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History and Politics of Belize


Belize already had a long and important history when the first Europeans arrived in the New World. The first settlers of modern-day Belize arrived many centuries ago. The area was an important part of the Mayan empire which covered present-day Belize, Guatemala, the Yucatán Peninsula and parts of El Salvador, Honduras and southern Mexico.

The Maya were advanced mathematicians, astronomers farmers and warriors. Opinions of experts differ as to when the height of their power was, but most would agree that it was roughly from 250 A.D. to 900 A.D., a period known to historians as the classic period. The Maya were not a true, unified empire, but rather a collection of powerful city-states that occasionally warred with one another. Major Mayan cities like Caracol, Tikal and Chichén Itzá were political, cultural, economic and religious centers.

The Maya in the area that is now Belize were quite powerful. According to some historians, the king of Caracol, Lord Water, warred with Tikal in the sixth century A.D. and conquered it, and for the next hundred years or so Tikal was a vassal state. Ambergris Caye, today one of Belize’s most popular tourist destinations, was inhabited by Maya who used it as a trading base. There are still a few structures–mostly reduced to rubble–and piles of shells left by the Maya on the island. Some historians have even suggested that Ambergris Caye was once part of the Yucatán peninsula before the Maya dug a large trench to separate it, so that their canoes could pass through.

By the time Hernán CortĂ©s, conquistador of the Aztecs in Mexico, sent his lieutenant Pedro de Alvarado south to explore the lands of the Maya, their empire had collapsed, leaving only a series of weakened city-states, none of which were a match for the Spanish. No one is sure why the Maya empire went into decline: some theories are natural disasters, disease and too much warring among the city-states. Recent evidence seems to support the theory that they warred too often, weakening their cities and making them vulnerable to disease and crop failure. 

The Maya tribes still residing in Guatemala were much larger and richer than the ones in Belize, and so the Spanish concentrated on them, conquering the area within a few years. The tribes in Belize were much harder to subdue. One tribe, the Chetumal Maya, who lived near present day Corozal Town, were particularly defiant. Their leader, when asked to submit to the Spanish, replied that the only tribute the invaders would have from him would be “turkeys in the shape of spears, and corn in the shape of arrows.” The Chetumal even became a haven for other Maya groups chased off their lands by the Spanish.

The Spanish soon came to the conclusion that the Maya in the present-day Belize were not worth the trouble and left them alone. In any event, the Spanish did not really need to subdue the Belize Maya: their diseases did it for them. Over time, European illnesses wiped out much of Belize’s native population: some historians estimate that as many as 86% of the Maya in the region may have died of disease in the first few decades after contact with Europeans.

The Colonial Era

In the middle of the 17th century, British pirates and buccaneers began to settle the Bay of Honduras area, which today is part of Belize. These pirates worked the Spanish shipping routes, hoping to waylay and rob galleons bringing gold and silver back to Spain. At first, their camps were rudimentary and temporary. Eventually, these British began to realize that the woods of Belize were rich with logwood, a tree which produces a dye that can be used to color wool. Many of the pirates turned to logging, especially after a 1670 treaty prohibiting piracy. They built more permanent settlements and camps. These first British settlers were called “baymen.”

In the 1700s, Spain tried on several occasions to remove the baymen from Belize. There were many attacks by the Spanish and many treaties between Spain and Britain. By then, however, the baymen had discovered that the forests of Belize were also rich in mahogany, a wood worth much more than logwood. The baymen defended their settlements. Although at first, the Spanish managed to destroy many of the baymen’s towns, they always returned. The Spanish, in any event, never moved into the region in any great numbers. In 1798, the Spanish attacked again, but this time the British were ready: they had reinforced the baymen with British soldiers and the Spanish were soundly defeated at the Battle of St. George’s Bay. The Spanish never attacked again. In 1862, the area officially became a British colony with the name of British Honduras.

Although the Spanish were gone, by then the British had another enemy. Loggers were penetrating further and further into the interior of Belize, and there they encountered the Maya, who had begun to recover from the devastation of European diseases. As early as the 1780s, there were records of Indian attacks on remote logging outposts. The fighting continued into the next century: in 1870, Mayans under the leadership of Marcos Canul attacked and captured Corozal Town. Two years later Canul and his forces attacked the garrison at Orange Walk. The attack was repelled and Canul was killed: after that, Maya attacks decreased drastically.

