The morning of arrival at Belize City was unforgettable. It was a flat city, entirely at sea level. This allowed the passengers onboard to gaze far inside it from the elevated ship’s decks where they could observe its lush open green spaces interspersed with fine colonial mansions. There were shacks and hovels amid the many shabby districts surrounding the port but that was no concern of the passengers. The ship edged slowly towards the quayside. Gabriel observed teams of dockhands, working in crews of six, as they took the ship’s mooring lines, each one as thick as a man’s body, and fastened it to the bitts evenly spaced along the wharf. With the ship secure, it was time to disembark.
As first class privilege dictates, he was amongst the passengers to descend the gangplank as soon as it was secure. A gentle tropical breeze welcomed the newcomers. Everywhere he looked, there were the hallmarks of trade in the Empire – sugar, coffee, cocoa and copious cargoes of mahogany and other precious timber were being loaded onto ships while industrial equipment, fresh off production lines back home, were being unloaded simultaneously. People, both civil and military, subjects and agents of the Crown, teemed like ants across the docks.
As instructed, he headed for the cars that were now queuing up in the arrivals area. He spotted a man in a bowler hat with a sign bearing his name and strode towards him. The car was an electric-powered Austin, a fresh export to the colony from Birmingham and it only upped the anticipation for the life that lay ahead. The man in the bowler hat was impeccably presented. He was of Creole descent but spoke perfect English and introduced himself as Abraham, an agent of the Governor himself. Gabriel was then introduced to the driver, who up until now had stared coyly at the ground. He was a mestizos, by the name of Carlos, from a class of people with Spanish and indigenous heritage. He was broad faced and had dark features, only raising his eyes when briefly introduced. His smart chauffeur jacket and sporting cap belied the man’s former life as an indigenous labourer. Gabriel observed his scarred hands and rough, weathered, leather-like skin. Acquaintances made, the car drifted out of the bustling port, the engine purring gently as it went.
It was a short drive to the Governor’s mansion, a sprawling villa amid splendid, tropical gardens where carefully sited fountains appeared to tame the tropical heat. The villa itself was the hallmark of Georgian architecture. Breakfast was served under a shaded veranda where hardwood furniture exemplified the beauty, durability, and colour of the local mahogany tree. Gabriel keenly observed the villa’s symmetrical proportions amidst the sprawling, jagged lines of the encroaching jungle that fringed the back of the property.
Swayne treated his guest royally and boasted proudly of the colony’s success since the first British buccaneers and logwood cutters arrived in the territory three hundred years ago. Once the formal welcome was over, Swayne turned his attention to Gabriel’s appointment. He was unrelenting in his insistence that he was to revive the logging plantation: the loggers were lazy, the local servants insolent and outputs had decreased dramatically as of late without the supervision of authority. They were complaining of shortages in supply, that they had to go deeper into the jungle, where danger lurked, to find the mahogany trees. He was to snuff out such dissent and order in the police if needed to restore order. The dire picture was made worse, Swayne continued, by intense rivalry with Spain’s former colonies in the region. Mexico’s logging trade was thriving and they had a land border with the Unites States where demand for hardwood was high. Swayne reminded Gabriel that he was now an agent of the British Honduras Company and in no uncertain terms was under pressure to deliver.
Having completed the breakfast and formalities with the Governor, and with Gabriel now somewhat flustered from Swayne’s firm talking, he was driven to the logging operation by Carlos with Abraham in the front passenger seat. He would initiate Gabriel on their arrival and prepare him for the role. The ascent of the rugged Maya Mountains to the south of the city was spectacular. The road had been carved out of the valleys that nestled in steep hills, chiseled out by now long forgotten rivers. Thick forest blanketed the slopes. The air cooled with the ascent and he felt relief, not only from the stifling lowland heat but also from the heat of Swayne’s intense expectation, from the pressure to deliver. He was not a few hours in the country and he already felt uncomfortable. As if on cue, a colorful flock of birds, toucans by the look of their prominent beaks, exploded from the verdant hillside, probably startled by the car’s humming engine in the otherwise silent valley.
