A BRIEF HISTORY OF BELIZE
Written by: John Acott ©
The area of Central America now called Belize was first inhabited by the Maya Indians who had an incredibly advanced civilisation. They had their own writing called glyphs and their own calendar. The Maya were also skilled mathematicians and were the first culture to discover the concept of zero. They were also great architects. They built massive temples, cities, and palaces. The cities were well-planned and the temples were shaped like pyramids. Tikal, located in Guatemala, close to what is now the Belize border, is a very large Maya city and includes five pyramids. The Mayas were also skilled astronomers.
At its height, the Maya of Belize and Central America formed one of the most densely populated and culturally dynamic societies in the world. The great Mayan civilisation, which had lasted 1,000 years, began to decline around the year of 900 A.D. It is unknown for sure why the Mayan civilisation ended, but there are many theories. One is that the population of the Mayas grew too great. With a lack of food and possible internal fighting, the civilisation fell apart, leaving behind large groups whose offspring still exist in Belize.
The first European to make Belize his home was Gonzalo Guerrero, a sailor from Palos, in Spain, who was shipwrecked along the Yucatan Peninsula in 1511 and was captured by the Maya. He later married and settled at Chactemal, now modern day Corozal Town in northern Belize.
The first British to arrive on the coast of Belize left few records. They were pirates, buccaneers and adventurers, who lived in rough camps which they used as bases to raid Spanish ships. Bancroft’s “History of Central America” gives buccaneer Captain Peter Wallace, with 80 men, as the first settlers at the Belize River in 1617. It is said that the word “Belize” derived from Wallace’s name. Another theory is that the word “Belize” comes from the Maya word “balix” which means muddy waters.
Around 1650, they started to log the logwood forests of Belize. These loggers came to be known as Baymen. The British introduced slavery to Belize and imported thousands of slaves from Africa to cut the logwood which was shipped to England. Logwood is a tree from which a valuable dye used to colour woollen cloth was made and was the economic basis for the British settlement in Belize for over 100 years. The inter-marriage between Europeans and their African slaves led to modern day Creoles in Belize. In 1670 the Treaty of Madrid put an end to the piracy and encouraged these settlers to just cut logwood.
The population grew with the addition of disbanded British soldiers and sailors after the capture of Jamaica from Spain in 1655. The settlement had a troubled history during the next 150 years. It was subjected to numerous incursions from neighbouring Spanish settlements (Spain claimed sovereignty over the entire New World except for regions in South America assigned to Portugal). No Spanish colonies were ever established in the area now called Belize but still Spain never liked the idea of British squatters on what she claimed as her land and this led to frequent wars between the Spanish and settlers.
The Treaty of Versailles in 1783, affirmed the boundaries to cut logwood and mahogany. The boundaries were later extended by the Convention of London in 1786. But Spanish incursions to defend its rights over territory continued.
In 1798, a Spanish armada consisting of 32 ships and about 2,000 men attacked the settlers at St. George’s Caye, where many of them lived. The settlers, assisted by their slaves and a British frigate, defeated the Spanish in what is known as the Battle of St. George’s Caye, and which day is annually celebrated in Belize on the 10th of September.
Several more treaties with Spain gave the Baymen larger boundaries to cut logwood and mahogany. The most significant was in 1859 when the Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty gave Britain sovereignty over the territory we now know as Belize.
In 1838, slavery was abolished in Belize, 20 years before it was abolished in the US. During this time, Belize began to become a melting pot of races and ethnic backgrounds. The old Baymen families married former slaves, creating a kind of Creole aristocracy in Belize City. Some Mayas, fleeing the Caste Wars of Mexico, intermarried with the Spanish, and were then called Mestizos. Hundreds of Garifuna from Honduras, with African and Caribbean Indian heritage, settled in southern Belize.
Soon after, in 1862, the settlement became a colony and was called “British Honduras” and was recognised as part of the British Commonwealth.
A devastating hurricane hit Belize in September 1932 and killed approximately 2,500 people.
Another hurricane, Hurricane Hattie, hit Belize in October 1961. It was the strongest hurricane to ever hit Belize and killed approximately 400 people, leaving thousands homeless and devastating half of Belize City. Because if this, a new capital city was planned in the exact centre of the country and Belmopan became the capital in 1965.
From 1920-1980 independence was sought and In 1964 British Honduras gained the right to self government. The country’s name was changed on 1st June, 1973, from “British Honduras” to “Belize” and on 21st September 1981, independence from Great Britain was finally achieved.
In the 20th Century, citrus, bananas and sugar replaced logging as the country’s main industry. More recently, tourism has supplanted agriculture as the primary industry.