A Brief History of Orange Walk, Belize
Is it possible to write the history of a district that has been around since 2500 BC and not turn it into a mega-book? It is. Allow us to introduce Orange Walk, a tourist destination that’s loaded with character.
According to archaeologists working on a site named Cuello that is closest to Orange Walk, Belize, this land has been continually occupied by people undertaking sophisticated farming practices using primitive tools for centuries. Given the name Alcan (Land of the Canoe People), this thriving community farmed the land leaving little trace beside those primitive tools, yet ancestors provided the foundation for 600 years of Maya culture.
Having a vibrant, peaceful existence, these people were able to develop all manner of arts, science, innovation, and cultivation, yet despite being an epicenter of learning, architecture and the arts, this entire society literally vanished off the face of the earth around 925AD. Theories include everything from invaders from outer space to conquests by other tribes. For the moment, the mystery remains conjecture.
For the disappeared Maya and succeeding generations, farming and cultivation sustained people who were not exposed to outside influences until Spanish explorers arrived on the shores of Central America in the early 1500s. Indigenous peoples, some of whom were direct ancestors of early Mayas, were displaced as these outsiders brought with them subjugation, disease and African slaves.
Ultimately displaced by British conquering forces, Orange Walk came to be controlled by logwood cutters impressed by the wealth they could generate by harvesting and exporting hardwood from rainforests and jungles to England. This continued until the 1700s at which point, the battle for control between the Spanish and English was driven by the increasing demand for the woods that were being harvested in “the new world.”
Why is it important to mention the logging phenomenon? Because Orange Walk was most likely settled as a riverside logging camp thanks to its proximity to the New River that gave ships access to the Caribbean Sea. Historians believe the name Orange Walk was conferred upon the town by settlers enjoying the fruits of the orange trees that proliferated on the grounds of plantations owned by Europeans.
Conflict continued to ravage the region just as logging was destroying the ecosystem, but by the mid-1700s, the people had had enough of being subjugated and by 1798, revolutions at the site of St. George’s Caye caused the Spanish to give up and return to Spain, leaving the people to pick up the pieces of society while continuing to contend with British occupation.
Due to its proximity and value, Orange Walk continued to grow, surviving a War of Castes that brought refugees flocking there for safety as well as displaced Mexican, Maya and Africans brought as slaves to Central America.
By 1864, the British were so entrenched, Orange Walk became the site of occupying forces garrisons. By 1872, the village population was made up of 1,200 Creole and Mestizo people was brutally attacked by three waves of Indians. Orange Walk survived but was immediately fortified by building two fortresses constructed for the area’s defense between 1874 and 1876.
As time passed, the British occupation become a fact of life and intermarriage furthered the integration of society as buildings were built, improvements made, industries flourished and grew and the Catholic Church became a prominent part of Orange Walk, as still seen in the churches, cathedrals and number of practicing Catholics living in the area. Declaring its independence as a district from Corozal in 1881, Orange Walk became an epicenter of chicle gathering, subsistence farming, cattle and sugar enterprises, and logging continued to produce revenues from exports to England as late as 1875.
By 1900, Orange Walk had grown large enough to warrant a highway connecting it to Belize City which was completed in 1925, but it was the river that continued to be the major driver of activity as steamboats imported by the British started moving merchandise at a faster clip than ever before.
By 1939, the district had developed so unique a personality, even the ongoing wars and occupations that marked Orange Walk for so many centuries had become nothing more than a fascinating part of the area’s history.
Today, Orange Walk is the 4th largest town in Belize with a population that exceeds the 13,400 person census taken in 2010. As the capital of Orange Walk District, it bears the distinction of having survived some of the most volatile battles ever waged within Belize, including the Caste War of Yucatán and Battle of Orange Walk in 1872.
Nicknamed “Sugar City,” Orange Walk’s leading industry is sugar cane agriculture, refining, and exports, though, like other hot spots in Belize, Orange Walk is enjoying a thriving tourism industry as well as becoming a popular retirement area for ex-pats.
But perhaps the most notable Orange Walk distinction comes from the amalgam of cultures who remain today an example of diversity. Mestizos, Yucatec Mayas, Creoles, Mennonites, Chinese, Taiwanese, Indians, and other Central American cultures prove that even with a history of catastrophic wars, in peacetime, people can live together in harmony.