TO THE REVISED EDITION
My interest in the history of Orange Walk began with the
work done by the late Alejo Ayuso
back in the 1960’s. Since then I have
avidly read every primary and secondary source I have been able to locate that
dealt with Orange Walk. I procured
copies of documents from British Army Archives and from Archives in
The historical writing of Alejo Ayuso; both that which he published and those unpublished materials which he entrusted to me, have also been much utilized.
Writing a history such as this is a matter of
combining all these sources into one coherent story. I have had to decide, in some cases, between
two conflicting reports, and I have had to decide what to include and what to
omit. Throughout I have concentrated on
the story of Orange Walk and limited myself to those aspects of national
history which directly develop or illuminate that story. I have not, for example, presented a detailed
history of the Maya, nor have I developed the topic of slavery. These and similar broad areas have already
been amply treated by other historians whose works are readily available in
Despite the care with which the first edition was prepared and the widespread attention it gained, I have been surprised by the persistence of several glaring inaccuracies in various publications and in the minds of some people with whom I have talked. These errors center around the famous battle of 1872, which is the best known and most popular occurrence in the town’s history.
In writing the account of the battle, I made substantial use of two primary sources: the official account in the regimental History published in 1885, and the testimony of residents, taken down by the Orange Walk magistrate shortly after the battle, telling what they had observed. The latter material is in the National Archives. Both of these references are available to any interested reader.
Some of the more widespread errors: (a) Marcus Canul attacked the Forts in Orange Walk. The battle was fought in 1872 and the Forts were not built until 1874 and 1876. This is well documented. (b) Marcus Canul was an honourable man merely fighting for the rights of his people. There is an element of truth here, but one wonders if Canul himself perceived his role in this light. Remember that he is credited with many robberies, burnings, and pillagings, that he held people for ransom on several occasions and even killed his hostages, and that he and him men burned part of Orange Walk and looted some of the inhabitants in the process. This was no altruistic Robin Hood! (c) There was more than one group of soldiers involved. The so-called “Africans” were the enlisted men of the British West India Regiment (actually Jamaicans) all blacks. They were under the command of a British (white) officer. This followed Army practice throughout the Empire. The officers were invariably British, and the enlisted men natives.
A last note on the battle; if Canul did not attack the Forts, just what did he attack? The Regimental records contain a map of the battle site. This matches precisely an early map of Orange Walk, which I located in the Survey Office, and is corroborated by most of the oral and written evidence. The old barracks were built on a hill just in front of the present B.E.C. building. That was the center of town in those days and that was what Canul attacked.
In revising the first edition, I made use of newly published research on the Maya – notably the discoveries at the Cuello Site. I also rearranged several chapters with a review toward improving readability and corrected minor errors.
I would like to thank Fr. Richard Buhler, S.J. for his kind assistance with the first edition and for his encouragement in preparing this second edition. I am grateful to him and to BISRA for permission to use the final chapters which were originally published in “Belizean Studies”.
Based on recent excavations just outside Orange Walk (at the site called Cuello), the earliest residents of the area date back to 2500 B.C. These people cleared the virgin forests and, utilizing methods of advanced agriculture, which included raised, irrigated fields, planted their corn and root crops. Upon this early foundation was built the great Maya civilization in this land which they came to call Acalan – the land of the canoe people.
The classic period of the ancient Maya began around
325 A.D. and flourished for the next 600 years.
It was during these centuries that the temples seen around Orange Walk
were built and that the society and culture of the Maya reached their highest
point of development. It was then that
relative peace reigned in the various city-states, which stretched back into Peten and northward into
Around 925 A.D. the Maya civilization collapsed for
reasons that are still debated. In
The lives of the present-day Maya in the villages of Orange Walk District (at least a few years ago – before the advent of sugar cane as a major crop) closely resemble the way the ancient Maya lived. Then, as now, the milpa was the main source of work and corn the staple food. The area around Orange Walk was also famous in ancient times for its orchards of cacao trees and for its production of honey. Their homes, as they still are today in many places, were of sticks called “pimento” lashed together and plastered with white marl. The roofs were thatched with palm leaves.
