Project Canterbury

A Bishop amongst Bananas

By the Right Rev. Herbert Bury, D.D.
Lately Bishop of British Honduras and Central America

London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., Ltd., [1911]

Chapter I. A Unique Diocese

I MUST, at the very beginning, carefully describe my Diocese! That is certain! It will not do to have any one reading on and all the time thinking, as one of my clerical friends, a Canon and Rural Dean, admitted to me a short time ago, he had always thought "that British Honduras is an island."

Neither should I like any to be saying to themselves, "I am not sure where these places are, though I know they are somewhere south of the Isthmus of Panama"; and that has often been said to me, also, with other vague and uncertain surmises.

It is quite extraordinary to think how completely we Englishmen have lost all touch with Central America and knowledge of its position; for in the Elizabethan age I suppose it was as well known and as full of keen interest to us in this country, with so many of our best and most adventurous spirits going to and fro, as it is to the people of the United States to-day. No one, however, with us seems to know anything at all about it or where it is. Sometimes when I have mentioned it I have seen a look as blank and uncertain come over the face as if I had spoken of some place as remote as the middle of the Great Sahara.

A great Church Dignitary, who has been most warmly interested in my work from the first, startled me very much at the end of my first Visitation, when I was describing it in his presence, by taking down an atlas and saying, "Show me where your Diocese is before we go any further, for I must own that I am very hazy about it." I must try, therefore, to anticipate such a perfectly reasonable request on the part of those I want to interest in the work, and will therefore in this first chapter describe it as fully and carefully as I can, for it is indeed "A unique Diocese." The jurisdiction extends from the southern boundaries of Mexico--that great and prosperous Republic--down to the Isthmus of Panama, stopping short by about five miles of the Canal which the Americans are making there.

It consists of British Honduras and the Spanish Republics of Guatemala, Spanish Honduras, Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. It has a coast line of from 1000 to 1200 miles, but I should hesitate to go into exact figures as to this, or as to the area or the population, for it is at present unsurveyed. A very few words of description will, I think, explain the situation.

British Honduras is an ordinary British Colony about the size of Wales, with but a small population of about 40,000, of whom 2 per cent only are white and the rest black--the negro descendants of the slaves of other days. It is for the most part entirely unsurveyed and unexplored, and consists of tropical forest ever luxuriantly growing, and so impenetrable that every foot of one's advance into it would have to be made by cutting one's way with axe and sword. Mountains as high as and higher than Snowdon can be seen not far away from the coast, but I have never yet met or heard of any one who has been there. The Colony remains for the most part quite unknown. This was the original Diocese.

During the last ten years, however, a great development has taken place. The six Spanish Republics I have mentioned possess some of the most fertile soil in the world and especially suitable for the cultivation of fruit, and, particularly along the coast, for the banana; and great tracts of country in Spanish Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama--and far down beyond the Isthmus--have been acquired and are being used for this purpose by the United Fruit Company of Boston and New York.

But when they began their operations, the labour question, as all through the Tropics, was for them a serious one, for the natives of the countries, descendants of the old Spanish conquerors and colonists and the aboriginal Indians, a mixed race of course, were already employed in coffee growing, etc., and could not furnish, even if they had been willing to work on the banana plantations, anything like the large numbers of labourers required, as the demand for them steadily increases year by year.

Recourse was had therefore, at this juncture, to our British West Indies so conveniently near, Jamaica being only three days away from the southern border of the Republic of Panama; and thousands of West Indian negroes, especially Jamaicans, are now at work for the Company, and are continually coming and going throughout the year. These negro labourers are our own fellow-subjects, and a very great number of them are our own fellow Churchmen, and they are very loyal and persistent in character.

It is good to see one of our Jamaicans draw himself up and say, "I'm a British subject!"--sometimes he inadvertently says "object," but his meaning is the same,--full of intense self-respect as he does so.

And it is no mere figure of speech either, as those find out who take an undue advantage of him. He has a very disagreeable way of turning up, under those circumstances, at the British Consul's office or at the British Legation, if there is one, and claiming his rights in a manner extremely disconcerting to the foreigner who has been attempting an injustice. And those who know our Civil Service will be sure that he always finds himself "backed up" when his claim is a just one.

And the negro is just as persistent--I should say that persistence, though some call it obstinacy, is one of his leading characteristics--in claiming the rights and privileges to which he feels he is entitled as a member of the Church of England. He -will have them if it is at all possible to get them, a determination entirely to his credit.

