Who owned San Pedro?
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:
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.