Mr. Leas to Mr. F. W. Seward
SIR: Great excitement is prevailing in the commercial and official circles of Belize in consequence of the appearance in the Mereda newspaper of an official proclamation, under the orders and by the authority of the emperor of Mexico, to the effect that the peninsula of Yucatan is, on and after the 1st of October last, to be governed or presided over by three prefects, and to be divided into three arrondissements, one of which is to be designated as the arrondissement of Mereda, the boundaries of which are to be as follows: Commencing at the mouth of the Rio St. Pedro y St. Pablo, on the Gulf of Mexico, and running up the centre of that stream to the Usumasinti; up the latter to a point where the Guatemala district of Peten is encountered; from thence along the line that divides Peten from Guatemala to the headwaters of the river Sarstoon; down the middle of the Sarstoon to the gulf or bay of Honduras, and from thence along the coast to the place of beginning; comprehending in this latter all the keys and islands contiguous to the main land. The same proclamation provides, further, “that there are a few Englishmen located at the mouth of the river Belize, or Wallis, who have had the permission, under the treaties with Spain, to cut wood, and that they are not to be molested,” meaning that they are not to be disturbed in their wood-cutting operations.
Thus it will be seen that Maximilian has, by this proclamation, swept into his possession not only the district of country known as Peten, and which has always been claimed as being within the legitimate jurisdiction of Guatemala, but the whole of British Honduras, with all the keys and islands, thus ignoring entirely the idea of British sovereignty. These people are feeling themselves greatly insulted, as being designated as a few English wood cutters, and are mustering up a large amount of bitterness of feeling against the emperor of Mexico, and, indeed, are preparing for dire vengeance against him. All the old and new guns, of a cheap character, are being purchased, with the view, I doubt not, to be sent for distribution among the Indians on the Yucatan side of the Rio Hondo, who are, and have been for some years, not only hostile to the Mexican government, but in open rebellion, having long since driven the Mexican authorities from the southern portion of Yucatan.
Though much real anxiety is being manifested among the better classes in Belize lest England will, without a struggle, succumb to the demand and assumption of Maximilian, more with the view of shaking off a dependency which has proved more burdensome than profitable, than from any belief that the latter can sustain his claim either by force of arms or peaceable arbitrament, yet I doubt not that England will resist the claim of Mexico with great tenacity. The old diplomatic battles will in every case, I doubt not, have to be again refought. I think I can see that Maximilian is disposed to take up the case where old Spain left it, namely, after the defeat of General O’Neil at St. George’s key, at the close of the Pork and Doughboy war in 1798. If Mexico can evade or set aside her obligations as contained in her treaty with Great Britain of 1826, the question then of plenary sovereignty as the result of peaceable possession will be fairly opened, and the first necessity then created will be to determine as to what length of time should be considered sufficient, as between nations, to constitute a de facto claim; because, undoubtedly, England has remained in peaceable possession of this colony since the year 1798, without any practical objections from any quarter, unless, indeed, it can be believed that the treaties of 1809 and 1814 re +++vitalized those of 1783 and 1786; and which, I think, might be believed without much damage to truth. However, I think the question is probably destined to be one of a some what vexed and litigious character; and the greatest barrier, in my opinion, to Mexico’s claim will prove to be her treaty of 1826. But as this whole imbroglio is likely to be some what of the “dog-eat-dog” character, we have really nothing to do with it, particularly in view of the present arrangement of parties.
These people evidently have a great horror for Spanish rule and government, and from the intimations of some I infer that, if they are to be forsaken by the British government, they will, with uplifted, suppliant hands, implore the United States government to receive them under her capacious wings; and, indeed, some have interrogated me already as to the course we will pursue in case England relinquishes her claim to this colony, and my answer is “Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.” When the question demands a solution at [Page 361] our hands the government of the United States will doubtless treat it as its merits demand. But all this seems to look like a verification of the prophecy which I ventured to make some months ago to the effect that the full design of Napoleon would not be consummated until the New Mexican empire should be made to comprehend the ancient boundaries as governed by Iturbide; and, as a partial proof of this hypothesis, we have only to loop this effort or Maximilian with the attempt of the late French consul at Galveston to alienate the State or Texas from the American Union, and the case is fast being made out.
The same paper that contained the proclamation of Maximilian also contained a very inflammatory article against the English settlers in Belize, charging them with having furnished munitions of war to the Indians in rebellion against the Mexican authorities; also calling seriously in question their right to occupy this country. There is evidently a bad state of feeling existing on the part of the Mexican population of Yucatan, or the authorities thereof, against the English in British Honduras. Should you, however, find it desirable in the future to become thoroughly conversant with this entire question, so far as its historical bearings are concerned, I beg most respectfully to refer you to the manuscript which I had the honor to transmit to the department some months ago, and which, I think, is a faithful history of the country of British Honduras.
A rumor reached this place a few days ago through the newspapers that Denmark had proposed to dispose of her West India possessions to the government of the United States; and in a conversation with the governor the day following, I mentioned the fact of such a report being current, when he promptly replied that it would be the very best disposition that could be made of them. Whether or not he meant what he said is another matter. This afternoon I again met the governor, while taking his usual afternoon’s ride, when he stopped me, inquiring the news. I informed him that information had just reached me that the Florida had been captured by a United States gunboat, and immediately the conversation changed to the proclamation of Maximilian. He said frankly that Great. Britain would never relinquish the colony to Mexico; that the opinion is gaining popularity in England that it is not politic to hold so many dependencies at so great a distance: and hence, if it should be deemed desirable to relinquish this colony, it would be to the people themselves, so that they might either manage their own affairs or seek such affinities as would best suit their taste; and intimated, as he once before plainly observed, that the United States would be more suited to exercise jurisdiction in Central America than Mexico. Believing that his purpose was mainly to seek my opinion upon that subject, I remarked that while Cuba, from many considerations, might be desirable to the government of the United States, yet I was fully of the opinion that an extension of our territory upon the main land would neither be politic nor wise; that we now possess as much domain as could be well managed by one central power. But yet, nevertheless, the fact need not be disguised that we do feel a great concern that these Central American countries should have stamped upon them good stable governments of a republican character; and that we doubtless should not fail to lend our full moral influence, upon all proper occasions, to bring about and secure such a result, but that absorption, or annexation, is not any part of our present policy. Though I spoke thus to the governor as a man, and not by authority, and may or may not have reflected the national opinion, yet they are views I think highly conservative, and will, at least, tend greatly to smother up previous jealousies and assumptions in regard to our propagandism and cravings in Central America.
I understand that the commandant of Ysabel, in Guatemala, has arrived here in connexion with the proclamation of the emperor of Mexico.
With great respect, I have the honor to be your most obedient servant,
Hon. F. W. Seward, Assistant Secretary of State.