The Maya settlement which stood on the spot where Orange Walk now stands was called, according to Thompson, Holpatin. Few traces of the Maya occupation are visible today. No important artifacts or burial sites have been found within the limits of the town. Whatever clues there might be lie buried under the streets and houses of modern Orange Walk. The extent of ancient Holpatin can only be guessed at, but two areas seem to indicate use by the Maya. The limestone hill on which the Post Office stands has pottery shards and flint chips embedded in the exposed side facing the river. Nearby is a steep hill in which have been found several openings or caves large enough to admit a man and going deep into the hillside. These are said to contain pots of some sort. Shards and pieces of flint are common in this area too.
There are scores of house mounds in the area of Petville and the excavations at Cuello nearby which show, when taken together with the other indications, that this area was fairly well populated by the ancient Maya at some point in time.
Why the Maya chose to build here is a matter for
speculation. Perhaps the natural
limestone ridges attracted them in the same way that similar ridges attracted
them to Pozito and Nohmul. Perhaps their choice was influenced by the
fact that it lies just about half-way, by river, between the important
ceremonial center at
This capital was called Chetumal and the state of Acalan was one of the League of Mayapan. This state was on the side of the Cocom family during the civil wars which enveloped the peninsula. It became a haven for the resisters of the Spanish when the northern states fell under their control.
When the Spanish made an attempt to conquer Chetumal between 1530 and 1550, some 200 warriors are
reported to have come down the
When the British logwood cutters arrived in the mid 1600’s they raided the villages which they came across. They attempted to enslave the Indians, but the Indians avoided them by moving to areas of the interior not under the control of either the Baymen or the Spanish to the north.
During the late 1600’s or early 1700’s another group of
people began to use this highway to the sea.
They came from
At first, the trees closest to the river were taken, since they could be more easily removed. As time went by, however, the cutters had to go further into the bush. The type of wood they cut changed over the years from logwood, used as a dye, to mahogany, used in making fine furniture.
When the woodcutters arrived at the area in which
they would work, they constructed a rough camp or “bank” where they lived and
where the stores were kept. The men
worked until November opening up rough logging roads to the trees and then
cutting the trees down. They returned to
At the bank the logs were squared off, marked with
the owner’s initials and chained together.
With the first heavy rains of June, these rafts were floated down the
river to the boom – made up of logs chained across the mouth of the river. There they were sorted out and loaded onto
ships for transport to
4. THE SPANISH PROBLEM 1730 – 1798
As the woodcutters spread out from
In 1730 there were several logging camps along the
Again in 1745 the Spanish garrison sent soldiers up
the river to destroy logging camps. This
time the settlers fled in their boats to the
After the last attack, in 1763, on the
1847 – 1867
The Icaiche and Santa Cruz Indians were Maya tribes from the interior which had felt threatened by the spread of Mexican control from the north and the invasion of their lands by the Baymen from the south. Thus caught in the middle, they fought back in various ways, under different leaders and with varying degrees of intensity for over fifty years.
During the War of the Castes, the Indians obtained a large part of their guns and ammunition from the British colony. This practice, through strongly protested against by the Mexican authorities, continued through out this period and substantially enriched the merchants engaged in this trade. Several Orange Walk firms, including that of Escalante and Company, did very well.
Marcus Canul, an Icaiche chief, can be credited with bringing the war across
the border. He was encouraged by a
Mexican government decree in 1864, which claimed this area for
Canul’s first action was his capture of the logging camp called Qualm Hill in 1866. He held the inhabitants for $12,000 ransom, but later released them to the British representative Mr. Von Ohlafen for $3,000 at Corozalito.
