The Story Behind Belize’s Prized Sinker Mahogany
Belize is a nation on the eastern coast of Central America, with Caribbean Sea shorelines to the east and dense jungle to the west. Belize receives a lot of rain mostly in the months of May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December, and January. This climate produces some of the most highly sought after mahogany in the world.
While the first bust cycle in logwood was occurring in the 1770s, Belize’s first settlers were able to start the transition to a new resource for extraction and mercantile trade with Britain: mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla). Belize’s old growth mahogany was very valuable because it was easy to work with and embodied an amazing tensile strength. Belize mahogany also has an amazing ability to keep its shape when it becomes damp and resist splitting if it becomes very dry. Belize mahogany was known to be perfect for making doors and window frames, furniture and railroad carriages for the British climate. Furniture manufacturers in England like Thomas Chippendale and George Hepplewhite created high priced furniture from Belize’s prized mahogany.
Extraction of mahogany in Belize was a more difficult process compared to logwood harvesting because the mahogany were much larger trees. The large trees needed to be removed as 10-20 foot logs. The major processes required for this trade included, locating mahogany trees, felling the trees, removing the limbs and cutting the trees into manageable logs, moving the logs to the banks of major rivers, slipping the logs into the rivers in the rainy season, storing the logs at booms, sorting the logs per owners at the booms, floating the logs to the river mouths, squaring the logs and loading the squared logs or lumber on to ships bound for Europe.
These steps required a technological shift away from the era of logwood exploitation. The key differences between the industries included the fact that mahogany trees were much more difficult to locate due to their random locations dispersed throughout the dense jungle. Secondly, mahogany trees were much larger and they required more advanced technology for felling. This prompted the development of “barbeques” which the axemen would build above the buttress roots of the trees to avoid chopping into the roots.
The barbeques were often made 10 to 12 feet above the ground. It is said that two men could fall a tree per day on contract work. While axemen were felling the trees, other workers would clear a path for the transfer of the tree to the nearest river. This was very different from other logwood which was carried out as small blocks which an individual could manage. The haulage of large 10 or 20 foot mahogany logs was a process that required much more manpower. As a result, the British began importing more and more African slaves into Belize to export the mahogany. This led to a new arrangement between Britain called the Convention of London, signed in 1786, allowed the British settlers, known as Baymen, to cut and export logwood and mahogany from the Hondo River in the north southward to the Sibun River. The convention, however, did not allow the Baymen to build fortifications, establish any form of government, military or civil, or develop plantation agriculture.
The Convention also required Britain to evacuate its settlement on the Mosquito Coast in eastern Nicaragua and western Honduras. Over 2,000 of these settlers and their slaves arrived in 1787 in the settlement of Belize, reinforcing the British presence. The new settlers greatly increased the population, and moreover soon found themselves in considerable tension with the older settlers over the question of land rights and status.
The slaves’ experience, though different from that on plantations in other colonies in the region, was nevertheless very oppressive. They were frequently the objects of “extreme inhumanity,” as a report published in 1820 stated. The settlement’s chaplain reported “instances, many instances, of horrible barbarity” against the slaves. The slaves’ own actions, including suicide, abortion, murder, escape, and revolt, suggest how they viewed their situation. Slaves who lived in small, scattered, and remote groups could escape with relative ease if they were willing to leave their families. In the 18th century, many escaped to Yucatán, and in the early 19th century a steady flow of runaways went to Guatemala and down the coast to Honduras. Some runaways established communities, such as one near Sibun River, that offered refuge to others. When freedom could be attained by slipping into the bush, revolt was not such a pressing option. Nevertheless, numerous slave revolts took place. The last revolt in 1820, led by two black slaves, Will and Sharper, involved a considerable number of well-armed individuals who “had been treated with very unnecessary harshness by their Owner, and had certainly good grounds for complaint.
After The act to abolish slavery throughout the British colonies, passed in 1833 the highly sought after old growth mahogany was left sitting at the bottom of the rivers. Now, almost hundreds of years later the wood has been salvaged and prepared for harvest.