How Belize Got Its Name

How Belize Got Its Name

What is the origin of the country name Belize?

The simple truth is that no one is quite sure how Belize got its name. In Spanish, it is known as “Belice”, but as Belize is the only country in Central America that was formerly a British colony, the English name Belize has a strange and somewhat legendary history.

The Maya were the original inhabitants of Belize, so many people have naturally assumed that perhaps the name of the country comes from the Mayan language. Belize served as the heart of the vast ancient Maya civilization that stretched from Mexico to El Salvador, and the Maya used Belize’s network of rivers to transport valuable goods such as obsidian, jade, copper, cacao, and quetzal feathers. In the Mayan tongue, “Balix” means “muddy waters”, of which there are plenty of in Belize, leading many to believe that this is how the country got its name.

Other theories involve some of the earliest English inhabitants, including pirates and privateers that used the offshore islands of Belize to harry Spanish galleons laden with silver and gold. One Scottish buccaneer, in particular, a man named Peter Wallace, set up camp near a vast forest of indigenous hardwood trees. Realizing that logging these were far more profitable than fighting the Spanish, Wallace set up permanent residence in the area. Over time, the name Wallace became Wallix, then Valis, then Balis, and later Belize.

Another version of the country’s name also relates to the pirate Wallace, only in this case, he was chased out of the Caribbean by the Spanish. With his ships destroyed, Wallace was forced to set up camp on the coastline of Belize, and from there his name was added to the entire country by Spanish, Mayan, and other people speaking different languages slowly modifying how it was pronounced.

What is known for a fact, however, is that the original name of Belize was British Honduras. While the modern nation of Honduras does not share a border with Belize, the two countries do share access to the vast Bay of Honduras, a waterway visited by Christopher Columbus himself on his fourth and final voyage to the New World.

From 1798 until 1973, the colony was named British Honduras, the only British territory in all of Central America. However, in June 1973, the autonomous colony changed its name to Belize. In 1981, Belize gained full independence from Great Britain and is, today, a proudly sovereign member of the British Commonwealth. Although Queen Elizabeth II is nominally the head of state in Belize and her portrait appears on all Belizean bank notes, Belize is a fully independent nation.

Whether the name of the country comes from its ancient Maya inhabitants who made great use of the network of “muddy waters” in the rivers and creeks to transport goods or whether a legendary Scottish pirate captain gave his family name to the land where valuable hardwoods were logged, one thing is for certain – visiting this jewel of a country is definitely an un-Belize-able experience!

 

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