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Saturday 27 June 2015


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.

Saturday 20 June 2015


George Fife Angas was a cousin of my 3x great uncle Joseph Angus. The spellings of their surname had diverged with different branches of the family several generations earlier. George is revered, and well documented, as the father of South Australia; but his exploits in Central America are much less well known.

George Fife Angas (1789-1879)

George’s father Caleb Angas was a builder of horse-drawn carriages in Newcastle-upon-Tyne who imported his own mahogany from Honduras. George, the youngest of Caleb’s seven sons, learned the ropes and in 1824 formed a separate shipping company to handle the timber imports. Britain had been granted mahogany-cutting rights by the Spanish authorities in 1786, and the Honduran port of Belize was the centre of their operations, a British colony in all but title. (The area around the port only became an official part of the British Empire, as British Honduras, in 1862; and when it gained its independence in 1981 it reverted to Belize.)

On their outward journeys to Belize, the ships carried all manner of goods for which Angas judged there might be a market among the British mahongany cutters. The arrival of the latest cargo was announced in the port’s English-language newspaper, the Honduras Gazette and Commercial Advertiser. On 3rd January 1827, for example, a notice declared:

Such was the strength of the British enclave at Belize that, although not yet formally a colony, it had many of a colony’s institutions, including its own magistrates. The Gazette was established in July 1826, primarily as a vehicle for legal notices of one sort or another. Jurors, for example, were summoned to their duty through its pages – a very public summons which, one imagines, made it much easier for the accused to influence his or her jury.

The magistrates took on the editorship of the Gazette for most of its first year of publication before leaving the task in the hands of the newspaper’s printer JamesCruickshank. Eight months later however, as Thomas Pickstock (one of George Angas’s fellow importers) recalled, they “in their wisdom took it out of his hands, by reason of his intemperance, and very properly appointed a Committee for its better Government.” Perhaps it was the pressure of the weekly deadline that got to him [writes this weekly blogger!].

The Honduras Gazette and Commercial Advertiser
[Vol. 1. No. 39.] Belize, Saturday, March. 24, 1827. [Price 1s. 8d.] 
James Cruickshank's second edition as editor

In only the second edition under his charge, Cruickshank reported an alleged theft from the cargo of one of George Angas’s fleet. It appeared that
a negro man named Green … a seaman on board the schooner George Angas, had plundered from the cargo of that vessel, while on her passage from this port [Belize] to Ysabal, some Pracianas and Cambrics, which he sold in the place last mentioned. He however endeavoured to account for his possession of the goods, after a great deal of prevarication, by saying he bought some of them here, but did not know from whom, and that others were given to him by a negro woman slave to sell on her account. He was fully committed to trial at the ensuing April Summary Court.

Ysabel was a Spanish port on the east coast of Texas at its border with Mexico. Cambric is a fine cloth of linen or cotton. I have no idea what a praciana was. Cruickshank carried a report of the trial itself two weeks later.
The schooner George Angas had been freighted [hired] to a Spanish gentleman named Ramoon [sic] to carry his goods to Ysabal. Ramoon had been led to notice the prisoner disposing of merchandise similar to that bought by him. This occasioned him to open several of his [Ramoon’s] packages, which turned out to be deficient in quantity. It also appeared that the goods sold and given away by him [Green] were of the same quality as Ramoon had bought, and the number of pieces missing corresponded precisely with the number found in the prisoner’s possession.

Mr Miller [one of Angas’s partners in trade] who conducted the prosecution on behalf of the firm stated his inability to produce further evidence. He had felt it his duty, he said, to bring the prisoner before the Court, as suspicion rested so strongly upon him. The rest of the crew were at sea, and consequently could not be brought forward as witnesses.

The prisoner in his defence said that he had bought some goods in Belize to sell in Ysabal, but positively denied the possession of the quantity the indictment specified. He further stated that all the goods had been safely landed under the immediate eye of their owner, and that therefore it was impossible for him [Green] to rob the trunks, particularly as the vessel was small and several persons on board. The jury deliberated for a few minutes and returned a verdict of Not Guilty.

Perhaps Green was a careless thief, fencing stolen goods so openly and lucky to be acquitted. Perhaps Ramoon saw a chance of a bogus claim, either against a former slave or against a British trader. It’s interesting that Green was employed on one of Angas’s ships, and I wonder if he ever sailed to Britain; Angas is credited by some for his part in the abolition of slavery in the territory in 1831.

British Honduras: Mahogany being squared for export
(postcard c1890) 

Saturday 13 June 2015


The Brasier name crops up in several marriages in the pedigrees of my ancestors who were part of the Protestant Ascendancy – the English settlers sent to colonise Ireland and prevent rebellion among the Catholic Irish. The act of implanting such settlers was known as plantation, as if they were some alien species of tree being unnaturally introduced to the landscape by a political Forestry Commission. There were several waves of plantation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries starting with the Tudor conquest of the island in the 1550s.

Plantations tended to follow periods of unrest. Two rebellions by the Irish Earl of Desmond in the 1570s and 1580s resulted in the plantation of his lands in Munster, in southwestern Ireland. A decade later an Ireland-wide rebellion led by O’Neill of Tyrone drove out the Munster incomers. But when that rebellion was squashed in 1603, the Munster plantation was resurrected; and plans were made by James VI/I for a much larger one in the north of the country, in Ulster, which had seen the fiercest resistance to English rule.

