Sir George Arthur and British Honduras
The Royal Commonwealth Society Library has just published an on-line catalogue for one of its earliest and most fascinating manuscript collections, the archives of the distinguished colonial administrator Sir George Arthur (1784-1854). These papers relate to his tenure as Superintendent and Commandant of British Honduras during 1814-1822. Now known by its modern name of Belize, British settlement in the area began during the eighteenth century when timber-cutters illegally established themselves in Spanish territory along the Bay of Honduras. They exported logwood, whose dyes were essential to the European textile industries. When Arthur arrived, British Honduras was a small, remote frontier settlement populated by about thirty European families, a few companies of the West India Regiment, nearly 1,000 free people of mixed race and African origin, and almost 3,000 African and native American slaves, mainly employed in woodcutting.
Arthur proved himself to be an energetic, progressive superintendent. He obtained more advantageous terms for the timber trade, which was chiefly in mahogany at this time, and defended commerce from piracy or privateering, enhancing the settlement’s economic prosperity. He maintained friendly relations with neighbouring Spanish colonies, and walked a diplomatic tightrope to observe neutrality as they fought for independence from Spain.
Arthur reformed the administration of justice and undertook a public works programme to improve conditions at Belize, which included the construction of a new wharf, lighthouse, market, school, hospital, courthouse and government house. Arthur supported church building and missionary work, reflecting his deeply felt evangelical Christianity. He was a committed abolitionist, and from the first acted to suppress the illegal importation of slaves. A slave rebellion in 1820 revealed the harsh treatment that many received, and Arthur did what he could to improve their plight.
Constitutionally, since Honduras was not yet a British colony, and its inhabitants possessed considerable control over local taxation, expenditure and justice, Arthur’s authority was limited. Autocratic by nature and impatient with opposition, he at times clashed with the elected magistrates and public meeting over the extent of his powers. Not all of his initiatives were popular, such as an attempt to combat illegal land occupation. Arthur’s command of the settlement garrison was challenged by Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Bradley, whom he had arrested, leading to a lengthy dispute in which Arthur received the backing of the army and home government.
Arthur’s final years were dominated by a controversy over the allegedly illegal enslavement of the descendants of native Americans originally brought to the settlement from the Mosquito Coast in 1784. Arthur ordered them to be freed in early 1822, but considered legal opinion later upheld an appeal from the slave owners, who were eventually compensated for the loss of their property. In 1822 Arthur took leave in Britain due to ill health and did not return to Honduras. He went on to enjoy a distinguished career in colonial administration, serving as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (1823-36), Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada (1837-41), and Governor of Bombay (1842-45).
To view the on-line catalogue of the Arthur papers, RCMS 270, please follow this link: