Dr Alan Craig conducted extensive field work in Belize, most likely for his dissertation, in 1964 and 1965 and published the Geography of Fishing in British Honduras & Adjacent Coastal Areas in 1966 through the Louisiana State University Coastal Studies Series No 14. Chapter III, the Development of Fishing in the Colonial Period, summarizes early Belize and the important roll St George's Caye played in the early fisheries market and demand. Here is Chapter III presented for review with comments.
The details presented by Craig in this chapter summarize the doubt of the details stated by early writers on Belize. Is it fact or historical fiction?
Early description of the settlers who were fishermen that were based at St. George's Caye and prepared turtle and manatee meat for sale
University of Texas at San Marcos Masters student Heath Bentley is focusing on the important roll sea turtles played in to the early settlement on St George's Caye. This important document should be completed by 2015.
DEVELOPMENT OF FISHING IN THE COLONIAL PERIOD
Following the discovery of the Caribbean coast of Central America by Columbus in 1502, and its subsequent exploration by the Spaniards Pinzon and Solis in 1508, Cortez in 1524, and Montejo in 1528, no attempt was made to establish a settlement along the coasts of the present study area until 1531. At that time Davila, acting under the instruction of Montejo ( who had become governor of Yucatan ), founded the temporary outpost of Payo Obispo ( Chetumal ). Historical circumstances, concisely described by Waddell ( 1961: 3 ff ); were such that Spanish colonization efforts were channeled into what they considered to be more important areas of Yucatan, Guatemala, and Honduras. The coast of British Honduras was visited by exploration parties from Chetumal and condemned as unsuitable for settlement. 1 In later years, it was virtually abandoned by the Spanish who treated it with the indifference due a backward province for more than two centuries.
Contemporary accounts of the early seventeenth century are vague with regard to the exact date for the arrival of the first English settlers in British Honduras. The year 1638 is repeatedly given by a number of recent authors, all of whom fail to give a citation of their primary sources. They are evidently using Gibbs ( 1883 ), who may have used the Honduras Almanack ( 1826 ), which in turn, is without any definite reference. Parsons ( 1956: 10 ff ) indicates that initial settlement was by members of the Providence Company via the Bay Islands, and suggests that they were interested in trading for "silk- grass" ( Aechmea mag- dalenensis ). Caiger's ( 1951 ) account is demonstrably inaccurate, and Winzerling ( 1946 ) confounds the issue by wading into the morass of place-name origins, with an eccentric toponymic analysis that is highly questionable. Waddell's ( 1961 ) historical survey soberly separates legend from fact, and as a result, leaves the question unresolved.
In the considerable literature concerned with the various disputes over the territorial status of what is now British Honduras, pirates are most commonly invoked as the first residents, and the mouth of Haulover Creek ( confused with the Belize River ) is described as their lair. In all probability, no such situation ever existed. It is much more likely that buccaneers were the first to establish a base along the coast. St. George's Cay is known to have been their favorite place of business. The buccaneers' occupation of smoking, drying, and salting turtle and manatee meat for sale to passing privateers, logwood cutters, and possibly an occasional bona fide pirate was a perfectly legitimate venture and considered by Dampier to be an indispensable service to all seafarers in the Caribbean. The Spanish were obviously aware of the activities on this island, for they named it "Cayo Cosina' ( Kitchen Cay) at a very early date. Buccaneers were clearly the first fishermen of the colonial period. The unsavory reputation they have acquired as the country's first settlers is best reserved for the raffish logwood cutters, who did in fact soon build a chipping station on the north bank of Haulover Creek in the midst of mud and mangroves.
Details are lacking concerning the processing methods used by the buccaneers on St. George's Cay to prepare turtle meat for sale to passing ships and the logwood cutters. 6 There is no reason to believe that the methods of buccaneers on St. George's Cay varied in any significant respect from the description of Tortuga buccaneers by Esquemaling or from Dampier's account of the practice in Yucatan. Recent research by Parsons ( 1954: 7, 16-17) shows that buccaneering was a commonplace activity on San Andres and Providencia. Doran ( 1953: 144 ) indicates they may also have been operating on Gran Cayman as early as 1642.
The meat racks, or boucans, were erected over beds of glowing coals probably made, in the case of St. George's Cay, from nearby mangrove or buttonwood ( Conocarpus erecta ). These same woods may also have been used to fire the evaporating pans for production of salt, as there is no natural source of this substance in the vicinity.
