By Emory King – past President Belize Historical Society.
I recently received an invitation to the formal opening of an art show to be held in Belize City. I immediately thought our aloud, Another Art Show? Why, you can’t pick up a newspaper these days without coming across a story about some one-man show somewhere. You can’t watch television without seeing a notice of a new exhibition or an interview with an artist who just concluded a successful show. There seems to be plethora of Art Shows in Belize now.
It is a good sign. It means Belize is enjoying a new wave of prosperity. When a country is in hard times people don’t have the money to buy tickets to a play, or a book of poetry, or a delightful watercolor or oil painting for the living room wall. When a society experiences good times there is a renaissance in the Arts. People have the money and the time to devote to cultural activities.
Prosperity is now back in Belize. It’s been a long time in coming. The last time was a century ago. It began about 1895 as mahogany and logwood prices began to rise and probably reached its peak about 1910. The people of Belize reacted to it like a thirsty man with a tall glass of cool, clear water. They drank deep and often. New homes were built with long wide verandas and all that charming fretwork which we later called gingerbread.
Old houses were remodeled and painted. Well-known merchant houses such as Hofius and Hildebrandt imported spanking new saddles and bridles and the horses on the streets were sleek and handsome. They were curried and combed and cared for. The carriages they pulled were new and shiny and the ladies who rode in them, perhaps to Government House for afternoon tea parties, were dressed in the latest fashions from London or New York, courtesy of Brodies, John Harley’s or Biddle’s Store. (The famous Biddle family in Belize sprung from a Spanish privateer Juan Vidal who ran away from his parents in Spain, anglicized his name to John Biddle and settled in Belize).
Young Henry Melhado and his brother Barney brought in the finest liquors, wines and beers from Paris, London and New York. And for the women and children who did not drink alcohol an energetic man named Bruce Chavannes on Albert Street produced a delightful concoction called red lemonade. Oh, was there anything ever so wonderful? It was sweet and cold and it fizzed and it tickled your nose like champagne.
There was an awakening of the senses for the finer things of life, as well. At this time there was no television, no motion pictures, and no radio. People entertained themselves. On Regent Street, at Number 9, according to the late Guy Norman Fred Nord, the great gabled white house was the premises of the Colonial Club. It was, of course, a male-only establishment. There was a reading library where its members could find the best books from England and the newspapers from New York and London, which came regularly on the weekly steamers from New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama.
The Belize Literary and Debating Society held its meetings there also, where thinking men assembled to discuss the burning issues of the day. No doubt old Doctor Frederick Gahne, editor of the Colonial Guardian, held forth on his favorite topic – decolonialization and return to self-government of the Colony. And, no doubt, he was vigorously opposed by the editor of the Honduras Observer, Archibald Robertson Gibbs, (former Belize Prime Minister Said Musa’s grandfather).
Plays were produced; elocution contests held, and essays were written and read to admiring audiences at the schools and churches.
Mr. A.E. Morlan, one-time U.S. Consul in Belize, and now a watchmaker and jeweler did a brisk trade in musical instruments, sheet music, and stage makeup kits. A number of orchestras were formed as well as marching bands. The orchestras consisted of violins, violas, cellos, bassoons, French horns and oboes as well as the usual brasses and timpani. They played the best music ever written. Chamber groups met weekly to play Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. And newspapers published glowing editorials proclaiming that Belize had reached its Golden Age.
In 1911 the Royal Navy ordered a huge supply of mahogany to refurbish the fleet. There seemed to be no end to the good times. But in 1912 there was a curious hesitation in the market and then prices for wood began to fall. Perhaps no one in Belize understood what was happening. They were still optimistic. Wait till next season was the word on the streets and in the offices. The next season was no better. Then in 1914 it was plain that the market would not recover. Europe was gearing up for war. World War I began in August and no one in England was thinking about mahogany furniture.
The people of Belize slid gracefully and in a high state of patriotism into poverty. It was to last, with little relief, for the best part of the next 75 years. German submarines threatened Belize’s lifeline with England during World War I. Wartime shortages and high prices reduced the standard of living throughout the Colony. When the young men came home from the war they were so enraged by the lack of jobs and the high prices they rioted and looted all the stores of all those lovely things no one could afford. Europe was devastated by World War I. Germany, France and England were bankrupt in addition to having lost millions of their young men.
The British Government expected its Colonies to survive the best way they could. During the war the Germans had invented synthetic dyes. The demand for logwood collapsed and one of Belize’s major industries all but vanished. Fortunately, chicle had come into production in 1912 and by the 1920s the American Wrigley company provided many families with the only money it earned. The U.S. Stock Market crashed in 1929 and the whole world plunged into a depression.
To make the whole situation worse in Belize the Hurricane of 1931 wrought havoc on property and business. To add insult to injury the British Government took away the modicum of self-government, which Belize had enjoyed in exchange for a pitifully small loan. The 1930s ended with the beginning of World War II. The German submarines again interrupted the shipping between Belize and Europe and the United States. The people here gritted their teeth, smiled, and went on with their life.
The war ended with Great Britain worse off economically than it had been in 1919. By the end of the decade the pound was devalued and sometime later the British Government did the same to the Belize money, after promising not to do so. This act convinced many that Independence from England was the only way out of the distress.
For more than a century thinking men in Belize had urged agricultural development as essential for prosperity. Little had been done, but following Hurricane Janet in 1955 in Orange Walk and Corozal the sugar industry began to make a comeback. The citrus industry in the Stann Creek Valley struggled, but held on. It was Hurricane Hattie in 1961 that put the country on the road to prosperity.
Following the storm British insurance companies paid twenty million dollars in claims and the British Government provided another twenty million dollars in aid money. This was an astronomical sum for poor, tired Belize. With this “seed money” Belize started slowly and painfully to pull itself out of the depression and onto the road of prosperity. Good times had eluded the people of Belize for more than two generations, but today we are riding on a rising tide of prosperity.
A golden harvest of sugar, citrus, bananas together with tourism and land development put Belize and Belizeans on the verge of another “Golden Age”. And a revival of the arts is well on its way. The smart horses and carriages of 1910 have been replaced by thousands of motor vehicles. The people have money to spend on cultural activities and the number of artists is beginning to increase. The artists had never stopped expressing themselves during the hard times. Artists are driven by inner compulsions that have nothing to do with money. Money is to keep the body and soul together and canvas on the easel.
In the dark days men like Pen Cayetano and Benjamin Nicholas in Dangriga and Louis Belisle and Percival Cain in Belize City painted their hearts out and stood on street corners or went from door to door, or stood in front of hotels to sell their paintings for whatever they could get. And, as is so often the case, strangers recognized the value of their work before we did and paid what we considered outrageous prices for them. These men took their talents abroad and held one-man shows and exhibitions while critics extolled their work. And they came home to pioneer and persevere again.
If you want one of their paintings today it may be hard to find and you will pay a high price for it. The laborer is indeed worthy of his hire, at least right now. And, on the tide of tourists, developers, and land speculators there has come to Belize a few men and women artists who have discovered the charm and beauty of Belize and have elected to stay here to live and create.
They come from many places, Canada, England, the United States, and elsewhere, but Belize has captivated them all. If, God Willing, Belize’s Second Golden Age continues unabated for the future many more artists from at home and abroad will blossom and flower in the unique environment of this beautiful jewel of ours.