A brief history of Ambergris Caye Belize
Though it is now a haven for travelers from around the world, Ambergris Caye is also steeped in history.
Ambergris Caye’s position on the Southen tip of the Yucatan Peninsula meant that it began life as an important trading post for the Maya people who once ruled the region. Indeed, about 1,500 years ago, they decided to create a more optimal trading route between the Yucatan coast and Belize by creating the Bacalar Chico channel which now separates Ambergris Caye from Mexico.
The Ambergris Caye area continued to be used primarily for trading purposes until around the 16th or 17th century. By this time, the Maya people had begun to retreat further and further inland in an effort to avoid making too much contact with the European settlers who were now arriving more frequently.
In the absence of the Maya, the Europeans took ownership of Ambergris Caye. Indeed, according to local lore, pirates from the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain would regularly use the region’s many coves as hiding spots when ambushing rival Spanish ships. This story is given more credence by the fact that a number of small treasure collections have been discovered on the island – potentially left behind by those European pirates.
By the 19th century, the European pirates had left Ambergris Caye, but the region was beset by the War of the Castes. This conflict in the Yucatan drove the Mestizo and Maya people across the Bacalar Chico channel and on to the island. In 1848, these new residents formed the town of San Pedro – which is still the largest settlement on the island.
In 1869, a wealthy Briton named James Hume Blake purchased the ownership rights to Ambergris Caye for the princely sum of $625. Mr. Blake and his wife, Antonia Andrade, transformed the island into a coconut plantation and conscripted many of the island’s residents to work for them.
Though the coconut business was a successful source of income for the island for almost a century, it was eventually destroyed by a series of devastating hurricanes in the 1950s. Soon after, the Belizean government purchased Ambergris Caye from its private owners and redistributed its ownership rights to the people who called the island home.
Many of the islanders then turned to the fishing business in search of an income for their families. Lobster, in particular, proved to be a popular catch. Before long, the people of San Pedro had formed a lobster cooperative and even built a freezer plant on the island.
Though the island’s lobster industry has gone through some ups and downs over the past five decades or so, it remains one of the largest sources of income for the people of Ambergris Caye. It coupled with tourism and real estate are some of the main drivers behind the ongoing success of the island today.