Sugar cane was introduced into the Corozal district in 1848 by Yucatan, Mexico immigrants and was grown in small amounts and molasses and sugar produced by animal-powered mills. The British arrived and were initially more concerned with wood cutting than with growing crops, but eventually, sugar cane became the crop of choice for future immigrants to Belize. The industry took root and grew with the arrival of the American expatriates during late 1860s and 1870s. By the late 1890s and early 1900s the East Indians, brought in as indentured laborers, achieved success by use of local and imported labor sources.
The role of the sugar industry in Belize has evolved over the years from its introduction by the Yucatan immigrants where it was being grown on a small scale, to becoming a main source of income via export. Sugar, a plant transfer, was embedded in the economic and social system and used as a tool of colonialism and/or imperialism during that period to maintain control and authority over the workers.
During the periods of sugar production and export by the expatriates from the American South after the Civil War, imported labor and indentured laborers for planting, harvesting and exporting the crop were used. This was complicated by the fact that Great Britain had freed the country’s enslaved Africans and they were part of the society of British Honduras, now Belize. For Americans who sided with the Confederacy and fled after its collapse, now entering a world where slavery had been abolished, one asks how would they handle the free African population and maintain their perceptions of control and authority? Also, how would subsequent East Indian migrants to Belize, regard their relationship to sugar, labor patterns and slavery?
Much of this rich history of Belize is still buried physically – many of these sugar mill remnants are either hidden and/or buried architectural features. Some historic mills (mill sites or mills with historic machinery), however, are still standing and can be investigated through archaeological work. There is a treasure of archival data awaiting analysis to provide a glimpse into the collective history for different time periods in Belize, specifically related to the evolution of the sugar industry and comprising major factors such as migration, labor, technology and tourism.
Two of the old mills that were still standing and I had the privilege of visiting were the Serpon and Lamanai Sugar Mills as well as the Tower Hill sugar factory and the Forest Home cemetery. Serpon is located near the Sittee River in Stann Creek County and is no longer in use but its remnants are visible. It was one of the older sugar mills that once helped produce enough sugar to contribute to the country’s economy. It was established in 1863, after being bought and run by William Bowman, and there was also the mill located on the other side of the river which was owned by Young, Toledo and Company between 1868 and 1874. They were steam-powered mills and both were abandoned in 1910 when sugar became a more profitable venture in the Corozal and Orange Walk districts. Due to its previous huge economic contributions, this sugar mill has played a role in putting Belize on the map in terms of sugar production and exports.
At the Serpon Sugar Mill, the site is well cared for with cut grass and a small hut that houses pictures and some history of the sugar mill on the inside along its walls. It is all cleared out and very close to the main road. However, it was located on one of the less popular roads in the country so a visitor will have to know what they are looking for to find it and is unlikely to be stumbled upon by accident. The Serpon Sugar Mill is at the southern end of the country toward Punta Gorda in the Toledo District, which was the area where the Americans settled and where many died and were buried.
Lamanai, meaning “submerged crocodile,” is located on the banks of the New River Lagoon in the village of Indian Church and is famous for its Maya temples and ceremonial centers. A twelve-minute walk from these magnificent sites reveals the remnants of an old British sugar mill location that also originated in the American/East Indian migration era dating back to AD 1860-1875. This mill location was selected for sugar production in the nineteenth century because it was close to the New River. There was also a cheap source of Mayan labor nearby, however, the Maya eventually rebelled and then when diseases began to affect the mill workers and owners they eventually abandoned the mill.
There is a road traveled by car after getting off the highway to get to the Lamanai center and it is also accessible by boat via the New River. Here information is distributed about the Maya temples and their histories. However, the old Lamanai sugar mill, a short walk away along a dirt road, is not readily advertised unless specifically inquired about. Remaining elements include the boiler and boiling house and evaporation tank amongst others. The mill was probably in operation for only 15 years because of its unstable brick foundation being unable to handle the amount of vibration stemming from the iron operations of the mill. Today the Tower Hill Sugar Factory in Orange Walk is the only operating sugar mill in Belize. It is owned by Belize Sugar Industries, Ltd. and is supplied with cane by more than 4000 farmers, from an estimated 40,000 acres each year.
The Forest Home Cemetery is the main burial ground where many of the southern Americans that fought for the Confederacy are buried; because they preferred to “keep to themselves”, they had their own separate burial areas in the Toledo District. The cemetery is remaining evidence of the community that founded Forest Home (Camille, 1986). Others are also buried at the PG cemetery in Punta Gorda, Belize according to local belief by residents.
This study provided a glimpse into how this particular plant, sugar cane, has influenced the political, economic, geographical and cultural landscapes of Belize. This sugar history is similar in many ways yet so unique when compared to many Caribbean islands such as Trinidad and Tobago, my homeland, which is why I took interest in this particular study area and country. It also demonstrates how the colonization and plantation history of the country has been incorporated today through technological advances to promote the tourism industry and encourage not just the leisure seekers, but the more culturally-inclined tourist to Belize.
Article contributed by Rachel Campbell PhD, University of North Carolina, Greensboro.