History of Chetumal

The Founding of Chetumal

Compiled from official records of its founder, Othón P. Blanco.

In June 1895, as a lieutenant in the Navy, I disembarked from the General Zaragoza warship school in Guaymas, Son., on the instructions of the presidential staff, to present myself in Mexico City.

Upon my arrival, the head of the Department of the Navy, C. Captain Jose Ma. De la Vega, told me I was to go by to receive orders from the presidential staff.

The C. Colonel Fernando Gonzalez, Deputy Head of the Presidency of the Republic office, told me that it had been proposed by Commodore Angel Ortiz Monasterio, chief of the Presidency of the Republic office, that I be commissioned to study and view a project to be in front of Punta Calentura in the Bay of Chetumal. It was for a fort to be erected in that bay to prevent the illicit trade that for many years has engaged in the expliotation of precious woods, gums and resins of tour territory, all fraudulent trafficking.

After receiving the information about the project, I studied it carefully and gave my opinion in the following terms: “The plans are to build the fort in the deepest Mexican waters of the bay. The stone for the construction would be taken from our coast which is occupied by the rebel Mayan tribe. This means the imposition to use the government forces for the following: provide adequate means of tranportation for the establishment of of camps and supplies in general, which would be lengthy and costly. Instead of the fort, I propose the purchase or construction of a small draft boat to outflank the channels and accommodate the staff assigned to it, who could be fitted with two small boats. This project offers the advantage of mobilizing the boat to places where the circumstances require.

The above proposal was accepted by the staff, and months later the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit empowered our Consul in New Orleans, Fla. (?) to assign the Zuvich house the contract for the construction of the facility, and designated them to substitute as inspector of the work.

The project was receieved by our government in the first ten days of April, 1897, having gotten the amount of $10,000 (dollars).

In the second half of the month and year above, the boat named Pontoon Chetumal arrived at the port of Campeche, towed by the steamboat of the Mexican company. Barreteaga Romano, part of the Secretariat, was onboard awaiting his instructions.

I issued him the appointment of Commander-Administrator of the said pontoon for the Bay of Chetumal and Rio Hondo.

My stay in the harbor lasted until November 1897, and is a source of pleasant memories of the small staff of the boat, the warm reception received both from the authorities, as well as the educated and friendly society of the port.

There was a delay in the receipt of instructions requested from the Secretariat, to determine my official conduct before the superior English authorities, from whom we would request passage through the port of Belize, B.H. This was probably due to the procedure follow by our Foreign Ministry to the British government, which tried to insert the additional existing Article III, which gives to Mexico the free transit of their merchant vessels in British waters south of Ambergris Caye to penetrate into the Bay of Chetumal.

Following the instructions from the Ministry of Finance, at the end of November I received the following telegraph message: "Be ready, because there will be coming soon to your port the national steam Ibero which will be the final point of their destination."

This posed a serious problem for getting the provision of a pontoon crew, they knowing in advance the destination of the ship, for in the minds of seafarers there was the fear that the ship would be attacked by the rebel Mayan tribe.

After the arrival of the steamship Ibero we would set sail with a stopover in Cayo Ancon, Progreso, Cozumel, and Isla Mujeres, places where the authorites suceeded in increasing the number of crew members to the sum of thirteen, including the commander.

In Progreso, the Customers Manager, Mister Zeferino Romero, gave me a Customs Ordinance, which I subsequently used as a guide for my commission.

The journey along the east coast of the Yucatan to Belize, B.H. could not be considered very happy, because several times the pontoon remained adrift because of a break the tow rope, causing the little boat to be exposed to the reefs that stretch along the coast, or to the undesirable acts of the Mayas who dominated the coast.

The lack of instructional orders preoccupied my imagination about what the English authorities needed to justify and prove my official documentation. That I trusted in my position as a naval officer and the appointment of the Commander-Major, I credited to said authorities.

We arrived at the port in Belize, B.H. during the first ten days of December, 1897.

