App reveals history of forgotten colony

Summary

In 1843, settlers from Flanders were persuaded to join the effort to colonise land in Guatemala. It wasn’t a success. Now a group of academics and journalists have brought this period into focus

A tropical inferno

Belgium’s colonial history usually begins and ends with Congo, and few people know that the country also attempted to colonise a little piece of Guatemala. An overgrown graveyard, some half-forgotten folk songs and a stack of yellowed documents are all that is left from this colonial experiment.

A group of Flemish academics, journalists and photographers, however, recently went looking for what remains of the colony in Verapaz, and the results of their research have been brought together in a historical app, the first of its kind.

The Belgian colony in Guatemala has never become more than a footnote in national history. It’s not exactly a story to be proud of. The colony stood for barely 10 years; the Belgian state never brought in the necessary resources or enthusiasm to make their ambitious plans succeed, and the project claimed the lives of dozens of people, most of them from East Flanders, lured by the promise of an overseas land of plenty.

Belgium may have been a young nation in 1840, but it had no shortage of colonial ambitions. Colonies meant cheap raw materials, new markets and a place to ship off the unwanted poor. The ambitions of King Leopold I and the Belgian industrial elite suddenly became a lot more concrete when an opportunity presented itself in Guatemala. A British company with the melodious name Eastern Coast of Central America Commercial and Agricultural Company had several pieces of land under its management but could not fulfil its obligations to the Guatemalan government.

Belgium initially wanted to take over a stretch of land in the Verapaz district from the Eastern Coast company, but the coastal region of Santo Tomás proved more suitable for its plans. However, the name Verapaz stuck, and the colony was forever known by that name.

To give shape to the plans for an overseas colony, the state founded the Belgian Colonisation Company in 1841. A scouting mission was impressed by the “dense forests with their sombre colours”, but there was less consensus about the potential success of the colonial project.

But Belgium persevered. To recruit settlers, the company used strategic tactics, including luring settlers with folk songs about a heavenly land across the ocean.

Setting sail for a new life

In March 1843, celebration was in the air at the port of Antwerp, as two ships were loaded ready to set sail for Guatemala, accompanied by brass band music. On board the Theodore and the Ville de Bruxelles, the settlers awaited their departure, undoubtedly tense and full of expectations. 

A third ship left from Ostend: the Marie Louise, the same ship that had made the earlier exploration mission. In total, 79 settlers took off that day towards Santo Tomas in overloaded ships, seduced by stories of the beautiful new colony.

After a voyage of two months, the Belgians arrived in the middle of a tropical downpour. The disappointment must have been enormous, with no trace of anything that looked like the promised paradise in the half-cleared jungle. But there was no choice for the settlers but to roll up their sleeves and get on with it.

The man appointed to lead the company, Pierre Simon, had died on the journey, and his successor, Captain Philippot, was not up to the task. The colony quickly slid toward chaos, as scarcity of food, drunkenness and bickering dominated life. The arrival of a new director brought change, but not the one the colonists had hoped for. The new director tried to turn the tide by enforcing military discipline, but he failed. The fiasco dragged on until 1858, when the government of Guatemala had finally had enough.

Memories and gravestones

A large number of the settlers came from East Flanders, from villages such as Erwetegem, Sint-Maria-Lierde and Appelterre. During the first nine years, 350 people died, among them 182 Belgians. The planned colonial projects had all failed in what must have been a bitter, disappointing experience. The company had promised heaven on earth, but it turned out to be a tropical inferno.

It never went on to become a paradise later, either. Santo Tomàs de Castilla is a typical tropical town: dusty in the dry season, muddy when it rains. Now it is a port city, busy with lorries full of fruit driving back and forth. At first sight, there is little that recalls the brief stay of the Belgians. But at the edge of the forest there is a slightly sinister relic of the colonial experiment.

Behind a wall among the rubbish are a handful of weathered tombstones (pictured above). It’s nothing out of the ordinary, except that the names on the stones remind the visitor more of Flanders than Latin America. This is the former colonial cemetery, a most tangible relic of an old, almost forgotten story.

The story of Verapaz aroused the curiosity of a number of academics, mostly from Ghent University, and the result was brought together not in a book but a historical-photographic app, one of the first of its kind. Verapaz: De eerste Belgische kolonie (Verapaz: The First Belgian Colony, €12.99) offers the history of the colony, testimonies of the colonists’ descendants and videos and photographs of the area today. You can even listen to those folk songs that were used to lure those 19th-century Belgians to Guatemala.

www.verapaz.be

Photo courtesy Jan Crab

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