An Introduction to the Tree-Fellers
The British Honduran Forestry Unit
During the 1940’s around 1,000 men came from the Caribbean country of Belize (formerly known as British Honduras) to work as lumberjacks in Scotland’s forests. They worked in 11 different locations, from Golspie in the North, to Duns in the South.
I was sitting in the library in Lewisham when I first read about the lumberjacks. It was a single, casual sentence and it astonished me. I pictured an army of young black men tramping through deep highland snow, axes on their shoulders. Why had I never heard about this before?
I was preparing to write a screenplay for a Black filmmakers collective, so I was at the library searching for a story from British history. Ideally something I could relate to from my own experience of growing up mixed race in Edinburgh.
Some time later I tracked down a book written by one of the lumberjacks, Amos Ford, and learnt the full story: the young men, eager to make the treacherous journey across the Atlantic to do their duty; warmly welcomed by the Scots – but treated as second-class citizens by their employers.
I got to meet Amos himself, and he introduced me to other lumberjacks, wonderful men – Eric Tatum in North Shields, lifelong Hibs fan Sam Martinez, as well as the amazing Nadia Cattouse – a folk singer who had travelled to Scotland as a war volunteer.
At the Public Records Office I read endless correspondence between the Colonial Office and the Ministry of Supply. The Colonial Office had highly recommended the lumberjacks to the Ministry; Britain was facing a wartime timber crisis and the British Hondurans were among the most skilled woodsmen in the world. But some of the Scottish landowners, who had donated their land to the Ministry, wanted the lumberjacks sent back. They cited reasons of ‘colour-mixing’ with the local girls (who apparently welcomed the men a bit too warmly) and the men’s alleged laziness.
I wove this true story into a screenplay about a Scottish boy who can’t fight in the war because of his disability. He lives on an estate where his father is head forester – and his world is turned upside down when the lumberjacks arrive. The screenplay has never been produced (yet!) but Asylum Pictures picked it up and produced a documentary called Treefellers. It was nominated for a Scottish Bafta.
The story of the British Honduran Forestry Unit is important for many reasons. It’s a crossing point for multiple strands of Scottish history. It looks back to Scotland’s role in colonialism and slavery, and forward to immigration and institutionalised prejudice.
It demonstrates the openness and love that the ordinary Scots had for the Caribbean visitors – something beautiful that local media and government officials warped into a different narrative.
It is important because of its ability to explore these subjects with a wider audience, and because of its tangible and everlasting presence: the many descendants of the lumberjacks living in Scotland today.
The tree fellers
In 1941, 900 Belizean lumberjacks were recruited by the British government to fell trees in Scotland as part of the Ministry of Supply’s World War II war effort.
The lumberjacks became known as the British Honduras Forestry Unit. These men were part of the Belizean logging history, which for almost 200 years had used slavery and then slave descendants as a labour force in a profitable industry.
All the volunteers had been used to felling mahogany and hardwood trees. Some of these trees had a trunk six or seven feet in diameter, so that the work they would be called upon to do in this country would be like child’s play to them. Evening Telegraph, August 23 1941
Reactions to the BHFU Lumberjacks
As illustrated by the documentary some members of the BHFU continued to live in Scotland after the end of WWII and became a part of the community. This is a reminder that the BHFU were not a self-contained group during their secondment, but engaged with the surrounding Scottish communities, influencing the social landscape. Newspaper articles of the 1940s show that the unit actively took part in Scottish social life forming their own cricket and football teams and playing against local Scottish teams. The BHFU also formed a band with instruments they brought from Belize, as well as those which were donated by local communities and provided entertainment in and out of their camps.
However, the arrival of the Belizeans and their subsequent presence amongst the locals, prompted concerns amongst some Scots which highlights racist ideologies that harken back to slavery and persist today. These ideologies are illustrated by the Duke of Buccleuch, a leading Scottish aristocrat and landowner in the Borders in a 1942 parliamentary session; “I would urge the Government that they should watch very closely the delicate social problems which inevitably arise when you settle in this country number of Creoles and Carib Indians from the Tropics….the people in the neighbourhood [Kirkpatrick Fleming] were encouraged to be friendly to them and the girls have interpreted this rather widely…personally, I dislike this mixture of colour and regret that it should be allowed with no discouragement. There are already sufficient births of foreign extraction in the country without the additional complication of colour…I feel that unsophisticated country girls should be discouraged from marrying these black men from Equatorial America.’