Imagine Ambergris Caye in the middle of the nineteenth century, an entire island covered with bush, mangroves, swamps and salt water lagoons. There might have been a few adventurous squatters along the beach, but for the most part it was an island for pelicans and frigates, deer, peccary and gibnut, land crabs and hermit crabs. The Barrier Reef, an unbroken chain of white surf was infested with bountiful colors of fish, small and large, and lobster and conch were abundant along the shallow patches of seagrass.
Then the Guerra de Castas, The Caste War or War of Classes. The refugees who founded San Pedro were among those who fled the Province of Bacalar before that city fell to the army of Maya. Here in Belize the refugee Mestizo were encouraged to stay by the British to provide labor in the lumber camps.
The first Mestizo arrived by canoe and the settlement was near the canal, later to be called Boca del Rio. They immediately built their thatch houses, an art that was second nature to them. Some took to the sea with hand line and seine net. Others took to the land to grow local crops of corn and beans. Others were immediately employed and taken to the lumber camps to cut mahogany and logwood. The refugees obtained leases from two Englishmen, The Bevan's Brothers, but who were called Los Hermanos Bibbins. Other persons leased the island but in 1873 Mr. James Hume Blake, a rich British landowner, purchased the entire island in an auction sale for 625 Belizean dollars.
The Blakes helped the villagers in some ways, apart from leasing them land. They employed the men to work in the lumber camps, then the chewing gum industry and then in the coconut industry. Though the work was very difficult and risky, and it required them to camp away for months at a time, at least the islanders were guaranteed employment. The only controversy was that they were paid with coupons which were redeemable or exchangeable only at the Blake's store. Others complained of the "not so generous treatment" by the Blakes as when a tenant was evicted at very short notice, but these relationships have always existed between the rich and the poor.
In a sense the freedom and independence as well as prosperity of the local villagers came with the advent of fishing. This job allowed them to be competitive and creative, and when business was booming in Corozal Town, our fishermen sold well and returned home with 2 or 3 hundred dollars in a week plus a load of fruit for the local home market. And when the fishing cooperative, Caribeña, was founded, then sales and rebates clung to world prizes with lobster tails going at 4 dollars to 6, 8, 10, 12, 14 and today 15 dollars per pound.
The story of tourism which started in 1965 is a similar story with rooms going from $30 U.S. a day to 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 and even 150 U.S. per day. And the guides' rates from 20 dollars a day to 150 U.S. per day.
A look at some of our difficult moments in our 150 years are the mosquitoes, lack of educational institutions, at least one epidemic, a world depression, at least 4 major hurricanes, and the introduction of drugs. Some of our joyous moments are the actual settling on Ambergris Caye, (1848) the lumber camp expeditions, the chicle expeditions, the planting of coconut farms, the establishment of agriculture, La Banda de San Pedro, the first primary school, the fishing cooperative, the famous Mestizadaa Festivals, the advent of tourism, the funding of a high school, the acquisition of land from Blake, electricity, telephone, airport, water and modem technology.One hundred and fifty years ago, the refugees were happy. One hundred and fifty years later, the San Pedranos and all the refugees are still quite happy. It is time to analyze the error of the past and press on to the greater accomplishments of the future. San Pedro and its environs are one unique and beautiful community, which has attracted so may beautiful people. Let us cherish it, mold and polish it, and if there is any element that needs to be thrown overboard, do it like the fishermen, throw it back into the sea. Long live the Mestizo, our proud ancestors. Long live San Pedro and Happy 150th Birthday to you.