My predecessor therefore, Bishop Ormsby, found before he had been long settled down in the comparatively small see of British Honduras some sixteen years ago, that he had "to enlarge his borders" so as to take these negroes in. The Diocese was extended in consequence far beyond what was first intended for it, and by an Order in Council in 1894 lt was made to include Guatemala, Spanish Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica; and again in 1895 it was pushed still further and made to reach to the Magdalena river, far south of the Isthmus of Panama.

When the United States, however, bought not only the property of the old French Company, but the adjacent land itself, as I have more fully explained in a later chapter, an act of Cession took place to the American Church and the southern boundary of the Diocese was withdrawn to a line five miles north of the Isthmus Canal.

The position therefore is this, that the Diocese consists of the Colony of British Honduras, in size resembling Wales, and worked much as any other Diocese in the West Indies is worked; but in addition it includes the Central American Republics, into which the Bishop goes, without in any way interfering with the people of the country or their clergy, for they are all Roman Catholics, in order that he may provide for the spiritual needs of the imported labourers who are our fellow subjects and fellow Churchmen. This is an object with which I cannot but think that my readers will find themselves for the most part in full sympathy.

It would be a very hard thing for those loyal Churchmen, black though they be, when practically driven away from their own homes by industrial pressure--in Jamaica a negro labourer has is. a day and in Central America 53.--to find themselves on the vast banana plantations to which they go, without any of the means of grace or opportunities of entering into the duties and responsibilities of public Christian life. Think of them coming to such places, with a very low standard of morality all round them, drinking, lust, gambling and practical heathenism on every side--for the Roman Catholic Church is at its weakest and worst in that part of the world, I have been told by some of its own clergy there--and with nothing and no one to help them; no church to go to, no clergy to teach them and conduct their worship, give them the Sacraments, marry, visit, and advise them,--it would be a terrible position.

Thirty-five years ago, at the end of my first year at Oxford, I had to go and live for the greater part of two years in that same hemisphere, only lower down, for health's sake, and during that time on the cattle ranch, where I was then a guest, every one of us had fifty miles to go to the nearest church, fifty miles before we could have a service of any kind conducted by a clergyman, or receive the Holy Communion. Nor did any clergyman during that time ever pay us a visit. I feel, therefore, that I do know a little of what it means in a man's life, and especially in the life of a young man, to have neither Church nor Parson within reach, and I can only say how thankful I am that our English Church has not left, and does not mean to leave, our negroes in Central America, so far away from their own home, in that desolate and unhappy condition.

The country I have now described I do not hesitate to say is one of the most interesting, romantic, adventurous and beautiful in the whole world. It is the country to which we were always taken in thrilling stories of the Spanish Main, in the ardent days of boyhood, the land which we associate with the names of Columbus, Cortes, Pizarro, Alvarado, Sir Francis Drake and other British heroes. It was the scene of the noble efforts and self-denying labours and really great achievements of Las Casas, the great Apostle of the Indies.

There is no more beautiful country on the face of the earth, with its tropical forests and rivers such as Kingsley describes in his chapter, The Banks of the Meta, in Westward Ho / with magnificent flowers, fruits, butterflies and birds, its fearsome-looking volcanic peaks towering up to the height of 13,000 feet, and great lakes and wide lagoons. There are still most interesting survivals of the old races, as in the Indians of Guatemala, their pottery, gold and silver ornaments, their idols and ruined temples.

No more magnificent churches have ever been built than those placed here by the early Jesuits and other Orders, and their ecclesiastical treasures in the shape of sacred vessels and vestments, missals and carvings of the choicest wood and stone, are still to be seen, and many more no doubt are waiting to be discovered.

But these countries have governments some of which it would be simple flattery to describe even as mediaeval, so unblushing are they in their corruption and oppression; though they certainly give a great flavour of romance and mystery, a spice of the adventurous, to life within their own borders for those who, like one's self, have felt quite safe comparatively, knowing that the British Minister is a strong man and will stand no nonsense.

But all kinds of strange stories are always coming to one's knowledge, and one knows that one is surrounded by spies in some of the worst of the countries, as one travels along the railway--when there is one--or over a lonely road upon a mule, or seated at a table in inn or hotel where the servant who hands one's food is probably in the pay of the Government. I could give some thrilling instances of what I am saying, but one has to think of the possibilities of the future, and so it is best to give neither instances nor names.

Ever since the first extension of the Diocese it has been impossible for the bishop to have any real centre or home. Belize is of course the capital of the Colony, with its cathedral and cathedral parish; the Synod meets there, and the Standing Committee and Corporate Body hold their meetings there, but it is near the northern boundary of the jurisdiction and the great bulk of the clergy can never go there, and so the bishop has not been able to live there either.