EVIDENCE FROM EARLY MAPS
An adaptation of the earliest known map of St. George's Cay ( Click here for May 11 ) shows that five large turtle pens were still present on the island in 1764. More than seventy houses and other structures can be seen on this map, and it is likely that turtle fishermen continued to constitute a high percentage of the population.
Different interests of the Spanish and English are reflected in the Cotilla map of 1753 and the Jamaica smuggler's map of 1780, adaptations of which are included in this study for comparative examination. The former ( Click here for Map 12 ) gives a reasonably accurate representation of the coastline below the Seventeenth Parallel, particularly in the Trujillo, Omoa and Golfo Dulce areas, but becomes progressively more distorted further north until it departs entirely from reality in the neighborhood of the Eighteenth Parallel. Offshore cays are approximately in their correct positions, but Turneffe ( Tierra Nova ) is unaccountably rotated to the east. It is obvious that the primary sources for this cartographic information provided no proper conception of its interior. On the other hand, Lighthouse Reef ( referred to simply as "4 cayos" ) is remarkably realistic.
The smuggler's map of 1780, ( Click here for Map 13 ) published twenty- seven years after the Cotilla Map, is far more accurate in general and gives considerable practical navigational information missing from the earlier Spanish map. Passes in the barrier reef are well marked, as are a number of courses utilized by ships at that time. Strangely enough, Turneffe Island and Lighthouse Reef are more misleading in outline than on the Cotilla map. The Bay of Chetumal, called "Hanover Bay," is shown in detail, as are the coasts of northern British Honduras and Quintana Roo to the latitude of Cozumel. Outlines of the Bay Islands show a long familiarity with this area and are a great improvement over the earlier map. This wealth of coastal data on the English map is undoubtedly a legacy derived from more than 100 years of logwood activities in the area. The disparities in the two maps show that the intimate knowledge of the littoral zone, so necessary for the exploitation of any marine resources, was preponderately in the hands of the English, who continued to maintain this advantage throughout the colonial period.
From the middle of the seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth century, turtling constituted the most important form of colonial fishing. Mosquito Indians from the Caratasca Lagoon were highly esteemed as specialists in the harpooning of turtle and manatee. Very early alliances were formed between English settlers and the Indians who were eventually carried along the entire length of the western Caribbean by privateers and merchants. A ship's captain felt himself poorly equipped if there were not at least one Indian "striker" on board whose responsibility was to provide the crew with fresh turtle and manatee meat. Dampier ( 1906: I, 67 ) tells us:
The manner of striking Manatee and Tortoise is much the same; only when they seek for Manatee they paddle so gently, that they make no noise . because it is a Creature that hears very well. But they are not so nice when they seek for Tortoise, whose Eyes are better than his Ears. They strike the Tortoise with a square sharpe Iron peg, the other with a Harpoon.Tortoise-irons, or pegs, according to Dampier ( 1906: I, 67 ), were made by the Indians themselves and were "4 square, sharp at one end, and not much above an inch in length. " It is unlikely that the design is truly aboriginal, as archaeological investigations in this part of the Caribbean have so far failed to uncover any prototypes. 7 Dampier's ( 1906: I, 68 ) description of the turtle peg leaves no doubt that it was intended to function as a legitimate harpoon:. . . the small spike at the broad end bath a line fastened to it, and goes also into a hole at the end of the Striking staff; which when the Tortoise is struck flies off, the Iron and the end of the line fastened to it, going quite within the Shell, where it is so buried that the Tortoise cannot possibly escape.Throughout most of the colonial period, it is evident that turtle were much more abundant than at present. Harpooning was the principal method of capturing these animals, but at some time during the eighteenth century, turtle nets were introduced. It is conceivable that the use of turtle nets became more popular with the fishermen when fashion dictates forced a rise in the price of hawksbill turtle shell. 9 Harpoons were certain to damage at least one segment of the valuable shell whereas netted animals were captured intact. Very little specific information on the colonial turtle industry of British Honduras has been preserved in literature, but we are indebted to Henderson ( 1809 ) for his keen observations and a succinct analysis:Of fisheries, the most profitable, and consequently the most pursued in this country, is that of the turtle. This forms an exclusive occupation and the quantity usually taken is considerable. A few of the turtle find their way to the London market . . . but the principal consumption of this article of food is domestic, and it is very generally preferred by the settlers.Comments on the fishermen themselves are particularly valuable, as it would be difficult to reconstruct their activities from any other source than that of an eye-witness, such as Henderson, who tells us:The persons engaged in turtling are generally inhabitants of the different keys in the neighborhood of Belize . . . they commonly form themselves into parties of four