A Brief History of Belize
The region of Central America that is now recognized as the country of Belize got its start under the rule of the indigenous Maya civilization. The Maya were highly intelligent, conceived of a glyph-based writing system, calendar, astronomy, advanced mathematics and even stumbled upon the concept of zero. These people were also quite accomplished at architectural design and the many temples, cities, and palaces that they planned and shaped survive to this day. Tikal, located in neighboring Guatemala, is a sizable Maya city containing five pyramids.
At the peak of its power, the Maya were among the densest populations and dynamic cultures on the planet. While the Maya civilization thrived for over a millennium, it started to reach a decline in the year 900 CE. While we remain unsure as to what caused this decline, several competing theories exist. One of these theories posits that the Maya suffered a similar fate to the Roman Empire, growing far too spread out to keep itself going and died a slow death to infighting and starvation. While civilization may have faded into history, the Maya people continue to live on in modern Belize.
Belize’s first European settler was Gonzalo Guerrero. Guerrero was a Spanish sailor by trade whose ship had crashed along the Yucatan Peninsula in 1811. While his first exposure to the Maya was as a captive, he eventually won the people over, married into the culture and chose a home in Chactemal, the old name of what is now known as northern Belize’s Corozal Town.
The first British visitors to Belize were not very interested in record-keeping. These individuals were pirates and adventure-seekers who would camp along the coast in hope of spying Spanish vessels to plunder. “History of Central America” mentions a Captain Peter Wallace and his 80 crewmen as the first settlers in 1617, camping around the Belize River. While some believed that the name “Belize” is taken from mishearing Wallace’s name, others believe that it comes from “balix,” a Maya word that translates as “muddy waters.”
Come 1650, the British began to pursue logging within the country. These British loggers were labeled “Baymen.” It would also be around this time that the British crown would bring African slaves to the country in order to improve the efficiency of logging for England. Notably, these trees contained the raw resources needed to harvest dye for wool clothes and served as a major reason for Britain’s interest in Belize for over a century. Because the British remained in Belize for so long, a fair number of them fell in love with their slaves, resulting in the birth of the Creole people. 1670’s Treaty of Madrid would see the end of piracy and only further encourage the logwood trade.
Belize saw another population boom after disbanded British nationals would take Jamaica from Spain in 1655. The following 150 years were a troubling time for Belize. Spain would retaliate against the British-held land from its many New World outposts for England’s meddling in Jamaica. Spain believed itself the sole proprietor of all New World lands that Portugal had not claimed. While Spain never colonized Belize, it regarded the British claim on Belize as nothing more angry squatters.
1783’s Treaty of Versailles cleared up the distinctions between logwood and mahogany, a distinction augmented by the Convention of London three years later. Even with these declarations, Spain continued to regard Belize as Spanish property. 1798 would be when Spain would attack settlers of St. George’s Caye. These settlers, as well as slaves and a British frigate, trounced the British in an exchange known as the “Battle of St. George’s Caye.” This victory is celebrated every September 10th as “St. George’s Day.”
Several other Spanish treaties gave Baymen greater freedom to chop logwood and mahogany. Notably, an 1859 Anglo-Guatemalan treaty gave Britain full sovereignty over the territory that people recognize as Belize. Three years later, Britain would christen the colony as “British Honduras,” adding it to the Commonwealth of Nations.
The years 1920 through 1980 were marked by a pursuit of independence. 1964 was when British Honduras was granted self-governance. British Honduras became Belize on June 1st, 1973 and September 21st, 1981 became Belize’s Independence Day.