George Fisher, the man who bought Cozumel

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George Fisher (whose real name was Djordje Shagic) was born in Hungary to Serbian parents in 1795.   He studied to be a priest and found he was adept at languages.   By the time he was 17 he had mastered over a dozen languages, including Latin, Greek, English, German, French, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, Magyar, Serbian, Russian, Polish, Bohemian, Moravian, Slovenian, Croatian, Dalmatian and Montenegrin.   However, adventure called and he left school to join and fight with the Serbian revolutionary forces against the Ottoman Turks during the first Serbian Revolution.   After the revolution failed, he fled Austria and worked his way across Europe to Amsterdam where and sailed as a stow-a-way to Philadelphia.   In 1814, he assumed the name of George Fisher for the first time.   In 1817 he moved to Port Gibson, Mississippi and married Elizabeth Davis there in 1818, becoming an American citizen.   That same year he was initiated into the Masons and in 1823 became a Royal Arch Mason.   Nine years after moving to Mississippi, Fisher moved to Mexico City while his wife stayed in Mississippi and raised their five children.   While working as an editor for the Correo de Atlántico newspaper in Mexico City, Fisher met and was befriended by Joel Roberts Poinsett, the US Minister to Mexico after whom the Poinsettia Christmas flower is named, and together they founded the first York Rite Masonic Lodge of that city.   Fisher became a Mexican citizen in 1829, and in 1830 was given a land grant (formerly called the Haden grant) by the Mexican government where he was to settle 500 families in the Mexican territory of Texas.

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The first diving operation in Cozumel

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In 1933, Oscar Coldwell formed a partnership with the American James H. Clark to start a company on Cozumel with an eye towards collecting sponges for export.   Both the divers and their “hard hat” diving equipment had to be brought in to the island, since it had never been practiced here before.   The company tried to gather sponges in the waters near Isla Mujeres and Chinchorro Bank as well as Cozumel, but the business soon failed.   A Greek company, however, was able to make a go of it in Isla Mujeres a few years later.

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The Day our Ship Came In

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In 1948, Cozumel was languishing.   The chicle boom was a distant memory, the American airbase failed to materialize, and fewer cargo ships were stopping at the island than ever before.   Times were tough.   But things were about to change.   Cozumel’s ship was about to come in.

On February 13, 1948 the American-owned freighter “Narwal,” on its way north from Puerto Barrios Honduras to Mobile Alabama with a load of bananas, suffered engine failure and struck the reef at Ixpalbarco, on the eastern coast of Cozumel.   While some of the crew remained aboard the crippled vessel, the rest walked the 20 kilometers or so to town, where they were put up in the rooms of the mothballed Hotel Playa, a hotel that had been built by the state government, but closed due to the poor economy years earlier.

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It must’ve been the Ghost of the Spirit of St. Louis!

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Lindbergh made his first flight into Mexico on December 13, 1927, when he flew non-stop from Washington DC to Mexico City, in his plane Spirit of St. Louis, tail number NX211.   He was received by Mexican President Calles and toured the city for a few days before returning to Balbuena Field, where he made several flights over Mexico City in the Mexican Armed Forces’ Morane Saulnier M.S. registration number 31A128.   On December 20, he made several more flights in a Compania Mexicana de Aviación Fairchild FC-2 (registration number M-SCOE), during one of which he gave President Calles his first ever airplane ride.   On December 22, Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis for a few shorts flights in and out of Balbuena over Mexico City.   On December 28, he flew the Spirit of St. Louis non-stop from Mexico City to Guatemala City.

