Monday, November 15, 2010

Stephens and Catherwood (2) "The last place made"

It was full moonlight when the boy mounted the deck and gave us the pilot's welcome. I could not distinguish his featurs, but I could see that he was not white; and his voice was as soft as a woman's.

After eighteen days of "boisterous weather" the Mary Ann passed alongside Lighthouse Caye and approached 'Balize', at which point her captain invited on board a lad of about sixteen, described above by Stephens. He was the son of a professional pilot engaged by a large, mahogany-laden brig in St George's Bay.

The next morning the passengers would disembark at a warehouse owned by the evocatively-named Mr Coffin, and shortly thereafter John Lloyd Stephens himself was partaking of what was locally known as the 'second breakfast' at the home of a merchant.

The gentleman sat on one side of the table and his lady on the other. At the head was a British officer, and opposite him a mulatto; on his left was another officer, and opposite him also a mulatto. By chance a place was made for me between the two coloured gentlemen. Some of my countrymen, perhaps, would have hesitated about taking it, but I did not; both were well dressed, well educated, and polite. They talked of their mahogany works, of England, hunting, horses, ladies, and wine; and before I had been an hour in Balize I learned that the great work of practical amalgamation, the subject of so much angry controversy in the States, had been going on quietly for generations ; that colour was considered mere matter of taste ; and that some of the most respectable inhabitants had black wives and mongrel children, whom they educated with as much care, and made money for with as much zeal, as if their skins were perfectly white.

I hardly knew whether to be shocked or amused at this condition of society; and, in the meantime, joined Mr. Catherwood, to visit the house offered by Mr. Coffin. It was situated on the opposite side of the river, and the road to it was ankle-deep in mud. At the gate was a large puddle, which we cleared by a jump; the house was built on piles about two feet high, and underneath was water nearly a foot deep. We ascended on a plank to the sill of the door, and entered a large room occupying the whole of the first floor, and perfectly empty. The upper story was tenanted by a family of negroes; in the yard was a house swarming with negroes; and all over, in the yard and in front, were picturesque groups of little negroes of both sexes, and naked as they were born. We directed the room to be swept and our luggage brought there; and, as we left the house, we remembered Captain Hampton’s description before our arrival, and felt the point of his concluding remark, that Balize was the last place made.

John Lloyd Stephens was nothing less than what we English refer to as a 'good bloke'. But he was also a bloke of his times, and although he would — famously — go on to accommodate into his worldview the notion that the great Mayan ruins he and Catherwood catalogued had been constructed by the rather tattered indigenous communities living nearby, he was playing to his less enlightened stateside readers a bit when he reported that the brightest and most improving pupils at the negro schools behind Government House were "those who had in them the most white blood."

Belize, not to become a British crown colony until 1862, was very much ahead of the curve when it came to emancipation. Only a couple of months before the Mary Ann's arrival, the condition of the black portion of the portion of the population (4000/6000) had been improved, legally at least. It had anyway, Stephens notes, always been...

...better than that of plantation slaves; even before the act for the general abolition of slavery throughout the British dominions, they were actually free; and on the 31st of August, 1839, a year before the time appointed by the act, by a general meeting and agreement of proprietors, even the nominal yoke of bondage was removed. The event was celebrated, says the Honduras Almanac, by religious ceremonies, processions, bands of music, and banners with devices: “The sons of Ham respect the memory of Wilberforce,” - ” The Queen, God bless her,” – ” M*Donald for ever,” – ” Civil and religious liberty all over the world.” Nelson Schaw, ” a snowdrop of the first water,” continues the Almanac, ” advanced to his Excellency, Colonel M*Donald and spoke as follows: ‘ On the part of my emancipated brothers and sisters, I venture to approach your Excellency, to entreat you to thank our most gracious Queen for all that she has done for us. We will pray for her ; we will fight for her ; and, if it be necessary, we will die for her. We thank your Excellency for all you have done for us. God bless your Excellency 1 God bless her Excellency, Mrs. McDonald, and all the Royal family! Come, my countrymen, hurrah ! Dance, ye black rascals ! the flag of England flies over your heads, and every rustle of its folds knocks the fetters off the limbs of the poor slave . Hubbabboo Cochalorum Gee ! ”

The President's special emissary also pays a visit to the barracks where he finds a regiment of black soldiers, many of whom form the remnant of an old Jamaica unit which had BEEN enlisted at the English recruiting stations in West Africa. "They carry themselves proudly, call themselves the 'Queen's Gentle-men,' and look down upon the 'niggers'."

Stephens, himself a lawyer, was to find men and women of mixed race amongst the judges and jurors at the Grand Court. It would be interesting to know whether the racial categories he uses in his report — sambo, mulatto etc. — were imported by the visitors, or whether they were still formal and socially-significant distinctions in the Belize City of 1839. The terminology employed by the warlike red-coats at the barracks suggests that it was still some way from complete harmony amongst the various demographics and their skin tones, as indeed it is today.

1 comment:

Begonia said...

I am enjoying this series. I agree with you on the writing for the folks back home--I get the sense he really isn't as shocked as tries to appear.