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Home Features The Caste War and the flight from Bacalar

The Caste War and the flight from Bacalar

Bacalar was attacked by the Santa Cruz Mayas in April 1848, the rebels offering to spare the lives of its ladino inhabitants if they surrendered and left for British Honduras (Cal 1983:47; Anderson 1952:15). Thereafter, refugees from the ranchos around Bacalar moved to Belize, stopping at Douglas, Haylock’s Bank, and Four-Mile Lagoon. By July there were an estimated 1,000 ladino refugees in Belize. While ladinos retook Bacalar the following year, and many refugees returned with the troops (Reed 1964:118), most stayed, moving south along the New River: to Corozal, Back Landing, Orange Walk, San Estevan (Cal 1983:60,208).

During the next decade the conflict “devastated the cane-growing districts and forced white planters to abandon their sugar estates and flee” —north to Mérida or south to Belize (Wells 1982:228; see Reed 1964:130). For the most part owners of small amounts of capital, the refugees became rancheros, producing corn, beans, sugarcane, and rum, or subcontractors for the English mahogany logging firms, recruiting Mayan labor (Cal 1983:209). Their ability to manage Mayan workers was especially highly valued (Cal 1984a:67). One Manuel Jesús Castillo, who arrived in the village of San Antonio in 1847 from Tekax, was known to be experienced with Mayan labor; he got into timber and became the nohoch dzul (“big boss”) of San Antonio, cutting both sides of the Hondo, with all the Mayan villagers working for him (Cal 1983:107).

Similarly, Florencio Vega, “a wealthy Yucatecan refugee” (ibid.:61) who operated a boat on the Hondo as early as 1849, was regarded by the British Honduras Company as good at dealing with Maya workers and taken on as a subcontractor; he subsequently employed many of the Mayan leaders, including Ascension Ek, Augustin Ongay, and others.  Angel Cal, who did a sample of the late 19th-century inventories, indicates that most if not all rancheros or timber subcontractors had “a permanent body of Mayan laborers either resident at their ranchos or at temporary camps in the forest” (1984a:7).

By the latter half of the 19th century the need for labor concerned both the British administrators and the metropolitan merchant houses, who by then owned most of the land.  Creole laborers, restricted from buying land, for the most part resided in Belize City and hired out as mahogany cutters. Thus agriculture, if it was to be developed, needed a new labor supply. While a number of sugar planters, among them Henry Oswald and John Carmichael, eventually succeeded in getting the authorities to import some Chinese laborers in 1865, these were not a success; a great many died, and others deserted to the Santa Cruz Maya (Fowler 1879:51; cf. Swayne 1917:167; Morris 1883:16). Moreover, apart from a single shipment from Barbados that same year, attempts to attract cheap labor from the U.S. South or the West Indies came to little (Cleghern 1967).

How well off the Yucatecan rancheros in fact were when they arrived is almost impossible to determine, since none of the sources are impartial – their supporters, those anxious to develop the agriculture potential of the country (without additional government expense) – described them as hardworking smallholders, the backbone of sugar production (Gibbs 1883, Fowler 1879), while their detractors, those unwilling to see their monopolistic timber and chicle operations challenged, considered them “principally dependents of the most opulent families for whose benefit the Indians had been obliged to toil and labor.”

By the 1850s superintendents were anxious to encourage them, as they grew not only sugarcane but the rice, corn, and vegetables for which the settlement was primarily dependent on neighboring countries (Bolland 1977a:84).

Indeed, a letter from 25 Yucatecan planters in Corozal, complaining to the superintendent about the introduction of a sugar tax in 1856, threatened to abandon not only sugar cultivation but also “coffee, castor oil, cotton, tobacco” out of fear of additional taxes. This letter makes clear that they all depended on hired laborers, who had to be treated well enough to dissuade them from returning to Bacalar, and that they have mortgaged future production on order to clear and plant.

Brockmann (1985:105) notes that blanco and mestizo refugees ranged along an economic continuum:

a small segment composed of Spanish and highly Hispanicized Mestizos were able, with funds brought from Mexico, to establish themselves as a regional elite of planters, retail merchants, and forest products contractors. The bulk of the immigrants, Mestizos and Yucatan Maya, lived as tenant milpa farmers and seasonal unskilled laborers for the regional Spanish elite and British logging companies.

