British Honduras was the name of a territory on the east coast of Central America, south of Mexico, after it became a British crown colony in 1862. The capital was established at what became Belize City. In 1964, British Honduras became a self-governing colony. The colony was renamed Belize in June 1973 and gained full independence in September 1981. For the pre-colonial and post-colonial history and stamp details, please see the previous A Stamp A Day article about Belize. British Honduras was the last continental possession of the United Kingdom in the Americas.
In 1862, Great Britain formally established the Crown Colony of British Honduras, subordinate to Jamaica. It had an area of 8,867 square miles (22,966 square kilometers) and an 1861 population of 25,635. During the Caste War in Yucatán, a devastating struggle that halved the population of the area between 1847 and 1855, thousands of refugees had fled to the British settlement. The Legislative Assembly had given large landowners in the colony firm titles to their vast estates in 1855 but did not allow the Maya to own land. The Maya could only rent land or live on reservations. Nevertheless, most of the refugees were small farmers who, by 1857, were growing considerable quantities of sugar, rice, corn, and vegetables in the Northern District (now Corozal and Orange Walk districts).
Letters were sent via Jamaica as early as 1786. A handstamp reading BELIZE was used on foreign mail from about 1800 and the first local post office was established on October 31, 1809. The first regular packet service (‘Mexican Packet’) called on the run from Jamaica to Vera Cruz in 1829. A branch post office directly under London was opened in 1857. British postage stamps were introduced to the territory in 1858, with obliteration A06 used at Belize. The colony took over the posts on April 1, 1860, after which only stampless handstamps to indicate payment of postage were used until 1866.
In 1857 the town of Corozal, then six years old, had 4,500 inhabitants, second in population only to Belize Town, which had 7,000 inhabitants. Some Maya, who had fled the strife in the north but had no wish to become subjects of the British, settled in the remote area of the Yalbac Hills, just beyond the woodcutting frontier in the northwest. By 1862 about 1,000 Maya established themselves in ten villages in this area, with the center in San Pedro. One group of Maya, led by Marcos Canul, attacked a mahogany camp on the Bravo River in 1866, demanding ransom for their prisoners and rent for their land. A detachment of British troops sent to San Pedro was defeated by the Maya later that year. Early in 1867, more than 300 British troops marched into the Yalbac Hills and destroyed the Mayan villages, provision stores, and granaries in an attempt to drive them out of the district. The Maya returned, however, and in April 1870, Canul and his men marched into Corozal and occupied the town.
Two years later, Canul and 150 men attacked the barracks at Orange Walk. After several hours of fighting, Canul’s group retired. Canul, mortally wounded, died on September 1, 1872. That battle was the last serious attack on the colony.
From 1749 until 1884, British Honduras was governed as a dependency of the British colony of Jamaica. Upon its designation as a separate Crown Colony in 1871, a lieutenant governor under the governor of Jamaica replaced the superintendent, and a nominated legislative council replaced the legislative assembly. When the colony was finally severed from the administration of Jamaica in 1884, it gained its own governor.
On December 1, 1865, the colony introduced its own stamps (Scott #1-3). The design was a profile of Queen Victoria typical of British stamps of the time, with an oval band reading BRITISH HONDURAS and the denomination, which in the first issue consisted of 1 penny, 6 pence, and 1 shilling values. The design continued in use until the Key Plate issue of 1891, with periodic changes of watermark and perforation.
The currency changed from pounds to cents and dollars in 1888, which necessitated the surcharging of the stamp stock with values ranging from 2 cents to 50 cents. The Key Plate issue of 1891 ended the need for surcharges; initially consisting of 6 values, 5 cent and 10 cent values were added in 1895, and a 25 cent value in 1898.
In the 1880s and 1890s, Mopán and Kekchí Maya fled from forced labor in Guatemala and came to British Honduras. They settled in several villages in southern British Honduras, mainly around San Antonio in Toledo District. The Maya could use crown lands set aside as reservations, but these people lacked communal rights. Under the policy of indirect rule, a system of elected alcaldes (mayors), adopted from Spanish local government, linked these Maya to the colonial administration. However, the remote area of British Honduras in which they settled, combined with their largely subsistence way of life, resulted in the Mopán and Kekchí Maya maintaining more of their traditional way of life and becoming less assimilated into the colony than the Maya of the north. The Mopán and Kekchí Maya maintained their languages and a strong sense of identity.
