Without reopening the old controversy over the value of narrow specialized monographs as against broad interpretative studies one can readily recognize the merit of this new book by William Griffith. The author denied himself the leisure of retracing the old and familiar paths of Central American history and has painstakingly pioneered in a new domain with a meticulously researched work. The result is an exacting account for the serious scholar.
The title is possibly misleading. No empires rose in the Central American wilderness. Efforts at foreign colonization proved abortive, and development remained conspicuous by its absence. But the account of what actually happened reveals in concrete form some of the underlying trials and tribulations confronting Guatemala during its formative years of transition from colony to nation. Specifically the book details the unsuccessful career of the British Eastern Coast of Central America Commercial and Agricultural Company in both its London and Guatemalan operations between 1834 and 1844. The study traces the origin of the company to the earlier Poyais project of Gregor MacGregor on the Mosquito Shore, skillfully unravels the company’s sporadic activities in Guatemala as the contractual agent of the Gálvez government, and records the end of the company and its displacement by the newer Campaign Beige following the collapse of the Morazán Federation and the rise of Rafael Carrera to power in Guatemala.
Mariano Gálvez and his Liberal supporters harbored great expectations in the 1830s for economic advancement and enlightened progress to follow the recent political separation from Spain. Their visionary plans to rejuvenate Guatemala by means of extensive foreign colonization and development of heretofore vast untapped regions of the state coincided with lingering hopes of British speculators to salvage something from the financial debacle following the collapse of the London bubble of 1824-26. The ambitions of the Guatemalan chief of state and the British speculators united in a bewildering array of shadow enterprises in the extensive Vera Paz and Chiquimula regions that enclosed the narrow Caribbean outlet of Guatemala. The grandiose schemes bogged down in local and national politics, financial stringency, company mismanagement, rivalry over the limited mahogany resources of the region, and international disputes over the rights and limits of the British merchants and mahogany cutters in neighboring Belize.
The author has reconstructed this neglected aspect of foreign influences in Guatemala by exhaustive research in primary materials scattered through collections in Guatemala, British Honduras, Belgium, and England. The way in which he pursued elusive data and used it for convincing interpolation is a credit to his scholarship. Although most of the characters involved have little individuality beyond their identifying features, and some like Bennett unfortunately drop from view too soon, it is remarkable how many of these obscure men the author restores to history.
The concluding chapter “Retrospect” affords an impressive and stimulating summary analysis that reflects the author’s long familiarity with Central America. The proposal that the designs of Gálvez and the response of British enterprise in the early nineteenth century can be interpreted as a forerunner to modern economic development should provoke discussion. One might also say that much of the Gálvez design resembled in format, expectations, execution, and failure a similar project launched by Las Casas in Venezuela in 1521 and was less an exponent of modernism than a retention of the colonial mentality (Cf. Lewis Hanke, The Spanish Struggle for Justice, Chap. V). Griffith’s concluding observations are perceptive, however, especially when he notes that subsequent efforts to direct poor countries out of their poverty have not fared much better than those launched by Gálvez: “The problem can be reasonably well defined, but an effective means of attacking it has rarely been discovered” (p. 310).