Africans in Belize

By the late 18th century, the British were importing African slaves for use in the timber industry. Slaves had first been brought to the New World as early as 1518, but their use in modern-day Belize did not happen until later. African slaves in Belize were used differently than they were in the Caribbean. In the Caribbean, blacks generally worked in the sugarcane fields, in large, closely supervised groups.

In Belize, the slaves worked on timber crews in the woods, often in smaller groups. They specialized into trades of sorts: “hunters” combed the forests, searching for mahogany trees, “axmen” cut the trees and “cattlemen” took the trees to market with the aid of oxen. Despite the differences, the life of a slave in Belize was every bit as miserable as the life of a slave in the Caribbean: many tried to escape to Spanish lands, where they were granted their freedom. Some even joined Spanish raids on Belize at the end of the eighteenth century. There were also numerous slave rebellions, especially during the lean economic years between 1760 and 1773. The revolt in 1773 was so serious that the British had to send one of their warships, the HMS Garland, to help put it down.

Slaves became very important to the economy of British Honduras: a 1790 census showed that three-quarters of the population of the colony were slaves. In addition, there were many free blacks living and working in the region. The slave trade ended in 1807, but the practice of slavery did not end until 1838, when slaves were emancipated throughout the British Empire. The end of slavery did not improve the condition of the Africans very much: although they were free, they were paid very low wages, and racism was still very prevalent. Also, when slavery was abolished, the British crown also ended the practice of giving away land in Belize to settlers: they would have to purchase it. This law essentially made land ownership impossible for blacks.

During the 19th century, Belize also had three significant waves of immigration. The Garifuna people, who were a combination of Carib natives and black runaways, were forced by the British to live in the bay islands off of Honduras. Many of them moved into southern Belize. Although they were welcomed, as they were needed on forestry teams, they suffered from the same racism as the descendants of slaves. Local landowners, fearing that their slaves would run off to join these Garifuna settlements, spread rumors that the newcomers ate children and worshiped the devil, and these became lasting stereotypes that the Garifuna needed to combat much later.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries

After the American Civil War, many veterans of the Confederate army moved to Belize and remained. The third wave of immigration was East Indians. British India suffered from economic hardships in the mid to late nineteenth century, and as many as 42,000 Indians were relocated to British possessions in the Americas between 1844 and 1917. Very few of them went to Belize, which still had a very small population, but their descendants can still be found in Belize today.

One consistent problem that Belize has suffered from is land ownership in the hands of a small elite. During the slavery period, 12 families owned most of the land in the country. Later, the British Honduras Company (which would become the Belize Estate and Produce Company, or the B.E.C.) would purchase vast tracts of land for forestry exploitation: by 1875 they owned one-fifth of the land in Belize. They were primarily concerned with forestry and did little to encourage other industries. The locals experimented with coffee, cocoa and bananas, but these never turned into the major industries that they did in other countries.

From 1929 to 1940, the United States went through a severe economic depression, the effects of which were felt in Belize. There was little demand for mahogany and other fine woods, and Belize’s economy crashed, as there was little else to fall back upon: in 1935, 82% of Belize’s total exports were mahogany, cedar, and chicle. When synthetic rubber was developed, it hurt Belize even more. After the great depression, the forestry industry in Belize never fully recovered.

In the 1930s and 1940s, British Honduras suffered from a high level of poverty and misery. A major hurricane in 1931 only worsened the situation. When India became independent from Britain in 1945, British Honduras began contemplating their own changes. In 1950, the population of British Honduras was still very small–only 60,000 or so total–and unemployment was very high. The People’s United Party, or PUP, was formed. Their platforms were employment, opportunity and independence. In 1954, they won the right to vote for all Belizeans, and PUP held a great deal of political power. In 1964, British Honduras won the right of self-government, severing many–but not all–of their ties with Britain.

The economy began to improve as new industries were developed. The citrus industry began to take off, along with fishing, rice, beef and tourism. The government began to appreciate Belize’s natural beauty and set aside large tracts of land as national parks. The population grew: according to the 1991 census, it had reached 200,000.


On September 21, 1981, British Honduras peacefully won independence from Great Britain. Four days later, Belize formally became a member of the United Nations. Since independence from Great Britain, the country has seemingly begun to distance itself from its British past: Belize today seems more Latin American or Caribbean than British. Prime Minister since 1998, Said Musa has overseen the change of Belize’s economy to be more service-based. Tourism has brought a great deal of money into Belize, and the economy is improving. Still, however, many Belizeans have to leave the country to find lucrative work elsewhere, and the money they send home is a considerable part of the nation’s economy.

By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
21 Nov 2008

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