In the north, the distinction between Maya and Spanish was increasingly blurred, as a Mestizo culture emerged. In different ways and to different degrees, then, the Maya who returned to British Honduras in the nineteenth century became incorporated into the colony as poor and dispossessed ethnic minorities. By the end of the nineteenth century, the ethnic pattern that remained largely intact throughout the twentieth century was in place: Protestants largely of African descent, who spoke either English or Creole and lived in Belize Town; the Roman Catholic Maya and Mestizos who spoke Spanish and lived chiefly in the north and west; and the Roman Catholic Garifuna who spoke English, Spanish, or Garifuna and settled on the southern coast.
Largely as a result of the costly military expeditions against the Maya, the expenses of administering the new colony of British Honduras increased, and that at a time of severe depression in the economy. Large landowners and merchants dominated the Legislative Assembly, which controlled the colony’s revenues and expenditures. Some of the landowners also had involvement in commerce, but their interest differed from those of the other merchants of Belize Town. The former group resisted the taxation of land and favored an increase in import duties; the latter preferred the opposite. Moreover, the merchants in the town felt relatively secure from Mayan attacks and reluctant to contribute toward the protection of mahogany camps, whereas the landowners felt that they should not be required to pay taxes on lands given inadequate protection.
These conflicting interests produced a stalemate in the Legislative Assembly, which failed to authorize the raising of sufficient revenue. Unable to agree among themselves, the members of the Legislative Assembly surrendered their political privileges and asked for the establishment of direct British rule in return for the greater security of crown colony status. The new constitution was inaugurated in April 1871 and the Legislative Council became the new legislature.
Under the new constitution of 1871, the lieutenant governor and the Legislative Council, consisting of five ex-officio or “official” and four appointed or “unofficial” members, governed British Honduras. This constitutional change confirmed and completed a change in the locus and form of power in the colony’s political economy that had evolved during the preceding half-century. The change moved power from the old settler oligarchy to the boardrooms of British companies and to the Colonial Office in London.
In 1899, a modified Key Plate stamp design was inscribed POSTAGE & REVENUE. Existing stamps were also overprinted REVENUE for use as fiscals. The design was retained, but with a new monarchial portrait in 1902, for Edward VII, while George V’s accession resulted in a new design issued from 1913 on. British Honduras’ first commemorative stamp was a 2 cent carmine Peace issue appearing in 1921; the following year the same design was reissued as a 4 cent stamp in grey, but with the words “Peace” removed from the design.
The forestry industry’s control of land and its influence in colonial decision making hindered 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 19th-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.
The mahogany trade remained depressed in the early part of the twentieth century. 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 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.
The Great Depression shattered the colony’s economy, and unemployment increased rapidly. The Colonial Report for 1931 stated that “contracts for the purchase of mahogany and chicle, which form the mainstay of the Colony, practically ceased altogether, thereby throwing a large number of the woodcutters and chicle-gatherers out of work.” On top of this economic disaster, the worst hurricane in the country’s recent history demolished Belize Town on September 10, 1931, killing more than 1,000 people and destroying at least three-quarters of the housing. The British relief response was tardy and inadequate. The British government seized the opportunity to impose tighter control on the colony and endowed the governor with reserve powers, or the power to enact laws in emergency situations without the consent of the Legislative Council. The Legislative Council resisted but eventually passed a resolution agreeing to give the governor reserve powers to obtain disaster aid. Meanwhile, people in the town were making shelters out of the wreckage of their houses.
As with many of the British colonies, British Honduras issued its first pictorial stamps in 1938, a series consisting of 12 stamps with values from 1 cent to 5 dollars. The two-color designs included Mayan figures, agricultural industries, and local scenes. The 150th anniversary of the Battle of St. George’s Caye was commemorated with six stamps in 1949, three depicting the caye, and three depicting HMS Merlin.
