Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Last Dugout Canoe Builder in Hopkins, Belize

This post is somewhat out of the ordinary for this blog, in that it's about a personal experience. It leads off a series of planned posts about dugout canoes in Belize in my more usual, somewhat analytical mode, but I found this, my experience of "field research," so fulfilling that I'm inclined to share it. It's mostly personal and there's not much in it that anyone will learn about Belizean dugouts, so feel free to skip it and wait for my next post, which will, I hope, prove more instructive on the subject.
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My wife, Cate, and I were given a weeklong trip to Belize as a gift, including a stay at a really nice resort in the village of Hopkins, in the country's Stann Creek District (essentially the south-central coastal region). Prior to arriving, I queried the resort's management about the use of dugout canoes in the area. I received a vague response that they might still be in use, but little concrete information. They gave me two names of locals whom they thought built canoes, but on following up, I learned that neither of them did, nor did they know anyone else who did. On contacting representatives of various cultural groups in the country, I learned that dugouts are indeed in regular use in some areas, but these were too far away and too difficult of access to fit into my trip plans. So I went to Belize with only slim hopes of observing dugout canoes in use or under construction.

On my first full day in Hopkins, I borrowed a bicycle and rode into town. As I did so, I noticed a decrepit dugout canoe in front of a small, open-air restaurant. Returning the next day on foot with Cate, I was permitted to photographic it by an enthusiastic, middle-aged Garifuna man who was obviously connected with the restaurant in some way. In response to my questions, he told me that only two men still built dugouts in Hopkins: Nestor Augustin and Leo Lewis, both of whom lived in the north end of the village. He explained that there are no street addresses in Hopkins, but that if I asked around, I'd find them. 
Dugout canoe, Belize
Approaching the rare and skittish Hopkins dugout in its native element (click any image to enlarge)
Belize dugout canoe
The canoe was for decoration only, well beyond its useful life, rotted throughout. 
Belize dugout canoe
Nonetheless, one can see that it was nicely formed, with thin sides and hollow entry.
This didn't seem unreasonable, as the population of Hopkins is only about 1,000, and its people -- primarily Garifuna -- have a deserved reputation for friendliness. The dark-skinned Garifuna are, according to Wikipedia, descendants of West African, Central African, Island Carib and Arawak people." As with most Belizeans, their language is English, spoken with a Caribbean-influenced accent and many local idioms. 

Cate and I walked the short distance to the village's north end and began asking people where the two boatbuilders lived. After only two or three queries, we found Mr. Augustin -- very elderly, very crippled (probably with arthritis), and apparently very ill. He was lying in a hammock on his porch and nearly unable to move. It was obvious that he was no longer building canoes. He was difficult of speech, and it was only with some effort that we communicated. He confirmed that he had built canoes in the past, and pointed me toward the home of his nephew, Leo Lewis.

We went the direction he pointed and along the way saw several dugout canoes under palm trees along the beach. Most of them were badly rotted, cracked, falling to pieces and well past their useful lives; some were on their last legs but apparently still in use; and a few were reasonably functional, though none were in really good condition. Unlike the canoe that we saw at the restaurant, most of these were "extended" dugouts, with strakes added to raise the sides. Most of those that appeared to be still in use were sitting on log or PVC pipe rollers that are used to shift them into the water and back. 

Belize dugout canoe
The extended dugout Uncle Len Len has seen better days. The top strake is taller than on most canoes in Hopkins.
Belize dugout canoe
Uncle Len Len had a transom stern. She's now used as a dumpster for driftwood and other beach trash. 
Belize dugout canoe
Our first evidence of dugout canoes in current use in Hopkins
Belize dugout canoe
Clean and with a fresh coat of paint, this dugout is evidently still in use in spite of its broken gunwale and crooked shape.
Belize dugout canoe
The same canoe as in the previous photo has a mast step and a hole in the thwart to accept a mast. Not in evidence are provisions for a rudder or any lateral plane.
With a few more questions, we found Mr. Lewis's home. Like many of the homes along the beach there, it was on stilts. Beneath it was a dugout that looked badly battered and unusable, but intact enough to be worth a closer look. Before I could do that, though, we had to introduce ourselves to the three women watching us from the house's screen-enclosed porch.