or five; and, . . a more independent description of beings could scarcely be found. When the time for taking turtle is past, they are chiefly occupied in the catching of fish for themselves and their families. The produce of their labour, which in successful season is often considerable, is invariably disposed of in the most licentious way, being solely appropriated to the gratification of one indulgence, an immoderate consumption of rum.Not content with this denunciation, Henderson waxes poetically, and in his indignation at the conduct of these fishermen, cites verse that seems no less appropriate today:Of the Turtler, as of the voluptuous Anthony, It may be said, He fishes, drinks and wastes The lamps of Night in revel.Victorian demand for hawksbill shell revitalized the earlier turtle industry of the buccaneers, which had diminished somewhat with the establishment of permanent settlements and modest attempts at agriculture on the mainland of British Honduras. Shipping recordsl0 indicate that many "cases" ( 300-400 lbs.) of hawksbill shell left Belize Harbor during the period 1864-1910. Toward the latter part of this era, considerable speculation affected the market until the price finally fell from about $6. 00 per pound to the equivalent of $1. 50 per pound, due largely to the competition of imitation celluloid products.Substantial fortunes were made in British Honduras when the market for turtle shell was expanding. Business establishments in Belize, particularly the firm of C. Melhado, began the practice of "grubstaking" fishermen to search for hawksbill turtles. Sums averaging $250 were advanced for the purchase or repairs of boats and equipment. In return, the investors had exclusive rights to purchase the catch at favorable prices.
According to Henry Melhado (personal communication), son of the founder of C. Melhado & Co. , the firm recognized two classes of shell. The first, known as "yellow belly, " was purchased from the fishermen at a reduced price while a slight premium was paid for "selected pale and reddish. " Carlos Malhado, who was demonstrably a successful businessman, evidently also had an acute understanding of the Creole fisherman's mentality. For many years he was able to convince them of this difference in shell quality, when in reality, the price he received for yellow belly was more than double that for selected pale and reddish.
With the advent of steam navigation and the subsequent improvement of the somewhat erratic communications between British Honduras and Great Britain, an unusual facet of the colonial turtle industry developed. Beginning as early as the 1830's, there is evidence that a number of live turtles were exported from Belize. In the Shipping Intelligence section of the weekly Gazette, there are frequent references to cargoes consisting ( among sundry other things ) of so many "heads" of turtle. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the export of "shipping turtles" was clearly an established practice. Parsons ( 1962 ) indicates that the trade in shipping turtles was common throughout many of the English-speaking parts of the Caribbean and not confined to British Honduras alone. A five cent "head tax" was imposed by Belizean Customs for the exportation of live turtle, and from a sampling of the records in the Gazette, we can determine that the following quantities were sent out of the country:
1867 2,730 head
1868 5,325 head
1869 5,520 head
until in 1894, 149 head, and finally in 1896, 63 head.
Shipping turtles were carefully selected from immature green turtles weighing not more than fifty or sixty pounds. 12 Special wooden tanks, each evidently having a capacity of three turtles, 13 were built on the decks of large ships making scheduled runs to Great Britain. 14 Pimm's Restaurant in London was the ultimate destination of many of these turtles which were sold at auction on the dockside. In 1896, Mr. Henry Melhado, on whose authority this section is based, was invited to attend an elaborate party at Pimm's in the company of gourmets who had assembled in the "Thieve's Kitchen" to sample a banquet featuring shipping turtles recently arrived from Belize.
As the green turtle declined in numbers due to heavy fishing pressure in British Honduras waters, Mexican fishermen from Isla de las Mujeres, Cozumel, and Xacalak imported a considerable amount of these animals, together with bags of their eggs dug up from the famous nesting grounds along the deserted coast of Quintana Roo. This trade flourished for a time until rising transportation costs and trade restrictions brought the business to a virtual standstill in the early 1920's.
The exploitation of manatee during the colonial period never reached the proportions of the turtle industry. While many of these inoffensive animals were killed by buccaneers and settlers, they do not appear to have been slaughtered on what may be considered a commercial basis. This may be due in part to a steady reduction in numbers of these slowbreeding animals, so that the survivors retreated into the more remote areas of the coastline that were not easily accessible ( see page 107 for further comments on distribution ). With the exception of meat sold to passing ships, the manatee catch was consumed locally. Dampier ( 1906: I, 65 ) claims the skin was used by privateers to make flexible oarlocks for their skiffs; the back hide they found to be particularly well-suited for horsewhips. 15 The flesh was in demand for the feeding of slaves, although Henderson's ( 1809: 133 ) account of the receipt for pickled tail meat indicates that manatee was enjoyed by the slave owners as well.
At least one instance of a "shipping manatee" is known. The intrepid C. Melhado is reputed to have used ( ca. 1910 ) a shipping turtle tank to send from Belize, what must surely have been, the first manatee to arrive at the London zoo. The animal is reported by his son to have weighed 160 pounds and was brought up from the Mosquito Coast by paddlers who fed the beast two cans of condensed milk during each day of the trip.
Fishing during the early colonial period was characterized by the widespread use of the harpoon, a trait evidently assumed by the settlers from their association with Indians of the Mosquito Shore. In addition to the descriptions of Dampier ( 1906 ), Henderson ( 1809 ), Strangeways ( 1322 1, and Young ( 1812 ), Forbesl6 ( 1915 ), writing of the period ca. 1795, devotes an entire chapter to a dramatic, and possibly inaccurate account of young "buckras" spearing an assortment of large fish by torchlight in the bogues of the Drowned Cays, located between Belize and St. George's Cay. What Forbes described as a sport of the white gentry may well have had some basis in fact and represent what was common practice among the humbler fishermen of that period.
Even though there are indications that seine nets were known in the western Caribbean at an early date, they do .not appear to have been widely used. Young ( 1842: 160 ), traveling along the coast of Honduras on his way to Belize, passed by several Black Carib villages where he noted " . . . seines for hauling fish, made by themselves, hanging on ranges to dry. " Much later, in the year 1870, a large seine, 150 fathoms in length, was advertised for sale in the British Honduras Gazette for a number of months before it was eventually sold. An item of fishing equipment as expensive as the seine, was ( and still is ) out of keeping with the rather meager inventory of simple tackle used by most fishermen in British Honduras. Furthermore, seine nets would have required the cooperative efforts of at least a half-dozen men, who traditionally were highly independent and disinclined to enter ventures of this sort.
FOOD HABITS AND PRESERVATION
Handlining with wire hooks provided the Negro and creole population with a dependable means of subsistence and was undoubtedly the most popular method during the latter part of the colonial period. As early as 1870, there is evidence that barreled mackerel and salt cod were imported, intended for elements of the local society who still retained food habits inculcated in England. Salt cod has remained stubbornly popular throughout much of the Caribbean and particularly in Jamaica, where to this day, codfish and akee 18 constitute a national dish.
Mackerel was a staple in the diet of the common people and must have been consumed in much larger quantities than at present. A local ordinance observed in Belize during the 1870's made mandatory the annual display in public places of the grim menu served up at H. M. The Prison. Mackerel is featured monotonously in this bold attempt to intimidate the populace by publicizing the diet for those on hard labor. An abstract from the Gazette is shown as Table 2. We have no indication of the effectiveness of this public announcement, but evidently the prospect of eating mackerel twice a day, five days a week, year on end, was believed to be a great deterrent on those contemplating crime.
Table 2. Diet of Prisoners at Hard Labor
N. B. For prisoners not on hard labor, and for all female prisoners the scale of diet shall be the same except that all fish and meat portions are reduced - the Mackerel to 6 oz. , Plantain to 3/4 lb. and Beef to 6 oz.
During most of the colonial period, fishing barely produced enough food to keep pace with the expanding population. This is due, in large part, to the fact that most able-bodied men were employed in the exploitation of forest resources to the near-exclusion of all other occupations. In the 1830's, Black Caribs were brought to British Honduras from the northern coast of Honduras by lumber contractors who located them inland at the lumber camps. The mestizo immigrants, who later became the fishermen of the northern area, had not yet arrived; hence the supply of fresh fish was dependant upon the efforts of a few Creoles operating out of Belize.
On the infrequent occasions when a surplus of fish was caught, salting was the only means of preserving the catch. This method of preservation was also common on certain cargo ships sailing from New Orleans bound for Belize. Weather permitting, they would stop at well-known locations along the coast of Quintana Roo and spend several days catching, salting, and barreling kingfish for sale in Belize; the chronic shortage of fish provided them with a ready market. Favorite fishing grounds for this supplementary activity included the Arrowsmith Bank and partially sheltered anchorages near the south end of Cozumel Island and the Chinchorro Banks. There is no indication in the literature that the prolific grouper grounds at Cay Glory had yet been discovered.
The traditional pattern of fishing practices developed during the colonial period continued in force until the end of World War I, at which time it was evident that no aspect of fishing activities could be said to be prospering. The turtle population had been decimated without any attempt at conservation, and no new markets were established for the export of scale fish. The fishing industry, together with lumbering and agriculture, stagnated in a general atmosphere of economic depression.