Belize: A History Cloaked in Slavery (1791-1838) | Slavery in Belize

Belize: A History Cloaked in Slavery (1791-1838)

slavery in belize

As imperial powers fought over and parceled out vast swaths of the Americas, the land that would become Belize was not immune to the worst excesses of the European conquerors. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Belize was caught in a tug of war between the United Kingdom and Spain — and the victims in this struggle were most often indigenous people and refugees brought against their will by means of the African slave trade. But by the middle of the 18th century, British settlers had founded their own local governments, leaving a small group of wealthy white British settlers with practically total administrative and economic control over settlements that were predominantly indigenous and black.

The Age of Slavery in Belize

Treaties forbade plantations in Belize. Although this had more to do with Spain’s interest in dominating Central American agriculture than it did with the desire to reduce the slave trade. Yet the British still found excuses to exploit slave labor. Mahogany was the chief export, but it is heavy lumber that required great labor to properly process and transport. Plantations had existed undercover since the British first settled Belize, and slaves in Belize were referenced as far back as 1724 — but by the turn of the 18th century, the number of slaves in Belize had reached a population of around 2,300.

If anything, the British gaining more solid control over their territory in Belize didn’t stop the growth of slavery throughout the colony. The judiciary and legislature were entirely under the control of white landowners, and slavery was intrinsically tied with the two major industries that drove Belize’s economy — timber and mahogany. As one of Britain’s few territories in the region, there was a demand to perform. Slavery had been a practice long enough for complicated social constructs to have built up around it as well. The population was a diverse mixture of indigenous, African, Caribbean, and white bloodlines. Mixed race Creoles constituted a significant population within Belize, and the level of freedom they could exercise could vary wildly depending on their circumstances.

The Life of a Slave in Belize

The fact that Belize’s slaves were primarily tasked with work processing timber and mahogany differentiated their experiences from that of colonial slaves on plantations, but that doesn’t mean it was any less difficult. Clearing actual forest was seasonal work, and it allowed for a system where male slaves could be sent to perform their tasks largely unsupervised. When Belize’s rainy season began, they’d involve themselves in the process of carrying the lumber downriver for processing. In either case, this meant long periods of the year were spent away from their families performing hard labor. The various positions required for chopping and manufacturing lumber necessitated the need for skilled slave labor, and many slaves worked in other occupations like blacksmithing and nursing as well.

But life was notably harsh as a slave in Belize. While there was the potential for growth in a field, slavery and the enforcement of it was still treated with as harsh a hand as it was elsewhere in the Americas — a fact reinforced by the numerous slave revolts that took place during this period. Many slaves fled from their captors into Honduras and Guatemala, but a strict racial hierarchy made revolt on a systemic level difficult. Under white British rule, the mixed-race Creoles enjoyed a level of privilege above that of African-born slaves but below that of the white minority.


The Legacy of Slavery in Belize

The disenfranchised people of Belize — along with their brethren throughout the British colonies in the Caribbean — would finally be emancipated on August 1st, 1838. This was five years after the British Parliament had passed the Emancipation Act — a decision that extended the power of captors over slaves under the pretext of an apprenticeship transition program. And while it would represent a landmark change in terms of human rights, British exploitation of both native and imported groups would continue for a long time to come. It would take a century and a half before the people of Belize would finally gain their independence. And the land still feels the impact of the years of British control.

The United Kingdom’s boundless hunger for mahogany and timber stripped much of the country’s beautiful rainforest, and Britain’s boundless desire for more led to an even more aggressive campaign against the native Maya communities in Belize. Things were not much better for those who were nominally Belizean citizens. Despite nominally being granted civil rights and protection from slavery, the systems of inequity and power were still held by the families that had created, enforced, and maintained slavery in the first place. For many, a lesser form of slavery persisted for decades after abolition. By withholding wages or forcing workers to purchase practically everything through company stores, they continued to keep formerly enslaved people and their descendants indentured to them. A great deal of progress has been made since then, but the process of recovery is an ongoing process.

There’s arguably no darker sin in the history of Belize than that of slavery, but the legacy is a part of who the people are today. More than half of Belizeans are mixed-race Mestizos, and a quarter are Creole. But those numbers also include native Maya, Chinese and East Indian populations descended from indentured laborers, and a surprisingly high Mennonite population. And there’s no way that Belize would be what it is today without the enormous cultural impact of the Garifuna — an Afro-Caribbean ethnic group formed from a community of escaped slaves. Today’s Belize was born out of the sins of slavery, but Emancipation Day offers an opportunity to look forward while recognizing the impact that this grave history has on the Belize of today. The Belize government formally recognized August 1st, 1838 as Emancipation Day in 2021. Hopefully, this is just the start of shining a light on Belize’s history.

Get a copy of The Ultimate Belize Bucket List! Written by Larry Waight, a local with more than twenty years of experience in the travel industry, the book is packed with tips, information, and recommendations about all of the best things to see and do in Belize.
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