Colonial Stagnation and Crisis

Colonial Stagnation and Crisis

The forestry industry's control of land and its influence in colonial decision making retarded the development of agriculture and the diversification of the economy. In many parts of the Caribbean, large numbers of former slaves, some of whom had engaged in the cultivation and marketing of food crops, became landowners. British Honduras had vast areas of sparsely populated, unused land. Nevertheless, landownership was controlled by a small European monopoly, thwarting the evolution of a Creole landowning class from the former slaves. Rather than the former slaves, it was the Garifuna, Maya, and Mestizos who pioneered agriculture in nineteenth-century British Honduras. These groups either rented land or lived as squatters. However, the domination of the land by forestry interests continued to stifle agriculture and kept much of the population dependent on imported foods.

Landownership became even more consolidated during the economic depression of the mid-nineteenth century. Exports of mahogany peaked at over 4 million linear meters in 1846 but fell to about 1.6 million linear meters in 1859 and 8,000 linear meters in 1870, the lowest level since the beginning of the century. Mahogany and logwood continued to account for over 80 percent of the total value of exports, but the price of these goods was so low that the economy was in a state of prolonged depression after the 1850s. Major results of this depression included the decline of the old settler class, the increasing consolidation of capital and the intensification of British landownership. The British Honduras Company emerged as the predominant landowner of the crown colony. The firm originated in a partnership between one of the old settler families and a London merchant and was registered in 1859 as a limited company. The firm expanded, often at the expense of others who were forced to sell their land. In 1875 the firm became the Belize Estate and Produce Company, a London-based business that owned about half of all the privately held land in the colony. The new company was the chief force in British Honduras's political economy for over a century.

This concentration and centralization of capital meant that the direction of the colony's economy was henceforth determined largely in London. It also signaled the eclipse of the old settler elite. By about 1890, most commerce in British Honduras was in the hands of a clique of Scottish and German merchants, most of them newcomers. This clique encouraged consumption of imported goods and thus furthered British Honduras's dependence on Britain. The European minority exercised great influence in the colony's politics, partly because it was guaranteed representation on the wholly appointed Legislative Council. The manager of the Belize Estate and Produce Company, for example, was automatically a member of the council, while members of the emerging Creole elite were excluded from holding seats on the council. The Creoles requested in 1890 that some seats on the council be opened to election (as had occurred in Canada and New Zealand) in the hope of winning seats, but the Legislative Council refused. In 1892, the governor appointed several Creole members, but whites remained the majority. In the 1920s, the Colonial Office supported agitation for an elective council as long as the governor had reserve powers to allow him to push through any measures he considered essential without the council's assent. But the council rejected these provisos, and the issue of restoring elections was postponed.

Despite the prevailing stagnation of the colony's economy and society during most of the century prior to the 1930s, seeds of change were being sown. The mahogany trade remained depressed, and efforts to develop plantation agriculture in several crops, including sugarcane, coffee, cocoa, cotton, bananas, and coconuts failed. A brief revival in the forestry industry took place early in the twentieth century as new demands for forest products came from the United States. Exports of chicle, a gum taken from the sapodilla tree and used to make chewing gum, propped up the economy from the 1880s. Much of the gum was tapped in Mexican and Guatemalan forests by Mayan chicleros who had been recruited by labor contractors in British Honduras. A short-lived boom in the mahogany trade occurred around 1900 in response to growing demand for the wood in the United States, but the ruthless exploitation of the forests without any conservation or reforestation depleted resources. The introduction of tractors and bulldozers opened up new areas in the west and south in the 1920s, but this development led again to only a temporary revival. At this time, mahogany, cedar, and chicle together accounted for 97 percent of forest production and 82 percent of the total value of exports. The economy, which was increasingly oriented toward trade with the United States, remained dependent and underdeveloped.

Creoles, who were well-connected with businesses in the United States, challenged the traditional political-economic connection with Britain as trade with the United States intensified. Men such as Robert S. Turton, the Creole chicle buyer for Wrigley's of Chicago, and Henry I. Melhado, whose merchant family dealt in illicit liquor during prohibition, became major political and economic figures. In 1927, Creole merchants and professionals replaced the representatives of British landowners, (except for the manager of the Belize Estate and Produce Company) on the Legislative Council. The participation of this Creole elite in the political process was evidence of emerging social changes that were largely concealed by economic stagnation. These changes accelerated with such force in the 1930s that they ushered in a new era of modern politics.

Country Studies main page | Belize Country Studies main page