The year was 1912. The month was May. Gabriel Howard strode down the gangplank of the SS Vauban sporting a Panama hat and a white linen suit. Embarking at Liverpool, he was attired for his destination: Belize City, British Honduras where tropical climes awaited him. He wore a manicured moustache but was otherwise featureless except for a conspicuous freckled face and red hair, a testament to his Scottish heritage. He was small in stature but could hold his own, firm in his business dealings but affable to all.
The Vauban was a sight to behold. Operated by the Lamport and Holt Line, it was the latest feat of British Engineering to emerge from Belfast Docks across the water. He took his place on the upper decks with the throngs of excited passengers, from where he had a commanding view of the ten-mile’s of Liverpool’s quays, dockyards and warehouses. It was the epitome of the Empire, a hive of industry and trade, and the primary port of passage for goods and passengers headed west to the Americas. He observed tears amid scenes of joy as the crowds on the quayside saluted the parting ship and its precious cargo of passengers bound for life in the new world.
Gabriel did not need to wave, for nobody was there to see him off. He was thirty years’ old, a proud bachelor and had the world at his feet. He was the son of a wealthy industrialist in Preston who had made his fortune in the booming cotton mills of Northwest England. Now an ailing old man, Gabriel's devoted mother tended to her husband day and night and could not be there to see her son off. His parents had wished for him to follow in his father’s footsteps but he knew that broader horizons awaited and that his fortunes lay abroad. What’s more the Empire needed young entrepreneurs like him. Her fortunes were waning and the Crown call had gone out for young innovators to revive the Empire’s flagging colonies, especially in regions of intense rivalry like the Americas where British interests were dominated by those of fledging young nations, now liberated from the Spanish.
As the ship pulled away and began to pick up pace, steam billowing from her single, elegant funnel, he sought the comforts of the first class bar just set off from the broad decks of polished maple. There he was greeted by a spacious and light-filled saloon with teak panelling, livened up by potted ferns and palm trees, tastefully arranged along the room’s perimeter.
He approached the bar where an immaculately presented bar tender was ready for his order – his favourite tipple of a gin and tonic with ice. With the cold drink firmly in hand, he made his way to a window table that allowed him an ocean side view. They were not far from land and he could still the green fields of England far off in the distance as the ship hugged the coastline on its initial passage through the Irish Sea.
Settling in, he took out two crisply folded documents from the inner pocket of his suit jacket. The first was a map. He mentally logged the journey that lay ahead with his fingertip. First, he traced a straight line dead south west across the North Atlantic before passing through a strait between Haiti and Britain’s other major regional possession, Jamaica, before stopping at the coast of British Honduras, a thin sliver of land on the Caribbean side of the isthmus of Central America. He hovered his finger over the country’s capital and major port of Belize City where the ship would dock in few week's time. He then continued to drag his finger across the paper, winding his way up the highlands south of the capital city until he reached his final destination, a green swath of heavily contoured terrain known as the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest. Here, highly sought after mahogany trees were being extracted at an unrelenting pace to feed the insatiable appetite of wealthy Americans and British for fashionable hardwood furniture to adorn their stately homes. He would be at the heart of the enterprise. He smiled smugly before folding the map and opening the second document. It was a letter outlining his contract of employment. This was a passport to a new life, far from the cold, industrial landscape where he had grown up. He unfolded the letter and drank in its contents. The head of the letter was emblazoned with the crest of the Governor’s office and the seal of the country. It was the Union Jack fringed by leaves of the mahogany tree, its broad trunk a symbol of strength at its centre. Below the crest, the sender identified himself as the Governor himself, a man by the name of Sir Eric John Swayne, writing on behalf of the British Honduras Company, the predominant landowner of the colony. There was a thin line between politics and commerce in the Age of Empire, he reflected.
He read the opening line with glee:
“To the newly appointed Head of Operations of the British Honduras Company’s Mountain Pine Ridge Logging Operation,
I welcome you on behalf of the Crown to Belize City to oversee the successful operation of the aforementioned logging operation.”
The letter went on with instructions for Gabriel to follow upon his arrival in six day’s time, stating that he would be met by the Governor’s own trusted Agent inside British Honduras, a man by the name of Abraham, who would be accompanied by a driver. They would meet him at the ship’s disembarkation point and take him directly to the Governor’s villa inside the city where he would be treated to breakfast on his arrival.
With excitement brewing in his bones, he folded away his paperwork and headed to the deck for a smoke. It was blustery but tolerable and the sight of the distant coastline slowly dipping below the horizon had brought quite a few of the first class revellers on deck to say one last good bye to the homeland. He lit his pipe with care, under the lapel of his linen coat, affording just enough shelter so that the fragile flame from his match could ignite the dry tobacco.
The first class main deck afforded Gabriel the opportunity to observe the brightest and best of British society. There were prospective settlers, ambitious landowners, loyal colonial officials, and adventurers, at least some of who were spies, he suspected, naturalists and their field assistants and ladies of leisure and their entourage. The mood was buoyant; the air filled with expectation and excitement for what lay ahead.
The next six weeks passed by as quickly as the Easterly trade wind that blew them steadily towards their destination. Gabriel made new acquaintances and whiled away the time dining on the finest food, playing cards, consuming too many gins while mellowing in tobacco smoke.