Colonial Beginnings of Self-Government and the Plantocracy

Source: U.S. Library of Congress

The British were reluctant to set up any formal government for the settlement for fear of provoking the Spanish. On their own initiative and without recognition by the British government, the settlers had begun annual elections of magistrates to establish common law for the settlement as early as 1738. In 1765 Rear Admiral Sir William Burnaby, commander in chief of Jamaica, arrived in the settlement and codified and expanded their regulations into a document known as Burnaby's Code. When the settlers began returning to the area in 1784, the governor of Jamaica named Colonel Edward Marcus Despard as superintendent to oversee the Settlement of Belize in the Bay of Honduras.

The Convention of London, signed in 1786, allowed the British settlers, known as Baymen, to cut and export logwood and mahogany from the Hondo River in the north southward to the Sibun River. The convention, however, did not allow the Baymen to build fortifications, establish any form of government, military or civil, or develop plantation agriculture. Spain retained sovereignty over the area and asserted the right to inspect the settlement twice a year. Britain also agreed to evacuate its settlement on the Mosquito Coast (Costa de Mosquitos) in eastern Nicaragua. Over 2,000 of these settlers and their slaves arrived in 1787 in the settlement of Belize, reinforcing the British presence.

The last Spanish attack on the British settlement occurred two years after the outbreak of war in 1796. The governor general of Yucatán commanded a Spanish flotilla of some thirty vessels with some 500 sailors and 2,000 troops and attacked the British colonists in 1798. During several brief engagements culminating in a two-and-a-half-hour battle on September 10, the British drove off the Spanish. The attack marked Spain's last attempt to control the territory or dislodge the British.

Despite treaties banning local government and plantation agriculture, both activities flourished. In the late eighteenth century, an oligarchy of relatively wealthy settlers controlled the political economy of the British settlement. These settlers claimed about four-fifths of the land available under the Convention of London, through resolutions, called location laws, which they passed in the Public Meeting, the name given to the first legislature. These same men also owned about half of all the slaves in the settlement; controlled imports, exports, and the wholesale and retail trades; and determined taxation. A group of magistrates, whom they elected from among themselves, had executive as well as judicial functions, despite a prohibition on executive action.

The landowners resisted any challenge to their growing political power. Colonel Edward Marcus Despard, the first superintendent appointed by the governor of Jamaica in 1784, was suspended in 1789 when the wealthy cutters challenged his authority. When Superintendent George Arthur attacked what he called the "monopoly on the part of the monied cutters" in 1816, he was only partially successful in breaking their monopoly on landholding. He proclaimed that all unclaimed land was henceforth crown land that could be granted only by the crown's representative but continued to allow the existing monopoly of landownership.
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