A History of Belize City
Belize City stands on land inhabited by Maya people, explorers and colonizers. At one time, it served as Belize’s capital. This city’s history is filled with twists and turns that may surprise you.
You don’t have to be a historian to appreciate the importance of prominent cities that have done so much to change the way mankind has evolved over time. Just two centuries ago, only 3-percent of all people lived in cities, notes Richard Florida, a distinguished professor at the University of Toronto. “By the year 2030, more than five billion people (six out of every ten human beings) will live in cities and urban centers,” he predicts.
No nation is immune from this projected growth, which is why understanding how Belize City’s evolution has become such a fascinating topic as citizens look into the future of this area, founded by the Maya people. One of this society’s oldest settlements was established not far from where Belize City now stands. At Altun Ha, an advanced civilization thrived thousands of years ago.
The Maya are replaced by explorers and colonizers
Over time, the Maya vanished and while the reason for their disappearance remains a hot debate topic, their ancestors can be found throughout the nation, having married Spanish, Portuguese and English explorers who came to the nation’s shores in waves. Intent only upon exploiting the area’s lumber resources, the Brits made Haulover Creek, a Belize River branch, a hub that formally became Belize City in 1779.
Folklore about the origins of Belize City contain horrific details of mosquito-ridden swamps at the river mouth and encampments of huts installed on the mahogany chips left behind when trees brought from inland camps were processed for export back to Europe. Settlers running these Belize City “production” centers were called Baymen. They lived hard-scrabble lives within this Haulover Creek community that grew in direct proportion to the expansion of the lumber industry.
Belize City becomes a hub of diversity
By the 19th century, both sides of Haulover Creek had been developed, reflecting class distinctions imported from Europe and imposed on citizens. By this time, African slaves and Brits had begun to intermarry, so in addition to new generations of blended Maya/Spanish legacies, a Creole society emerged as well.
Buildings housing the ruling elite sprawled across the southern seafront while inland cabins housed the lower echelons of this burgeoning society. While the population of Belize City had grown to around 5,000 by the turn of the century, the class divide became starker.
Riots in 1894 and 1919 divided the city and exposed underlying unrest that was quelled for a few decades until 1950, when the revolutionary spirit of citizens hungry for self-governance once more erupted. Despite the turmoil, Belize City remained the nation’s capital–until a series of hurricanes forced the Belize government to move the nation’s business to Belmopan, located 52 miles inland.
No longer Belize’s capitol, the city undergoes a troubled transition
Once government offices were moved, it was up to residents to decide upon the shape the city would take in the future. To say that this evolution was tumultuous would be an understatement. An era of lawlessness borne of poverty, overpopulation and unrest pervaded the area throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
While areas along Haulover Creek maintained a core cultural and commercial identity, it took until the 21st for the city to find its footing when cruise ships began to anchor off Belize City in 2004, revitalizing the area.
A Tourism Village sprung up and began to serve as a welcoming entity for tens of thousands of cruise tourists annually. Many departed for inland and island destinations, but little-by-little, they stayed in Belize City as it developed a unique personality. The mouth of the river that had been the founding point of Belize City began to turn around.
What remains of this city’s history?
Remnants of the past and promise for the future. A rich legacy lives on amid Belize City’s business and commercial centers and while these entities look toward the future, they have not forgotten the past. Visitors roam Albert and Queen Streets, named for Victoria, the monarch occupying England’s throne when Belize was known as British Honduras and served as a crown colony.
Vintage buildings that did not succumb to hurricanes are being remodeled to serve as quarters for artisans, thus when visitors tour historic Baron Bliss Lighthouse, the Marine Terminal and Museum and the former Government House (now the Belize City House of Culture) they get a taste of Belize City’s past and future.
Visits to guest houses, local hotels and museums include fabulous displays of Belize furniture, crafted from trees that, according to some historians, literally launched Belize City. Belizeans are as excited about the future as they are proud of the past, which is why Belize City is destined to remain a symbol of how a city remains strong and vibrant, no matter how many changes come to pass.