Doing so, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Lewis's wife -- elderly and wheelchair-bound, but open, welcoming and informative. Mr. Lewis was not at home, but he was nearby, working on some project outdoors with some other men. There were canoes there too. I thanked her and asked permission to photograph the canoe below the house, which she readily granted.
Belize dugout canoe
Moribund dugout canoe beneath the home of Leo Lewis
A few minutes later and another hundred yards up the beach we found two healthy-looking, elderly Garifuna men sitting beneath an open-sided, palm-roofed shelter. One canoe was inside the shelter and another just outside it. There was no evidence of work in progress. I asked, and found myself talking with Leo Lewis and his younger brother Francis.
Belizean dugout canoe builders Leo and Francis Lewis
Leo (left) and Francis Lewis
I explained my quest, which sounds pretty inane and culturally naive. Something like this: "I'm interested in dugout canoes. We don't have them where I live, and I find them fascinating. I study how they are made and used in different places, and I write about them on the internet. I have great respect for the craft of building them. May I ask some questions about how you do it?"

We learned that Leo had indeed been a prolific builder of dugout canoes, including the two at the shelter. But he had stopped building them because of his age -- the use of the adze had become too painful. How long ago he had stopped building was not specified, but my guess is probably within the past three to five years. He asserted unequivocally that he was the last canoe builder in Hopkins. Francis was not a canoe builder himself, but had often worked with Leo as his helper. He also no longer worked on canoes.

Francis proved to be the more talkative of the two, and he answered most of my questions, deferring to Leo on some points. Toward me, they were patient and gracious, but I was clearly somewhat of an oddity to them -- a harmless but nosy intruder -- and the conversation never got beyond a question/answer format or become thoroughly comfortable. I didn't know how to elicit really free conversation, with the kind of memories and anecdotes that make history come alive.

Cate is neither knowledgeable about, nor especially interested in, boats, but she is far more personable than I, and seemed able to establish sympathy with Francis, sitting beside him comfortably, making sketches and jotting down some of the answers. Her notes were helpful later in reconstructing some elements of the interview, which will be the subject of the next post.
Belize dugout canoe
Leo and Francis Lewis and Cate Monroe, amanuensis. The dugout canoe, built by Leo, has frames and floors.
When I reached the end of my questions, I asked permission to photograph the two canoes -- both of which were a bit past their useful years. Leo hesitated and wordlessly betrayed some reluctance but gave permission with no further urging from me. 

Belize dugout canoe with transom
The same dugout as in the previous photo, showing a transom stern
Belize dugout canoe
Another Leo Lewis dugout, this one a double-ender, in apparently good condition but no longer in use
As Cate and I walked back toward the resort along the beach, we saw -- and I took photos of -- perhaps six or eight more dugout canoes. Again, some where rotted and dead, some were rough but still usable, and a few were respectable. Most were double-ended, but a few had transom sterns. One canoe in the rough-but-usable category had fishing nets and gear piled inside. As we watched, its owner mounted a fairly new Tohatsu outboard on its transom and prepared it for launching. We later saw him blasting through chop at 15 or 20 miles per hour, sending up showers of spray in all directions. 

Belizean fisherman with outboard-powered dugout canoe
Belizean fisherman about to launch his outboard-powered dugout canoe
And then we came upon two dugout canoes that looked brand new: fresh paint, no indication of wear or repairs, clean inside and out. We didn't see their owners, so couldn't ask. But it appears that Leo Lewis -- probably one of the last of the dugout canoe builders in Hopkins -- is not the last.

Belize dugout canoe
Extended and expanded double-ender in excellent condition
Belize dugout canoe
Another view of the same canoe, showing fine, hollow entry and straight waterlines amidships. The thwarts are not fastened in.
Belize dugout canoe
Another Hopkins dugout in new condition and obviously in use. Equipment includes two bleach-bottle bailers and an anchor, home made of rebar and protected by fresh palm leaves from scratching the paint.
All photos ©2016, Bob Holtzman. All rights reserved.


  1. I have encountered the same issues with interviewing informants in Ireland (I do occasional fieldwork in the area of archaeological folklore) as you have in Belize. The 'direct question' method is often the only way to begin a time-constrained ethnographic interview but is is often unsatisfactory for all involved. When lucky, or when there is time, eliciting information in a more natural context often results in a lot of information voluntarily given. This is involves, usually, some undirected 'sit down and talk' context. Eventually your interests are made clear, or, sometimes, the information just comes. But, again, this assumes some time to hang around a community, or serendipity (fieldwork is notoriously inefficient). Sometimes, though, beginning with a direct question method will, a few days later, result in volunteered information as the community wraps its mind around the strange but harmless visitor.

  2. Interesting- I have lived in Belize for many decades. What is curious is that Belizeans almost never refer to canoes- they are called dories.