Belize Culture and History
Belize has a very unique history, being the only country in Central America where English is the official language.
Approximately 3000 years ago, the original Maya culture began moving into the area now known as Belize, establishing an extensive trading network that would flourish until approximately the year 1200 A.D., building the enormous stone cities of Cahal Pech, Caracol, and Altun Ha.
Initially passed over by European conquerors due to a lack of gold and other precious mineral resources, the first European settlement was founded in 1638 by English sailors who survived a shipwreck. Thriving in the mild climate of Belize, more English settlers began arriving in the area, and the country became a base for English privateers and pirates who would sally forth to harvest the rich plunder of Spanish galleons.
Although sporadic Spanish settlements attempted to take root in Belize, the country fell under complete British domination in 1798 after a British fleet won a decisive naval battle against the Spanish in the waters off of St. George’s Caye. In 1840, the British government formally seized control of the country, naming it the Colony of British Honduras. Taking advantage of the American Civil War, the British annexed Belize in 1862, making it a crown colony. In the latter half of the 19th century, many Mayan tribes, Mestizos and Mennonite people emigrated to Belize to escape unrest in neighboring Mexico.
In 1931, a combination of fallout from the Great Depression in the United States and a devastating hurricane strike that completely demolished the capital of Belize City drastically altered the political landscape in Belize, with British overseers taking the opportunity to vastly increase their control of the colony. This prompted many native Belizeans to begin organizing politically, forcing Britain to recognize that Belize wanted full independence in 1961.
Due to a long-standing border dispute with neighboring Guatemala, it took another 12 years before Belize was assured of sovereignty, formally changing their name to Belize from the long-standing colonial name of “British Honduras”. However, it was not until 1981 that Belize became fully independent.
Today, English is the official language of Belize, used in all schools and government business. One of the predominant ethnic groups in the country is the Creole people, descendants of African slaves imported during the colonial era, who today speak their own unique form of English. The Creole tongue has no official standing, but competes with standard English as the lingua franca spoken throughout the country, including by Belizeans who speak Spanish or Mayan tongues in their homes.
Although part of mainland Central America, many people consider that Belizean culture is much more similar to nearby Caribbean islands, as the people of Belize have a laid-back easygoing culture more suited to relaxing in hammocks, dancing to the beat of drums, and enjoying a languid day on the beach.
Without a history of industrialization, today most of Belize remains a natural paradise, with huge rain forests, jungles, mountain slopes, and pristine beaches. The waters off of the coast of Belize are widely considered to be some of the best diving opportunities in the world, with crystal clear waters and a rich abundance of marine life. Rare and endangered animals like the jaguar and Baird’s tapir can still be found in Belize, and eco-tourism forms the backbone of the Belizean economy.
Religion, Language, and Food
Today, most Belizeans are Roman Catholic, but because of the long influence of the British Empire, there are many Protestants and Anglicans found in the country. Due to their unique history, many Maya and Garifuna peoples practice a unique blend of Christianity with traditional spiritual practices.
By law, the official language in Belize is English, used nationwide for all government business and in schools. However, the main language spoken by most Belizeans is a Creole variant of English with heavy borrowings from Spanish and Mayan tongues. In the north and west of Belize, many communities speak Spanish, while other population groups continue to speak their native languages of Arabic, German, or Chinese. Many Mayan communities still speak dialects of the original Maya tongue.
Belizean cuisine has a strong Caribbean influence, with many spicy Creole staples like rice and beans blending harmoniously with native Maya delicacies like fried paca (jungle rat). Not to be outdone, traditional English favorites like corned beef and beans on toast still have their place, appearing on menus alongside Mexican classics such as tamales, escabeche (onion soup), and empanadas. Small “pancakes” made from fried dough known as “fry jacks” are commonly eaten for breakfast, while lunch might consist of meat pies or rice and beans. Dinner might be sere (fried fish with either coconut or banana) or tamales, polished off with local rum or the national brew, Beliken Beer.
While food and drink varies from region to region, tropical staples such as coconut, banana, and spicy hot peppers are popular nationwide, with chicken or pork being the preferred meat of most Belizeans.