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Home Features Orange Walk was regarded as a rough frontier town

Orange Walk was regarded as a rough frontier town

Mestizo social life in the rapidly growing northern towns reflected the newcomers who built them, focusing on the family and community, which included the church. The self presentation that was so essential to creole public life, was not a feature of church and community life in the newly settled villages and towns of the north. There were no papers in the districts. And while by the 1870’s a succession of newspapers announced their commitment to news of interest to Spanish-speaking residents, and made periodic efforts to publish such news in Spanish, their editors were creole, both white and coloured, and they all lived in Belize City. While they might be concerned with general district issues, such as agricultural development, land tenure legislation, or the best labor for the plantations, their personal network rarely went beyond the creole events and inhabitants of Belize City.

The fiestas that so crowded the social calendar in Yucatán at the time of Stephens’ travels (1848), continued in Corozal and Orange Walk, but under the patronage of the large landowners and merchants, whose names were known to Belize City readers. An example was the mestiza dance, which from time to time a correspondent described. In “News from the North” the Guardian (5.7.1887) noted that Mr. Ernest Schofield had revived the “old Xaibé festival” — discontinued for some years – by calling together his Indian tenants and holding the preliminary meeting, at which pledges were obtained for the proposed mestiza dances. Victoria’s Jubilee that year was celebrated in Orange Walk with another mestiza dance, along with horse races, a review of the constabulary, and church services.

Official visits were another occasion for describing local festivities, of course, and sometimes the two coincided. Governor Goldsworthy, so despised in Belize City, made increasingly frequent visits north after 1890. A visit to Corozal that year included a tea party and Court House ball (Colonial Guardian 6.7.1890), and a trip to Orange Walk in February 1893 included a carnival celebration. “Carnival at Orange Walk” opened with a Mestizada, “a dance peculiar to the mestizos,” and was followed by several more.

Monday was devoted to the “Cinta” or ribbon dance. This dance is peculiar to the people of Yucatán; and their descendants, in Orange Walk, keep up this custom by frequent observance … On this occasion the band of festive doncellas visited the houses of the principal inhabitants, after the ribbon dance had been performed.

On Tuesday a band of strange Indians suddenly made its appearance in the town, to the surprise of the majority of the inhabitants. After wandering about for some time, they commenced to execute the Xtol or aboriginal native dance, to the amusement of those present. Sometime afterwards it leaked out that these were only sham Indians, being certain of the inhabitants, who had so well disguised themselves that they were actually believed to be genuine Maya Indians.

When the dance ended at midnight, the band accompanied the colonial officials to the fort and “thus ended the carnival at Orange Walk, pleasantly breaking the monotony of the daily avocations of its inhabitants.”

Orange Walk received a new governor, Sir David Wilson, in April 1897, but he apparently kept his distance; a communication in the Guardian (4.17.1897) ended: “One thing only left us in a painful state, and that is, that not one of us Yucatecans had the honor and pleasure of being presented to and of shaking the hands with such a worthy Governor, not even the President of the [reception] committee [Tiburcio Escalante].”

As official interest declined, reports of such festivities disappeared – though in 1902 the Clarion noted that Carnival was celebrated in Corozal and in 1909 a Mestizada in Belize City occasioned a Guardian report (1.2.1909): “The dancers, on Christmas Day, went in full Indian gala costume to the house of the Hacendado or chief of the Indian cow boys and, headed by him, marched to the dance.  A number of people went to view the unaccustomed spectacle and each curious male had to pay 25 cents for being captured by a Mestiza and, if he chose to put his hat on her head, he had to pay 25 cents more.”

Rural Cousins: The First Orange Walk Settlers

Throughout the 19th century, while Corozal became the center of “Spanish” society, Orange Walk remained a frontier town. Larger tracts of land were available for leasing or subcontracting. While Corozalenos combined small sugar ranchos with  shops in town, those who ventured south along the Hondo or New River relied more on timber cutting and chiclé bleeding  on large landholdings, expanding into sugar production when it looked profitable. Among these were Manuel Castillo and Francisco Escalante.

By 1892, when Pembroke Hall and Goshen were already in the hands of the Schofield family, Castillo and Escalante were included among the largest landowners in the northern district, a list dominated by five British merchant houses: British Honduras Co., R.N. and Andrew Byass, Mutrie, Arthur and Currie, Bernard Cramer, and Stevens Brothers.

