Our Community - San Pedro Town

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 14, No. 39            November 11, 2004

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Aerial view San Pedro, 1979

TOn November 27th, San Pedro celebrates 20 years of Township. Many people had important roles in making San Pedro Town what it is today. It is important to know and appreciate our history. This week, allow The San Pedro Sun to take you back in time to when the community of Ambergris Caye first began. The San Pedro Sun is proud to give you a history of days gone by on Ambergris Caye - The Growth of San Pedro (part I).

    British settlers who inhabited mainland Belize achieved great economic and political advances. A company of wealthy businessmen formed a company named Belize Agriculture Company and held the first legal title to the island. They acquired the island for agricultural purposes. It is believed that they were the ones who first planted Sea Island Cotton. This business failed and in 1842, the land was sold to two gentlemen, Mr. Welsh and Mr. Golf. These men later approached the Superintendent-In-Charge and requested that they be given title to the land because they had purchased it from the Belize Agriculture Company. The Superintendent was hesitant because there was an ongoing territorial dispute between the British and Mexicans over the island. Mexico claimed Ambergris Caye as a part of the Yucatan Peninsula and the Superintendent did not wish to aggravate the Mexicans. He eventually conceded and issued a Crown Grant to Welsh and Grant on March 19th, 1842.

    By this time, Mexican fishermen and their families, most likely from Xcalak, Mexico just north of Ambergris Caye, already inhabited the Caye. In 1847, the Mayans in Mexico, who had been kept in legal slavery by the Spanish and Mexicans for more than 300 years revolted and the Caste War ensued. This war lasted 60 years. Mayans, Mexicans and even Spanish fled to find a safe haven that they could call home. In the first year of the war, refugees entered the British settlement and requested permission to settle mostly in the northern part of present day Belize. Permission was granted and a small number of immigrants, numbering about 50 families, came to Ambergris Caye and joined the settlers.

    In 1866, Robert Humes purchased Ambergris Caye from Golf and Welsh. Humes later sold the land to James Mercier Putman, William Standernwick Cary and Justavo Von Ohlafen. The three men later mortgaged the land to Antonio Mathe for $9,000 who later died, bankrupt. The bank ordered Ambergris Caye to be auctioned. On September 13th, 1869, James Humes Blake purchased the Caye for $625. Blake, at the time, was a Magistrate in Corozal. The island was passed down to members of the Parham and the Alamilla families who had married into the Blake dynasty. Through the next 50 years, settlers developed the island's fishing industry, planted and harvested coconut plantations and contributed to the islands distinct beauty and history.

    The economic base of the island has switched between fishing, logwood, chicle, coconuts, lobster, and tourism.

    Logwood on the island was useful to the European wool industry, which they used to make dyes. About 1,890 contractors employed San Pedranos to cut down the huge logwoods on the island. This industry was difficult work and it slowly died around 1910.

    The base for chewing gum, chicle, was derived from the juices of the sapodilla tree, which were bled to get the raw material. Around the turn of the century, Ambergris Caye began to derive income from this industry. Still the hub in the area, San Pedro became a growth town overnight as the huge new fields in the Quintana Roo area were opened up for production.

    Wealthy individuals provided funds, which were used to hire workers. These employees were paid to bleed chicle in certain areas. Groups of three to four men would bleed and cook the sap, which were then sold to the contractor. Effectively, it was the age-old system where the workers worked all day and owed the boss at the end of the day.

    Eventually, by the Depression of the 1930's, the chicle boom collapsed as a result of the general economic depression plus the development of synthetic substitutes for chewing gum base.

    The coconut industry was vital to the island's economy from the 1880's through the 1930's. The Spaniards brought this industry that thrived in Ambergris Caye. The Blakes, Alamillas and Parhams, the most influential families of the times, also owned most of the coconut plantations that were established on the island. The work was capital intensive, and San Pedranos served as the workers, not as farmers. These tireless workers had to wear nets over their entire bodies while they worked, since insects were abundant. The nuts were picked, peeled, and delivered to storage sheds after which they were shipped to Belize City.

    The Blakes and Alamillas operated the biggest store on the island. Workers were given advances and paid for their work in coupons printed in various denominations by the two families. Only ten cents of each dollar's worth of coupons could be converted to cash. The workers thus had to do all their purchasing from the Blake store, as the coupons were not accepted anywhere else.

    Wages paid during the early 1900s were extremely low, generally around $12 a month plus a ration of eight pounds of flour and four pounds of pork. A batch of 500 harvested and husked coconuts would pay only 50 cents in San Pedro, whereas when sold in Belize City, merchants would get $30. On the other hand, low wages were offset somewhat by the low cost of living. A single person could buy a week's supply of provisions for a dollar or a dollar and fifty cents.

    The cocals on Ambergris Caye were ravaged and eventually ruined by successive hurricanes. In 1942, a hurricane destroyed all but six houses on the island and wreaked havoc on the cocals. Some were replanted, but nonetheless the industry fell into a decline from which it never recovered.

    The final blow to the coconut industry on Ambergris Caye was dealt in 1955 when Hurricane Janet hit the northern portion of the caye. Again, some cocals were replanted, but by this time, lobster fishing was providing a new and more attractive source of income for San Pedranos. Among these and other things, the coconut industry suffered from labor shortages. The cocals were finally abandoned in the 1960s when rising estate values made the land more valuable for speculative purpose than for planting coconuts.

    continued next week

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