I walked into San Pedro’s new House of Culture to talk about one thing – the upcoming holiday Dia De San Pedro – and left with 5 pages of dense notes and a head packed with local history.
Mito Paz, the Director of the House of Culture, direct descendant (great, great great great? grand nephew) of one of San Pedro’s founders, lover of local lore and just a enthusiastic NICE guy sat down with me to answer some questions.
Mito grew up in this town, he has been the Director of Green Reef, he was been on the San Pedro Town Council, he runs a kids’ camp up north in the summer and he has written a field guide to Bacalar Chico – he is a true lover of Ambergris Caye.
And instead of just talking about the festival devoted to the patron saint of fishing and this town, St. Peter or San Pedro, we took it back. Way back. And it goes a little something like this…
This gorgeous mural in the House of Culture is a representation of Ambergris Caye’s history from the Maya to present.
In 1847, the Caste Wars began in the Yucatan peninsula – where the native Maya (the very bottom of the caste system) revolted against the colonial Spaniards. Many of those of European descent were driven out…and some in the south, from Tulum and Bacalar, fled to British Honduras or Belize.
Coming to Orange Walk and Corozal and Ambergris Caye.
People fleeing from the town of Bacalar (I put a little sun next to it on the map) named the Northern part of Ambergris Caye – Bacalar Chico. Or “Little Bacalar”.
Here is a photo of fresh water Lake Bacalar in Mexico (a GORGEOUS place if you haven’t visited yet)…you can see why they named the Northern part of Ambergris after it.
In 1850, the very first document was signed and sent to Belize City…
by residents of the island asking that Cristiano Novelo (great great…uncle of Mito) be named head of the alcalde – the government system used for small villages. The village was officially called San Pedro in the document.
The Blake family (a family of British descent but living on the mainland of then British Honduras) were land owners and business people. They were in the logwood business – a tree that was logged heavily in Belize and used for die. When there was a substitute found for the dye, they moved into the chicle business. Trees (the sapodilla) used for extracting rubbery material used for bubble gum.
In the 1870s, the Blake family bought Ambergris Caye and started a coconut business. Mr Blake and his wife from the Alamilla family moved to San Pedro to run that venture.
For years, the island was all about coconuts. And the land owners were the Blakes, the Alamillas and later the Parhams. Laborers grew, husked and dried coconuts (called copra) for shipment to the United States.
Here’s the copra Mito showed me.
It would later be used to press into oil. In the late 19th and early 20th century, there were two villages on Ambergris Caye. TWO VILLAGES! One, San Pedro, with about 3-400 hundred people and another north, past Rocky Point (about 15 miles north) with up to two hundred people.
The workers were paid by the plantation owners with coupons to the local stores (also owned by the land owners) so…while there was a bit of an indentured servant situation going on.
There was fishing for food…not for lobster (that was pretty much consider junk in the early 1900s) and not for conch. Fishing for conch? You could just roll up your pants and go pluck it from the water.
Locals were eating snapper, bonefish and…a bit of manatee.
But all of this changed in 1942…when a hurricane – the ONLY known to strike Belize in November – made a direct hit on Caye Caulker. (Hurricane season officially lasts from June 1st to Nov 30th.)
It is estimated to have hit with winds at 110 mph but as Wikipedia says that may be a conservative estimate. It left only 7 buildings remains in San Pedro, destroyed the northern settlement and all of the coconut trees.
No work on the island and in the midst of World War 2…
I’ll continue tomorrow…and I didn’t even get to Dia De San Pedro yet!
If you have any corrections, additions or stories…I’d love to hear them. Feel MORE THAN free to comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.