Aerial View of Ambergris Caye, 1959. Courtesy Neil Fraser
Text by Glenn Godfrey
Courtesy of Cubola Productions, Belize
About three-quarters of a mile off shore, draped along the beach on the windward side of the island is the longest and most spectacular coral necklace in the Western Hemisphere, the Belize Barrier Reef.
The beach runs more or less parallel to the reef except at a place called Rocky Point, where it reaches out and touches it. Rocky Point is about 4.5 miles south of Boca Bacalar Chico, a partly man-made channel which separates the island from the Xcalac Peninsula and forms a portion of Belize's northern border with Mexico. This channel is, for the most part, narrow and shallow. In some spots it shrinks during low-tide to a stream which can be crossed on foot.
It is in fact so inconspicuous that a Mexican expedition which went to inspect it in May 1898 had to search several days before finding it. The expedition was led by the newly appointed Mexican Consul to Belize,Brigadier de la Armada Don Angel Ortiz Monasterio and his Vice-Consul, Ingeniero Naval Miguel Rebolledo. They took the boat Ponton Chetumal to the mouth of the Rio Hondo.
|Click here for a history of Ambergris Caye by George Parham, J.P.|
The Boca was even shallower than it is now. In 1899, when the Mexicans built a permanent fortress just north of it, they dug it deeper and wider to allow the passage of their warships across the Peninsula. Nonetheless, despite its small size this channel is geographically important, for it has made Ambergris Caye an island rather than the extension of the Xcalac Peninsula it used to be.
Aerial View of San Pedro Town, 1959. Courtesy Neil Fraser
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There are 12 lagoons on the leeward side of the island and into them run numerous creeks. The largest lagoon is Laguna de San Pedro, situated to the west of the town. This body of water extends for over two-and-a-quarter miles and is fed by over 15 creeks and channels.
The Basil Jones area consists of a seaward beach ridge and leeward mangrove swamp with a broad intervening plateau of palm thicket. Parts of the area are covered with a rich black soil which may have been transported to the island by the ancient Maya, the island's first known inhabitants, who used it to grow their crops.
Aerial View of San Pedro Town, 1959. Courtesy Neil Fraser
The boat shaped thing on the right is a kraal (protected swimming compound, really misnomered by the then British Honduranians - a kraal is really kind-of village place in Africa) The location is where the "tackle box" was. When Alan Foreman acquired it he used it as an aquarium with fish and sharks, etc. for the few tourists that were trickling in. Be that as it may and then the last building to the left is the first theatre that Jim Blake had on the island. It is where the Sun Breeze is now. The cocal to the left is Esmeralda cocal which was given to Jim Blake by Papa Blake when he married Martha Hofman of the Hofius dynasty in Belize City. The boat hauled up on the beach seems to be a boat named the "Gitana" owned by Jack Foreman, Allan Foreman's father. The house behind the boat is Arcelia Grief's property.
South of Basil Jones the main part of the caye extends for about 14 miles. It consists of a seaward sand ridge between 100 and 500 yards wide, flanked on both sides by mangrove. Within the marshy areas are found large circular depressions rimmed by sand and occasional vegetation. The sand ridge itself, at three to five feet above sea level, is the highest part of the Caye and reaches a height of almost 10 feet at San Pedro Town.
Wind, rain and tides combine to constantly alter the windward shoreline. The sands grow and recede from year to year along the entire length of the caye. From the 1960s to the 1980s, for example, certain parts of San Pedro Town lost as much as 30 feet to the encroaching sea.
At the extreme southern end of Ambergris, the sand gives way to numerous mangrove patches divided by navigable channels which connect the waters of the shoat reef area to those of the main lagoons.
Aerial View of Belize Barrier Reef, 1959. Courtesy Neil Fraser
Flying south into Belize, you can see the reef as an unbroken chain of white surf. It runs along the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula and continues south almost the whole length of the country to the Ranguana and Sapodilla Cayes. Inside the reef the water is shallow, with a blue tinge; outside the reef the water is deep and from the air shows a dark royal blue. On very clear days the reef appears as a narrow yellowish line dividing the two shades of blue.
Only in Ambergris Caye - and to a lesser degree, Caye Caulker - does the reef run so close to a well-populated caye. Here it is an almost solid wall of magnificent coral formation broken only by narrow channels called quebradas. The remarkably clear water inside the reef allows excellent viewing of the fabulous marine life of the area. Rainbow tinged tropical fish, delicate sea fans and majestic coral gardens abound, with a variety of shapes and colours than can keep an observant diver entertained for hours. Outside the reef, the seabed drops sharply in a series of plateaus to depths of thousands of feet. Out here in the blue are found the gamefish: mackerel, kingfish, wahoo, tuna, sailfish, and marlin.
Aerial View of San Pedro Town, 1959. Courtesy Neil Fraser
But the reef is more than just a decorative sideshow. Without it the island would not exist, for it serves as a natural breakwater protecting the beach from erosion by the waves, and sheltering the caye and its inhabitants.
The reef is a living wall formed by millions of coral organisms. These corals are carnivorous animals known as polyps, which eat small sea creatures that float by, capturing them with stinging tentacles. Polyps feed only at night, pulling their tentacles back into the skeleton during the day. Within the reef's skeleton live minute blue-green algae. These give off oxygen which the coral polyps breathe; the algae, in turn, absorb the carbon dioxide which the polyps give off, forming thus a genuine symbiotic relationship. Corals are multicoloured varying from gold to red, orange, green, brown and yellow. The soft, living tube-shaped coral polyp protects itself by generating a hard layer of calcium carbonate called the corallite. Colonies of these polyps form the reef structure growing in strange and exotic shapes from which the different varieties of corals take their popular names, such as brain coral, staghorn coral and elkhorn coral.
The reef needs two factors to survive: solar energy and chemical nutrients. The nutrients flow into the sea as plant and animal organic material from rivers and creeks on the mainland and on the caye itself. The organic material is broken down into its chemical derivates by bacteria and other microorganisms, thus providing the nutrients necessary for the growth of the reef.
The warm clear water off the coast of Belize, fed as it is by various mainland rivers and streams, makes up an excellent environment for the reef. The entire island of Ambergris may actually have resulted from the conglomeration of coral fragments along with silt from the Rio Hondo. The 1959 report of the British Honduras Land Use Survey Team notes: "The connected chains of coral islands known as Ambergris Caye was formed from the accumulation of coral fragments, first as a shoal patch. These shoals tend to build up in long lines parallel to the coast of the mainland. It is thought that their orientation may be connected with submarine geological strata rather than being entirely the work of sea currents."
Aerial View of San Pedro Town, 1999. Courtesy Sal Mazzullo
Because Ambergris is less an island than an extension of the Peninsula with close connection to the mainland, it supports an abundance of wildlife.
Good game animals such as deer, peccary, paca (gibnut), and even the beautiful ocelot can be found here. With the recent expansion of tourism and fishing, the increased human population has almost eliminated these larger species, but the smaller mammals, such as the opossum, armadillo and racoon are still fairly abundant.
The most noticeable wild animals are the giant blue land crabs. They may resemble fearsome extraterrestial aliens as they pop their eyestalks and wave their claws, but they are not in fact as dangerous as they look. With training they can even be taught to eat from your fingers.
The oddest of all crabs are the hermit crabs. These have no hard protective shell over their abdomens and must cover themselves by backing into an empty snail shell and carrying this heavy 'house' on their backs. These are often found high tip on tree trunks, but like all land crabs, they must go to the water to moisten their bodies.
Although there are no poisonous snakes on the caye, two of the larger harmless snakes, both good rat catchers, do live here: the well-known boa constrictor and the blacktailed indigo. A few smaller species, all frog or lizard caters and harmless to man, are also part of the island's reptile population.
The giant prehistoric-looking common iguana, which grows to more than six feet, can be found in the less hunted areas. These are good to eat and local fishermen catch them whenever they can. The 'Wishwilly' or spiny-tailed iguana is a bit smaller. The spines down the back are short, the head is longer and narrower without large dewlaps. It is dull coloured with wide blackish bars on a gray body. Both vegetarians, these giant lizards eat plant leaves, sometimes devastating local gardens, and even grazing like sheep. The 'Cock Maclala', properly called a Central American basilisk, is abundant and often seen posed dramatically on the trunk of a coconut palm. This lizard often runs upright on its hind legs and can actually run over the surface of water this way, a characteristic which earned him a second local name, 'Jesus Christ Lizard'. The small lizard seen all over the Caye is an anole (Anolis sagrei). The females and babies are brown with a silverish streak, but the male is all black and, when announcing ownership of territory, spreads out a lovely bright pink throat pouch.
Birds are the most remarkable element of Ambergris' wildlife. Most dramatic and first noticed are the abundant seabirds: brown pelicans, magnificent frigatebirds, neotropic and occasionally double-crested cormorants. Laughing gulls, as well as royal, caspian and other terns are seen on occasion, as are brown and red-footed boobies.
During the summer months few shorebirds are to be seen. But in September and October literally millions of these pass south in migration, their calling heard high overhead night after night. Some will break their passage to feed at wave's edge in the daytime, and a few will spend the winter with us.
Wading birds are a different story. While the great majority nest north of us, groups of great egrets, snowy egrets, cattle egrets, green herons, little blue herons and tricoloured herons are permanent residents here, nesting on the smaller cayes such as Cayo Rosario, Cayo Pajaros (Birds Caye), Deer Caye and Cayo Cangrejo. A few great blue herons and black-crowned night herons also nest in the area and can be found on Ambergris at all times of the year. A number of immature yellow-crowned night herons spend the summer with us as well. In autumn, flights of many hundreds of all these birds settle on the mangroves and beaches of Ambergris and on other coastal areas to spend the winter gorging themselves on the multitudes of crabs and small fish. Besides these beautiful species, nesting colonies of tropical waders like the beautiful white ibis ('Cocos') and the nocturnal boat-billed herons ('Coopers') are found here.
