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The Mayans and Ambergris Caye

The Mayan civilization flourished in Central America from about 2000 B.C. to about 1000 A.D. These short, muscular built, red-skinned Indians built great temples, made astonishing artifacts, tools and pottery, carved their history on slabs of stelae and made scholastic achievements that forever changed the world. They were great astronomers, created an efficient calendar, derived their own writing system and developed ingenious mathematical concepts including the concept of 0.

Among their greatest achievements was that they managed to devise an innovative trade route throughout Central America from Mexico to as far off as Roatan Island, Honduras. It is believed that the first Mayan settlers that occupied Ambergris Caye totaled 10,000, inhabited almost every part of the island and initially set up fishing villages. As their communities progressed they converted their settlements into trading centers.

Mayan Girl

To better accommodate their trading, it is believed that the Mayas dug a narrow channel, less that a mile long and no wider than a few feet, at the northern most tip of the island. Actually, Ambergris Caye is not really an island but rather the end of the Yucatan Peninsula. The channel separates Ambergris Caye from Mexico and allowed the Mayans to cut their travel time considerably, since they no longer had to travel all the way around the island to get to northern mainland Belize and Chetumal Bay. Today the channel is called Bacalar Chico and is a marine reserve.

The Mayas continued to thrive until about 1000 A.D. when they declined and left the island unoccupied until the coming of a new people who would contribute monumentally to the history of the Island.

The British Pirates and Ambergris Caye

In the 1600s British pirates roaming the Caribbean found a little haven, discretely tucked inside a great barrier reef. It is believed that the pirates used Ambergris Caye as a safe haven to hide-out and stash their valuables and that they eventually dredged the Bacalar Channel to facilitate the transportation of their treasures to mainland Belize. It is during this period that Ambergris Caye supposedly got its name. The pirates, always out to make a quick buck, are believed to have been whalers and eventually logwood cutters. It is said that the pirates collected Whale excrement, called ambergris, that washed up on shore of the island. The oil from this ambergris was sent to Europe where it was highly valued for its use in making perfumes.

Pirates

The pirates eventually turned to logwood cutting on the mainland, and left the island unoccupied.

The Owners of Ambergris Caye

Boy

As time progressed the British settlers who inhabited mainland Belize achieved great economic and political advances. A company of wealthy businessmen formed a company named Belize Agriculture Company and held the first legal title to the island. They acquired the island for agricultural purposes and it is believed that they might have planted Sea Island Cotton. This business failed and in 1842 the land was sold to Mr. Welsh and Mr. Golf.

These men later approached the Superintendent in charge and requested that they be given title to the land because they had purchased it from the Belize Agriculture Company. The Superintendent was hesitant because there was an ongoing territorial dispute between the British and Mexicans over the island. Mexico was claiming Ambergris Caye as a part of the Yucatan Peninsula. The Superintendent did not wish to provoke the Mexicans but eventually conceded and issued a Crown Grant on March 19th,1842.

By this time the Caye was already inhabited by Mexican fishermen and their families, probably from Xcalak, Mexico just north of Ambergris Caye. In 1847 the Mayas in Mexico who had been kept in legal slavery by the Spanish and Mexicans for more than 300 years revolted and the Caste War ensued and lasted for 60 years. Mayass, Mestizo (mixture of Spanish and Maya) and even Spanish fled to find a safe haven that they could call home.

In the first year of the war refugees entered the British settlement and requested permission to settle mostly in the northern part of present day Belize. Permission was granted and a small number of immigrants numbering about 50 families, came to Ambergris Caye and joined the settlers already there.

In 1866 Robert Humes purchased the land from Golf and Welsh. Humes later sold the land to James Mercier Putman, William Standernwick Cary and Justavo Von Ohlafen. The three men later mortgaged the land to a Mr. Antonio Mathe for $9,000.00. Mathe later died bankrupt and the bank ordered the Caye to be auctioned. On September 13th, 1869 Mr. James Humes Blake purchased the Caye for $625.00. Mr. Blake at the time was a Magistrate in Corozal, northern Belize.

The island was passed down to members of the Parham and Alamilla families who married into the Blake family.

Throughout the next 50 years, settlers developed the island's fishing industry, planted and harvested coconut plantations and contributed to the islands distinct beauty and history.

The immigrants enjoyed a life of freedom but it was by no means an easy one. In the late mid 1900s the villagers claimed that the Blake family in the person of, Anita Alamilla the great great grand daughter of James Humes Blake, was charging outrageous amounts of money for land rental. This was money that they could not possibly afford. The first settlers had been squatters and had not been charged rent until the Blake/Alamilla/ Parham family had come into possession of the Caye. On several occasions they petitioned the Governor to render whatever assistance he could. Through very short correspondence the Governor responded that because the land was privately owned there was nothing that he could do.

This continued until Belize became self-governing in 1964 and the Peoples United Party came to their assistance by purchasing land, having it surveyed and issuing lots to the settlers.

San Pedro, Ambergris Caye today

The village continued to grow and in 1984 San Pedro officially went from being a village to a town.

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