A number of different cultures and countless stories of migration and conquest weave together to form the fabric of Belizean history. Mayans, Spanish explorers, British colonialists, West African slave descendants: all have made their mark, and every traveler who visits Belize writes a new chapter in the rich narrative of this dynamic Central American nation.
The region that comprises modern-day Belize was originally part of the greater Mayan empire. Driven inland by invading Spanish in the early 1500s, the Maya never returned to the southern Yucatan coastline, leaving it deserted and essentially free for the taking.
The last place on the continent to be inhabited by Western powers, Belize witnessed minimal incursion by Spanish settlers and British pirates until the mid-1600s, when rivalry between the two European nations heightened their efforts to dominate the area. With a navy far inferior to that of the Spanish fleet, British sailors of the 1600s were more interested in plundering and looting than in actual nation-building. These British pirates made their hideout on the uninhabited, mangrove-lined coasts of Belize, laying siege to Spanish ships and creating logging settlements on shore.
As the British expanded their influence along the Yucatan coastline, the neighboring Spanish grew more and more aggravated by this ragtag band of British squatters plying the forests and occupying the reefs. The Spaniards saw the Brits as trespassers on Spanish territory, since it had been Spain who conquered the Maya in neighboring Guatemala and Mexico. Belize, as far as the Spanish were concerned, was a part of the spoils.
The Spanish made multiple efforts to dispel the British but accomplished nothing, save for one victory in which a large colony of British settlers were deported to Cuba. A shift was developing. As Britain became a larger colonial power in the Caribbean, British settlers gained in influence throughout the region.
Finally on September 10th 1798, in a day that lives in Belize infamy, the Spanish sailed on Belize with 30 warships to confront the British in the Battle of St. George’s Caye. The battle lasted a mere two hours. There were no reported British casualties, and the Spanish fleet turned back towards Mexico, having conceded Belize to the British once and for all.
September 10th commemorates National Day, and Belize’s Independence Day falls just over a week later on September 21. Belizeans spend virtually the entire month of September feteing their nation’s history, and visitors are encouraged to take part in the celebration.
Building British Honduras
Once the British established colonial settlements in Belize, their legions of farmers and mahogany loggers found themselves in dire necessity of indentured servants to work the land. Since they could not go to the Maya for their labor needs (Mayans continued to display staunch resistance within their inland communities), the British resorted to importing African slaves. In addition to dutifully working the logging camps until the 1838 abolition of slavery in Belize, the descendants of West African slaves enriched the local culture with dances, traditions, and customs from their native lands.
British settlers became firmly ensconced in their Yucatan colony and designated this nation “British Honduras,” a name that stuck for most of the 180 years that Belize continued to exist under British colonial rule. Even as the sun began gradually to set upon the British colonial empire, Belize remained an English-speaking outpost for well-heeled and adventurous British travelers. The name Belize was officially adopted in 1973, and on September 21st 1981, Belize became the newest independent nation in Central America.
Industry and infrastructure within Belize can be largely attributed to the British. Belizean rhythms, dances, reggae music, and drum circles are cultural gifts from the imported African slaves and generations of their free descendants.
Just because Belize became independent, however, doesn’t mean that the country relinquished British military protection. Kind of like a fully-independent college grad… who is still on Mom & Dad’s health insurance. The greatest hazards to the health of this new nation were Belize’s lingering disputes with Guatemala. Neighboring Guatemala was echoing the claims of the early Spanish, asserting that Belize was meant to be part of a Guatemalan sovereign territory. Newly independent, sparsely populated, and understandably nervous, Belize accepted the military support proffered by the British government. The cross-border tension hovered for another decade until Guatemala recognized Belize’s independence in 1991.
Though the history of people in Belize dates back to time immemorial, modern-day Belize remains one of the world’s newer nations. With a welcoming attitude towards tourism and a concerted effort towards the conservation of its incredible natural areas, the government of Belize is ensuring a bright future. This sojourn into Belize’s past may lead you to some interesting realizations when you visit Belize. Such as why the hotel concierge speaks English with a British lilt, yet his skin tone speaks of a West African-Carib ancestry. Or why you notice more Mayan tapestries hung outside the stores in villages as you travel further inland.
The past seems to explain the present, and yet each morning, as the sun rises beyond the coral atolls, another day dawns in the continuing history of Belize.