He can in fact, while things remain as they are, have no home at all, though he may try and make an attempt at a centre, for if he visits every station and all his clergy once a year he must be ever on the move.

I have travelled over the country I have described in almost every kind of way in which one can travel, in big liners and small steamships, as many of the stations are on the coast, in schooners, sloops, gasoline launches and river steamers, in large and small canoes, in every kind of ship, I often say, except an airship, on railway trains and trolleys and carriages, upon horseback and muleback, and, though not often, on foot; and as I think of it all, I can only say again that I feel sure there is no more attractively beautiful or excitingly adventurous country in the whole world.

I have some hope that I am leaving the next bishop a place that he can call a Home and from which he can make his annual Visitation in sections, returning after each one to rest and "get over it"; and no doubt this will be far better than going steadily through it all from beginning to end and taking the greater part of the year, but I feel that a certain part of the romance will be gone.

There can be a real spirit of enthralling romance in spiritual life and work, and both St. Paul and Las Casas must have had it; and I can't help feeling very happy that a taste of it has come into my experiences also, and I humbly thank GOD for it, as one thinks how many better men than one's self have to be content with "the trivial round, the common task," and know no change nor variety of work.

I shall never cease to remember with keenest interest of retrospect my arrival with my son three years ago, when I first reached the capital of my Diocese. It is a very bad harbour, and steamers have to anchor far out and unload into launches and small boats, and so the Governor's barge was kindly sent out for us.

It was the loveliest of mornings; the sun was shining in a cloudless sky upon a sea of turquoise blue, and as we steamed over the shallows, there before us was Belize, all white buildings and green palms, "rising," as an American writer has truly said, "like another Venice from the sea."

As we drew near there came into sight a great gathering of folk of all ages filling up the foreshore--all black, of course, but in white and many-coloured raiment. All the shades of the rainbow were there. One could see nothing more picturesque, and I don't suppose I shall ever see such a sight again. "It is like the landing of Columbus!" said my son.

It was Belize's reception of its new bishop. How grave and serious those dark faces looked, wondering what sort of a bishop they were going to have! The Standing Committee, the Dean and Archdeacon, had all come out to meet me, and the reception seemed as if it were going to be a very solemn and serious matter, out of all character with place and people and surroundings; so I took off my bishop's hat, the only time I have ever had it on when in my Diocese, waved it in the air, and cried out, "Good morning!" "How kind in you all to come and meet me like this!" "I'm so glad to see you!" and all the cheery and friendly things I could think of; and, at once, as by magic, all those grave and serious looks had vanished, and brilliant flashing smiles and sparkling eyes and rows of shining teeth had taken their place.

Willing hands were stretched out on all sides to help one ashore, and if one had had a hundred hands they would all have been seized and eagerly shaken. All wished to bid one welcome in this way and to shake hands. "Did you get him, Ma'am?" said one dusky matron to another. "Oh, yes, Ma'am, I got him good!" and so on. Then we all moved on through the little lanes and along the roads of what has been called "the cleanest and prettiest town in the West Indies" to the Cathedral, where with most kind forethought they had prepared a Service, feeling sure one would wish to go there first of all to give thanks to GOD for one's safe arrival, and pray that His grace, guidance, and blessing might be given from the first to the work.

Of course, it was impossible for that great crowd to get inside the Cathedral, the large parish church of St. John's which has stood there nearly a hundred years, and has many touching memorials of the past upon its walls; but that makes no difference on great occasions, for the huge doors and large window spaces stand wide open to let in the fresh air, and it is as easy to see and hear outside as in, and sometimes even better, so great numbers that day stood outside in the large churchyard and entered heartily into the service.

It began with a Processional Hymn, and as I stood there with my Archdeacon on one side and my son on the other, in the Governor's pew at the top of the nave, and watched the choir men and boys passing up into their places, their black faces above their white surplices and violet cassocks reminding me what a new life was beginning for me; and then, as I sang the well-known words, and looked over the huge congregation, all black faces on every side, and out into the churchyard to meet the eager expressions of those who were standing there;--although one was full of the devotion of the Thanksgiving Service we were offering to the Great Eternal, I found myself thinking also: "Well, whatever my Episcopate in the Providence of GOD may be, it will be as far away from the commonplace and conventional as anything can be, or I'm very much mistaken."

I feel sure that any one who will patiently and thoughtfully go with me through these pages will feel that was a true premonition of what was to come, and that it was not as presumptuous as perhaps some might be disposed at first sight to think, to head my opening chapter "A Unique Diocese."

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