Local land birds are friendly and abundant: the brightly coloured red-billed cinnamon hummingbird, the chestnut-headed mangrove warbler, the mangrove vireo, black catbird, golden-fronted woodpecker, hooded oriole, tropical mockingbird, tropical kingbird, white-collared seedeater and the ubiquitous boat- tailed grackle. Ospreys screech from the tallest trees and black hawks hunt the numerous crabs. Less common are the green-breasted mango hummingbird and the mangrove cuckoo. Caribbean doves and whitecrowned pigeons still nest in the more remote areas and the cute little common ground dove walks unafraid in the yards and streets of San Pedro.
The last but perhaps most exciting group of birds on the Caye is that of the migrant warblers. In September and October a massive movement of these small but brightly marked birds moves over and through Ambergris on its way south. Again in April and early May there is a return migration, although it is much smaller in total numbers. Many of these long distance travellers are exhausted and near the end of the their endurance, and they come down to feed. Twenty seven different species have been recorded on Ambergris Caye. Some migrants other than warblers also stop here during their passage.
WARM TEMPERATURES, WINDS AND HURRICANES
Like most of northern Belize, Ambergris Caye has a long dry season which usually extends from March through May. These months bring steady, often quite strong, southeast winds. The rest of the year, most of a yearly average of 50 inches of rain can be expected. During this period, winds are mainly easterly, but subject to occasional shifts. Mornings, for example, will often bring a light breeze blowing from the northwest, making it an excellent time to dive the deep eastern side of the reef; by noon, however, the breeze may stiffen and haul around to the east.
One significant feature are the Nortes or 'Northerners', violent winter storms which blow in between October and February and pelt the island with several days of rain, winds and rough seas.
Then there is the hurricane season. Despite its name, this period is usually characterized by balmy and delightful weather, although a tropical terror may strike now and then. The most devastating hurricane to hit the island occurred in 1942. It destroyed many homes and the sea crossed the island. Other lesser storms have caused beach erosion and ruined coconut plantations, but never has a single life been lost in a hurricane on Ambergris Caye. Although temperatures are for the most part quite warm - ranging from 89 to 94 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer months and from 70 to 85 during winter - the heat is usually tempered by the sea breeze and the weather remains quite comfortable.AN OUTPOST OF MAYA CIVILIZATION The first European contact with Ambergris Caye was made by the Spanish explorers Vicente Pinz6n and Juan Solis, in 1508. The region, particularly the area of Yucatan north of Ambergris Caye, was at the time still well populated with Maya who at first successfully repulsed attempts by Europeans to settle the area. Alonso Davila, who in 1528 was sent by Francisco de Montejo, the colonizer of Yucatan, to find a town in this area and to explore the interior, managed to establish a settlement only temporarily at Chetumal before being forced to retreat from hostile Maya attacks. When Davila finally fled he was pursued and harassed for several miles by the triumphant Maya as he and his men made their slow and difficult way down the coast of Belize in their waterlogged canoes passing to the east of Ambergris Caye.
The Maya were, by any measure, a remarkable people. They flourished in Central America for some 15 centuries and between A.D. 250 and 900 carved out of these harsh tropical jungles a splendid civilization of limestone pyramids and palaces.
The Maya were farmers, growing mainly corn together with ground food, beans, squash, cotton, tobacco and cacao. They also raised domestic animals such as turkeys. Since they were farmers it was important to them to be able to measure time, so they could predict the changing seasons. To this end they studied the movements of the celestial bodies and developed an astronomy so precise that their ancient calendar of 365 days was as accurate as the one we employ today and more accurate than the calendar the first European explorers brought with them to America. The Maya calendar had 18 months of 20 days each with a final period of five days. Every fourth year this final period was adjusted to six days to compensate for the leap year.
During Europe's Dark Ages, the Maya were so scientifically advanced they were able to plot the path of Venus - an elusive planet that is by turns a morning and evening star with an error of only 14 seconds per year. The Maya also developed a system of mathematics and invented a symbol for the zero concept long before the zero sign was used in Europe.
They had a more advanced system of writing than any other indigenous group living in North or South America before the Europeans came. Their hieroglyphics were carved in stone and also written on paper made from the bark of trees.
At the height of their power, Maya city-states stretched from Mexico into Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. Cities such as Caracol, Copan, Tikal, Chichen Itza and Palenque dominated busy trade routes where commodities such as jade, salt, cocoa and pottery were traded from city to city.
Sometime after A.D. 800 the Maya abandoned their great cities in Central America. The reason for their departure is still unknown. It may have ~been disease, exhaustion ~of~ the soil, or a peasant revolt. Meanwhile, during A.D. 900's a new Maya civilization grew in northern Yucatan which lasted about 400 to 500 years.
Therefore, when the first Europeans arrived in Belize, the Maya civilization was already in decline. Nonetheless it was still functioning. The northern part of Belize and the southern part of Yucatan were part of a single Maya principality ruled from a city called Chetumal. This city was located near the present day site of Corozal Town in Belize. Ambergris Caye was a part of this principality.
Little definite is known of the Maya of Ambergris, but the things they left behind give us some indication of the way they lived.
There are on the island relics of numerous ancient settlements. The largest is a Post-Classic site in the area of Basil Jones which features a number of low mounds made from local limestone. There are also areas dotted with well defined shell heaps and an abundance of obsidian flakings, fragments of pottery and an occasional jade ornament or object carved in bone. The soils in the vicinity of these Maya 'fishing sites' are characterized by a deep black top soil containing much fine charcoal. Apart from subsisting on what they could grow themselves, the Maya were supported by the sea and engaged in regular trade with other settlements inland and along the coast. Wild game was also plentiful on Ambergris and must have provided these early inhabitants with a rich and varied diet.
At the time of contact with the first Europeans there was extensive trade activity between the northern areas of Belize, including ancient Chetumal and an area in the south known as Ulna, which is the Bay Islands of the present day Republic of Honduras. The trade centered mainly on cacao, a commodity which was used as money among the Maya. Canoes loaded with clothing, salt, cloth, slaves and fish made the journey south from Yucatan to Ulna and returned with precious cargoes of cacao. At the time ancient Chetumal contained 2000 or more dwellings. Its citizens excelled in commerce and exported maize, honey, wax and cotton garments to Honduras and other places along the coast.
Located strategically in the middle of this trading area, Ambergris Caye must have been a convenient resting place for traders heading up or down the coast. All the traders of the important town of Chetumal had to pass the island to reach their markets by sea.
Ambergris Caye was probably also important as a source of seafood for the Maya. Because of its proximity to the reef there was an abundance of fish and shellfish to be found there. These could be brought back to Chetumal by traders returning in ballast. The presence of several salt lakes also made the island important as a source of salt for the ancient Maya.
Finally, because of its strategic location at the entrance to the Bay of Chetumal, Ambergris Caye must have been of tremendous military importance to the Maya. It is quite likely, in fact, that they garrisoned the island during periods of impending attack.
It is not known what became of the Maya of Ambergris Caye. However, it is probably safe to speculate that they suffered a fate similar to that of their mainland brothers, who were decimated as a result of the European conquests and exposure to exotic European diseases. In the first 150 years of European contact in Mexico the indigenous population was reduced by over 80 per cent due to the effects of epidemics of European diseases. Since Ambergris Caye was associated with the Maya city of Chetumal and easily accessible to all persons passing down the coast by sea, the result must have been similar there.
However, despite the ravages of disease the Maya in Belize continued to resist the encroachment of British lumbermen into their territory well through the eighteenth century.PIRATES AND STOLEN TREASURE Though abandoned by the Maya, Ambergris Caye did not remain uninhabited for long. By the beginning of the 17th century, English, French and Dutch pirates were attacking the ships and towns of the Spanish Empire in the New World. These pirates needed remote retreats and safe harbours where they could care for their boats, rest their crews, hide their treasures and obtain food and water for their next raid. Ambergris Caye probably served such a purpose. Like Cayo Cosina (later to be known as Saint George's Caye) it was a place which could readily provide fresh water and food in good supply. The discovery of small treasure-troves on the island and of gold coins washed up on the beach together with old bottles suggest that it was visited often and its abundant resources utilized.
The first firm evidence of a permanent British settlement on Ambergris Caye comes from the Archives of British Honduras of 3rd December 1828. In a Magistrates' Meeting of that date it was stated "on report that a party of Spanish troops from Bacalar had landed at Ambergrease key and committed outrages on British subjects resident there, the officer of Police with 20 soldiers was sent to release them."A HAVEN FOR REFUGEES
The village of San Pedro, the major population centre on the island, was founded in 1848 by Mestizo refugees from the Guerra de Castas in Yucatan. This was the largest and most successful rebellion on the peninsula in the long tradition of Maya resistance to Spanish and Mestizo oppression. It was also the most successful indigenous uprising in all the Americas.
The refugees who founded San Pedro were among those who fled the Province of Bacalar sometime before the city fell to an army of Maya insurgents, the Santa Cruz Maya, led by Generalissimo Venancio Puc. Most of the people who settled in San Pedro probably came from a cluster of small fishing hamlets around the Maya ruins of Thlum north of the City of Bacalar. They were chased out of this area around the time of the discovery by the Santa Cruz Maya of their famous Talking Cross, a mysterious and awesome oracle carved of cedar (a wood sacred to the Maya) which spoke to the faithful through an 'interpreter' named Manuel Nahuat. The appearance of this cross at a time when the Maya were beginning to suffer serious military and other setbacks, transformed the insurgency into something of a Holy War and thereafter the utterances of this Talking Cross guided the struggle of the doomed but tenacious Maya.
The refugees from the Guerra de Castas fled mainly south to the sanctuary of northern Belize where the British authorities gave them protection and encouraged them to settle. This was done in the hope that the refugees would eventually establish an agricultural settlement in the Corozal region and thus provide the lumber camps with an alternative source of foodstuffs now that the supplies through Bacalar were no longer available.