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Cozumel, Texas

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In June, 1837, one year after the Republic of Texas became independent from Mexico, the Texas Navy sent the two Schooners of War (the Brutus and the Invincible) to the coast of Yucatan to harass Mexican shipping in retaliation for Mexican blockade of Texas ports.   The Texas Secretary of the Navy, Samuel Rhoades Fisher, went along as an observer.   After raiding several Yucatecan towns and capturing several Mexican vessels, the Texian fleet sent a landing party ashore at Cozumel and claimed the island formally for the Republic of Texas.   The Texian Navy Commander Henry Livingston Thompson of the Brutus sent a dispatch on August 29, 1837 to his headquarters in Galveston regarding this foray, containing the following lines:

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Cozumel was Selling Fake Cuban Cigars in 1876

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When it comes to taking advantage of naïve foreign visitors who are looking for cheap deals, early Cozumeleños were no slackers.   Back when the island was a center of trade in pre-Hispanic times, the occurrence of “counterfeit” cacao beans, which were used a currency by the Maya, was not uncommon here.   The soft inner meat of the bean was hollowed out, so it could be consumed and then mud stuffed back inside the husk to hide the fact that the meat was missing.

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Cozumel and the slave trade

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The frequently heard statement that Cozumel was abandoned in the 1700s due to predations by bands of roving pirates is nearly true.   The island was an easy target for buccaneers and in the mid-1600s the Spanish government finally decided to move the population inland, to towns like Chemax and Xcan Boloná that were far from the marauders’ reach.   Some Cozumelenos did, in fact, move to the mainland.   However, many stayed on the island and were joined by English dyewood cutters, later known as “piratas.”

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Connecting Capote, Cozumel, and the Killers of the Clutters

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In 1959, Truman Capote read a story in the New York Times about the murders of the Clutter family and immediately began to write a book about the killers.   It took him five years to finish writing it.    He published his story first as a four-part series of articles beginning with installment number one in the September 25, 1965 edition of the New Yorker magazine under the title In Cold Blood: The last to see them alive.   The book, In Cold Blood, was published immediately afterwards in 1965 by Random House. The book was made into a movie by the same name in 1967.

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Bases, Bulldozers, and Bullshit

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PAN AMERICAN AIRWAYS AND COZUMEL

Pan American Airways was initially a shell corporation founded by US Army Major Henry “Hap” Arnold in 1927 as a front to keep the German airline SCADTA from winning landing rights in Panama.  The German line had already an established route that they had been flying since 1920 that went from Colombia, Roatan, Belize City, Cozumel, Havana, to Miami.  Arnold was concerned that SCADTA, operating out of Colombia, was angling to get landing rights in Panama in order monitor movements in the canal.  Even though his new company had no airplanes at the time, Arnold was able use his influence with the US Government to win a contract to deliver US Mail from Miami to Havana.  Later, by joining forces with two other airlines (one company had one plane, but no landing rights, and the other had landing rights in Havana, but no plane) Arnold was able to fulfill the terms of the contract.  He next tendered bids for contracts on all the new US Mail routes (F. A. M. routes) between the States and Central and South America, winning every one of the contracts in 1928, thus denying SCADTA the Panamanian landing rights. 

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Abe Lincoln wanted to by Cozumel

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Most Americans were brought up to believe Abraham Lincoln was one of our greatest Presidents. As schoolchildren, we were told his belief in the equality of man led him to free the black slaves through his Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. However, reviewing the transcripts of his public speeches, the memoirs of those he worked with, and the public records, a very different Abe Lincoln comes to life. It would seem that the main reason he wanted to free the nation’s slaves, was to be able to then deport them, preferably back to Africa. Since the 1840s, Lincoln had been a member of the American Colonial Society, a group who, with the help of the US government, were instrumental in setting up colonies along the shore of Sierra Leone in 1820 for the express purposed of receiving deported black freedmen. The colonies were managed by a hodge-podge of missionaries, American government appointed functionaries, and black entrepreneurs. The colonies were not very successful, until most of them banded together in 1838, renaming their capital Monrovia, and their new unified colony Liberia. In 1847 they declared their independence, drawing the wrath of the US government, who refused to recognize the new nation. The ships bringing deportees stopped coming.

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