Most historians agree that Caye Caulker was not permanently inhabited during the time of the pirates, but they did stop here—an anchor dating from the 19th century was found in the channel on the southern end of the island, and a wreck equally old was discovered off the southern end of Caye Chapel. The island was visited by Mexican fishermen during those centuries—for generations they handed down stories of putting ashore at Caye Caulker for fresh water from a “big hole” on the caye.
The island was uninhabited as late as the 1830s. It wasn’t until the outbreak of the Yucatán Caste War in 1848, when refugees fled Mexico by the thousands, that people permanently settled on Ambergris Caye, a few finding their way south to Caye Caulker. Many of today’s Hicaqueños can trace their family histories back to the Caste War and even know from which region in Mexico their ancestors originated.
Exact dates of settlement on Caye Caulker are uncertain. The Reyes family tells of their great-grandfather, Luciano, who arrived in Mexico from Spain and worked as a logwood cutter along the coast. He fled with the rest and, after settling in San Pedro, eventually purchased Caye Caulker for BZE$300. Over the years, land was sold to various people; many descendants of the original landholders are still prominent families on Caye Caulker.
The town developed into a fishing village and cocales (coconut plantations) were established from one end of the caye to the other. Though no written records have been found, it is believed the original trees were planted in the 1880s and 1890s, at about the same time as those planted on Ambergris Caye. It took a lot of capital to plant a cocal and involved a great deal of time-consuming, laborious work. Reyes was one of the original planters. His workers would begin at the northern end of the island and stack the coconuts all along the shore, where boats picked them up. When the workers finished their sweep of the island, it was time to begin again—the trees produced continually.
Slavery was never a part of the Caulker economy, which prevented the development of the plantation hierarchy common in other parts of the Caribbean. Laborers earned a small cash wage, enabling them to use their incomes to buy the necessities to supplement their subsistence fishing. The people were very poor. Some of the older folks remember their grandparents and great-grandparents working long days and making only pennies.
Maybe because of the economic conditions, the families on the caye began helping each other early on. When one man got a large catch, his family and neighbors helped him with it and, in turn, always went home with some. When one man’s fruit trees were bearing, he would share the fruit, knowing that he would benefit later. This created very strong ties, especially between families and extended families.
Independent fishermen liked being their own bosses. As a result, to this day, Hicaqueños consider themselves independent thinkers. They take pride in their early roots on the island. Today, longtime fishing and lobstering families on Caulker continue to earn a living on the sea, whether by fishing, providing tourist services and tours, or a little of both.
© Joshua Berman and Avalon Travel from Moon Belize, 9th Edition