Dispatch 4: Mahogany trade in Belize and Honduras / by Martin Toft

My time exploring mahogany trade with Jersey merchants in Belize and Honduras is coming to an end. It has been an incredible adventure, very intense and a real frontier experience with some surprising discoveries in archives and on the ground, following in the footsteps of some very brave and courageous men and women. Managed to track down several individuals and families directly connected with Joshua Gabourel who arrived in British Honduras in 1787 from the island of Jersey with his wife Elizabeth. However, soon after his arrival in Belize he established a long-term relationship with a coloured woman, Catherine White (a daughter of another prominent English sea merchant) that lasted until his death in 1800. They had three children, William, Joshua and Ann Gabourel (pet name Nancy) who together with their mother Catherine inherited his estates in Northern River, including mahogany plantations and slaves.

I found a copy of his last will in the Belizean Archives written on the 2nd Jan 1800 on his deathbed. Interestingly he describes his bequeath to 'his natural sons begotten upon the body of Catherine White' and refer to Elizabeth Gabourel as 'his loving wife' who will act as the executor of his will. Upon his death she returns to Jersey with their infant son, John Joshua (the only surviving child of four who later in life opens a private bank in St Helier.) This lineage of 'white' Gabourels never returned to Belize again and all people with the name of Gabourel in Central America are descendants from Joshua and Catherine, not necessarily directly by blood, but all connected with the Gabourel Estate as all their African slaves were named Gabourel too and in a lot of cases slave masters had children with slave women. This explains why there are many Gabourels with different complexion of skin colour. In the census records in Belize all kin from Joshua Gabourel and Catherine White are classified as 'coloured.'

In my last destination in the island of Utila I met Gabourels directly descending from Joshua and Catherine through their son William Gabourel who married Diane Usher, a white British woman. Their last born son Charles Fredrick Gerschon Gabourel married Annie Elizabeth Braddick on 30th Oct 1851 in Belize City. They had nine children before Charles was offered a job as a book keeper for Mr Cooper a merchant in Oak Ridge, Roatán in the Bay Islands (at that time also part of British Honduras.) Here he begins a liason with his boss' young daughter, Elizabeth 'Lizzie' Cooper and soon they elope to Mosquito Shore leaving his wife Annie Elizabeth and her 9 children in Roatán. She returns to Belize and soon thereafter is offered a job as the first midwife in Utila. All Gabourels in Utila are descendants from this remarkable lady and her children. Among other things, she established a Sunday School at the Methodist Church which is still carrying on until today.

Most histories celebrate 'brave white men', but throughout my research and time spend in Belize and Honduras my admiration is for Gabourel women both dead and living who, in some cases singlehandedly made sure the Gabourel genes, wealth and status continued, and in many cases prospered. The story about the Gabourels and other Jersey seamen who ventured out in the New World to make a living, settling down and establishing roots are complex and far reaching. These notes are a mere drop in the ocean. When I 'fell into' photography some 25 years ago through travelling, my starting point for making images was always the beginning of an adventure. Since then I have tried to maintain this 'adventurous spirit' in my work which allows me to explore different places and people through the power of photography and its inherent qualities as a story telling device. Important here is to understand your own position as an image maker within this power structure and to recognise that photography is always fiction.

My last image recorded in Utila is a portrait of Annie Athene Bodden Gabourel (91) who in her kitchen has a portrait of her great-great grandmother Annie Elizabeth Gabourel. Two powerful women in a family geneaology transcending time and space through colonial history and contemporary geopolitics in Central America. Today I'm leaving the Bay of Honduras where fortunes were made from extracting mahogany wood from its dense forests under strenuous hardship of African slaves and shipping it to North America and Europe to make fine bespoke furniture for their colonial rulers. In Joshua's days in late 18th century crossing the Atlantic by sea took an average of 6 weeks, if the wind was favourable. My journey from the island of Utila to the island of Jersey takes roughly 2 1/2 days using one ferry, four flights, a bus and two taxis. This may seem like a lot of effort, but I know which century I would rather explore the world in. #theseaflowerventure