Belize has a rich history which dates back thousands of years, involving many key players including the ancient Maya, European settlers – which initially consisted of shipwrecked sailors and pirates – and African slaves. Belize’s history is convoluted, even the origin of its name is vague, but one thing’s for sure. Belize’s past is what contributes to its diverse culture today, and is one of the many reasons that Belize attracts 400,000 visitors a year to its beautiful country.
Name Origin of Belize
Where the name Belize came from is not clear, but there are some theories. One assumption is that it was derived from the Maya word “belix” which means “muddy water” referring to the Belize River. Another theory is that it was the Spanish pronunciation of the pirate Peter Wallace’s surname, who created the first settlement in Belize in 1638. Throughout the country’s history, it has supposedly been called Balix, Belice, Bay of Honduras, Honduras, British Yucatan, Balise, Belise, and Bellese.
In the mid-1800s, it was referred to as British Honduras up until 1973 which is when it was officially named Belize by the British colonial government.
Maya Civilization in Belize
The Maya Civilization populated Belize between 1500 BC to 12 BC and reached its peak, known as the Classic Period, between 250 AD and 900 AD. Today, there are hundreds of Mayan Ruins and ceremonial sites which are hugely popular tourist attractions. The most fascinating ruin sites – Lamanai, Caracol, Cahal Pech, Altun Ha, and Xunantunich – are reflections of the dense Maya population and dynamically advanced societies from that period.
The Maya civilization eventually declined, but there are still many Maya offspring living in Belize today, who are descended from one of three denominations – Kekchi, Yucatec, and Mopan Maya. They live in small villages in Southern Belize and still embrace their ancient Mayan rituals.
European Settlement in Belize
The Maya remained in Belize when European settlement began and grew in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 1540s, the Spanish tried to control Belize, but the Maya resisted fiercely, so the Spanish never gained lasting control of the country. However, the Spanish did bring new diseases which weakened the Maya population, and the surviving Maya eventually withdrew inland.
The first European settlers to Belize were shipwrecked British sailors, also known as Baymen, who arrived in the mid-1600s. Around this same time, Belize was also used as a hiding spot for pirates from England and Scotland and became populated with disbanded British soldiers and sailors after the capture of Jamaica from Spain in 1655.
Although the Spanish claimed this territory, the British settlers became loggers, exporting logwood to Europe. In the 18th century, the Spanish attacked the British settlers several times, forcing the Baymen to leave. However, they kept returning.
On September 10, 1798, a historical battle between the Baymen and the Spanish took place at St. George’s Caye. Against all the odds, the Baymen defeated the Spanish for the final time, and the British took over control. Today, September 10th is a national holiday in Belize, and many celebrations take place to commemorate this victorious battle.
Belize was named British Honduras in 1862 when it officially became a British colony.
Slavery in Belize
In the 18th century, the British introduced slavery to Belize and imported thousands of African slaves to cut logwood and later mahogany for export. The inter-marriage between Europeans and their African slaves is what led to the modern Creole population in Belize today. Slavery in Belize was abolished in 1833, as part of the British act to end slavery in its colonies.
Around the same time that slavery was ended, a new ethnic group appeared in Belize – the Garifuna, who are descendants of Caribs of the Lesser Antilles and of Africans who had escaped from slavery. Brought to this region as slaves during Caribbean colonization, the Garifuna resisted British rule and were exiled and pushed back from island to island, until they settled in Belize in the early 19th century. Today, the Garifuna are now regarded as one of Belize’s most predominant ethnicities.
British Honduras became a self-governing colony in 1964 and renamed Belize in 1973. Belize was the UK’s last colony on the American mainland. However, Belize was not granted full independence until 1981, because of delays due to territorial disputes with bordering Guatemala, which still exist today.
Guatemala retains its territorial claim against Belize stemming from its rights as a former a colony of Spain. This ongoing issue has required mediation by the UK, CARICOM heads of Government, the Organization of American States (OAS), and on one occasion, the United States.
In December 2008, Belize and Guatemala signed an agreement to submit the territorial differences to the International Court of Justice, but it still has not been voted on. Currently, both Guatemala and Belize are participating in confidence-building measures approved by the OAS, including the Guatemala-Belize Language Exchange Project. Since Belize’s independence, a British garrison has been retained in Belize at the request of the Belizean government.
Thanks to Belize’s history and the melting pot of ethnicities who live in Belize today, it is a culturally diverse nation which offers a laidback Caribbean vibe sprinkled with British formality and Latin hospitality. This is why visitors to Belize and expats who live here full-time or part-time feel safe, welcome and at peace in Belize.
Orchid Bay, located in Northern Belize on the Bay of Chetumal, offers modern amenities, stunning views, and an endless array of activities for travelers and homeowners. For those looking to buy a home in Belize, Orchid Bay is the ideal choice as the community offers buyers a choice between Beachfront Condominiums, Casitas, Waterway Villas, and home sites and lots where you can build your own custom home. Home prices start in the high $200s.
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