King's College London
Online Exhibitions
Ploughing the sea: Latin America observed

British Honduras

Engraved frontispiece plate depicting the church (now cathedral) of St John in Belize. Also showing title page on right.The church (now cathedral) of St John in Belize.A British colony until 1981, the now independent nation of Belize (formerly British Honduras) is the only country in Central America where English is the official language. The British presence there dates back to the 17th century, when British sailors from Jamaica began to set up seasonal logging camps on the Belize river, attracted by the area's extensive forests of mahogany trees (mahogany was much in demand for shipbuilding).

These seasonal camps later became permanent settlements, inhabited largely by Scottish emigrants and African slaves. The area was formally part of the Spanish empire, but the British settlers refused to acknowledge Spain's authority and the Spaniards made various unsuccessful attempts to expel them.

By the late 18th century the Bay of Honduras and its exports of timber had become important enough to Britain for the London government to take an interest, and in 1784 it assumed de facto sovereignty by appointing a superintendent, an Irish republican named Edward Despard, to govern the settlements. His tenure of this post was brief and undistinguished, ending in dismissal, and he was later hanged in 1803 for attempting to assassinate George III.

His successor, Colonel Peter Hunter, however, was an energetic officer who immediately set about fortifying the principal settlement, Belize. On 10 September 1798 a British naval force, assisted by many settlers and slaves, inflicted an emphatic defeat on a Spanish fleet at the Battle of St George's Caye, and Spain made no further attempts to gain control of the British settlements.

When the rest of Central America broke away from Spanish rule in 1821 Belize entered a period of great prosperity; the new republics were now open for trade and the port of Belize was the conduit through which imported manufactured goods flowed. The settlements now had a functioning administration and, as the pamphlet on display shows, a growing middle class with an interest in good works. The plate shows the church (now cathedral) of St John in Belize, whose construction began in 1812. It is the oldest Anglican church in Central America.

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