A few moments after arriving, the steamer Ibero with the trailer able to anchor in the secure and spacious bay, approached the pontoon, and before receiving a visit from public health, a gasoline motorboat approached, with Skidy, a gentleman who presented himself as chairman of the Stanford American Manufacturing Company, said Mr. Major, excuse me, I would like to ask you since you will tow your boat into Mexican waters, upon your departure to take from Bar Rio Hondo Baoba several loads of wood and dye. I have here a tug called Stanfro and two large barges that I will certainly make avalible to you, because I have received from the Government of Mexico permission for the exportation of wood dye to the point of Rio Hondo called Agua Blanca, located 72 miles from the mouth of the river.

I accepted his offer with gratitude, saying that when I could I would make this known to my governement.

After the visit from public health, Mr. José María Rosado presented himself, a representative of the port’s commercial house, and Steven Bross, a person I knew at the port of New Orleans, Fla. (?), was on his trip to Scotland for a vacation, and who had already withdrawn his offer to serve as my interpreter in the presence of the English authorities. However, I could still be pleased to have a courtesy visit to the Lord Governor and other port authorities, on previous advice.

At the government house, I was presented with Mr. Coronel Wilson, governor of the colony, who was accompanied by the Secretary General of the Government, Manuel Abogado Delegado, CEO of the crown counsel, a local attornery, Price, and Dr. H. H. Harrison, Health Officer.

The governor informed them about the commission my government had given me, to establish in the Mexican waters of the Bay of Chetumal and of the Rio Hondo, a maritime customs and border section, and I said to the governor, before the end of my visit, I would hold a conference, if they so wished, an interview before leaving port.

However, the holidays of Christmas were being celebrated, and it was agreed by both parties, we could carry out some talks to have better intelligence in the observation of the Mexican laws by the subjects of the crown, regarding it’s merchant vessel traffic in Mexican waters, and the information could be made known through the official newspaper, The Clarion.

In subsequent interviews, and in the presence of the aforementioned authorities, the governor who had previously submitted questions in writing for my consideration, consequently, was told to ask about the requirements to be filled by the English merchant vessels before the authorities of the Pontón, destined for point in Mexico in the Bay of Chetumal and the Río Hondo, that it was assumed that these boats were exempt from such formalities if they were consigned to the British colony.

My answer to his excellency was put in the following terms: “Mr Governor, the merchant vessels of whatever nationality, to operate anywhere in the Rio Hondo, are required to submit documentation to the authorities or offices of the pontoon.”

The answer that apparently meant an invasion of power on the part of our authorities, caused surprise in the minds of the high English authorities present. His excellency, with the appropriate measure of English etiquette, I noted that he saw no justification that British boats of the English colony on the Río Hondo should have to fill those requirements. He added “Tell me Mr. Blanco, have you been in the Bay of Chetumal and on the Río Hondo?”

“No, Your Excellency,” I answered, “I just know this port of Belize personally from my practice as a Marine-Guard on our gunboats.” “Then,” he asked me, “How can you justify this provision, Commander?”

In view of my situation, his Excellency expressesd with a resolved air, Mexican sailors navigate making use of English hydrographic charts; I brought with me those which included Belize, the Bay of Chetumal, and the Rio Hondo, and I had plotted on it the borders betweern the two countries following that stipulated in Article III, recently added to the treaty of boundaries and meeting parallel 18 degrees and minutes that, according to the same, I find that starting the mouth of the river and continuing along the river channel, the area that difines the English side is obstructed by a thin curtain of mangrove trees, which has forced the flow of the river to form, on the Mexican side, a bar and the inlet entrance.

The effect that the previous assertion produced in the spirit of the English authorities gathered there, was one of confusion, and after a brief pause, the Governor said “Mr. Commmander, subject to carrying out detailed studies, and in order not to hinder traffic, we will temporarily accept this situation.”

This information was published in The Clarion, the newspaper of the city, it was agreed merchant boats in Mexican waters in the Bay of Chetumal would respect the rules, and we would extend the fine hospitality the Governor and his trade officials extended to me, and I would continue my journey to the final point of my intinerary, pulled by the steamer Stanfor.

The journey of eighty miles from Belize to Mexican water, off the mouth of the Rio Hondo, took about eleven hours, and we anchored there January 22, 1898, at a little after 3:00 in the afternoon.