Midway through the journey, Abraham, who had been silent until now, turned to Gabriel rather abruptly:
“I’m really very sorry about Sir Swayne’s conduct over breakfast, at times he was quite forceful with you. I think he is quite agitated you see. He is subordinate to the much more powerful Governor in Jamaica and needs to justify the colony’s continued financing. Besides, the murder of your predecessor three months ago has left him rather unnerved.”
He was startled by Abraham’s sudden intrusion in his reverie but those two words rattled him and it took him some moments to gather his thoughts before emerging from the uncomfortable silence:
“Murder. Predecessor. What in good heavens are you talking about?”
He was now visibly stressed and began to mop his brow with his pristine white handkerchief. His previously white, freshly ironed shirt was now soaked with sweat and stuck to his skin.
“I’m sorry to break this to you Mr. Howard, but you need to know you are taking on a very dangerous mission. You see there is a particularly violent sect of the Maya up here, the region’s indigenous people, known as the Highland Maya, who resisted Spanish colonial rule as well as that of the British and still cannot be tamed. The majority of the Maya put up only brief resistance to the first colonists and are now subjects of the Crown. However, the Highlanders retreated into the jungle where they remain, essentially as ghosts.”
Again, another word that knocked him sideways. Ghosts. What was this place?
Sensing that he was losing Gabriel, Abraham continued: “The Highlanders cannot be hunted down, even by British military elite. For how can you shoot what you cannot see? The Highlanders roam at night, in bands of six. Astute and skilled warriors, they have been known to steal the axes of the loggers that they adapt for superior weaponry of their own. They are effectively invisible to us, Mr. Howard.”
Gabriel gathered himself: “I’m grateful for your lesson in regional anthropology, Abraham, but what has all this got to do with my predecessor and his murder?”
Abraham hesitated to find the right words but started slowly. All the while, Gabriel could feel his ears pop as the road crept upwards, further and further into the endless hills.
Abraham started: “Your predecessor was an ambitious Glaswegian, a Mr. Murray. Prior to his arrival, just over one year ago, an uneasy truce had been broken with the local tribe of Highland Maya who inhabit the area around the logging site. They only spoke to the British through intermediates. The settlement would allow logging in a zone that abutted the Maya Highlander territory. However, under no circumstances were the loggers permitted within their land, considered by them to be utterly sacred. Though briefed on the deal by the Governor, Mr. Murray gave it scant regard in private. You see, Mr. Howard, he was an ambitious man who ran the logging operation with extraordinary zeal. On his immediate arrival, his first project was to upgrade the modest house that he was expected to live in. He built a splendid villa within months, financed from his own fortune. You will soon see its grandeur. He then turned his attention to the expansion of the logging operation. He was ruthless on the loggers, mostly Maya subordinates, but dramatically increased their productivity. He was otherwise a very secretive man. At the furious rate they worked, the loggers rapidly exhausted the mahogany resource. The only way to maintain the same level of timber production was to log beyond its perimeter. It was Murray’s next move that was his end. In apparent disregard of the pact with the Highland Maya, he ordered the loggers into the forbidden jungle, clearly breaching the terms agreed with the Highlanders. He was killed a few weeks after the first mahogany tree was felled. Why they waited that long to slay him, we will never know.
The loggers found his body early one morning just beyond the villa; we suspect he had been coaxed out of the property to deal with some disturbance. And I mean only his body, Mr. Howard, for he had been decapitated. His head was located several metres downhill, possibly due to gravity but probably due to the power of the weapon that bisected his thick neck. There can be no doubt it was the work of the Maya Highlanders.”
Gabriel now felt queasy, whether because of the ill effects of altitude or the grizzly tale Abraham recounted he could not tell. Perhaps it was a concoction of both that forced him to order Carlos to stop the car while he wretched at the side of the road.
Onward the journey continued while Abraham apologized to Gabriel for upsetting him and asked if there was anything he could do for his nausea, with only a modicum of sincerity. All the while Carlos drive in silence, the scent of his body odour filling the car. The electric engine made a buzzing sound that unsettled Gabriel further. He forcefully buried the news he had received deep in his conscience and composed himself as they approached their destination.