The first of these, in September of 1866, was led by Captain Delamere. This small
group found itself vastly outnumbered and it retreated. The second expedition at the end of December
was commanded by Major MacKay. This
detachment was ambushed just before reaching the
Naturally, all this military activity worried the
people of Orange Walk, especially in light of the British rout. Appeals were made for more help and
reinforcements were sent to the colony from
In early 1867, Canul
The years between 1867 and 1872 show a steady
decline in preparations for battle and in provisions against attack. Even as early as April of 1868, not long
after the burning of San Pedro, the townspeople seemed not to welcome the large
garrison in their midst. Lieutenant-Colonel
Harley complained to his superiors in
The same month, a disastrous fire, accidentally started by Commissariat Issnor’s wife while she was cooking, burned down the barracks, the police station, several nearby houses and part of the surrounding stockade. The barracks had been in poor shape anyway, with a roof that leaked and a dirt floor that flooded when it rained. After the fire, the soldiers had to camp in tents on the parade grounds and they also camped in the nearby Catholic chapel. The stockade was not rebuilt but the barracks was. This new building stood about 30 yards from the river on a hill (in the vicinity of the present B.E.C. building.)
In 1870, taking advantage of the withdrawal of some
of the soldiers from Corozal, Canul
and his men “captured” that town without a fight. This and the occasional word that the Indians
were passing nearby, showed that he was still
active. During this time also, the
British Honduras Company was attempting to remove the Icaiche
Indians from their lands. The Jesuit
priests who served the villages of San Pedro and
Orange Walk in 1872 was a small town of about 1,200. The population was made up of Creole woodcutters and Mestizo small farmers (milperos) or storekeepers, with an upper class of English managers and government officials. The town centered on the parade grounds near which was located the catholic chapel and the five buildings of the First West India Regiment. The barracks was twenty by sixty feet in size and had the two ends partitioned off. It had a thatched roof, “pimento” and stick walls, and a board floor. The thirty-six men of the garrison lived in this building while the officer and doctor had their quarters on the other side.
To the west of the parade ground, the shops and houses were located without much regard for orderly streets. On either side of the barracks were also several thatched houses. (See map).
A word about firearms would add to an understanding
of how these battles were fought. The “
When the peaceful morning was shattered by the fierce screams of the attackers, punctuated by the noise of their rifles, the people of Orange Walk must have realized immediately what was happening. For the wealthier residents, like Don Pancho Escalante, with strong houses, ammunition and guns, making a stand against them would have been the obvious choice. But the poorer inhabitants could only get out of the way as quickly as possible. Most grabbed what they could and took the bush. Some women and children escaped by paddling dories across the river and then walking through the bush to San Estevan.
The Indians moved in from three directions. One group, coming in from the west, attacked the houses and stores. The other two groups converged on the barracks; one taking up a position on the southeast side, behind the piles of logwood and in the houses there, while the other took cover in the houses to the southwest, making especially good use of a stone house that stood on the corner.
The only warning the soldiers had was the sound of lead balls rattling against the walls of their barracks. Lieutenant Graham Smith and Staff Assistant Surgeon Edge were taking their Sunday morning baths at the time in the Officer’s Quarters to the west of the barracks. They barely had time to run to the barracks and were fired at on the way. The lieutenant had pulled on his trousers, but Doctor Edge was “in a state of nudity”.
The lieutenant reported, “at about on September 1st, I was bathing when I heard the report of a gun and the whiz of a bullet along the road running past the south end of the barracks room. I looked out the door of my house facing the barracks and saw the corporal, of the old guard, which had just been relieved, running towards me. He said, ‘ The Indians have come. ‘ I repeated this to Doctor Edge, who was living in the same quarters with me, then put on my trousers and ran across to the barrack room and got the men under arms as quickly as possible.”
The only soldiers with ammunition at that point were those on guard duty. The rest of the ammunition was in the portable magazine in the guard-room. Unfortunately, in his haste, the lieutenant had forgotten the key to this chest, so he and Sergeant Edward Belizario had to brave the enemy gunfire to run across to his house to get it. It was something of a miracle that both of them arrived back at the barracks unscathed.
