Belize History: The Maya, Spanish, and British Occupation
A short history of Belize
Belize is formerly known as British Honduras and is a small country of approximately 360,000 people. It is the only English speaking country in Central America and is a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy that recognizes Queen Elizabeth II as sovereign. Belize, as with other Central American countries (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador) and southeastern Mexico, was originally settled by the ancient Maya. There are over two-dozen documented ancient Mayan linguistic groups in this area, three of which currently reside in Belize. The Maya currently make up about 10% of the population of Belize and include the Yucatec in the north near the Mexican border, the Q’eqchi in the south, near Punta Gorda, and the Mopan, in western Belize near the border town of Benque Viejo del Carmen.
THE MAYA OF BELIZE AND EARLIER
Paleoindian is the earliest time period recorded in Belize thus far (Ca. 11,500 – 8000 BC) this is followed by the Archaic (Ca. 8000 – 900 BC) and the approximate ancient Maya Chronology that follows these preceramic periods include:
* Preclassic – 900 BC to AD 250 (often cited as early as 1500 BC)
* Classic – AD 250 to 900
* Postclassic – AD 900 to 1500
* Historic and Colonial – AD 1500 to Present
Numerous sites and city-states existed throughout Belize that represent these time periods, notably: Cerros, Cuello, Caracol, Xunantunich, Cahal Pech, Lamanai, Altun Ha, Lubaantun, El Pilar, Santa Rita, and sacred caves that include Barton Creek, Actun Tunichil Muknal, and Che Chem Ha. The occupational history of the Maya in southeast Mexico and Central America is endless especially since today there are over 5 million Maya descendants and Belize is certainly a portion of this.
BELIZE HISTORIC PERIOD
Early 16th century records indicate that in AD 1544 the Maya city of Lamanai, in northern Belize, was to be part of the Spanish encomienda system (royal grant to a Spaniard for the right to labor and tribute a native population, they are also responsible for Christianizing the natives). Although there certainly are early reports of Spanish contact in other areas of the New World, the documented reference of Lamanai and the construction of a Spanish church at Lamanai around AD 1570 provide securely dated European settlement influence in Belize.
The Maya society these first Europeans encountered were a very different population that had undergone many transformations since the height of the “Classic Period”. Contact in Belize with Europeans was detrimental to the existing Maya through disease, slavery, and fighting. During the 18th century through logging concessions given to Britain by Spain the modern boundaries of Belize were created. Spain claimed sovereignty but did not settle the land. The British settlers at this time were primarily ex-pirates who were no longer supported by their governments who were now attempting to stamp out piracy. These settlers called for British support and protection from the attacks by the Spanish and remaining Maya populations. The most famous of the British armed forces involvement was the Battle of St. George’s Caye in 1798; it was the battle that marked the end of the Spanish claims to the territory.
MORE RECENT BELIZE HISTORY
It took some two hundred years after Spanish contact for Belize to gain independence from Spain, it was in 1871 that Belize was officially declared a British Crown Colony. After this time both the population and economy grew significantly, the economy primarily centered around forest products of Mahogany, chicle, and logwood. The population increases included groups of African, Garifuna, Mestizo (a mix of Spanish and Maya descent), and Maya refugees fleeing the Caste War in Mexico. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a number of Indian and Chinese indentured laborers arrived after the abolition of slavery, and Palestinian, Lebanese, and Syrian Arabs also began arriving, fleeing the political unrest in the Middle East. It was in the 1950’s that Belize backed a unique settlement with Mennonites from Mexico; this settlement provides Mennonites with sovereignty similar to what Native Americans in the United States were granted.
It was also in 1950 that George Price led the campaign for Belizean Independence. As with other British colonies self-government was achieved in 1964. Due to Guatemala’s continued threat to overtake Belize once the British pulled out, Belize’s true independence did not take place until September 21, 1981. Since Belize needed protection and had no army forces a full time British army remained in Belize until 1994.
Belize is a fascinating country and immigrations through the years have created a unique multi-cultural friendly society.