Northern District

Landowner                           Acreage
Bel. Est. & Pro Co Ltd.       536,280
R.N. and A. Byass               67,840
Mutrie, Arthur & Currie    140,680
Stevens Bros & Co              48,000
Mrs. Bowen                          17,280
Wardlaw & Usher                17,280
B. Cramer & Co                    17,280
Mrs. Usher                            12,800
Miss Altereith                       6,400
E.A.H. Schofield                  32,000
C.T. Hunter                           9,600
M.J. Castillo                          12,800
F. Escalante                           20,480
Gabriel & Smith                    12,800
Est of G. Estevez                   10,240

In order to clear and drain their land, Yucatecans borrowed heavily from the large landowning firms: thus in 1863, Manuel Jesus Castillo mortgaged 625 acres of Albion Island on the Rio Hondo (including the village of San Antonio) to Young Toledo & Co. for $5864, and drew another $5864 the following year on the same property (Deed Bk 2).  That same year he died, and Young Toledo & Co acquired the land. Meanwhile, however, Young Toledo & Co was encountering its own financial difficulties, and by 1880, when it dissolved, most of its lands had been purchased by the Belize Estate and Produce Company (BepCo) Bolland and Shoman 1977).  Thus in 1874, Castillo’s son, Manuel Jesus, a logwood cutter from Orange Walk, purchased 625 acres from BepCo for $3000 (Deed Bk 4).

For the next thirty years Castillo and his son Policarpio operated as logwood and mahogany cutters and sugar cultivators as the firm of M. J. Castillo and Son.   But by 1904 the prices for all three items had dropped and Castillo and Son again sold the land to James Currie, surviving partner of Mutrie, Arthur and Currie, together with a mahogany  work called Eight Mile Creek and adjoining  work, 2 mules, 9 cows, and 5 steers, all buildings except their residences, and two U.S. insurance policies. When Currie died in 1915, the value was assessed at £20,000. Currie’s heirs tried to hold onto the property, but could not find anyone to manage it properly, and in 1918, Belizean millionaire Robert Turton bought the property for the rock bottom price of $700. Thirty years later, when the colonial government had committed money to develop sugar, Crispin, Policarpio’s nephew, bought it back for $BZ2900.

While the bulk of Albion, some 10,000 acres, remained throughout in the hands of BepCo, the Castillos continued as resident squires: Olga Stavrakis, who did fieldwork in San Antonio in the 1970s, pointed out that among the Maya villagers, the Castillos were said to have “amassed their wealth (gold) and their peons” and come to the village, where they buried the gold in order to “keep it out of the hands of the Indians” (1979:46).

Francisco Escalante, who established a store in Orange Walk, then a town of only some 1200 people, traded with Mayas and Yucatecans on both sides of the Hondo, and was said to have prospered considerably in the trade in guns and ammunition (Emond 1983).  By 1872 he was one of the town’s wealthiest residents and known locally as a hero of the 1872 Battle of Orange Walk (reputedly having shot the Mayan leader Marcus Canul). By 1882 he had acquired the two large sugar plantations at Indian Hill and Trial Farm initially owned by trader and planter Henry Oswald.

Oswald’s experience illuminates the fortunes to be made and lost in sugar.  Oswald came to Belize in 1848 from Nassau, where he was persuaded by a Frenchman, Adolphus Lanabit, of better prospects in Belize. After failing to make a go of an initial hotel venture, the two invested in a trading expedition to the Yucatán, where they had become established by 1850 (Cal 1983:64), trading further and further inland. After a few years Oswald “settled down as a sugar planter for a year or two” at Corozal, drawing on some money inherited from his family in Scotland. In 1856, he sold his plantation, and bought two works on the Sittee River – Uncle Sam and Plenty – from Charles Usher Forman (Deeds Bk 2, p. 67). In 1861 he sold both to Young, Toledo & Co, at a profit, and purchased the land he had been leasing from the same firm called Indian Hill, followed by another purchase a mile up on the New River, called Trial Farm.

An “enthusiastic agriculturalist,” Oswald bought out his partner in 1861 and began to experiment with cacao and coffee, but while he did well at first, he found the plants died when their roots reached the subsoil (Colonial Guardian 7.15.1905). In 1872 he too played a heroic role in the Battle of Orange Walk, rescuing the town magistrate “from the clutches of hostile Indians,” and escorting a group of refugees (including his own wife and children) down river to San Estévan. Thereafter, however, he had a series of setbacks: a fire and an explosion ruined his cane fields, rum stores, and distillery at Indian Hill. He tried to plant at Trial Farm, but the swampy nature of the land required him to invest in an extensive series of drains. He took a loan, at typically high interest, from Mr. Hodge, of British Honduras Company, to expand his acreage and purchase a new steam mill, mortgaging both properties and consigning his produce to Hodge.  Hodge of course thereby obtained both properties not long afterward. Oswald died in 1877, and Francisco Escalante shortly thereafter purchased the sugar estates from the Belize Estate and Produce Company.

Francisco’s two plantations were willed to his son Tiburcio, with shares to his brother Eliodoro, a merchant in Orange Walk. After Tiburcio’s death in 1920 the land remained in the estates until 1964, when Indian Hill was acquired by the government on behalf of the Belize Sugar Company. By then, there were other fortunes to be made in sugar, and the Escalantes were among those who made them.

However, Orange Walk was always regarded as something of a rough frontier town; only a few saw it as a land of opportunity. Corozal was where the Yucatecan elite made their homes, and

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