This migration was the principal factor in the settling of northern Belize. The population grew from an insignificant few in 1846, to 4,500 inhabitants in 1857, to 8,000 in 1858 in the Corozal District alone. According to the official census in 1861, the population of the northern section of the country was almost twice that of Belize City and its environs.
The first permanent settlers of San Pedro arrived between 1848 and 1849. These probably consisted of the relatives of fishermen who had previously built fishing camps on the cayes and moved their families over to the safety of the island when the Santa Cruz Maya revolted. There were at first only four families, which were shortly joined by others from the area of Bacalar. The settlement soon grew to a village of about 30 houses and over 50 inhabitants.
The local British landowners could derive several benefits from this settlement of Mestizo refugees in northern Belize. The over-exploitation of the forest resources, coupled with a depression in market prices, had made logging increasingly unprofitable. The mahogany barons, who were also the major landowners, were eager for ways to supplement their incomes. Renting land to refugees was one such way. Additionally, with the Mestizos growing agricultural produce, the landowners could devote their African labour exclusively to forestry work, a task for which the British regarded the Mestizos as generally unsuitable. Finally, the presence of farmers inside Belize guaranteed a stable supply of foodstuffs free from the vagaries of political or military fortunes in Yucatan.
The settling of Ambergris Caye was typical of this general pattern. The refugees who came to live here had been farmers and fishermen in Yucatan, and continued these activities in San Pedro.
At first they were able to obtain leasehold land fairly cheaply. They paid a rent of about two dollars per year for a sizeable parcel to three brothers popularly known as Los Hermanos Bibbins (probably a Spanish corruption of the English name 'Bevans'). Los Hermanos Bibbins, whom the Mestizo settlers erroneously regarded as the owners of the land, were probably agents of Welsh and Gough, two Belize City merchants who were the actual owners at the time, having acquired title in 1842. In any case the three brothers were apparently very liberal in their rental arrangements with the refugees. When a tenant could not find money to satisfy the rental, they accepted payment in kind, such as eggs or chickens.
And San Pedro prospered. Before 1850 the villagers had elected an alcalde to lead the village. By that year, the settlement was considered important enough for Superintendent C. John Fancourt to recommend to the magistrate at Santa Elena in the Corozal District the appointment of a resident policeman to replace the alcalde.
The village was named San Pedro in honour of Saint Peter, the patron-saint of fishermen - an indication that from the early days of the settlement fishing formed the mainstay of the island's economy.
In general, life on the island proceeded peacefully, with the exception of an incident in 1851 when the Government of Yucatan sent a detachment of soldiers from newly retaken Bacalar to claim Ambergris Caye for Mexico. This attempt aborted and the Mexican threat was finally removed in July 1893 when a treaty was signed between Mexico and Great Britain recognizing Ambergris Caye as part of Belize.
In the interim the refugees had settled into the task of making a living for themselves with their fishing and agriculture.
The major fishing device of the time was the seine or large net, which was used extensively in the lagoons behind the caye. Seines, however, were expensive items and several fishermen, unable to afford them, relied entirely on hook and line. With these they managed to eke out a living barely better than subsistence.
Several villagers supplemented their income by growing milpas or small plots outside the village in places such as Habaneros and Barcell6n (Basil Jones). Apart from the usual staple crops such as corn and beans, sugar cane was also grown and a crude form of sugar, called panela, was made. This sugar was sold on the mainland and the proceeds used to purchase fishing supplies in Belize City.
The marine produce of the island was also sold on the mainland, the catch being taken to market in large covered canoes with holes cut in the bottom to keep the water circulating, called viveros. These were dragged behind the large fishing boats to the market place in Belize City and Corozal Town, and up the river to the logging camps along the Rio Hondo and into today's Quintana Roo. A trip to market would take five to six days.
The houses in the village were made mainly of local material. The site for the village had been selected not only for the fact that it was on high ground but also because it was close to the tasiste (palmetto thickets) which was the basic construction material. The palmetto stems were used for the walls of the houses and the leaves for the roofs, a type of construction which can still be seen today in the cabanas at various tourist resorts on the island.THE COMING OF THE BLAKES
This comparatively independent and ideal existence changed drastically after 1873 when several factors, economic and otherwise, combined to alter the life of the San Pedranos. Probably the single most important factor was the advent of the Blakes. In 1873 James Hume Blake, a British appointed magistrate and principal landowner in the Corozal District, purchased almost the entire island on behalf of his two stepdaughters, Romana Andrade and Maria Exaltacion Andrade.
Even before he bought the island, James Hume Blake had long been associated with the events that shaped the history of Ambergris Caye. The Maya chieftains who had driven the settlers of San Pedro out of Yucatan were personally acquainted with him. He provided the rebels - at a price - with the guns, ammunition and supplies they needed to sustain their revolt. This in itself was not exceptional: throughout the Guerra de Castas the British gave tacit support to the Santa Cruz Maya, and several of the most respected merchants in Belize profited from this situation by becoming gunrunners.
But if James Hume Blake was a gunrunner, he was at least a humane one. In 1858, when the City of Bacalar fell to the Santa Cruz Maya he went to great lengths to try to prevent a massacre.
Bacalar used to be a major centre of trade between Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula. This trade involved mahogany, logwood and food staples from Yucatan, in exchange for contraband English manufactured materials from Belize. As Belize's forest economy grew Bacalar blossomed. One historian notes that by the year 1846 Bacalar boasted "forty-three houses of stone and mortar, with flat roofs of solid and beautiful construction, three of which were two stories: rich and well-stocked warehouses, a beautiful church, a maritime custom house and a fine export trade in timber."
When this gem fell to the Santa Cruz Maya on 21st February 1858, many of the inhabitants managed to escape but several more were captured by the invaders. Sensing a carnage, James Hume Blake offered to ransom the prisoners.
One account of these events goes as follows: "The Magistrate from Corozal, Blake, who had commercial dealings with the rebellious Maya, pleaded for the lives of the prisoners, offering 2,500 pesos as ransom to Venancio Puc.
He was told, however, that he had to deal with higher authority, the Talking Cross, which by this time governed the people. That night Blake arrived as the Maya were congregating in front of the house in which the cross was kept. He listened to the prayers and the military music until about 11 p.m. when the prisoners were brought out and forced to kneel in the street. The cross demanded 4,000 pesos." Blake left for Corozal to attempt to raise the remainder of the money. He did not return himself, but sent a messenger with whom the Maya refused to deal. Shortly after, they massacred all the prisoners including 244 women and children. Only six children were spared, specially hand-picked by the chieftains from among the prisoners.
Therefore, when James Hume Blake purchased Ambergris Caye he was already well known, if only by reputation, to its inhabitants.
AN ISLAND FOR 625 DOLLARS
Mr. Blake paid 625 dollars for Ambergris Caye, a price that was extremely low even by the standards of the time. What may have accounted in part for the low price was that the sale was part of a court ordered auction sale of the property of Antonio Mathe, a deceased bankrupt who had once been a wealthy Belize City merchant. This sale ended an extended period of apparently quite intense speculation with the island.
The first group to hold legal title to Ambergris was the Belize Agricultural Company, which had been given a concessionary lease for the purpose of developing an agricultural enterprise. What exactly they cultivated is not clear, although it may have been sea-island cotton. In any case the company was not a success. It floundered and shortly afterwards, in March 1842, two gentlemen, Messrs. Welsh and Gough, approached the Superintendent and the Executive Council with a 'memorial'. The memorial set out that Welsh and Gough had purchased the 'Key of Ambergris'from a company known as the Belize Agricultural Company and that they had incurred other considerable expenses in its cultivation in the assurance that they would obtain a title from the Superintendent.
The motives underlying this belief are obscure. Up to this time it was the Colonial Office's policy not to grant freehold title to the island to anyone, as its ownership was a matter of dispute between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of Mexico. Regarded by the British as part of Belize, the island was, according to the Mexicans, an extension of the Yucatan Peninsula. It was feared that granting legal title to the land to British subjects would provoke a confrontation with Mexico. In any case the Superintendent seemed convinced of the truth of the application and complied with the request. Thus, on 19th March 1842, a Crown Grant was issued to Messrs. Welsh and Gough.
The island subsequently passed to one Robert Hume, who sold it in 1866 to James Mercier Putnam, William Standerwick Cary and a former Prussian General, Gustav Von Ohlafen, who is best remembered as the builder of the vaults in the Yarborough Area of Belize City used for victims of the Yellow Fever plague. The three gentlemen owned the prominent Belize City business firm of Putnam & Von Ohlafen Co., which subsequently mortgaged the island for 9,000 dollars to Antonio Mathe. After Mathe's death, the court ordered the sale of the land in an effort to pay his creditors.
The island was auctioned on the 13th September 1869 and the successful bidder at 625 dollars was James Hume Blake, as agent for Romana and Maria Exaltacion Andrade. The only land exempted from the sale was a lot given for the purpose of building a Roman Catholic Church in the Town of San Pedro.
From that day on, the history of Ambergris Caye is inextricably bound up with the history of the Blake family and the other families with which they were associated through marriage: the Parhams and the Alamillas.
THE BLAKE DYNASTYJames Hume Blake, the founder of the family fortune, lived originally in Rowley's Bight, Corozal District. Sometime in the late 1840s or early 1850s he married Antonia Andrade, a wealthy Spanish widow from Valladolid, Yucatan, who had a son, Jos6 Domingo, and two daughters, Romana and Maria Exaltacion, on behalf of whom Blake purchased the island.
It is not known whether the Blake family moved to Ambergris Caye before or after the death of James Hume Blake. By 1886, however, they were well established on the island. Registry records show that in that year Romana and Maria Exaltacion began disposing of a few small parcels of land. On 27th March 1886 they sold a piece between Punta Azul and Punta Palmero to George James Parham for one hundred dollars. On 10th February 1887 they gave the same gentleman a 21 year lease of the Robles and Basil Jones Savannah at an annual rent of twenty dollars.
George James Parham was an expatriate Englishman, a merchant and chicle contractor, who married Juanita Blake, one of the two daughters Antonia Andrade and James Hume Blake had after their marriage, the other one being Manuela.