The origins of the independence movement lay in the 1930s and 1940s. Three groups played important roles in the colony’s politics during this period. One group consisted of working-class individuals and emphasised labour issues. The second group, a radical nationalist movement, emerged during World War II. The group called itself variously the British Honduras Independent Labour Party, the People’s Republican Party, and the People’s National Committee. The third group consisted of people who engaged in electoral politics within the narrow limits defined by the constitution and whose goals included a “Natives First” campaign and an extension of the franchise to elect a more representative government.
In September 1949, the British government devalued the British pound sterling. In spite of repeated denials by the governor that the British Honduras dollar would be devalued to maintain the old exchange rate with the British pound, devaluation was nevertheless effected by the governor, using his reserve powers in defiance of the Legislative Council. The governor’s action angered the nationalists because it reflected the limits of the legislature and revealed the extent of the colonial administration’s power. The devaluation enraged labor because it protected the interests of the big transnationals, such as the Belize Estate and Produce Company, whose trade in British pounds would have suffered without devaluation while it subjected British Honduras’s working class, already experiencing widespread unemployment and poverty, to higher prices for goods — especially food — imported from the United States. Devaluation thus united labor, nationalists, and the Creole middle classes in opposition to the colonial administration. On the night that the governor declared the devaluation, the People’s Committee was formed and the nascent independence movement suddenly matured.
British Honduras faced two obstacles to independence: British reluctance until the early 1960s to allow citizens to govern themselves, and Guatemala’s complete intransigence over its long-standing claim to the entire territory (Guatemala had repeatedly threatened to use force to take over British Honduras). By 1961, the United Kingdom was willing to let the colony become independent. From 1964 the UK controlled only defense, foreign affairs, internal security, and the terms and conditions of the public service. On June 1, 1973, the colony’s name was changed to Belize in anticipation of independence. The first stamp issue in 1973 used stamps of the former British Honduras overprinted with BELIZE and two stars. The first issue without overprinting followed this in 1973 with a Royal Wedding issue of two stamps.
After 1975 the UK allowed the colonial government to internationalize its case for independence, so Belizeans participated in international diplomacy even before the territory became an independent state. The stalemate in the protracted negotiations between the UK and Guatemala over the future status of Belize led Belizeans to seek the international community’s assistance in resolving issues associated with independence. Even after Belize became independent in 1981, however, the territorial dispute remained unsettled.
The territorial dispute’s origins lay in the eighteenth-century treaties in which Great Britain acceded to Spain’s assertion of sovereignty while British settlers continued to occupy the sparsely settled and ill-defined area. The 1786 Convention of London, which affirmed Spanish sovereignty was never renegotiated, but Spain never attempted to reclaim the area after 1798. Subsequent treaties between Britain and Spain failed to mention the British settlement. By the time Spain lost control of Mexico and Central America in 1821, Britain had extended its control over the area, albeit informally and unsystematically. By the 1830s, Britain regarded the entire territory between the Hondo River and Sarstoon River as British.
The independent republics that emerged from the disintegrating Spanish Empire in the 1820s claimed that they had inherited Spain’s sovereign rights in the area. The United Kingdom, however, never accepted such a doctrine. Based on this doctrine of inheritance, Mexico and Guatemala asserted claims to Belize. Mexico once claimed the portion of British Honduras north of the Sibun River but dropped the claim in a treaty with Britain in 1893. Since then, Mexico has stated that it would revive the claim only if Guatemala were successful in obtaining all or part of the nation. Still, Mexico was the first nation to recognize Belize as an independent country.
At the center of Guatemala’s oldest claim was the 1859 treaty between the United Kingdom and Guatemala. From Britain’s viewpoint, this treaty merely settled the boundaries of an area already under British dominion. Today’s independent Belize government holds the viewpoint that treaties signed by the UK are not binding on them, that the International Court of Justice’s precedent is that the 1859 treaty is binding on Guatemala unless Guatemala can firmly prove the 1859 treaty was forced upon them by the UK, that international law says any breaches in the 1859 treaty by the UK would not excuse Guatemala’s breaches and the UK never made “material breaches,” that Guatemala never inherited Spain’s claim because Guatemala never occupied that part of Spain’s New World colonies, and the right of a people to self-determination.
