A 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.