Belize, with which my distant cousin George Fife Angas traded from his London base, has a checkered past. It began life as a harbour for British pirates, whom the local Spanish rulers were unable to dislodge. In the seventeenth century, the buccaneers moved, like more recent gangsters, into legitimate business activity.
Their main trade was the felling of the bloodwoodtree (such a piratical name for a tree!): the timber was exported to Britain where it was used for dyeing cloth. As demand for bloodwood fell off, they began to harvest rain-forest mahogany in huge quantities. It was this which drew George Angas to Belize, to supply the hardwood timber requirements of the family’s coach-building business in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
George Fife Angas (1789-1879)
In order to make his ships pay on both legs of the journey, Angas loaded them on the outward voyage with luxury goods from Europe, Jamaica and North America, for which there was a steady demand from the British Hondurans. They may have foresworn actual piracy, but the British settlers were still a hard-living, fiercely independent population. Their taste for rich plunder remained, and Angas always carried strong alcoholic cargo to satisfy their prodigious thirst, as announced for example in this notice in the Honduras Gazette and Commercial Advertiser of Saturday 10th March 1827:
One sea-captain who had the misfortune to be shipwrecked on Honduran shores spent many months with the bloodwoodsmen while waiting to be rescued. Admittedly this was in 1720, a century before Angas’s time, but he described his hosts as “generally a rude drunken crew, some of which have been pirates.” There was, he noted, “but little comfort living among these crew of ungovernable wretches, where was little else to be heard but blasphemy, cursing and swearing.”
But there is honour among thieves and a code of rough justice even among pirates. By 1738 the community had begun to elect magistrates from amongst its population to rule on common law; and in 1826 it was those magistrates who edited a new weekly newspaper for the settlement, the Gazette in which Angas and his fellow traders advertised their wares.
In March 1827 the magistrates felt confident enough to delegate the editorship to the paper’s printer, James Cruickshank, but relieved him of it only eight months later on the grounds of his intemperance. In retrospect the seeds of his drunkenness were in this notice appearing in the second edition for which Cruickshank was responsible. Cruickshank was taking on another new role, as hotelier:
The Belize Coffee-House and Hotel sounds to me exactly the sort of establishment which would have been enjoyed by the town’s piratical founders two centuries earlier: the private rooms for parties, the emphasis on grog, ale, porter and wines by the gallon or quart or case. And James Cruickshank seems to have been unequal to the task of resisting temptation when, as a partner in the hotel venture, he presumably had his own key to the Coffee-House liquor store. Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum.