The many magnificent Maya sites that scatter the landscape of Belize are testament to this incredible civilization. The Maya built amazing cities, they traded in jade and obsidian, they had their own calendar, they were arguably the inventors of chocolate in the form of a spicy drink and wait for it…. they were the inventors of chewing gum…
Chewing gum as we know it was originally a white rubbery sap known as chicle, that came from the Sapodilla tree that was common in Belize and Central America. The Maya used this chicle to help keep their breath fresh and to stop hunger and thirst.
In 1866 a certain American called Thomas Adams was introduced to Chicle in Mexico and thus began the chewing gum industry. In Belize there were four types of chicle, Female, crown gum, male and Bull. Female was considered the best and was more abundant in Northern Belize. The ‘chiclero’ was the man responsible for extracting this precious resin. It was an arduous and dangerous task, involving camping out during rainy season and climbing huge trees before cutting grooves in the bark and collecting the sap in bags. The chicle was then cooked in iron pots to the required consistency and then poured into moulds and shipped to Belize City, where companies such as Wrigleys would import it to America. The chewing gum industry reached its height in the 1930s and 40s. However over production eventually led to its demise. Each chicle producing tree needed 3- 8 years before it could be tapped again and it became unsustainable. As a result companies started looking for an alternative in artificial gum and sadly the chicle industry along with its chicleros became defunct.
March 9th is a National Holiday in Belize. Formerly Baron Bliss Day, it is now known as National Heroes and Benefactors Day to honor all those who have contributed to the greatness that is Belize. So, who was Baron Bliss and what makes him so special?
Baron Bliss is widely considered to be Belize’s biggest benefactor. Born Henry Edward Ernest Victor Bliss in England in 1869, he inherited the title 4th Baron Bliss of the Kingdom of Portugal. Bliss was an avid traveller and sailor with a significant fortune. At the age of 42 he is thought to have contracted polio which led to his paralysis. This didn’t restrict him from sailing his yacht Sea King II to the Bahamas in 1920 where he lived for 5 years. From here he sailed to Trinidad before arriving in Belize or British Honduras as it was known then, in 1926. At this time Baron Bliss was in a poor state of health, having contracted food poisoning in Trinidad. He spent the next few weeks aboard his yacht fishing the tranquil and abundant waters of Belize and his health seemed to improve. Nevertheless, a few days before his 57th birthday he was informed by physicians that he was in fact dying. Although he hadn’t actually set foot on mainland Belize, so impressed had he been with the country and its people who he had met whilst fishing the waters and visiting the Cayes, that he summoned Sir John Burdon the then, Governor of Belize to board his yacht, to inform him of his wishes to leave the majority of his estate to Belize. In his will he asked that a trust be formed and the money invested for the benefit of the country and its citizens.
The estate was estimated at 1.8million Belize dollars. Baron Bliss died 9th March 1926 and was subsequently buried as per his wishes near the sea in a granite tomb with a lighthouse erected nearby. This lighthouse still stands and a restored Sea King II is resident in the grounds of Government House. The Bliss Trust has over the ensuing years used this money for various projects across Belize including The Bliss Institute, The Bliss School of Nursing ,a library in Santa Elena and a leisure centre in Punta Gorda.
Sailing was such an integral part of Baron Bliss’s life that he also specified a sum of 100 pounds be used annually to set up regattas in towns within Belize. Countrywide this holiday which this year is held on Monday 7th is celebrated with regattas and other events to honor Baron Bliss and other heroes of Belize. The 88th Baron Bliss Regatta takes place in Belize City harbor on March 6th this year.
In San Ignacio, on March 4th, La Ruta Maya River Challenge is an annual 180 mile long ,4 day canoe race finishing in Belize City. Where ever you decide to honor Belize’s biggest benefactor, this year, let Tropic Air take you there.