 Commercial sugar production further differentiated the immigrants economically. By 1863, Manuel Castillo was also planting cane and producing sugar from a cane mill on the opposite side of the Hondo (Cal 1983:151). As sugar expanded during the next decades, enormous investments were necessary – in land and equipment as well as labor. Governor Swayne noted in addition to lack of suitable labor, falling prices for sugar demanded ever more investment in modern machinery in order to produce more cheaply (1917:170).

Moreover, by the 1860s most of the land was already controlled by British banking houses, who also dominated commerce. Yucatecans nevertheless utilized family ties to put together land and commercial properties. Those who succeeded, like Juan Carillo or Manuel Romero in Corozal, Manuel Castillo in San Antonio and Francisco Vega in San Estévan, purchased or leased small tracts from the British firms, parlaying their experience in recruitment of Mayan labor into favorable terms, from landowners and government both, and borrowed money to develop them. The women, who according to early records migrated to Belize in the same numbers as the men, kept the extended family together, increasing marriage ties, and consolidating the elite families of Corozal and Orange Walk.

A Provincial Elite: Corozaleños in the 19th Century

The protracted Caste War produced enormous changes in Belize’s nearly deserted northern districts. After the second fall of Bacalar in 1858, there were an estimated 10,000 refugees in North Belize. A Jesuit census in 1858 showed 4,500 people in Corozal – “Yucatecos principally but some Indians & Creoles (cited in Bolland 1977a:83). Having absorbed 2000 fugitives in the previous year alone (Reed 1964:170), Corozal was by then the second largest town in the country, followed by San Estévan, with some 1300 “yucatecos.” Citing the 1861 census, Waddell (1961:18) writes: “By 1861, in the country as a whole, this new Spanish-speaking white and mestizo population of some 9,000 outnumbered the negro and coloured element of some 8,000.” This was in addition to the Amerindians, then numbering between 4,000 and 5,000.

In Corozal, those who could obtain land quickly planted sugar (in 1856, Corozal already had 490 acres in cane, while the whole of the New River had only 156). Among these was Juan Eduard Carillo, who owned the sugarmill at Rancho San Roque, near Xaibe, and Juan de la Cruz Ramirez, who owned the San Francisco estate, near Corozal. Other Yucatecans leased ranchos from the large estate owners around Corozal and Punta Consejo, and borrowed money to plant cane.  Most of the land in the immediate vicinity was in two vast estates, Goshen and Pembroke Hall, granted to Captain Hugh Wilson in 1794. By 1855 both were owned by creole landowner James Hume Blake, who welcomed the refugees, and indeed encouraged them to settle on his land – by 1870 sugar rancheros operated some 14 estates on the property (Jones 1969:82).

By 1850, Belize “had become the chief port of entry for goods in transit to and from Yucatan and Petén” (Romney et al. 1959:116). As sugar prospered, Corozal planters also set up stores in town, allowing them to survive the hazards of market production over the next 50 years.  By the 1890s, when sugar exports plummeted due to competition from beet sugar, Corozal merchants thrived on the sale of imported food (Jones 1969:150).  Imports more than doubled from 1879 to 1889; imports from Mexico went from $25,447 in 1887 to $65,120 in 1889 (Bristowe and Wright 1890:169). By the turn of the century sugar cultivators Manuel Romero, Cornelio  Lizarraga, and Juan de la Cruz Ramirez, along with Juan E. Carillo and Eulogio Perez, all had enterprises in Corozal, ranging from dry goods to hotels, bars and billiard halls (Jones 1971:11; Metzgen and Cain 1925:443-45).

All of these men were sons of those who came from the Yucatán in the first decade of the Caste War and all built their success on interlocking family networks. Notable in this regard were the Carillos and the Romeros.  Juan E. Carillo’s mother, Aniceta Ongay, was eulogized in the Guardian (8.8.1896) as one of the first immigrants from Bacalar who took refuge in the colony and “set about converting the lonely forests of the North into town, villages and cultivated ranchos and milpas. And the death of his younger brother Bernabé four years  later “cast a gloom over the little town of Corozal [where] such a funeral procession has never before been seen …” (Colonial Guardian 8.25.1900).  In 1925 “Juan Carillo & Sons” had premises in Belize City as well as Corozal. Their daughter Elvira married José Romero, son of “one of the principal merchants of Corozal,” whose brother Manuel owned the Saltillo sugarmill, employing 37-40 workers on property comprising some 1000 acres (Colonial Guardian 1.12.1907).

(To be continued.)

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