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.
Belize Ethnic Groups
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.
Brief History of Belize
Trace any nation’s lineage back in time, and one must rely upon archaeologists and anthropologists to provide the oldest details. In Belize, as in the remainder of what is now known as Central America, the land was first home to the Maya people whose intelligence and creativity remains astonishing to this day. These were skilled astronomers and mathematicians, credited with conceiving the concept of zero, but perhaps the biggest legacies are the vast architectural wonders they left behind, some of which still remain today.
Sophisticated building practices were required to construct the palaces, ball courts, apartments and commercial buildings that kept society thriving during the 1,000 years the Mayas inhabited the region. Even agricultural practices were advanced, but what bound society together was more than the maize and fruit they grew; it was an abiding belief in the spirits, gods, and rituals that held the society together, just as religious practices bind together segments of today’s Belize populace.
Would the Maya people have remained a thriving Central American hub had Spanish conquistadors not made landfall in Central America in the early 1500s? It’s a matter of debate among social scientists, but there is no disagreement about the Spaniard who was the first to make this area his home. Gonzalo Guerrero’s ship went aground, he was taken prisoner by the Mayas and remained in what is now Corozal Town for the rest of his life.
But Guerrero was a benign example of what happened to the Maya people when the continent was overtaken by Spanish invaders. They brought disease, forced strange new religious practices upon the people and instituted practices considered “respectable” by European standards. As a direct result of these changes, the Maya people literally disappeared off the face of the earth, leaving behind a rich legacy of art, architecture and rudimentary science.
It took another 100 years for the next wave of explorers seeking New World domination to appear in Central America. This time around, British expeditions arrived off the coast of what is now Belize, but these motley sailors were composed of adventurers, pirates, and buccaneers who were as interested in raiding Spanish ships as they were in subjugating populaces. Over time, these newcomers settled down, raised families and gained a firm hold in the hemisphere after declaring the region’s forests to be fertile ground for a logging empire.
The forests of Belize were verdant and plentiful. All that was lacking was a labor force capable of felling trees fast enough to supply England. The Brits had a ready-made answer for the conundrum: the importation of slaves from Africa who would be the muscle behind what turned out to be a vast, vibrant logging enterprise. This industry not only provided building materials but dyes made from Logwood materials became a valuable commodity to England’s wool yarn industry and a steady revenue source for colonists.
As is the case in most conquered societies, Brits stayed, intermarried with Africans, Creoles and Spaniards. Wars seemed unceasing in the region and historians make note of more than 150 years of constant strife in the area as the battle for land, dominance and power raged. That no Spanish colonies were ever established in Belize is a tribute to the tenacity of the settlers in concert with British authorities who were happy to collect revenues from logwood and mahogany cutting.
Did a turning point arrive in 1798 when, in a last ditch effort, the Spanish armada attacked the residents of St. George’s Caye? Perhaps. But the invaders were met with such strong resistance by settlers, slaves and British overlords, together this eclectic defense force defeated the Spaniards in a battle that is still celebrated every September 10th.
With the logging industry remaining the center of the region’s commercial viability and Spain no longer a threat, England ultimately gained sovereignty over the area, naming the colony British Honduras and making the new nation part of the British Commonwealth.
A stealthy cessation battle was waged by British Hondurans eager to live in their own independent country. Efforts to become free roiled just beneath the nation’s surface between the years 1920 and 1964. Finally, British Honduras gained the right to be a self-governing democracy.
On June 1, 1973, final actions were taken to break British ties by renaming the country Belize, but it took until September 21st of 1981 to sever the relationship completely. That was the day the last Union Jack flag was taken down and in place, the new flag of Belize was flown at long last. The new nation has struggled to create a unique identity over the past four decades and those efforts are succeeding brilliantly.