The days following were a trial for the thirteen members of the pontoon, as it was moored just four hundred meters from the coastline that was inhabited by the Maya Indian rebel. Our vigilance, especially during the night was extreme, because our limited number would encourage an attack by the tribe. Therfore detachments were distributed in the river, in Chaco, Santa Luca and Xaxcán, which allowed because of their proximity, addressing trafficing vessels in the river, which was carried on with a high probably of success. That attacks did not happen, fortunately was due to their ignoring the elements of defense that we know and that I immediately released.

On our pass by Progreso, I received from the guard office of customs, a Catling machine gun, fifteen Windchester rifles, and six Smith handguns and an allocation of cartridges, and the material was tested the same afternoon of January 22. Most were useless beacuse of the ten to twelve round fired, only one or two at the most worked.

Because of this, I had to buy in Corozal, Britsh Hoduras, to protect us, half a dozen Colins machetes.

The young crew members who accompanied me, were aware of the difficult situation around us, as well as the letters from the Maya full of threats that were able to reach me through the Secretary General of the British colony in envelopes of Her Majesty’s Service, in which it promised, if we did not abandon the place, they would be drinking water out of our skulls, and to remember as well the bloody events in the town of Bacalar in the years 1848 and 1853.

All this correspondence was sent signed by the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit.

The means employed by the authority of the pontoon to get knowledge from the Maya tribal chiefs of our presence at the mouth of the Rio Hondo, varied, practically without any favorable result, which would aid the good offices of Mr. Augustín Sousa, a native of Corozal and of Mexican origin, who knew the Mayan language, in the early interviews held at the harbor, with a rebel leader who lived in the colony and had distanced himself from the tribe. By his influence, it was made known to the Maya that the pontoon would give to everyone in the area, without fee, all they needed for their subsistence; this could help the Mexican authorities imporve their intelligence, allow a friendly chat with the chiefs, but as preciously expressed, nothing was achieved in the course of that year.

Meanwhile we were making active efforts with the descendants of the Yucatan and the campechanos, for the personnel of the pontoon to work with them, and work had already begun clearing the virgin forest that surrounded us, erecting the site for a future city of Mexico.

To this effort, many from Consejo, Corozal, Orangewalk and Sarteneja of the British colony, appreared in their small boats, ready to undertake this great work.

Leading the first group were Dimas, Sansores, Guillermo Herera, Francisco Orlaynets, Pott Coello Gonzalez, Pedro River, and others I am sorry to say I cannot name because I lost the file; but the survivors of that time can include those mentioned.

The work was organized in the following way:

The crew of the pontoon, without neglecting their services on board, took turns in groups of four at the sites of the forest where it was presumed the Mayas could attack, while the future residents could, with the tools available, increase the land cleared, leaving as a precaution a strip along the beach, to prevent the crew of those in the traffic on the river from seeing the work in progress, and so as not to attract the attention of the natives.

The first house constructed by the people of the pontoon, using the element of wood, and measuring 15 meters long, was destined as a school, and so was the place enabled as such, and there was a group there of seventeen children of school age.

As the month of May approached we had succeeded in clearning four hectares to the beach and three toward the back, oriented respectively N to S and E to W. In this area was mapped the first four streets W and N., bearings in the best position to allow the expansion of the emerging population.

Preparations were activated for the inauguration, and placed in front of the first house was a flagpole, and wooden planks were arranged as a temporary pier that allowed families on boats to go ashore.

On May 5, 1898, at four o’clock in the morning, many families arrived from different part of the British colony, carrying an orchestra chanting with boundless enthusiam, the chords of The Mañanitas (the birthday song).

The pontoon was decked out with nationality, and the crew received aboard it with the same effect, that group of men, women and children, who are regarded as the first people of Payo Obispo.

Everyone was given a small snack that was prepared in advnce, and after which all were enlisted to move the boats to lan.

There remained on board for fear of a surprise on the part of the Maya, a small number of people to care of the the creatures they carried with them to guard the pontoon.

At seven o’clock in the morning, the approximate hour of the rising of the sun, with the solemnity of a spirtual and emotional act, our country’s colors were raised slowly to the chords of our national anthem, accompanied by the band on board, all present pledging loyalty to it; and the declaration was signed to recognize the official date of the founding of Payo Obispo (Chetumal today) as 5 May, 1898.

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