Guatemala, in opposition to both the UK and Belize positions, has an older view that this agreement was a treaty of cession through which Guatemala would give up its territorial claims only under certain conditions, including the construction of a road from Guatemala to the Caribbean coast. The UK never built the road, and Guatemala said it would repudiate the treaty in 1884 but never followed up on the threat. The dispute appeared to have been forgotten until the 1930s, when the government of General Jorge Ubico claimed that the treaty was invalid because the road had not been constructed. Britain argued that because neither the short-lived Central American Federation (1821–39) nor Guatemala had ever exercised any authority in the area or even protested the British presence in the nineteenth century, British Honduras was clearly under British sovereignty. In its constitution of 1945, however, Guatemala stated that British Honduras was the twenty-third department of Guatemala (Guatemala’s newest claim on Belize in 1999, however, makes no mention of the 1859 treaty, instead relying on Anglo-Spanish treaties of the eitghteenth century).
In February 1948, Guatemala threatened to invade and forcibly annex the territory, and the British responded by deploying two companies from 2nd Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment. One company deployed to the border and found no signs of any Guatemalan incursion, but the British decided to permanently station a company in Belize City. Since 1954 a succession of military and right-wing governments in Guatemala frequently whipped up nationalist sentiment, generally to divert attention from domestic problems. Guatemala also periodically massed troops on the border with the country in a threatening posture. In 1957, responding to a Guatemalan threat to invade, a company of the Worcesteshire Regiment was deployed, staying briefly and carrying out jungle training before leaving. On January 21 1958, a force of pro-Guatemalan fighters from the Belize Liberation Army, who had likely been aided and encouraged by Guatemala, crossed the border and raised the Guatemalan flag. A British platoon was then deployed and exchanged fire with them, before arresting some 20 fighters.
There was a serious fear of a Guatemalan invasion in April 1982, when it was thought that Guatemala might take advantage of the Falklands War to invade, but these fears never materialized. In 1994, three years after Guatemala recognized Belizean independence, British Forces Belize was disbanded and most British troops left Belize, but the British maintained a training presence via the British Army Training and Support Unit Belize and 25 Flight AAC until 2011, when the last British forces, except for seconded advisers, left Belize.
Scott #116 was released on February 14, 1938. Recess printed in carmine and black on paper watermarked with a multi-script CA and perforated 11×11½, the two cent stamp pictures the process of chicle tapping. Chicle is a natural gum traditionally used in making chewing gum and other products, collected from several species of Mesoamerican trees in the Manilkara genus, including M. zapota, M. chicle, M. staminodella, and M. bidentata. The tapping of the gum is similar to the tapping of latex from the rubber tree — zig-zag gashes are made in the tree trunk and the dripping gum is collected in small bags. It is then boiled until it reaches the correct thickness. Locals who collect chicle are called chicleros. Chicle was well known to the Nahuatl-Aztecs and to the Maya, and early European settlers prized it for its subtle flavor and high sugar content.
Both the Aztecs and Maya traditionally chewed chicle. It was chewed as a way to stave off hunger, freshen breath, and keep teeth clean. Chicle was also used by the Maya as a filling for tooth cavities. Historically, the Adams Chewing Gum Company was a prominent user of this ingredient in the production of chewing gum. In response to a land reform law passed in Guatemala in 1952, which ended feudal work relations and expropriated unused lands and sold them to the indigenous and peasants, the Wrigley Gum Company discontinued buying Guatemalan chicle. Since it was the sole buyer of Guatemalan chicle, the government was forced to create a massive aid program for growers. By the 1960s, most chewing gum companies had switched from using chicle to butadiene-based synthetic rubber which was cheaper to manufacture. Only a handful of small gum companies still use chicle, including Glee Gum, Simply Gum, and Tree Hugger Gum.