Juanita and George James Parham had a daughter, Anita. Parham also apparently had an affair with his wife's sister. Out of this liaison was born James Howell Blake, popularly named 'Papa Blake', the best known member of the family.
Maria Exaltacion married Jos6 M6ndez, a Mexican with whom she had a child, Pastora. Yet, when she died at the ripe old age of 93, she left her estate in equal shares to James Howell Blake and Anita Parham. Both of them married into the Alamilla family: James to Elena and Anita to Elena's brother, Anastacio. Thus virtually the entire island ended up in the hands of the Blakes, Parhams and Alamillas. Maria Exaltacion did sell a few parcels of land to other San Pedranos and to the Government, which, for instance, purchased the Police Station Lot in 1885. But these were small sales and the only large ones were made to the Parhams and Alamillas.
These three families, and especially James Howell Blake, were not generous or even merciful landlords. They exacted high rents and evicted tenants on extremely short notice. The San Pedranos were resentful and many protests and petitions were addressed to the Governor. On 12th April 1932 a group of 52 villagers - including three women - led by Anselmo Marin wrote a complaint to the Governor, Sir Harold Baxter Kittermaster, for having "the island owned by one person." The letter notes that "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. Ma. Exaltacion Andrade de M6ndez conducts herself and her agents (James Howell Blake). Prior to that year, the inhabitants have been deprived of their rights; some have been expelled from lots they occupied and many taxed far above their means. In this state of things the feelings of the people were aroused and they 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. Exaltacion Andrade de M6ndez 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."
Whether the petitioners were in fact told this by the Governor or whether they misinterpreted what had actually been told to them is uncertain. Nonetheless, this mistaken notion that Maria Exaltacion's - and thus the Blakes' - title to the island was flawed (and perhaps non-existent) is current even today among San:Pedranos. The truth is, however, that Maria Exaltacion Andrade had an excellent and well-documented title to the land, which the Governor was unable to interfere with if he had wished to do so.
The letter continues in the same vein: "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 $10.00 when it was $4.00 when the place was ceded to Mrs. Ma. Exaltacion Andrade de M6ndez, but have been raised gradually and now we faithfully declare to Your Excellency that we can not afford to pay such sum taking in consideration the conditions of things at this critical moment." (The letter was written shortly after the devastating hurricane in 1931).
The writer then notes quite erroneously: "It has been proved that there does not exist in the Register Office any record wherein Mrs. Ma. Exaltacion Andrade de M6ndez could lay any claim over the Town of San Pedro and Ambergris Caye as her own."
The 52 petitioners conclude: "Wherefore, we beseech Your Excellency to extend your protection to us and 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."
On the 19th May, 1932, as may have been expected, the Acting Colonial Secretary S.A. McKinstry informed Mr. Marin and the other signatories that "having investigated and found legal title to these lands to be in order, the Government is consequently unable to interfere in the matter of charges." The matter seems to have died there, although the popular myth that the Blakes had usurped the land persisted.
By virtue of their massive landholdings, the Parhams, Blakes and Alamillas were able to control practically every facet of economic life on the island. They dominated, in particular, the industries which alternately formed the island's economic backbone: logwood, chicle and coconuts.LOGWOOD AND CHICLE
Logwood or tinta is a shrub-like tree (Heamatoxylum campechianum) which grows to about 30 feet with a diameter of about two feet. It was important as a source of dye used in the European wool industry. The dye was obtained by boiling the heartwood of the tree.
Around 1890 contractors came to Ambergris and employed San Pedranos to exploit the extensive logwood thicket on the Caye and on that section of the mainland called Bulkhead directly opposite to the southern portion of the Caye. The work was extremely hard. The trees had to be felled and then cut into lengths of about a yard each. It involved working in wet and
swampy areas infested by mosquitoes and doctor flies. The industry did not last long, however. The combination of falling prices, exhaustion of resources and more lucrative employment opportunities brought the logwood industry to an end by 1910.
Chicle became an important source of revenue for San Pedranos in the late 1890s. Chicle is derived from the sap of the sapodilla tree (Achras zapota) which is bled and heated to form the base of chewing gum. In the latter part of the 19th century chicle export provided considerable income for the entire country of Belize.
Although Ambergris Caye contained a significant quantity of sapodilla trees, the chicle industry did not become established until the turn of the century. In 1901, the rebellious Maya in Mexico were defeated by General Ignacio Bravo and the Mexican Army. The Province of Quintana Roo was then opened up and vast untapped forest areas, which had previously been under the control of the Maya, were made available for chicle production.
With the opening of these areas, massive infrastructural development occurred in the Quintana Roo area almost overnight. This included the building of a railroad, the establishment of port facilities at several points including Xcalac (a small town just north of Ambergris Caye), warehouses, wireless stations and boatyards.
San Pedro was in an ideal position to benefit from the newly opened chicle grounds. Just a short hop down the coast by boat from Quintana Roo and close to the Belize market place, the village became something of a boom town.
As the area to the north started to open up, first contractors from Mexico, then from Belize, and finally from San Pedro itself, started hiring the villagers as chicleros to work both in Quintana Roo and on the Caye. Boys as young as 13 years of age were employed. Sometimes men took their entire families to the chicle jungle camps of Quintana Roo. It is said that up to one half of the entire population of San Pedro was sometimes out during the peak of the chicle season.
The system worked roughly as follows: a company or wealthy individual who held a concession to bleed chicle in certain areas provided a contractor with funds to recruit gangs of chicleros. The contractor advanced the chicleros between $50 and $100 for the maintenance of their families while they were away and for the purchasing of tools and supplies. In groups of three or four men, the chicleros then went into the concession areas where they bled the trees and cooked the sap. The chicle they sold to the contractor.
Invariably the advances given the chicleros were not enough and they were constrained to buy provisions on credit or obtain cash advances. At the end of the season all advances and credit were subtracted from the value of the chicle delivered. Sometimes a chiclero ended up being unable to to pay his debts of the previous year. When this occurred the unfortunate man was compelled by law to satisfy these debts by working for the same contractor at the same prices the following year. Thus the industry developed a class of indentured labourers.
In San Pedro, since some of the contractors also owned coconut plantations, chicleros with unpaid chicle debts were sometimes put to work in the cocals to settle them. A policeman was stationed on the island at the turn of the century partly to insure that defaulting labourers complied with their legal obligations.
Apart from the hazards and vagaries of jungle life, the chicleros in the newly opened areas also had to contend with hostile Maya and many lives were lost in Maya raids. In this respect, however, the chiclefos from San Pedro had an advantage over their Mexican counterparts. The British in Belize had, during the course of the Caste War, given at least covert support to the Maya. Even after the war had ended, people from Belize, being British subjects, were accorded special privileges by the former rebels. The story is told, for example, of a San Pedrano, Manuel 'Gaitas' Tolosa, son of Don Julio Tolosa, a Spaniard from Nicaragua who is remembered as the person who introduced cattle into the caye. 'Gaitas' it appears, was captured by the Maya while working chicle in the Quintana Roo area. The Maya were about to put him to death when 'Gaitas' took out a small Union Jack and started waving it. Knowing of the high esteem in which the British were held by the Maya, 'Gaitas' had wisely taken the precaution of always carrying the British flag around with him. The Maya were suitably impressed and immediately pardoned him.
The Blakes and their associates, the Alamillas, found themselves in a particularly advantageous position in this regard, because of their longstanding friendship and association with the rebel chieftains. It is said that one of the Alamillas had contacts with General Francisco May, leader of the largest group of rebel Maya, and was therefore able to exploit the jungles on the mid to northeastern section of the Quintana Roo coast, which were inaccessible to everyone else.
The chicle boom continued up until the Great Depression of the 1930s when it collapsed as a result of the general economic malaise and the development of synthetic substitutes for chewing gum base.A COCONUT ECONOMY
From the 1880s until the 1930s the coconut industry became central in the economy of Ambergris Caye.
Coconut palms were brought to Yucatan by the early Spaniards by way of the West Indies. The new crop thrived in the Caribbean. The British Sessional Papers of 1847 observed that the cayes of Belize in that year were already covered with coconuts growing wild.
On Ambergris Caye, the trees were planted during the 1880s and 1890s by workers employed mainly by the Blakes and Alamillas as well as other smaller producers. The nuts were exported via subsidized steamer service to New Orleans in the United States of America.
The establishment of coconut plantations required a large capital outlay in order to clear the land, dig holes, gather seaweed for fertilizer and plant the seedlings. Thus the average San Pedrano participated in the industry as wage labourer rather tha as an independent farmer. The industry was org nized along the lines of a traditional plantation economy. It was controlled at the top by multinational such as the Belize Estate and Produce Company, which controlled the marketing and owned most of the plantations in the country.
Ambergris Caye's coconut plantations were owned mainly by the Blakes and Alamillas, joined by the Parhams. The three families controlled their plantations through managers. These had a relatively high standard of living and were considered a cut above the rest of the villagers. Under them were captains who worked on a permanent basis for monthly wages slightly higher than those of the actual labourers. The plantation workers were usually hired as needed and paid by the 'task' - work covering 75 feet by 75 feet - except when they were contracted for longer periods; then they were paid a regular salary
Once the coconut walk or cocal was established workers were still required to keep them underbushed, to pick, peel and deliver the nuts to the storage sheds on the waterfront from where they were shipped to Belize City. It was not an easy job. The labourers worked six days a week from six in the morning to six in the evening. Insects were a constant problem. Workers had to wear nets over their entire bodies, including their faces, even when the weather was hot and humid.
The coconuts were sometimes used to make copra. When this was done the process usually commenced at 2 a.m. The workers, usually women, cracked and shred the nuts in the wee hours of the morning so that the shredded coconut could be put out at the first light. Their task was not complete until the copra was dry and taken in sometime late in the evening.
