Government House in Belize City, long ago
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Government House in Belize City, long ago

This gracious mansion was home to Governors and Governor Generals before it was converted to a House of Culture.

The Government House which was built in 1814 and located on Regents Street was built for Sir George Arthur. Sir George was an Aristocrat. It is said that he was authoritative, stern, smart, and dedicated all the qualities to be a Colonial Superintendent. He was the first Superintendent to live in the Government House after its completion. He chose the location and the design of the house. Needless to say the house was built to impress. Some people say the Government House was meant to be the Buckingham Palace in Central America. Sir George played a significant role in the Abolition of Slavery in the British Empire. After leaving Belize, Sir George became the Superintendent of the British penal facility in Tasmania, Australia. Where his predecessor hanged only two men, Sir George hanged 160 men. He not only hanged them, but he kept their bodies hanging for days. Needless to say, Sir George was an enigma.

A quick overview of some of the men who served at Government House

by Regent Albert

Today, the hussel and bussel of a bygone era of the property we know as the House of Culture or Government House has been silent for a while. As we near the completion of renovations and the start of a new chapter with that property, let us take a quick review of the men who called it home because whether we are pro or con Colonialism, men came, saw and tried to do what they were told to do.

History tells us that there were some forty-four (44) Colonial Superintendents, Lieutenant Governors and Governor Generals that served in British Honduras, all of whom lived at the Government House on Regents Street. After 1973, the Governors lived in Belmopan, however, continued to work out of the Government House.

Being a Colonial Governor in a small back of the woods Colony such as British Honduras was no joking matter, but many of the Governors did their best to serve the King or Queen for better or worse. Many Governors came from larger colonies before they came to British Honduras. It makes one wonder if they were sent to Belize as sort of punishment for something that they did, or did not do. I wonder what must have been their reaction when they learnt that they were going to spend the next seven years in British Honduras.

For most Governors, serving in British Honduras was just one leg of their distinguished career and they tried not to muddy the water, so to speak, while they were here. They may have focused on the honours and pension they would receive after they completed their tenures. Some of the “good” Governors were given larger more developed countries after they departed, some were given hell holes.

Many Governors found it very difficult to fit in with the inhabitants of British Honduras. One of the issues they had was that most of them had a military background and they only saw things in one way – the military way. It seems that Governors who were Colonial Secretaries before they became a Governor, such as Sir John Alder Burdon, were well liked and respected. This may have been due to the fact that Colonial Secretaries did most of the work for the Governors and they were forced to have better knowledge and relationships with locals. They had to be more familiar with the goings-on in the town or city.

In his book about British Honduras, Sir John Adler Burdon said that while standing at the wharf in England waiting for his contents to be placed on the ship that would transport him to British Honduras, an onlooker who knew the boat was to sail to British Honduras made a comment: “look, that poor man is taking along his casket “. It was comments such as these that described the general consensus of what Governors were heading into.

Some Governors met tragedy in British Honduras, such as Sir William Hart-Bennett, who died eight months after he arrived in the Colony. His life abruptly ended when a flagpole from a building struck him in the head during the fire of 1918. Then Sir Cornelius Alfred Maloney, who had persuaded his wife to accompany him to British Honduras, lost his wife to Yellow Fever. He took it really hard. And there Sir Ernest Bickham Sweet-Escott whose daughter Sarah also died from Yellow Fever. She was buried at the Yarborough Cemetery.

Most Governors that came did not try to “raack” the boat, so to speak, they tried to walk that middle line, staying in good relationship with the locals while carrying out the requests of Whitehall, London. Some were terrible such as Roger Tuckfield Goldsworthy (1884-1891), who the locals really hated because he did some underhanded things and was directly responsible for causing one of the Yellow Fever outbreaks. To make a long story short, he allowed the canals to be dug and the refuse left on the side of the canal which eventually caused the deadly outbreak. It seems that all of this was done so that a colleague could obtain a large contract. They said that on the day he departed from Government House at the end of his first tenure there was music and dancing. The British Hondurans were in the sea in front of Government House taunting him and throwing all kinds of stuff at him. It was said that all he did was turn around and gave the assembly the finger/bird. To make matters worse, after all of that, Whitehall sent him back to British Honduras for another tenure, I wonder how that reception must have gone down?

Not all Governors were “bad”, some were “terrible”; however, some were “good”- as good as “good” could be. An example of a “good” Governor was Frederick Palgrave Barlee (1877 to 1883). Dr. Frederick Gahne, an editor of the Colonial Observer (1882 to 1913), described him as a “Smart Despot”. Governor Barlee could have taken that as a compliment based on what Dr. Gahne had called other Governors. Barlee swooped into town in 1877 and went straight to work. He didn’t waste any time. He visited all the villages in the Colony within six months of his arrival and made some significant changes which created new revenue streams for the Colony. After Barlee departed, the Treasury, which never had a surplus, had a surplus of 90,000.00 pounds. One year later, Goldsworthy appeared and depleted the surplus in his first tenure.

Not all Governors went on to great careers after they departed British Honduras. Many of the Governors such as Edward Marcus Despard, Frederic Seymour, and Sir Gerald Charles Hawkesworth did not go on to a respectable retirement. Despard was sentence to death after he was accused of treason by planning to kill King George; Frederic Seymour was an alcoholic who eventually committed suicide and Sir Edward Gerald Hawkesworth fell out of a third story window while living in England, it was ruled a suicide. Not sure why I perfectly good Governor would choose to jump out of a third story window. And so it was, 167 years of – well, you call it what you want.

To the right are most of the people mentioned in the commentary in the order list here: John Adler Burdon, Cornelius Alfred Maloney and Mrs. Maloney, Tuckfield Goldsworthy, Frederick Barlee, Edward Marcus Despard, Frederick Seymour, Gerald Charles Hawkesworth and sir Ernest Bickham Sweet-Escott.

Photograph courtesy Museum of Belize

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