The Africola, a cargo passenger riverboat from Belize, 1920's
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Thursday January 2, 2020

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The Africola, a cargo passenger riverboat from Belize, 1920's

Top photo, the Africola in the Rio Nuevo.

Before there was a Northern Highway, there were a few Passenger Cargo Boats that served the Northern Districts. One such boats was the AFRICOLA, owned by the Chavannes Family.

AFRIKOLA. This name may have come from the African COLA nut which is popularly used in bottled drinks, such as Coca Cola and other refreshing drinks.- During my visit to Nigeria, Africa, and surrounding regions, I saw people with a white NUT in their mouth. When I inquired, I was told that it was a Cola Seed Nut. AN ENERGIZER. So, I now say, that perhaps The Chavannes Family, who were large bottlers of the soft drink, we called LEMONADE ( even though of many flavors - named their vessel. ( Just a thought. )

In early colonial days, settlements were carved out of the forest and the mode of transport was on horseback. In the 1800’s settlers were a mix of English, some U.S. ex confederates, loggers, cane farmers, chicleros, Mestizos and native Maya Indians. There were no passable roads; the rivers were the highways. The Mahogany Industry depended on the rivers in order to float their logs from bush to lumber yards in Belize City. Small dugout canoes called doreys were used. It wasn’t until 1925 that the first road was built, linking the districts with Belize City.

Consequently, travel overland was arduous and slow. Near 1875, with the advent of the steam engine, larger vessels were built and brought to the colony by the English governors, thereby transforming travel and trade. The first to run a regular route was a vessel called, “The Pioneer”. It ran between Belize City, Orange Walk, and Corozal, with stops at the villages along the way, carrying passengers, cargo, and mail.

Then, the year 1900 marked the beginning of the golden age of the northern steamers. These vessels were privately owned, usually 114 feet with twin engines. The best known in 1914 was “The Star”(a two-decker) equipped with ten cabins and with room for forty deck passengers. In 1920, “The Star” carried fifty men of the Volunteer Guard into Belize for a shooting competition. It took a day and a half to reach Belize City.

One of the best-known vessels of all was the “Africola” (72tons) owned by L.G. Chavannes and registered in 1922. She left Belize City on Mondays at noon for Corozal and the New River, with stops at Pueblo Nuevo, Caledonia, and San Estevan and returned to Belize City on Thursdays. First Class fare was $6.50 and the Second Class fare was $3.25. there were also charges for freight: 50 cents for a bag of rice, 10 cents for a box of candles, 40 cents for a bag of corn, and 25 cents for a block of chicle.

Besides carrying mail and passengers, the river steamboats 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 name for all flavors of soft drinks in those days. Hence the name “Afri-Kola” for the cola beverage. It then carried back to Belize 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 (a former confederate from New Orleans), came brown sugar in 100-pound sacks. From Caledonia came pigs, alligator skins, bundles of tobacco leaves. And from the Gonzalez distillery, came fifteen and twenty-five-gallon casks of “Taste-Tells” rum.

Around the mid-1920’s the first road to Belize City was constructed, and it was only a matter of a few years before these romantic steamers were replaced by trucks.

Photograph courtesy Noel Escalante, text by Hector Silva

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