The rise of the sugar industry in Belize can be traced directly to the abolition of slavery, but its history is a reflection of how systems of disenfranchisement and disproportionate power continue to perpetuate even as the tides of history force change. Today, the sugar industry constitutes a small but vital component of Belize’s national economy — but examining how and why the industry developed can provide us with some critical insight into the country’s history. This is the story of how the sugar industry found its footing in Belize.
The First Introduction of Sugar
Sugar cane was first introduced to the Caribbean at the end of the 15th century, but it wouldn’t become an agricultural commodity in Belize until centuries later. Despite first being produced in India around 2,500 years ago, it didn’t reach the Mediterranean until the 13th century. It was a rare and expensive spice, but European colonization leveraged the vicious efficiency of slave labor with new manufacturing practices to transform sugar into a far more excessive spice and a highly lucrative market. While the Portuguese originated the idea of the plantation system, the other major European powers quickly adopted it as well. As sugar rose to be the most lucrative commodity in Europe, it created a relentless demand for the shipment of enslaved people to the plantations of the Caribbean and Americas. By the 19th century, British-owned Caribbean plantations using the labor of enslaved people dominated the sugar industry. Despite that, Belize — a small Central American territory touching the Caribbean that was previously known as British Honduras — wouldn’t adopt sugarcane production until the 1850s.
That’s not to say that British Honduras didn’t exploit slave labor — simply that they exploited it differently. Belize’s earliest settlers were British buccaneers who made a living harassing Spanish ships but realized how lucrative the local lumber industry could be for them. Based off of a settlement along the Belize River roughly where Belize City now stands, they began harvesting and trading lumber and then mahogany — an industry in which the labor was almost entirely performed by enslaved people but in which plantation structures weren’t a practical necessity. These industries were so profitable — at least for the white men in charge — that when sugar production would eventually be introduced in Belize, they would pay it little attention. Instead, it was the Yucatan Mayas fleeing the Caste War in Mexico who brought sugar farming to Belize.
The Rise of Sugar Plantations
These Maya farmers arrived shortly before the abolition of slavery in Belize as ended in 1838, but the fact that a small number of white English and Scottish men controlled the politics, land, and means of labor meant that the non-white and indigenous people that made up most of the population were still largely at their mercy. The decline of the lumber and mahogany trade led the British to turn their attention to sugarcane plantations. Smaller Maya farmers were evicted or otherwise forced off of their farms, but Belize’s sugar industry didn’t start in earnest until the end of the civil war in the United States of America. Former members of the American Confederacy fled to Belize hoping to continue their lifestyle of agrarian land ownership. They mostly settled in the northern territories around what is now Corozal and Orange Walk.
These former Confederates found a few impediments to continuing their old way of life. The existing tensions between Maya immigrants and European settlers gave many of these former Confederates the opportunity to seize control of farmland so that they could form their own plantations, but the abolition of slavery in British colonies formed a larger impediment. Despite this, the interests of these white ex-Confederates and the British and Scottish elites that represented the Belize ruling class were often united. Through the migration of Chinese indentured servants in the 1860s and indentured servants from India in the 1880s, they found an alternative to the cheap and exploitative labor of slavery. Both Chinese and East Indian populations constitute a small but important part of the modern Belize population.
Belize’s Sugar Industry Today
While there have been fluctuations in the health of Belize’s sugar industry and even more radical and important changes in how the country is governed, the sugar industry was and continues to be a critical component of Belize’s economy for over a century. Former production facilities like the Corozal Sugar Factory and the Serpon Sugar Mill are now abandoned ruins that offer a vision into the past while leaving much of the dark history within obscured. But in the present, the sugar cane industry serves as the backbone of Belize’s agricultural sector. Roughly five percent of the country’s GDP comes from sugar, and there are over 5,000 local farmers who help make it a cornerstone of the country’s success.