Most persons within their life-span set limits as to what they can achieve. One man who lived his life without limits, and whom I refer to as a ‘limitless patriot’ was Monrad Sigfrid Metzgen. He did not limit himself on what he could accomplish in life, because he was always aware that all things are possible for those who believe.
Belize has had its share of patriots who have really loved their country, and have exhibited it tangibly to upkeep the pride of the country. There are some patriots, however, who have not been fully recognized for their achievements, mostly because they have not been as vocal in the opinions expressed about Belize. One such person might well be Monrad Metzgen, whom I describe as a stalwart patriot who spanned both the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. He was born in Belize in 1893 and died in 1956. During his lifetime he discovered and appreciated what it meant to be a real and sincere citizen of Belize.
I took up a commission by the Metzgen family, represented by Humphrey and his wife Gilly Metzgen of Barbados, to research and write the story of Monrad Metzgen, Humphrey’s father. I shared their sentiment that his heritage had to be preserved and honoured, and so I sought to document the nature of the man and his many contributions to Belizean society.
Within a volume of just over 100 pages entitled The Monrad Metzgen Story: Tribute to a Belizean Patriot, which will be launched at the Leo Bradley Library in Belize City on the 18th of October 2019, I have chronicled his various involvements in Belize’s history.
In civil society Monrad Metzgen served as a member of the Fort George Hotel Committee, the Belize Electricity Board, and the Belize Town Board; and as president of the Jockey Club, and the Eureka Band of Stann Creek. His career in the civil service spanned a period of 29 years, during which he served as a prison clerk; an Internal Revenue Officer; Chief Income Tax Collector; Treasury Superintendent; and District Commissioner in the districts of Orange Walk and Stann Creek. It was while he was in Stann Creek that he suffered a near-fatal railway accident in 1935, being nearly crushed to death. Although he lost an eye and suffered greatly, his survival was attributed largely to his amazing constitution and his indomitable courage.
In the agricultural field, as a member of the Agricultural Advisory Committee he convened in 1927 an Agricultural Conference in Belize Town. He founded the British Honduras Agricultural Society, and staged agricultural and industrial exhibitions in 1928 and 1931. He created the Agriculture Department in 1929. In advocating the necessity for the development of agriculture, his mantra was “Grow what we eat and eat what we grow”. Such a pioneering spirit invariably helped agriculture and agribusiness to be integral parts of Belize’s economy today.
Monrad Metzgen was always a military man with a military bearing, as in his early teens he joined the British Honduras Mounted Infantry. When World War I came about he attempted to join the War Contingent, but was not approved because there were too many civil servants that had already obtained permission to enlist. On the home front he rose through the ranks from 2nd Lieutenant in the British Territorial Force, to a full Lieutenant, and was promoted to Captain in 1931.
His marriage to Elsa McKenzie Weir in 1925 produced three children: Louise, Humphrey, and Frederick.
As a literary man he chaired the Belize Literary and Debating Club for 10 years. He authored the following publications:
• The Handbook of British Honduras in 1925, along with Henry Edney Cain
• Shoulder to Shoulder or the Battle of St. George’s Caye
• Blazing Trails on bicycles and motor cars in British Honduras in 1928. This was recently reprinted by the Belize Historical Society.
From 1941 to 1954 Monrad Metzgen served as secretary-librarian at the Jubilee Library on North Front Street. This was the fore-runner of the present Belize National Library Service. His administration of the library prompted it to be described as a promising literary institution.
A stint in party politics saw him as the Treasurer and then Assistant Secretary of the National Party that was formed in 1951 in opposition to the People’s United Party. His interest was not in politics obviously, as he did not contest any municipal or general election. What is clear, though, is that his drive for and commitment to the goal of social and economic improvement of his countrymen was independent of the political structure. In this regard, he may have seen self-government as a necessary, though not a sufficient step, towards independence.
When Charles Lindbergh landed in Belize on 30 December 1927 at the Newtown Barracks in his airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, Monrad Metzgen was commissioned by Governor Sir John Burdon to lead a welcoming committee. So adept was he at planning and organizing, he made Lindbergh’s visit to Belize a virtually flawless experience. When Lindbergh made his second visit on 4 February 1929, Monrad Mtzgen was again put in charge of the visit. At that time Pan American was inaugurating its mail and passenger service to the Caribbean, and along with Monrad Metzgen, Lindbergh chose the site for Belize’s first international airport, then known as Stanley Field, named after the British Secretary of State for the Colonies.
Monrad Metzgen organized the first Cross Country cycling race held in Belize in 1928. He was one of the 60 cyclists to participate in the race from Belize Town to El Cayo on 5 April. The cyclists returned to Belize Town on 8 April, and the winner was Elston Kerr in a time of 21 hours and 25 minutes. Monrad Metzgen, who documented the event in his book Blazing Trails on bicycles and motor cars in British Honduras, completed the race with a cumulative time of 30 hours and 32 minutes. His legacy to cycling in Belize is held traditionally as an amateur cycling race every Holy Saturday from Belize City to San Ignacio and back.
Like a good patriotic citizen, Monrad Metzgen was not afraid to display his pride of place, not with dress or flags and other ostentatious trimmings, but by becoming involved and taking leadership roles in national events and national holidays. His patriotism was timed in Belize’s history to coincide with those dates which let everyone know where they came from, and how proud they were of it. He founded the appropriately named Loyal and Patriotic Order of the Baymen, and was its first president. The L&POB, as it was popularly known, was an organization comprised mainly of ex-servicemen and pensioners, who had an abiding faith in the country’s British colonial connection. The annual celebration of the anniversary of the Battle of St. George’s Caye on 10 September was jointly sponsored by the Belize City Council and the L&POB.
Monrad Metzgen was the real mover behind initiating a Queen of the Bay pageant. He saw this pageant as a way to declare without any doubt the sovereignty of Belize. The person chosen as Queen of the Bay would represent an emblem of Belize’s aspiration for freedom and independence. The first Queen of the Bay to be selected in 1946 was Rita Lewis, and she was escorted by Monrad Metzgen as chairman of the St. George’s Caye Day Celebrations Committee. The pageant has become a tradition with a Queen of the Bay selected in a competition and crowned every year.
At the age of 35 in 1931, Monrad Metzgen was already regarded as a seasoned and highly respected citizen, who had been placed in critical situations which were entrusted to him because of his proven ability to perform with alacrity and resourcefulness. So it was that in the aftermath of the powerful category four hurricane that devastated Belize on 10 September 1931, the government gave Monrad Metzgen the responsibility for rescuing persons trapped, feeding those without shelter, and disposing of the dead.
Monrad Metzgen died on 14 May, 1956. Flags were flown at half mast, and an official funeral was held for him on 15 May. He had reached his limits at a relatively young age, and in his honour he had received the following accolades:
• An Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1946.
• Appointment as a Justice of the Peace in 1947.
• Posthumously, the Order of Distinction from the government of Belize in 2009.
In telling the story of Monrad Metzgen and his versatility, it is my hope that what is revealed will be a discernment of a pattern of his life and work, giving those who choose to read the book a glimpse into a relationship between an illustrious career and the growth of his character.