Nor was this their only problem. The guard-room could not be entered without going outside. Sergeant Belizario volunteered once again to go out and to try to bring the magazine around. He managed to drag the heavy box about halfway back, but he could not get it any further. He then had to open the box where it was and pass the ammunition bags over the wall to the men inside, all while being shot at by the Indians. Even though the magazine was hit many times ( it was afterwards described as being “starred with white splashed of leaden bullets”) he reaches safety without a scratch on him.
The barracks had not been constructed for use as a fort. The enemy bullets came right through the walls. The soldiers had to use their iron bedsteads for additional protection inside. Even so, fully one third were wounded during the battle and one man was hit four times. Afterwards over 300 bullet holes were counted in the walls and in some places even the thatch had been shot away.
Private George Bidwell was the only soldier who had not been able to reach the barracks before the siege began. He had just been assigned to duty at the stores shed and fought from this position until the Indians took over the buildings. He then used his bayonet on one of them and made a run for Escalante’s yard. From there he fired at the Indians until his ammunition ran out. He informed Don Pancho that he was going across to the barracks for more and was fatally shot on the way. Driving off the Indians, but their elation was tempered by the sight of the burned and looted houses and stores, and the number of dead and wounded. Then too they had no way of knowing if or when the Indians would return. The next day, in fact, the rumor was spread that the Indians were on their way back. The people were ready for them this time, but the rumor proved false.
A message for help was sent to
In the years following the battle with Canul, despite the news of his death and the declarations of peace made by his successors, the chief concern of the people of Orange Walk was protection from Indian attack. Within four years, Orange Walk had been fortified by two forts. These were built outside what was then the limits of the village. They were named after men who had served as Lieutenant-Governors during this period. (Major Robert Mundy from 1874 to 1876 and William Wellington Cairns from 1870 to 1874)
The old courthouse, shown on the map of 1887, served well up into this century when the new one was built. It had living quarters for the magistrate upstairs, and the courtroom downstairs.
The Police Force that manned this fort numbered 17
men in 1882 with one, Robert Wallen, having been on
the force since 1863. (When he retired in 1888, he ran the ferry named the “Scoro” which operated across the
Before 1880, the Sergeant of Police was also the Postmaster. He complained that the two jobs were too much for one man to handle with the result that a Mr. Smith was appointed that year as the first Postmaster in Orange Walk.
The northern part of this perimeter was used as a parade grounds and was faced by three barrack
buildings, and St. Peter’s Anglican Church.
This field, now used for football, is still called “the barracks”. When it was active,
10. THE TOWN
In 1881, Orange Walk was established as a separate district from Corozal. The population had risen rapidly during the years preceding and following the battle, adding a large number of Mestizo “Yucatecan” to the previously Creole and white population. This appears to have caused some conflicts as the Lieutenant-Governor expressed his concern in 1873 that the two groups learn to live together in peace. Another letter to the Governor from the police noted that although the Creoles would help the police, the Yucatecans would not.
The growing town of
The main occupations of the townspeople during these years were logging, chicle gathering, milpa cultivating ( or subsistence farming) and ranching which included the raising of cattle and of sugar cane for rum. These occupations tended to be limited to one class of people. The ranchers, the upper class, were of European ancestry either refugee Spanish, local English or Confederate American. The merchants were also in this group. The logging workers were, and still are, largely Creole while the milperos were Mestizo or Indian in background.
One of the biggest employers in the District was the
Belize Estate and Produce Company, which had been formed in 1875 from the
former British Honduras Company. This
company owned vast tracts of timber land along the
The dramatic influx of Spanish and Mestizo
Catholics met with a corresponding increase in the activity of the church in
Orange Walk. Although
the people of the
Father Parisi was replaced
by Father Chiarello, S.J. who served for two years. Father P.J. Piemonte
replaced him and served as pastor until 1886 when he returned to
Father Pastor Molina was a Yucatecan priest sent north because he could speak Maya. He served this area from 1885 to 1890 and made visits to the Icaiche tribes across the border. The Register he kept shows that he traveled almost constantly.