Some cocals, such as Esmeralda, La Ensenada, Tres Cocos, Tesoro, Buena Vista and Punta Arena were close enough to the village for the workers to return home at night. Others such as Palmero, Habaneros, Punta Azul, Robles and Punta Piedra were too far away. In those cases, the owners constructed sheds to shelter the workers, who often took their entire families to the cocals and stayed a few weeks before returning to the village.
These workers took with them provisions for the length of their stay. They bought these on credit or by obtaining cash advances from the owners of the stores who also happened to be the owners of the cocals. These advances had to be paid back by the workers on their return to the village. Those who could not repay what they had borrowed were forced to return to the cocal to work off their debt. To do so, however, the worker needed more provisions, which he also obtained on credit, and the cycle of perpetual indebtedness continued.
The Blakes and Alamillas operated the biggest store or Comisariato on the island. Workers were given advances and paid for their work in coupons printed in various denominations by the two families. Only ten cents of each dollar's worth of coupons could be converted to cash. The workers thus had to do all their purchasing from the Blake Comisariato as the coupons were not accepted elsewhere.
The Blakes and Alamillas used all means at their disposal to prevent the opening of competing stores on the island. They used their influence to stop the issuing of licences or the extension of credit from wholesalers in Belize to would-be competitors. Since the two families owned virtually all the land on the island, those who had the temerity to attempt to open a store would soon find that their lease had been suddenly terminated. Their ownership of most of the boats that travelled to the island further strengthened their hegemony of the island's retail trade.
Wages paid during the early 1900s were extremely low, generally around $12 a month plus a ration of eight pounds of flour and four pounds of pork. A batch of 500 coconuts which could be harvested and husked for a labour cost of only 50 cents in San Pedro fetched $30 when sold in Belize City. On the other hand, low wages were offset somewhat by the low cost of living. Between a dollar and a dollar fifty could buy a week's supply of provisions for a single person.
The cocals on Ambergris Caye were ravaged and eventually ruined by successive hurricanes. In 1942 a hurricane destroyed all but six houses on the island and wreaked havoc on the cocals. Some were replanted, but nonetheless the industry fell into a decline from which it never recovered.
The final blow to the hegemony of coconut plantation agriculture on Ambergris Caye was dealt in 1955 when Hurricane Janet hit the northern portion of the caye. Again, some cocals were replanted, but by this time lobster fishing was providing a new and more attractive source of income for San Pedranos. Among other things, the coconut industry therefore suffered from labour shortages. The cocals were finally abandoned in the 1960s when rising estate values made the land more valuable for speculative purpose than for planting coconuts.LOBSTERS FOR 1 CENT A POUND Before 1920 spiny lobsters (Panuhrus argus) were considered trash fish by Belizean fishermen. The waters around Ambergris Caye were 'infested' with them and the fishermen complained when lobsters got trapped in their fishing nets. In a few years the position changed drastically: the spiny lobster became a prized catch, a valuable export commodity and the base of the island's economy.
The first attempt to establish a lobster export industry in Belize was made in 1921 by Captain R.E. Foote, a representative of the Canadian Franklin Baker Company, which was then one of the major exporters of coconuts. Captain Foote introduced the traditional lobster 'pot' used in the maritime provinces in Canada. He set up a small processing operation on a barge located near the south end of Water Caye and used the fresh water from shallow wells dug on the Caye to steam cook the tails in a boiler fired by mangrove wood. In 1925 he moved his operation to Baldwin's Bogue to be near more abundant lobsters grounds.
Foote's enterprise did not always go well, however. He had a reputation for severely underpaying his workers. The fishermen who sold their lobster tails to him received only I cent per pound. Aware of the high prices lobsters were fetching on the luxury markets abroad, the workers grew restive. The Annual Reports of British Honduras for both 1927 and 1928 mention labour unrest in Captain Foote's operations during those years.
The hurricane of 1931 demolished Foote's plant. By 1932, however, he had acquired another barge and moved his operations to the bay on the leeward side of Caye Caulker, the island immediately to the south of Ambergris Caye. There he set about training the local fishermen. Twenty-five women and 12 fishing smacks were employed to catch and process the lobster, and the business prospered until 1935 when it fell victim to the economic depression in the United States.
Although Captain Foote's operations were not a lasting success he did leave a permanent impression on the fishing industry in Belize. The lobster trap he introduced is still being used today, although with some slight modifications. Most important of all, he introduced Belizean fishermen to the export of processed marine product.
An American, a Mr. Stibbs, also made an early attempt to develop a lobster export industry in Belize. He set up in 1924 what is claimed to be the first cannery in Belize City and introduced the bully net, a more efficient method of catching lobsters. Nevertheless, his operations floundered within a year, and since then no attempt has been made to set up another cannery. The exporters concentrated, thereafter, on the processing and export of frozen tails.
The first freezer boats began to cruise the waters of Belize in 1934. The lobster were bought for about one to one-and-a-half cents per pound and taken to Miami. These early operations were, however, unsuccessful. It was not until the 1940s that the industry began to meet with continued success. In 1948, according to the Annual Report of British Honduras, two motor vessels equipped with deep freezers and a Catalina seaplane were catching and purchasing lobsters and other fish for export to the United States. By 1949, as a result of the increasing importance of lobster exports, the Belize Government imposed export duties. In 1950 a Government Fisheries Officer was appointed.
These early benefits attracted the attention of other business people and soon locally incorporated companies were offering higher prices for lobsters. B.H. Seafoods Ltd., co-owned by a Belizean named Guy Nord, began buying lobsters in early 1950. Another company, Caribbean Queen Seafood Ltd., operated three motor vessels which bought lobsters from the fishermen at the then unbelievable price of 10 cents per pound whole. San Pedranos claim that on occasions when price wars between these companies reached fever pitch, Alfonso and George Alamilla, local purchasers for Caribbean Queen Seafoods Ltd. in San Pedro, paid as much as 16 cents per pound for lobster tails.
As a means of ending the price war, a merger was proposed between the two companies. They approached the government for an exclusive export concession. The request was turned down, but the merger proceeded nonetheless. A new company, Colony Club Fisheries Ltd., formed and headed by Harrison Courtenay, a local barrister, acquired the operations of both companies.
Though it ended the price war between the two competing companies, this merger was not enough to stave off the encroachments of a third company: Del Caribe Fisheries Ltd., owned by American Ed Devorak. Eventually Colony Club sold out to Del Caribe and with that Devorak emerged as the dominant figure in the lobster industry, controlling the only two companies who had export licences.SAN PEDRO IN THE LOBSTER INDUSTRY
The villagers of San Pedro got off to a relatively late start in the lobster industry. One reason for this was that they were tied to the coconut industry and had little spare time for anything else. Another was that the island was outside of the area in which the exporting companies generally operated.
Their introduction to the industry came with the arrival of the freezer vessel BettyJean and the Catalina seaplane, which the villagers called 'flying boat'. Their initiation was not altogether pleasant. The lobster buyers paid between five and seven cents a pound for the lobster, but they were bought on credit. No money was paid to the fishermen until the buyers returned to the island after delivering their cargo to seasonal purchasers in the United States. At the end of one season the Catalina flew off with 4,000 pounds of lobsters and was never again seen by the villagers. To this date, the fishermen have not been paid for this last load and that has never been forgotten.
In the beginning lobsters were plentiful and easy to harvest. During the months of October to February, winter storms called Nortes or 'Northerners' passed through the area driving the lobsters before them. Lobsters then ran or migrated in such quantities that they turned the shallows red, their antennae waving like fields of tentacled periscopes above the turbulent waters. Some were even forced on to land. Fishing within a mile of the village, a skilful fisherman could in times like this take between 300 and 400 lobsters within a day. A catch of 1,000 to 2,000 lobsters a week was common.
By the mid 1950s, however, the lobster resources directly in front of the island had been exhausted and the fishermen were concentrating their efforts on a large area within a day's travel to and from San Pedro. This area was bounded on the north by the southern tip of the caye, on the south by the northern tip of the Caye Caulker, on the east by the Barrier Reef and on the west by Cangrejo Caye.
The exhaustion of lobster grounds near the island made it necessary for the fishermen to travel further away from the village. Their fishing trips then lasted between five to 11 days and took them to areas beyond the reef. This resulted in changes both in their method of harvesting and in the type of boat used. San Pedranos turned increasingly to skindiving to catch lobsters in the deeper waters. At first they had no masks or fins and were fairly successful. The period for which they could dive was severely limited, however, because of the irritation resulting from extended exposure of the eyes to saltwater. Fortunately, around this time an American arrived in the village and introduced the fishermen to masks and fins. Since then skindiving has been the hallmark method of the San Pedrano lobster fisherman.
Long journeys away from home beyond the protection of the reef also required larger boats than the cayucos - or dories - and small sailing boats the fishermen had previously found adequate. Before 1955, only two boats in San Pedro were over 20 feet in length. By the mid 1960s practically all the boats were more than 20 feet long, several of them over 30 feet. These boats were used to carry cayucos to the fishing ground. Once at the fishing ground the fishermen launched their cayucos and dove out of them for the lobsters.
By using the larger boats, San Pedranos were able to expand their area of operations. They fished extensively at far flung points such as Turneffe, Lighthouse Reef and the Blue Hole. They even poached illegally in the Mexican waters off Chinchorro. Then lobsters were plentiful and large, and the catch abundant. Tails weighing between four and six pounds were not unusual. There were few less than two pounds. In a four-day trip, a fisherman could reap as much as 2,000 pounds of tails. Today a fisherman is lucky if he can catch 1,000 pounds on a 10 day trip, and individual tails have become so small it has been found necessary to set a legal minimum of four ounces per tail as a conservation measure.