James VI of Scotland and I of England (c1606, after John de Critz)
The union of the two countries’ crowns spawned the idea of a plantation of Ulster by equal numbers of Scots and English incomers

The plan required landed gentry from England and Scotland to take on confiscated Ulster land and populate it with workers from their estates back in Britain – Irish tenants were banned, and those undertaking the plantation (who were known as undertakers) were each obliged to introduce 48 adult males, 20 of them with families and all of them Protestant. 

Veterans of the war were also rewarded with parcels of land. In cases where the new land owners were unwilling or unable to deliver the required level of Protestant population, the king turned in 1607 to the powerful trade guilds of the City of London. They had the manpower, the wealth and (perhaps most importantly) the skills required to sustain the venture; but they had grave reservations about getting involved. One worshipful company recorded in its minutes that “it would be very foolish to entermeddle in this busynesse, for it will be exceedingly chargeable.” 

The arms of The Honourable The Irish Society, formed in 1613 and still active today

James overcame their lack of enthusiasm with the threat of fines and imprisonment. The companies fell into groups headed by one of the twelve “Great Companies”, all under the umbrella of a sub-committee of the Corporation of London which came to be called The Honourable The Irish Society. Each of the twelve was allocated an area of Ulster, on which they must build a castle, villages and churches, all ruled by English law, customs and religion, using the English language.

The Clothworkers for example, (whose group included butchers, bakers, bow- and arrow-makers, upholsterers and merchant tailors), were given the area around Killowen on the west bank of the River Bann. They faced the site on the east bank on which the Irish Society now began to plan and build the fortified town of Coleraine. Paul Brasier arrived in Ireland in 1611, the first of his family to do so. Although I don’t know which company brought him, he was an alderman of Coleraine by July 1639, when he and a business partner John Hatton were renewing the lease of a tannery in the town. 

Coleraine, 1611

Paul seems to have been a prominent and successful citizen by then. In September that year he was one of five members of a consortium allowed by the King’s Commissioners to build a new wharf for the town. As further proof of the Brasiers’ status in the new colony, Paul’s son (also Paul) married Sarah Beresford, a granddaughter of Tristram Beresford, the man appointed by the Corporation of London to manage the Ulster Plantation. Sarah's father was Sir Tristram Beresford, Baronet. Talk about connections in high places.

Saturday 6 June 2015


I have two fob-watches. 
One is a wedding keepsake. When my brother got married three years ago in northern Portugal, he and his Spanish bride gave watches to all the male guests and perfume to all the women. It was a proper feast of a wedding celebration, lashings of food and drink and dance and music and family and friendship; and the watch is just one example of the generosity of spirit and fullness of love which marked the occasion.

The other watch was given to me in 1997, the year of my own marriage, by my late father. I remember the date because along with it he included the bill from the jeweller who had just repaired it. The jeweller, Martin of Maryhill in Glasgow, describes the watch in some detail in his report:
A gentleman’s 18ct gold half hunter fob watch by Vacheron Constantin. Watch hallmarked through London 1907. Inscription dated 1909.

Jean-Marc Vacheron was a Swiss watchmaker who set up shop in Geneva in 1755. His sons inherited the thriving business in 1785, then his grandson in 1810. In 1819 the latter, Jacques-Barthélemy Vacheron, went into partnership with François Constantin. In his letter to Vacheron on 5th July 1819, Constantin wrote that the new partnership must strive to “do better if possible – and that is always possible.” That became the company’s motto, and remains so to this day. The company, one of the top three Swiss watchmakers, is still based in Geneva, producing watches for the very wealthy. One produced in 1979 cost $5 million.

As you’d expect of a Swiss firm, VC is very discreet about its clients. But VC owners in the past have included Napoleon Bonaparte, the Duke of Windsor and Pope Pius XI. So I, my father, and my grandfather who was originally given the watch, are in good company. In 2003 Vacheron Constantin finally began producing watches for women.

Inside the back of the watch lies the inscription: To F. Gurney Salter from C. de W. and H. de W. 1909

The de W.’s were friends of my grandfather’s. I confess that although my father did tell me what de W. stood for, I have forgotten. I want to say de Watteville – de Watteville is an ancient Swiss family with branches in England. Before the First World war my grandfather and his brother Willy were keen alpine climbers who visited Switzerland regularly, and it’s entirely possible that they knew de Wattevilles.

But whoever gave Fred the watch, it was a lavish gift. In 1997, the repairs alone cost £215, which is emphatically more than I’ve spent in total on all the watches I ever bought. It must have been given to mark a special event. In 1909 Fred was 33, not a landmark birthday; so perhaps the watch was an expression of gratitude. Fred was a practicing solicitor and may simply have rendered legal services to C. & H. de W. But perhaps it was something more personal – a mountain rescue, for example.

Fred Salter (standing right), on an unidentified mountain, c1910; 
perhaps C. & H. de W. also present

We will probably never know now. The timepiece will keep its secret, one might say to the end of time. But even unknown, the secret makes it more than just a watch, and as Martin of Maryhill noted in red ink in his report to my father in 1997, “must be treated with care!”
This has been my 250th post in this blog. Thank you for reading any of them!
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