Pirates and Logwood Wars

The colourful history of Belize is steeped in stories of pirates, wars, exploitation and political shenanigans.

The country is the home of the Maya people famous for their huge stone temples but who also had developed a sophisticated system of water-based agriculture and had a deep knowledge of solar cycles and their effect on man. They were a peaceful people, easy prey to the colonial powers.

Prior to the middle of the 19th century, Belize was ruled by the Spanish who took little interest in colonizing the country as it did not possess gold and there were not many people living here to convert to Christianity.

In the 17th century Scottish and English pirates took advantage of the lackadaisical attitude of the Spanish and entered the Caribbean with an eye to attacking Spanish galleons for the gold they had pillaged from surrounding countries within their vast empire.

In 1670 the Spanish government persuaded their British counterparts to end the piracy whereupon the unemployed pirates began to pillage the country of its mahogany and logwood timber instead. The hard mahogany was valued for making ships, house beams and furniture while the logwood contained purple and red dyes valued for the robes worn by royalty, the priesthood and for the booming fabric industries in Britain.

Concurrent with the ex-pirates indiscriminately exploiting the forests of Belize of its valuable timber resources, British interest in the Caribbean was increasing and its navy began actively protecting the loggers from the Spanish while, at the same time, reassuring Spain that Belize was still a Spanish possession. This fiction was eventually exposed when, on September 10th 1798, a British expeditionary force defeated the Spanish armada off St. George’s Caye. Belize officially became a British colony 60 years later and the battle of St. George’s Caye is still celebrated today.

The pirates-turned-loggers seemed to have cut their way through Belize’s forests fueled mainly by alcohol. In fact many people have remarked that the local creole language sounds like the speech of a drunken sailor. Whatever the truth of that might be, the loggers left piles of old bottles of all sorts in the bays and at every logging site inland.

When we were cleaning out an old hand dug well on the Retreat to provide our gardens with irrigation water, up with the marl and stones came masses of pieces of old bottles from the pirate days. There was only one whole bottle but the bits showed that the pirates brought in a wide range of bottles of different sizes, shapes, colours, and purposes.

American archeologists are not only showing interest in the Retreat’s ancient Maya village complex but also in its collection of old bottles. One of the undergraduates in the archeological team that visited us recently is interested in including the data on the bottles into her thesis.

— H.A.E.

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