Scotland

Scotland's debt to forgotten Belize lumberjacks

About 900 forestry workers came to Scotland from British Honduras during the war Image copyright Alamy
Image caption About 900 forestry workers came to Scotland from British Honduras during the war

The story of how forestry workers from Central America travelled 5,000 miles to Scotland to help the war effort has been largely forgotten.

But the British Honduran Forestry Unit played a vital role in maintaining timber supplies during World War Two.

Almost 900 forestry workers arrived in Scotland at the end of 1941 and were billeted across the country.

They left behind a tropical climate and had to cope with the kind of wintry conditions they had never encountered before.

Image caption Sam Martinez lived in Edinburgh until his death at the age of 106

Among them was Sam Martinez, a 32-year-old woodcutter from the forests of British Honduras - now known as Belize.

He was used to hard manual labour, felling mahogany trees with broad trunks.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Britain's resources were being drained by the war and there was a lack of available labour to log and cut the wood in the forests.

The timber was much needed for a range of uses including pit props in the coal mining industry, which in turn produced the fuel for large scale manufacturing in the war.

The then forestry ministry launched a Commonwealth-wide recruitment drive, with workers from Canada and British Honduras embarking on the precarious trip across an Atlantic haunted by German U-boats.

War effort

Before his death in August 2016, at the age of 106, Sam Martinez talked about his memories of that time.

"The war started and we, being Britishers, were asked to come to do forestry work," he said.

"We were divided all over Scotland. Some in different camps to do forestry work for the war effort. And that's what brought us here."

Image caption Yutsil Hoyo Diaz Martinez recorded his grandfather's wartime recollections

Sam's stories were filmed and recorded over a number of years by his grandson, Yutsil Hoyo Diaz Martinez.

He said of his grandfather's journey: "They travelled from Belize to New Orleans by boat."

"From New Orleans they moved to New York and then from New York they travelled across to the UK.

"They had to zigzag across the Atlantic because there were U-boats and Nazi submarines.

"They had to be wary because they thought they could get bombed at any time."

The journey from New York took 14 days and their cabins were in the bottom of the boat.

His grandson said: "They had three sets of uniforms and they were wearing all three at the same time because it was so cold."

Image copyright Edinburgh Evening News
Image caption Sam became a lifelong Hibernian fan

Sam arrived in Port Glasgow at the end of November.

He was sent to a freezing Ullapool to work with a forestry unit cutting mahogany trees.

Others went to places like Golspie, Kinlochewe, Duns and Tranent.

'Not welcoming'

Sam's grandson says when he arrived in Ullapool, the locals were not welcoming.

He described them as being nervous and confused because they had never seen people of colour before.

"A lot of people ran away from them and closed their shops," he says.

"They were screaming 'the coalmen are here'. They had to interact with this society that was not welcoming."

In 1943, before the war was over, the forestry unit was disbanded and the loggers were given the choice between repatriation or taking their chances in Britain.

Sam moved to a hostel in Edinburgh and tried to find work.

He had various jobs including working at a paper mill in Balerno.

"He had a range of work," his grandson says.

"He did not retire until he was 94."

Yutsil says one of the main reasons his grandfather stayed in Scotland was "because he wanted to fit in among white people".

One of the ways he did this was to become an avid supporter of Hibernian.

Hibs supporter

The early days of Mr Martinez's support coincided with the most success period in the club's history

Hibs won the league three times in the five years up to 1952, with the help of the players who have become known as the Famous Five - Gordon Smith, Eddie Turnbull, Lawrie Reilly, Bobby Johnstone and Willie Ormond.

He finally saw Hibs win the cup in May 2016, just months before his death, when they beat Rangers with an injury-time winner.

Yutsil came back to Scotland from Mexico in 2011 to record his 101-year-old grandfather's story.

He says the contribution of the British Hondurans is largely forgotten.

"They played an important role, maybe not as war heroes, but for the war effort," he says.

"You see a lot of the other stories mentioned, but because they were people of colour this is not mentioned."

His grandson is now planning a documentary to ensure his story is told.

"Their story is missing," he said.

"I would like to see something more physical in Scotland in some form of museums or history books so that schools can teach it and everybody knows it."

The Scottish government's Rural Economy Secretary, Fergus Ewing, wants to ensure their wartime work is formally recognised.

He has written to the High Commissioner of Belize, Perla Perdomo, to officially thank her on behalf of the Scottish government.

Mr Ewing said: "It's a secret part of wartime history in the Second World War.

"We do really recognise the huge contribution they made and it's fitting and right that you should be recording it now."

Forestry Commission Scotland is also looking at ways of celebrating their work during the war.

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