Father Piemonte came back
and worked in various parts of
The turn of the century and the unveiling of the
monument was celebrated by people from all over the
area at an outdoor Mass at on
Father Muffles was assigned to
Before the construction of the road to
The earliest mention of larger vessels traveling the river
is that of the launch sent by the Governor following the battle in 1872. A boat called the “Pioneer” was in regular
service in 1875, and might have been one of the first to run the regular route
The turn of the century ushered in the golden age of the
northern steamers. One of the earliest
boats of this period was an unnamed one owned by Katherine A. Leitch. This
eighty-foot steam vessel carried ten cabin and forty deck passengers. The "“Egarton”
(a 114 foot, twin-engined vessel) was licensed in
1914 and the “Star” (a two-decker) was licensed in
1916. The “Star” took a day and a half
Besides carrying the mail and passengers, the river
steamers brought in to Orange Walk; rice, boxes of condensed milk, drums of
oil, kegs of butter, candles, salt,
flour, barrels of pork and pigtail, and (carefully packed into barrels) bottles
of Chavannes Lemonade; the real “Afri-Kola”
for which the boat was named. It carried
back to the City: chicle in blocks (each stamped with
the owner’s initials) corn in sacks, green avocados and ripe pineapples,
oranges, bananas, and watermelons from San Estevan. From the mill of J.W. Price came brown sugar
in 100 pound sacks. From
Spectacular scenes brightened up the years between 1900
and 1939, not the least of which was the destruction by fire of the “City of
Long time residents mention two other boats as traveling
Orange Walk was also the terminal for another fleet of boats – those operated by the Belize Estate and Produce Company in its logging operations. Two of the earlier company boats were the paddle wheeled steamer “Don Felipe” of 24 tons (registered in 1890) and the “Alpha” a stern paddle-wheeler in service about the same time.
The “Ella” was a motor schooner of 59 tons, registered in 1903 by the Belize Estate and Produce Company, which later sold it to the Escalante family of Orange Walk. It was used to haul out logs and after it had outlived its usefulness, it was driven up a creek in the vicinity of Trial Farm and burned.
Following is a partial list of references for this book. Published articles, books, archival materials, and Survey Department maps are listed, however, I have made no attempt to list unpublished materials or the results of my own interviews and investigations.
Note: N.S. stands for the BISRA publication “BELIZEAN STUDIES” once called “NATIONAL STUDIES”
Archival materials: various letters and reports from Orange Walk 1800 to 1872.
Licenses 2120 (b) 275, 278, 233, 236.
Police Force correspondence (fol. 337)
Frontier Guard R 119 (a) Fol. 156
Blue Book publication for 1858
Bradley, Leo. “The Last Fight” N.S. 1973
BRUKDOWN Magazine Special History editions Number 6/7
(1979) Number 8 (1978)
Buhler, R.O. “The Icaiche of
Buhler, R.O. HISTORY OF
Burdon, Sir John. ARCHIVES OF
Dobson, Narda. A HISTORY OF
Edge, J. Dallas, M.D. (reports in Archives)
Ellis, Major A.B. THE HISTORY OF THE
REGIMENT, Chapman & Hall,
Haylock, John. (report in Archives)
Hulse, Gilbert R. “A History of
Nievens, Mary B. “El Pozito; A late Classic Site” N.S. Vol 3
Price, J.W. (report in Archives)
Quirarte, Jacinto. “Wall Paintings at Santa Rita” N.S. Vol 3,
Reed, Nelson. THE CASTE WAR OF
Sears, Stephen. HORIZON HISTORY OF THE BRITISH
EMPIRE, Time-Life Books
Survey Department: Sketch Plan of
Map of Orange Walk (undated)
Thompson, J.E. THE MAYA OF
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