaltation Andrade de Mendez for her life, to live on the rents, but with conditions of treating the inhabitants with benevolence, and after her death the Crown will recognize the town as her property.

Your Excellency, no practical amelioration of the conditions of life has resulted. The acknowledged and admitted grievances of which we complained prior to 1908 not only are not redressed, but exist today in an aggravated form.

At present the rents per lot have been raised to $10 when it was $4 when the place was ceded to Mrs. Maria Exaltation Andrade de Mendez; but have been raised gradually, and now we faithfully declare to Your Excellency that we can not afford to pay such sums taking in consideration the conditions of things at this critical moment.

It has been proved that there does not exist in the Register Office any record wherein Mrs Maria Exaltation Andrade de Mendez could lay any claim over the town of San Pedro & Ambergris Caye as her own.

Wherefore, we beseech Your Excellency to extend your protection to us to cause an inquiry to be made into grievances and complaints, and to take measures which will secure the speedy reform of the abuses complained of, and if possible to take over the administration of the town as the Crown's property.

We are Your Excellency's Humble Servants: Anselmo Marin, Heriberto Gutierrez, Zosimo Rodriguez, Enrique S. Guerrero, Santiago Perez, Olegarino Marin, Anselmo Alamilla, Albino Gomez, Roberto Rivero, Aurelio Reyes, Tomas Paz, Antonio Nunez, Saturnino Nunez, Carlos Alamilla, Anastacio Heredia, Juan Alamilla, Ubaldo Cardenez, Vicente Gutierrez, Reyes y Cocom, Miguel Munoz, Leacadio Reyes, Felipe Mendes, Graniel Perez, Nicolas Varela, Alfonso Lopez, Luis Alamilla, Anastacio Sansorez, Manuel Heredia Jr., Balbino Ancona, Isidro Hernandez, Dimas Guerrero, Santiago Gomez, Adolfo Alamilla, Justino Silva, Cristino E. Gomez, Eugenio Gonzalez, Juan Verde, Dorateo Gomez, Francisco Lopez, Nestor Vasquez, Francisco Rosado, Anastacio Idul, Candido Alamilla, Rita Guerrero, Ventura Be, Carmen Marin, Pablo Reyes, Eloy Gutierrez, Manuel Rivero, Francisco N. Pacheco.

The authorities in Belize City replied that according to their records Mrs. Andrade de Mendez did hold legal title to the Island and that they therefore had no powers to intervene on the part of the villagers.

The story is interesting not only because it reflects the bitterness which was building up between the villagers and their landlords, (a situation which was to prevail for another thirty years) but also because the names on the petition are the fathers, grandfathers and uncles of so many of San Pedro's present population.

150th Anniversary Features
Anniversary Home Page
Where is San Pedro?
Ancient San Pedro, by Herman Smith
150 Years Ago, by Angel Nuñez
Life in San Pedro 1850, by Peter Laws
Who owned San Pedro? by Peter Laws
Who governed this settlement? by Mayor Alberto Nuñez and Leo Cuellar
Life in San Pedro in Former Times, by Miriam Graniel
A Trip down Memory Lane, by Patty Arceo
Don Lucio Guerrero relives the past
Meet Mr. Alan Forman
Ramon's Village
Ruby's Hotel
San Pedro Post Office
Senior Citizens Think Back, by Dorian Nuñez
Long Live Beauty Queens
Article in the San Pedro Sun BEFORE the celebration
Article in the San Pedro Sun AFTER the celebration
Real Estate Corner, 150 Years, by Diane Campbell
Oh San Pedro, Brother Jake and the Boy Scout camp, by John Esquivel

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