Belgian Colonization Company

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Belgian Colonization Company

Encouraged by King Léopold I of Belgium, a small group of investors in 1841 organized the Belgian Colonization Company to take advantage of economic opportunities in Guatemala. In 1842 the limited-liability company purchased 8,000 caballerías (264,000 acres) of undeveloped lands and assumed concessions and obligations for immigration, construction of a deep-water port, and other economic development in the department of Santo Tomás on Guatemala's north coast. In return the company received monopolies and exemptions favoring its commerce over all competitors. It could collect tolls for ten years on the planned road between the port and the Motagua River, and it would hold a ten-year monopoly on steam navigation on the river. Foreign immigrants to the Santo Tomás colony automatically became Guatemalan citizens and enjoyed a twenty-year exemption from most taxes. They were exempt from all commodity monopolies (estancos) but were prohibited from introducing goods under estanco from the colony into the interior. Although obligated to serve in the municipal militia, the colonists were exempt from service to Guatemala.

Conceptually the enterprise promised public and private rewards, but in fact it experienced problems on both sides of the Atlantic. In Belgium the organizers and directors—speculators and close friends of Léopold I—tried, against the wishes of his anticolonialist legislature, to acquire overseas territories using the private sector. The company enjoyed royal and ministerial subsidies and favors, and it reported regularly, though confidentially, to Léopold and his cabinet. In Guatemala the political scene was reversed. The Liberal government of the 1830s, which favored foreign investment, had been succeeded by Rafael Carrera's xenophobic Conservative ministers, although members of the Constituent Assembly with business and commercial interests championed the Belgian proposals. The company bribed prominent advocates for the enterprise, paying through a Guatemalan firm (Pullieiro, Balcárzel, and Associates) in Izabal and Santo Tomás whose public-works concessions and constructions the company promised to buy. Two Conservative members of the Assembly argued that Guatemala would suffer as badly from a future Belgian commercial monopoly at Santo Tomás as from the present British monopoly exercised from Belize. They predicted that a Belgian enclave would threaten Guatemalan sovereignty over its Caribbean coastline and the adjacent littoral province. The Assembly nevertheless approved the contract on 4 May 1842.

In May 1843 a communitarian settlement began at Santo Tomás. In the first year the company sent fewer than 200 temporary settlers and workers, with inadequate provisions. The landless residents fell prey to disease, dissension, and intrigue. The colonial administration changed personnel four times. In March 1844, Major Augustin Scévola Guillaumot arrived as the new colonial director, with extraordinary powers to institute a "military regime" for order and work. He also held covert instructions to lay the foundation for a future action to separate the District of Santo Tomás from Guatemalan jurisdiction. He raised the immigrant population to 800 civilians and 48 Belgian soldiers, like himself, who were officially on leave but posted to service with the company.

Guillaumot began surveying and clearing lands. Sealing off Santo Tomás as an ethnic enclave, he fired the Indian workers, drove the native-born residents from the colony, and rejected proposals from Guatemalan and Belize merchants to establish branch outlets at Santo Tomás. He violated the company's customs exemptions by importing luxury goods duty free for sale in the interior. The commandant of Izabal, Gerónimo Paiz, entered Santo Tomás in May 1844 with a detachment of soldiers and reestablished a national presence. He installed a port authority and customs director subordinate to his authority. In November, Carrera created a Permanent Commission on Santo Tomás Affairs and appointed General Manuel José Arce as corregidor. Guillaumot resigned. The settlement faltered. Many of the colonists moved inland to the capital or relocated in Belize or Honduras. The colonial population plunged to 280.

Both the company in Brussels and its settlement at Santo Tomás struggled unsuccessfully through the next decade. Léopold tried to save the enterprise in 1846. Through his minister of foreign affairs he ordered the Belgian minister to Mexico, Édouard Blondeel van Cuelebrouck, to negotiate the transfer of Santo Tomás in full sovereignty to Belgium. The Guatemalan government rejected any proposal that ceded sovereignty or conveyed rights of extraterritoriality, insisting that a Guatemalan commission be assigned to Santo Tomás with full authority to intervene in all operations of the colony. Meanwhile a change of government in Brussels in March 1846 brought to power a cabinet unsympathetic to Léopold's overseas adventurism. The new cabinet withdrew support. The company attempted to reorganize in order to prevent bankruptcy. Guatemala permitted the Belgian Colonization Company to struggle on until no hope remained that it could meet its contractual obligations. Carrera finally implemented the Decree of Forfeiture in 1854.

See alsoGuatemala .


For the early years of the colony, see Joseph Fabri, Les belges au Guatemala (1840–1845) (1955). The origins of the Belgian interest in Guatemala may be found in William J. Griffith, Empires in the Wilderness: Foreign Colonization and Development in Guatemala, 1834–1844 (1965), esp. pp. 217-250. Company documents and correspondence are printed in Nicolas Leysbeth, Historique de la colonisation belge à Santo-Tomas, Guatemala (1938). A comprehensive history is Ora-Westley Schwemmer, "The Belgian Colonization Company, 1840–1858" (Ph.D diss., Tulane University, 1966).

Additional Bibliography

Pompejano, Daniele. La crisis del antiguo régimen en Guatemala (1839–1871). Guatemala: Editorial Universitaria, Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, 1997.

Woodward, Ralph Lee. Rafael Carrera and the Emergence of the Republic of Guatemala, 1821–1871. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993.

                               Wes Schwemmer Cady