East Indians in Belize
One of the smallest but most vibrant communities in Belize consists of people of East Indian descent. The Indian subcontinent, now home to more than a billion people, was long coveted by Europeans for its abundance of silk, spices, and other luxury items. In 1492, the newly-united Kingdom of Spain equipped Christopher Columbus and his three ships in a bid to find a direct trade route to India. Instead of landing on the subcontinent, Columbus instead arrived in what is now called the Caribbean Sea, declaring that the inhabitants were Indians. Despite the fact that Columbus was off by several thousands of miles, the lands that he visited in the Western Hemisphere are still called the West Indies today.
The East Indian population of Belize has struggled to distinguish themselves from the native “Indians”, otherwise known as the Maya, the original inhabitants of the region. The first arrivals from the Indian subcontinent to Belize were brought in by the British to work alongside Africans in the years after slavery was first abolished. Starting in the 1870s, East Indians quickly established a foothold in the Caribbean, earning a reputation as being an industrious and thrifty people. Although many of the first arrivals from the Indian subcontinent were brought in to work on the vast plantation estates, many of them soon branched off into pursuing entrepreneurial activities.
Around the turn of the 19th century, most of the East Indian community was concentrated in Belize City and the southern town of Toledo. Many of the East Indians who arrived in Belize quickly intermarried and were absorbed in the growing population of former slaves. Historians have painstakingly detailed the transformation of East Indian culture in Belize, often adopting many of the tenets, beliefs, and traditions of their neighbors. Nonetheless, the East Indian culture remains a vital part of modern Belize, and citizens of East Indian descent can be found throughout the country.
Probably the most visible contribution of the East Indian population to the modern culture of Belize is through the food. Some of the country’s most beloved dishes have a distinct East Indian origin, flavor, or spices. In some cases, it is possible to visually identify a person from Belize by their distinctly Indian physical appearance, although many individuals have a long and varied ancestry and are thus less immediately obvious of East Indian descent. Today, the East Indian population of Belize is a welcome and cherished contributor to the successful harmonious melting pot society in the country.