Just read the "history" of Ambergris Caye, quoted from Glenn Godfrey's book. A big mistake was made! The people who came right after John and Celi Grief were George and Beatrice Stefanko, and built the Ambergris Lodge in 1967. Jerry Mcdermott came later.How do I know this? I am one of the Stefanko daughters, and I remember very clearly when Jerry came here and purchased his property from Roger and Nella Reid. The Stefanko's were good friends with John and Celi Greif, back in Kentucky, and my parents first came here in 1966, saw what the Greif's were doing, came home and told us kids they were selling everything and moving to British Honduras and building a hotel. My father was well loved and well respected here. You can check these facts with a lot of San Pedranos, starting with Celi McCorkle. I've continued coming here almost every year since and consider it my second home. My parents sold the hotel to Virginia Theile (sp.) Should anyone else want to write a history of Ambergris Caye, please check your facts. Perhaps Mr Godfrey never met George Stefanko, and didn't check his facts. Too bad he never met him, he would have liked him also.
Although the income of the San Pedranos as lobster fishermen far exceeded what they could earn under the Blake-Alamilla coconut regime, it became evident to them that benefits would be greater if they could eliminate middlemen and sell directly to buyers in the United States. The difference between the rising prices on the international market and the stagnant price paid by local purchasers made this even more obvious.
The fishermen knew that, individually, they lacked the finances, the knowhow and the facilities to market their produce. Their only hope of competing successfully against the large companies was by communal production and marketing, and the vehicle for this was the co-operative.
The idea of a co-operative was not new. Since 1943 there had been a strong credit union movement in Belize inspired and led by a Jesuit priest, Fr. Marion Ganey. By 1958, there were 38 credit unions, three consumer cooperatives, a housing co-operative and 16 agricultural co-operatives in the country. Caye Caulker itself had an active Credit Union with 30 members and a share capital of $3,608.60.
It was in Caye Caulker that the first fishing co-operative was formed. This was not surprising, for not only were the fishermen in Caye Caulker more familiar with the idea of a co-operative, but they also had been in the lobster business longer than anyone else in Belize. They were more knowledgeable about the intricacies of the industry and of the external lobster markets.
One previous attempt to set up a fishing co-operative in Caye Caulker had been made by Fr. Ganey in the 1940s, in vain. Then in 1958, Caye Caulker's fishermen, through their representative to the Legislative Assembly, Louis Sylvestre, approached the then Registrar of Co-operatives, Henry Usher, with a proposal to form a co-operative representing 39 fishermen with a share capital of $662. At that point they applied to the Colonial Government for export quotas. The battle lines between the fishermen of Caye Caulker and the exporting companies were drawn, but then an unexpected event brought the conflict sharply into focus.
In 1960 the Customs Department announced that the lobster season would open on July 15 with purchasing to start on the 16th. On the 14th, however, the two purchasing companies, Colony Club and Del Caribe, both owned by Devorak, declared that although they would begin buying throughout the country on the 16th, they would wait until the 17th to buy from the fishermen of Caye Caulker and San Pedro. The announcement, made on the radio on the night of the 14th, was missed by the villagers. By the time they learned of it on the 15th, they had already caught large quantities of lobster. Since the fishermen traditionally set their traps well before the opening of the season to draw them on the first day, the first harvest is by far the largest.The fishermen were therefore in a quandary: without freezing facilities, their products would spoil if kept until the 17th, incurring huge losses.
It is not known whether Devorak's two companies made their decision inadvertently or whether it was a deliberate show of strength and warning to hinder the formation of a marketing co-operative. In any case, it was an act Devorak must later have lived to regret deeply. Rather than stoically accepting Devorak's decision as a matter of fate, the fishermen were spurred into action. They decided to confront him by sending their lobsters directly to Belize through the new unregistered co-operative. The ensuing battle between Caye Caulker's fishermen and the Devorak companies is a monument to the determination and courage of the co-operative's early founding members.
The first shipments of lobsters arrived in Belize City at around 2 a.m. on the 16th. Del Caribe accepted and paid 160 per pound for that and four subsequent loads. By the sixth shipment, however, Devorak apparently became aware of the situation. The ball was in his court. He either had to back down and hand the co- operative a victory or force the confrontation a step further. He must also have realized that he could not afford to let the co-operative win so easily. If he did not nip the movement in the bud now, it would end by destroying him.
So, on the sixth shipment, Del Caribe announced that they would be paying 10 less per pound. The fishermen approached Colony Club, only to be offered 20 less than the Del Caribe price. For the fishermen there was no backing down. They decided to boycott both companies. But what was to be done with the lobsters? They had no freezer facilities and neither did they hold an export licence.
Another American, Bucher Scott, offered to hold the lobsters in cold storage until the fishermen could get an export quota or a better price from Caribe. Furthermore, he lent them money on the security of the lobsters he held in his freezers. Thus, after making additional deliveries, the fishermen could secure enough money to maintain their families and to continue producing while keeping up the boycott.
Meanwhile, the two companies were hedging their bets by paying off members of the colonial government to prevent the co-operative from obtaining an export licence. Finally, however, the government relented and granted the licence to the co-operative, citing as the reason for their change of heart, the advice of a Canadian fishing expert who was then in the country.
By late 1960 the co-operative was able to export the 4,000 pounds held by Scott, and with the proceeds paid off their indebtedness to him. During the first year they exported 158,678 pounds of lobster tails worth $2,375 or about 170 per pound. They did even better in subsequent years. The Caye Caulker co-op had proved that they could successfully market their lobster to the United States, eliminating profiteering by middlemen and deriving a better price for themselves. San Pedro was not long in following their example.
There were two problems which the San Pedranos anticipated a co-operative could solve. The first, which they shared with Caye Caulker, were the low prices offered by the companies for their lobsters. The other one, unique to San Pedro, was related to scale fish, for which the companies did not offer a market. The heart weir trap used by the San Pedranos to harvest lobsters also caught fish in great quantities. The domestic market could not absorb all the fish and, with the glut, prices were extremely low. Mexico and Honduras could take only a small portion of the excess. San Pedranos then looked to the United States for a market for their scale fish, which they hoped a co-operative would help them develop.
Sometime in late 1961, four San Pedro fishermen decided that they would either start a co-operative in San Pedro or join the one in Caye Caulker. Every fisherman in San Pedro was contacted, although many were skeptical. After having done lone fishing for generations, the feeling of mutual distrust was deep. Twenty men finally agreed to join and a collective letter was sent to the Department of Co-operatives in Belize to notify them of their intention to start a co-op. The Department sent a man to explain the functioning and requirements of a co-operative. The meeting was never held, however, because on the appointed day, Devorak had his agent in the village distributing free rum and most of the fishermen got too drunk to attend. The process was delayed but not stopped.
A meeting finally took place in 1962 at Blake House, once a symbol of oppression. The co-operative was organized and members were selected to sell shares. These were sold for $60 each, with $5 down and 500 for a book to keep a record of the advances given to and the deliveries made by each fisherman. After 8 months, $1,800 had been collected and several meetings had been held to work out details of the new organization.
Peter Hancock, an American engineer who had immigrated to Ambergris Caye in the 1950's and lived on a cocal north of the village, gave invaluable help to the new co-operative both before and after its registration. He served as an advisor, wrote letters, drafted the co-operative's by-laws and consulted with government officials. Because he was respected, Hancock's wholehearted involvement in the co-operative encouraged several of the villagers to join in.
In March 1963, the San Pedro co-operative was registered with 50 members under the name Caribefla Producers Co-operative Society Limited. Some members put up their lands and property as collateral for bank loans to get working capital for the co-op.
After one unsuccessful offer to sell their lobsters to Apolonio Alamilla, they approached the Caribbean Queen Company, which agreed to purchase and export the lobsters under the co-operative's quota. A boat, either the Harriet or the Belisario, was sent each Saturday by the company to San Pedro, to deliver ice to the fishermen and collect the lobsters which the co-operative had purchased from its members. The lobsters were then taken to Belize City, processed and exported by Caribbean Queen Company.
The co-operative received lobsters from the members on the beach in front of the village. A receipt redeemable at the small co-operative office on the ground floor of a member's house was given on each delivery. Many members chose however to deliver their catch directly to Caribbean Queen Company in Belize, City and receive payment there. This had unfortunate results, as some stayed over in Belize City squandering their money in bars, nightclubs and brothels, bringing very little back to the village.
The arrangement with Caribbean was a good start, but the co-operative wanted to go much further. They had learned from the Caye Caulker co-op that they could get a much better price for their lobster if they processed, packed and exported it themselves. They approached Caribbean with a proposal for financing the establishment of a freezer plant. The company agreed, provided the plant was set up in Belize City. The co-operative found this provision unacceptable and the disagreement over the location led to a general falling out between them and the company. They stopped delivering to Caribbean and started dealing with a company headed by Apolonio Alamilla.
For a while, they toyed with the idea of organizing a Federal Sea Products Marketing Co-operative, an umbrella organization that would join all the country's fishing co-operatives. This idea aborted, and the members set about constructing their own plant on Ambergris. For half salary, the members cleared a site and started to set up a building.
However, freezer equipment and electrical generators were still a problem. They submitted a request for financing to Alamilla, who had been purchasing their lobsters for almost a year. Alamilla agreed but he too insisted that the plant be set up in Belize City. The fishermen could not accept.
Through 1964, the co-operative continued to export through local agents, which was extremely disadvantageous. The Department of Co-operatives' figures for 1964 show that while the Caye Caulker co-op sold their tails in the United States for $2.10 per pound, Caribefia sold theirs locally for only $1.04. Furthermore, because the local prices were fixed, they could not benefit from the rising prices in the United States.
On the positive side, Caribefia began handling conch and scale fish as well as lobsters. This gave fishermen an alternate source of income which was particularly important during the government mandated four months closed season on lobsters. Caribefia, with 152 members, was the largest of all fishing co- operatives.
Then in 1964 they got their lucky break. Jim Blake (son of James Howell Blake) brought an American named Adam Smith to the island. Smith lived in Miami, had a packing plant in Honduras and a small lobster business in the Bay Islands, and he needed more lobsters to fill his boats. Ambergris Caye, strategically placed on the road between the Bay Islands and the United States, was viewed as the ideal source for additional lobsters. He was not himself interested in setting up a processing plant. The co-op saw their opportunity to get the plant they had been wanting for such a long time. They proposed to Smith to supply them with the necessary equipment and materials in exchange for their lobsters. Smith accepted and signed a five year contract with Caribefia, agreeing to provide them with the generators, compressors, refrigeration equipment and building materials they needed. In return, Caribefia agreed to sell exclusively to Smith, who would recover this investment by withholding 20 percent of the value of the lobsters sold. Smith further promised to send one of his processing boats if the plant was not completed by the start of the 1965-66 lobster season.
