The Discovery And Settlement Of Belize By Both The Spanish And The British
Although home to native people for thousands of years, the area now known as Belize was only discovered by Europeans in the early 1500s. The first to arrive were the Spanish, with their letters and journals being the main sources of information about their voyages. Positively identifying the villages or landmarks mentioned in these accounts, however, is often difficult to do. It is thought that the Spanish explorers Pinzón and De Solis were the first Europeans to see the Cockscomb Range in the Maya Mountains in either 1506 or 1508.
Although the Spanish found Belize first, they had little interest in it and did not explore it extensively. Hernan Cortés crossed through the southwestern corner of Belize in 1524, with what is thought to be the falls of Gracias a Dios on the Sarstoon River mentioned in the accounts of one of his men. However, after the mid-16th century, there is little evidence of exploration by the Spanish. The lone exception was the Dominican priest Fray Joseph Delgado, who traveled the length of Belize in 1677 on his way to Bacalar. Because he was accosted by the British during his journey, historians know that the British were already established along the coastline by that time.
European buccaneers in the Caribbean played a major role in the history of the region and the establishment of what would eventually be a British colony in Belize. The Caribbean was awash with them in the 16th and 17th centuries. Some were privateers sponsored by European governments, but most were not. Spanish treasure ships made for tempting targets and the reefs and lagoons off the coast of Belize proved to be excellent hiding places.
In the second half of the 17th century, woodcutting operations by the British began to take hold along the coast to harvest logwood, a small tree used to make valuable dye. This region was the world’s main source of logwood for nearly 200 years.
Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Britain and Spain fought in Europe as well as for control of the West Indies. Even though the Spanish never had much interest in Belize, the British woodcutting operations there was a constant annoyance. The settlement that would become Belize City, at the mouth of the Belize River, would become one of the most ransacked settlements in the New World.
In September 1779, the Commandant of Bacalar showed up at St. George’s Caye with 19 Spanish warships. They captured approximately 140 prisoners and 250 enslaved people from the island and took them to Havana for three years, which almost destroyed the British settlement of logwood cutters.
Things came to a head in the final years of the 18th century at the Battle of St. George’s Caye, which occurred on September 3-10, 1798. A fleet of Spanish ships yet again attempted to remove the British presence in the area for good but were ultimately unsuccessful. To this day, the Battle of St. George’s Caye is celebrated in Belize as the event that cemented their unique British heritage in Central America.