The British recognized Spanish sovereignty over Belize Print E-mail
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Friday, 06 July 2018 00:00

As Belizeans move forward towards a referendum on the Belize-Guatemala dispute, to decide on whether to take it to the International Court of Justice, experts are placing the early colonial period under a microscope to find out more about the territory’s jurisdiction at that time. During a book presentation by Dr. Assad Shoman at the National Heritage Library two weeks ago, Dr. Angel Cal, former President of the University of Belize, questioned on whether there was a tacit acceptance on the part of the British that the Spaniards had sovereignty over Belize.

As a background,  Dr. Angel Cal reasoned  that “…from our readings of the diplomatic state of Belize, it appears that the British recognized Spanish sovereignty over Belize, I am not very clear of the foundations of that, but it probably had something to do with the ‘encomiendas’ in Belize that were issued at least by the authorities of the Spanish colony.

Belize’s foremost historian, Dr. Cal,  continued  “…I think we need to know a bit more about this, lest we be surprised by the research that the Guatemalans have done…very careful about their claim on some kind of jurisdiction on the territory of Belize…”

With Alexis Rosado, Belize’s Ambassador to Guatemala nearby and listening intently, Dr. Assad Shoman then replied as follows: There was no such tacit acceptance by the British on Spanish sovereignty over Belize,  there was very clear open up-front blatant acceptance of that sovereignty,  they absolutely accepted that Spain had sovereignty over Belize...They never questioned that so that when they got the permission from Spain at different times first between the Hondo and the Belize [River] and it extended [to the] Sibun and so on they were asking Spain for permission, because they recognized Spain’s sovereignty and; therefore there is nothing to explain. On two areas of law…one of them is the Customary International Law of how you acquire property at that time, by acquisitive prescriptions and historic consolidations, the British had claimed and occupied and [inaudible] up to the Sarstoon before Guatemala became independent. Up to then there was no question of their questioning of Spanish law. In fact even up to 1835 and beyond they were still thinking that Spain, with their minds in London, they were saying that you know Spain still has sovereignty in name over Belize, because they never actually gave us sovereignty. We did not win it over any war, but it would be nice to get a formal recognition by Spain that we are now sovereign over this land. But Spain was not in any mood to do that at the time, but then there was no question of the British acknowledging Spain’s sovereignty over this land.

Dr. Assad Shoman strengthened his argument by saying that the treaty that was signed with Guatemala in 1859 was reinforced by the 1931 treaty “…so that Spain’s sovereignty is accepted and we and the British claimed sovereignty despite and in the face of Spanish  law  and by law that is so how it worked to get sovereignty over this land.”

Another Belizean scientist, Dr. Alan Moore, who is the Associate Director in Education and Research from the Institute of Archaeology, further referred to this Colonial Period. Moore says that “…in the days of explorations,  Spain and Portugal and France and whoever came over, England’s might was right,  you came here to colonize and if you were able to sustain your colony that’s yours.  I think that England was able to sustain its colony --it was her’s.  I can’t see yet how Guatemala got into the equation, because they were under Spain apparently, but like I said I will go along with the 1859 treaty and I will say we have a border and we are well defined where our sovereign state. We have been respected.”

But what do other international scientists say about this colonial period of Belize’s early settlement and the inter-play of the World’s powers at that time? Dr. Chelsea Blackmore, Assistant Professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz has done work on the early Colonial Period of Belize. Blackmore explained her finding last Friday on the Historical Archaeology in the Southern Belize Cayes during the 16th Annual Archaeology Symposium. Her work since 2013, explores the early colonial sites along the Placencia Peninsula and it’s offshore caves. “Given the fact that Southern Belize prior to 1850 was not a place that could be legally settled as a result of treaties produced between Spain and Britain, Spain allowed British settlers to cut logwood and then later mahogany based on these treaties,  but all of that had to happen North of the Sibun river,” explains Dr. Chelsea Blackmore.

“Originally even in the Central and Northern areas where we have a lot of the kind of the biggest of the population settlements by the end of the 17th century…these were you know British, Scottish settlers primarily, and in fact the large majority of people were actually African slaves and free people of color, who had come in with the Baymen as part of their crews and so initially it was mostly just the kind of regulation,  initially was very much around these ships and these Baymen and their kind of extended you know kin groups you might call them and their ship mates, eventually that started to grow and we started to see more establishment unofficially of a kind of British sort of colonial control.

Dr. Blackmore likewise spoke about the role of the Spanish Crown.

“The actual British crown denied any actual, at least according to historic documents that I have read, have denied any official backing of the Belizean colony, but of course everybody knew that they were tacitly supporting it, which of course irritated the Spanish crown considerably. Spain never invested a lot of time or effort into the region, kind of for two reasons. One they could access resources much more easily further North in the Yucatan Peninsula, particularly, things like logwood, and two as they moved into the interior or met a lot of resistance first with indigenous Mayas. They moved into kind of the inland areas and then later by the actual British you know pirates and Scottish pirates and merchants that settled.”

On a previous occasion, we had asked Alexis Rosado on whether there were new facts on the ground regarding the territorial dispute—such as from within the Spanish archives--- that may swerve the ICJ, which our Belizean researchers do not yet have. He had responded confidently that all the facts on the Belize-Guatemala issue are now accessible and have been made available to Belizeans over the years. Undeniably, the  Belize Archives Department, the Belize National Library and Information System, the Belize History Association and others are assisting to fill in on any informational void that may exist on the Guatelmalan claim.