The plant was ready by July 1965, but Caribefia had difficulties getting a government licence to operate it. They finally did get it, as well as two export quotas totalling 179,132 pounds of lobster. By October 1965, the new plant was not only serving the needs of the co-operative, but was providing refrigeration and electrical services for the entire village - a unique arrangement at that time, which would later be duplicated in Caye Caulker.
Smith paid between 750 and 900 per pound. In late 1966, after working for two seasons under the agreement, the fishermen found they could get a better price elsewhere. They hired a lawyer to look into the ways of avoiding the agreement. Smith did not put up a fight. He did not want to deal with people who were reluctant to work with him, he said, and he let the co-op buy out the rest of the contract. Caribefia was thus able to sign an agreement for better prices with Del Caribe for the years 1967-68.
The most evident proofs of Caribefia's prosperity appeared at its annual general meeting, which was the feast of the year. It took one month of preparations and offered the entire village a full 24 hours of celebration. Caribefia rewarded its membership with as much as a six dollar refund per pound of lobster, with some members totalling up to 5,000 pounds each. At Christmas, apart from hams, turkeys and apples, Caribefia gave the fishermen a third payment of about one dollar per pound of lobster. During the off season, all fishermen could enjoy a four month vacation and at Christmas, Santa Claus was truly generous.
Caribefia also tried deep sea fishing for scale fish, a short-lived project because of the lack of expertise and equipment. As the years went by, the co-op's production started a gradual decline due mostly to its inability to explore deeper horizons, over-exploitation and the use of obsolete methods. Skin diving became inadequate because of the scarcity of lobster close to shore in the shallow areas. As times became harder, more and more fishermen turned to tourist guiding, thus duplicating the problem. To top it all, one of Caribefia's managers ran away in 1984 with thousands of dollars from the co-operative, making hard times even harder. To this day, a reward is being offered for the culprit.
The scarcity of product and the growth of tourism have resulted in a fast decline in Caribefia's membership. The co-op no longer processes in San Pedro because operating expenses are too high. Today Caribefia counts about 80 producing members, only a part of which are full-time fishermen. The production for the fiscal year 1992-1993 was an all-time low of 18,000 pounds. Back pay and rebate incentives disappeared and more members are abandoning their ships.
U.S. Aid and the Fisheries Department launched a conch research project to determine if a conch hatchery could increase the conch population in the sea. The project, which only proved partially that this was possible, has been interrupted due to the lack of funding. Caribefia's possible revival is therefore the subject of speculation. It would take bold and visionary management, greater incentives and new horizons for an increased production. At one point in time, San Pedro enjoyed an equal balance between fishing and tourism. Today, however, tourism boasts some 200 tourist guides while the number of co-op members has dropped dramatically. Considering the island's growing population and fluctuations in the tourist industry, San Pedro's current situation is somewhat fragile.DEMISE OF A DYNASTY
The growth of the fishing industry - along with the subsequent expansion and taking over of tourism - significantly eroded the Blake family's hegemony over the island's economic life. Still, they continued to enjoy a dominant position as owners and landlords of the major part of the village. Their preeminence came to an end in the 1960s when the Government of Belize compulsorily acquired the land on which the village was located. After paying the Blakes compensation for the land at its assessed market value, the government then sold parcels and lots to the villagers whose families had in some cases been established there for several generations.
Another government acquisition of land to the north of the village in 1973 provided badly needed space for further expansion of San Pedro.
THE BIRTH AND GROWTH OF THE TOURISM INDUSTRYThe tourism industry in Ambergris Caye had its rather unpretentious beginnings in the efforts of a Scotsman, Jim Currie, who brought the first tourists to the island in his boat Pamelayne in the late 1950s. Soon after, Jim Blake and an American partner established somewhat crude accommodations for visitors in the south of the island, which were destroyed by Hurricane Hattie in 1961.
In November of 1965, the Premier of Belize, George Price, inaugurated the first hotel on the island, the San Pedro Holiday Hotel, owned then and still run by the Grief family, who a few years later established the first commercial flights to and from San Pedro. Today, three companies serve Ambergris Caye, and Tropic Air, managed by John and Celi Grief's son offers services to all of Belize and neighbouring countries.
In 1967, Paradise Hotel followed Holiday Hotel, and shortly after a group of San Pedranos got together to form the third tourist establishment in San Pedro: the Coral Beach Hotel Limited. Tourist accommodations started mushrooming all over the place, as several local entrepreneurs enthusiastically converted their homes into hotels or built small guest houses, all managed by single families who invited their guests to share their table. Visitors enjoyed this personalised atmosphere and family-style hotels became a landmark of San Pedro.
More and more fishermen began supplementing their incomes by serving as fishing and diving guides for tourists. Many San Pedranos gave up fishing as their main source of revenue and turned completely to guiding - a job that came naturally to them for it involved fishing, snorkeling and sailing. So, while fishing declined, the tourism industry prospered.
By 1970, the Coral Beach Hotel had established the first dive shop on the island. Victoria House was built, and the airstrip began getting a little more business. The tourist industry began to grow faster. For an account of this time, click here for Mervino's Hole in the Web.
Today, Ambergris Caye hosts some 13 dive shops, many offering full equipment rental and the services of qualified dive masters and instructors. Three-day courses provide the novice diver with theoretical and practical lessons in a safe underwater environment.
Other attractions include glass-bottom boats, jet skiing, hydro sliding and para sailing. On the island itself, visitors can enjoy beachcombing, horseback riding, bird-watching, basking in the sun or riding one of the many electric carts which are the main means of transportation in the town.
Besides a number of Belizean hotels with five to 10 rooms, Ambergris Caye also operates larger establishments, both local and foreign-owned. The tiny part of the island that is developed for tourism comprises 51 hotels, which provide a total of more than 700 rooms. San Pedro Town is also dotted here and there with a variety of fine restaurants with international chefs. Gift shops and boutiques have also blossomed throughout the town, displaying a variety of Belizean and Central American souvenirs.
Widespread nightly entertainment and regular cultural happenings complete the picture of a quiet and charming little town.
At the southern tip of the caye, a recent and successful project has been the establishment of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Covering a part of the reef, a shallow area, a beach and a mangrove area, Hol Chan ('little channel' in Maya) was declared a national marine reserve in 1987, thereby protecting its abundant marine life and making it an important spawning ground. A popular spot to dive and snorkel, Hol Chan provides visitors with a memorable experience as they come into contact with a large variety of multi-coloured fish and sea creatures.
With the continued decline in fishing, tourism has become Ambergris Caye's economic pillar and the San Pedro Tourist Association has some 200 members. The islanders nevertheless try to keep San Pedro an enchanting and welcoming spot for visitors, while retaining its local charm and hospitality.ISLAND CULTURE
As an island of immigrants, Ambergris Caye has adopted a diversity of customs and ways of living. Constantly changing, the island has embraced several cultural traditions common to its evolving population.
One of the island's great artistic institutions was La Banda de San Pedro. Created in the 1920s, La Banda was the result of a long-standing musical tradition in San Pedro. Two Mexicans, Amat6n and Toledo, were instrumental in the development of La Banda. Serving as musical directors, they were paid a stipend of about $2 a month by members of the band, a revenue which they supplemented by giving private music lessons.
In 1928 La Banda won the National Concert Festival held at Loyola Park in Belize City, beating such well-established city bands as Colonial Band, Imperial Band, Eureka Band and L.E.C. Old-timers from La Banda, for whom the victory is still a matter of great pride, credit their success to their masterful rendition of the piece 'La Boheme'.
The delights of La Banda's music in the 1920s no doubt provided San Pedranos with a relieving counterpoint to the hardship and suffering of a life of cocal and chicle servitude.
One set of cultural events on the island which attracted nationwide attention were the Mestizadas y Vaquerias. These centered around various important annual occurrences such as the leavetaking of the chicleros (when the celebrations were sponsored by chicle contractors), the feast of San Pedro on the 29th June, the feast of El de Esquipulas on the 15th January or the Day of the Cross on the 3rd May.
The San Pedro Fiesta, celebrated in honour of the town's patron saint, is a religious and cultural festival which begins nine days before Saint Peter's Day. On each night during that time, novenas - so called because they run for nine nights - are offered for the town's patron. Then at 3 a.m. on the 29th the town siren and church bells, along with firecrackers, herald the morning, inviting all of the island's boys and men to the Catholic Church to attend a mass for men only. Meanwhile, the women prepare coffee and sweet bread to be offered after the mass to the men and whoever else wishes to take part in the celebrations. Everyone who attends the early breakfast socialise to the sound of mariachi music until the time comes for the sea procession.
The sea procession on Saint Peter's Day is a spectacular event. One boat carrying the church's statue of San Pedro leads the procession, followed by hundreds of skiffs and boats carrying fishermen and their families. The vessels draw alongside the fishing co-operative, where a priest blesses the fishing boats and prays for the protection of all who live off the sea. Then a land procession takes the statue of San Pedro back to the church and the festivities continue into the night. The 29th June celebrations culminate with another procession held late in the evening with prayers and singing, which every San Pedrano tries to attend.
Another important annual cultural event involves the Carnavales, which are held from the last Sunday before Lent until the day before Ash Wednesday. A local legend says that Don Juan Carnaval, a very wealthy man with several wives and children, once threw a three-day party prior to Ash Wednesday to compensate for the abstinence to be maintained during the forthcoming 40 days of Lent. After his death, the village continued Don Juan Carnaval's tradition, holding cultural dances every year.
San Pedro has celebrated carnival since the early settlement days of the village.
