Rear Window: The sun sets on an unloved outpost: The British in Belize

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WITH the start of 1994, Britain formally relinquished the responsibility to defend Belize, an ancient but unloved corner of the Empire.

There will be no sudden withdrawal, but a steady winding-down of the military presence on this corner of Central America. While for the moment the flag will continue to fly, the Harrier jump-jets are leaving, the battalion of soldiers will become a company, the jungle camps of the interior will be abandoned.

It was called British Honduras before independence in 1981, but it could never be described as a place close to British hearts. There are no cricket tests there, no famous local knights and no familiar Belizean pop stars; there is also no noticeable Belizean community in Britain. If it doesn't seem very British, how did the flag come to be raised there in the first place?

The answer has to do with Haematoxylon campechianum, or logwood, found in abundance in the hot and steamy river valleys of Belize. From the heart of the logwood tree comes a colourless substance which upon oxidation is transformed into a strong, red dye.

It appears that the first British settlers, in the middle of the 17th century, were men who went to cut timber for this precious dye. Legend associates the very first camp on the Belize River with a Scottish buccaneer by the name of Peter Wallace.

Buccaneering (the word comes from the way they smoked their meat over a slow- burning fire, or boucan, but the activity was entirely to do with stealing from the Spanish) was by then on the wane, and the logwood trade offered a lucrative substitute.

For the cutters it was a hard life, in a land of mosquitoes, flies and floods. A description survives from the 1670s: 'Some fell the trees, others saw and cut them into convenient logs and one chips off the sap . . . and when a tree is so thick that after it is logged it remains still too great a burden for one man, we blow it up with gunpowder.

'The logwood cutters are generally sturdy, strong fellows, and will carry burdens of three or four hundredweight . . . but when ships come from Jamaica with rum and sugar, they are too apt to misspend their time and money.'

The native Mayan Indians seem to have tolerated the newcomers but for much of the 18th century the Spaniards, who laid claim to the whole coast, were a real threat. There are several accounts of attacks on Belize, with the 'baymen' obliged to abandon the settlement temporarily for their own safety.

It also seems that there was little honour among the logwood cutters. In 1768 the Admiralty was advised to keep a frigate close by, 'to prevent as much as possible murders, frauds and confusion which are notoriously practised among the baymen'.

Their finest hour came in 1798, when a Spanish fleet of 32 ships descended on Belize under the command of Arturo O'Neil, Governor-General of Yucatan. At the Battle of St George's Cay it was met by the baymen in a motley collection of schooners, sloops and gun- rafts, and gloriously repulsed.

The settlers' pluck did not earn them recognition as a British colony, as they had hoped. That did not come until 1862, by which time mahogany had become the principal export and the black slaves who did most of the work had been freed.

If Britain was slow to adopt Belize, it has also been slow to leave it. Moves towards independence began, as they did in much of the Empire, in the early 1960s, but it was delayed by the territorial claim, voiced with varying degrees of aggression over the past 50 years, of neighbouring Guatemala. When self- government finally came, the troops stayed on to protect the 150,000 Belizeans. Now the claim has been formally renounced and, although many in Belize remain nervous, the guardians of the defence budget in Whitehall have seized the opportunity to wind down the 1,400-strong British military garrison. A company of men will remain, for jungle training, and a Royal Navy frigate will continue to be stationed within a few days' sail.

(Photograph omitted)