Men, women and children dressed up and danced on the streets celebrating a
variety of themes. Some of the dances that developed from the carnivals are: la
Jarana, el Zapateado, el Torito, el Negrito, los Indios, los Arabes and las
Estudiantinas. Men delighted in dressing up like women, bringing much humour
and entertainment into the dances, called comparsas. Current events, such as a
scandalous pregnancy or a theft, and criticisms of local and world leaders and
politicians were also used as a source of inspiration for other dances. With the
island's evolution and the appearance of a variety of new groups, San Pedranos
incorporated new themes to the comparsas, such as: los Americanos, los
Garifunas, los Hippies, los Cubanos and el Flamenco. Furthermore, each dance had its own theme song composed by one of
the musical maestros of the island. Translated from Spanish, these songs typically
will go something like this:
"We are the Chinese,
Paintings depicting different ethnic and cultural groups also gave way to mass
painting on the streets during Carnival days. Water paints, lipsticks and other
make-up are used in this game and everybody is at risk of having colour splashed
on them when walking on the streets of San Pedro during this festival.
From the gate of Shanghai
We come from Asia,
To dance in the Carnival
We are the happy Cuibans,
We come here to dance
With the pretty San Pedranos,
In the Carnival
We are good bullfighters
Of worId-wide fame
We have a very angry bull
Now we are going to bullfight.
More recently, Garifuna Settlement Day, which commemorates the arrival of the Gariganu to Belize in the 19th century, is also celebrated. Following the examples of Dangriga, Punta Gorda and other places throughout the country, San Pedro hosts a re-enactment of the arrival of the Gariganu refugees on the 19th November each year. Garifuna dances and punta music fill the streets, and shows staged at the various hotels give Garifuna Settlement Day an air of festivity.
Independence Day, a patriotic and civic celebration held on the 21st September throughout Belize, also gives rise to festivities in San Pedro. At midnight on the eve of Independence Day, the Mayor traditionally salutes the flag and leads the gathering into the Independence cheer at a colourful yet solemn ceremony. Shows at Central Park, pageants, cultural dances and other performances come to commemorate the day Belize became independent on the 21st September, 1981.
Two annual festivals have been put up in more recent years, mostly prompted by the development of tourism but bound to become popular traditional events. A Seafood Festival is held around Thanksgiving in November. Sponsored by the local tourism association, this fair gives local businesses the opportunity to advertise and sell their products and services, attracting many tourists and San Pedranos who long to sample the island's seafood delights.
In the summertime, the local chapter of the Chamber of Commerce organises the Sea and Air Festival, adding an international cultural flavour to the usual advertising, food, drinks and giveaways. The festival lasts five days, each of which is hosted by a different country, such as Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and of course, Belize. The showgrounds host music, folklore dances, food, pageants, speeches and typical drinks from the various countries. Belize closes the festivities with a colourful evening parade, which includes a grand marshall and floats. A diversity of contests, games, competitions and prizes completes the celebration.
Apart from these regular celebrations, cultural life in San Pedro is expressed by other artistic manifestations. The island has several art galleries which promote the work of local and national artists.
Finally, another fundamental element of Ambergris Caye's culture is food. San Pedranos have inherited from their Mestizo ancestors a liking for dishes such as tortillas and beans, chilmole, mole, escabeche, relleno and tamalitos. With the growth of tourism and the introduction of television, the islanders now also look forward to their Thanksgiving turkey and enjoy Chinese, Italian and American cuisine at the town's restaurants.PARADISE WITH A FUTURE
Ambergris Caye has a past full of contrasts. The Maya who settled throughout the island and developed an economy based on trading and exploitation of the marine resources had practically nothing in common with the pirates who succeeded them, or with the British agriculturists who marshalled their slaves in a futile attempt to convert the island into a cotton plantation. And, of course, all these were distinct from the Mestizo refugees who fled the war in Yucatan for the tranquility of the caye.
Conditions in the island have also differed greatly from time to time. The way of life of the first permanent residents of San Pedro was quiet and unpressured. The villagers fished, farmed their milpas and tended their chicken and livestock with almost no outside interference. They had brought with them their Yucatecan culture and customs, their diet of beans and tortillas, their simple homes of thatched roofs and walls plastered with white lime and mud.
Then the unexpected advent of the Blake Dynasty radically changed the life of the San Pedranos. Overnight they found themselves without any legal rights to remain on the land they had lived on and farmed for several decades. From independent small fishermen and farmers they became wage labourers working for a triumvirate of ruling families in a succession of new industries - logwood, chicle, coconut - their lives transformed into a grinding monotony, guided only by their employers' need to accumulate more wealth.
This was a time when ownership of almost the whole island was concentrated in the hands of a few people. Virtually any person on the island could be ordered to vacate, for the flimsiest of reasons and at a day's notice, the house in which he or she had been born, raised and lived all their life. This was the case of the local midwife, Desideria, who was ordered to dismantle her home because its rustic condition detracted from the elegance of the Casino which was being built on the lot next door.
Those were the days when a desperate bachelor such as Natividad Guerrero could get a bride from the transient Maya settlements at Basil Jones in exchange for a box of groceries from Belize City.
Life is no longer this way on the island, of course. The absolute power which the Blakes exercised over almost every facet of the villagers' lives has long gone. The erosion of this hegemony began in 1943, when the Colonial Government initiated the forerunner of the present day village council by appointing a small group of villagers to make recommendations on plans and projects for the caye. In the 1960s, it continued with the acquisition and redistribution by the government of large portions of the village to San Pedranos. Finally, it culminated with the growth of the fishing and tourism industries which allowed the villagers to break the Blakes' economic stronghold.
The growth of the fishing co-op had a profound effect on life in Ambergris Caye. The establishment of the co-op's headquarters and processing plant on the island kept the maximum amount of money circulating in the community and therefore significantly contributed to the overall increase in the villagers' standard of living. San Pedro, which was abandoned by several residents during the 1940s as a result of the economic depression which followed the devastation of the 1931 hurricane and the decline in the coconut industry, was by the mid-1980s one of the most economically affluent communities in Belize.
Today the island's prosperity is dependent on tourism. Innumerable job opportunities created by tourism and related activities have attracted people from throughout Belize and new immigrants from Central America mix with the island population. Although official figures reflect a population of about 1,200, it can be estimated that close to 4,000 people reside on the island, half of whom are new arrivals.
San Pedro's education system includes two primary schools, a private school, three pre-schools and a high school established in its own new building. At the latter, training for the tourism industry is offered, as well as ample preparation for higher studies. San pedranos can also receive medical care at the recently established clinic.
In line with world trends in communications San Pedro now boasts a T.V, station, cable network with 22 channels, fax machines and a telephone exchange system linked by satellite. A new desalination water system has been installed and will soon be followed by a second one. The island is extending a complete water and sewerage service, which will reach the new areas of San Pablo and San Pedrito.
Tourist accommodation is provided by over 50 hotels, ranging from small pensions to luxury resorts which can double the island's population during the high season. With the only hyperbaric recompression chamber in Belize, Ambergris Caye keeps up its reputation for being a diver's paradise.
What used to be a simple airstrip located at the south end of the town has grown to a small yet busy airport surrounded by houses and tourist establishments. Frequent flights from three airline companies link the island to various destinations in Belize, Guatemala and Mexico. The government has recognised the urgent need for a new airport outside the inhabited areas and plans are under way for its relocation. The island is also accessible by sea by the many boats which provide regular ferry or special taxi services to and from Belize City, a ride of about one hour through the numerous neighbouring cayes.
One of Ambergris Caye's most pressing concerns is the availability of lots for houses. Real estate has been subject to high speculation and prices for lots have become unaffordable for most Belizeans. Foreign ownership has helped to complicate the problem, making it difficult to obtain good lots for the future expansion of the town and to accommodate its growing population of 800 young people. In an effort to find solutions, the Town Board has set up a development project known as San Pablo. Some 200 lots have already been issued and sold at affordable prices and some 600 more are available for distribution and sale. An additional 250 lots will be distributed, mostly to young people whose needs are immediate, through a reclamation project spearheaded by the government.
With the continued development of the tourism industry, San Pedro and Ambergris Caye must carefully chart the course of its development. Close attention must be paid to the protection of the environment: the land and beaches, the sea and the reef, as well as the air. Ecology is threatened and it is urgent that San Pedranos develop an increased appreciation of the island's fragile environment and learn to respect and protect it in their daily lives. The passing of laws and development of conservation measures is also necessary. One step in the right direction is the creation of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. Following its success, Ambergris is considering other reef reserves, beach reserves - as in the case of turtle nesting grounds - and bird sanctuaries. The reef and its underwater beauty must not be taken for granted. Development and sea dredging can result in damage to the reef. Moreover, the water table on the caye flows out into the sea so that waste water and sewage disposal must also be considered carefully.
Ironically, it is the very vehicles of emancipation, the development of the fishing and tourism industries, which pose the most serious threats to the island's future. The caye's fragile ecology is threatened by massive and uncontrolled expansion; the resources of the sea are being rapidly exhausted; the village's sense of community and cultural identity has been altered.
Paradoxically, it is by turning back to their past that San Pedranos can find solutions to their problems in the future. Today, as tourism takes an ever increasing share of the caye's economic and human resources, as the villagers are submitted to increasing bombardment by foreign values, ideas, and influence, it is important that San Pedranos have a strong sense of their history, their identity and self-worth. A people cannot choose the circumstances in which they make their history, but they can become conscious of themselves and their past, and from that font they can attempt to draw this confidence, discipline and ideas to deal with their potential problems in the future.
In the past, San Pedranos have proved that they are resilient, resourceful and courageous. The problems and challenges that they face in the future are no worse than the problems they faced and partly overcame in the past. Given a continuing commitment on their part to finding workable solutions to their problems and a continuing belief in their own dignity and value, there is no reason why they should not succeed and no reason why the island should not remain, for many years to come, a paradise with a future equal in richness to its past.
Ambergris Caye History
by Glenn Godfrey
Courtesy of Cubola Productions, Belize