History of Belize

The history of Belize mirrors that of many places in the Caribbean

Photo credit: © Jeremy Beeler | Dreamstime.com

Belize History

The heritage of the Americas and countries like Belize started about 50,00 years ago with migrants from Asia who traveled east over a now non-existent passage to become the ancestors of Belize's indigenous people. Throughout the ages, Belize has been inhabited by tribal peoples and Europeans who came to colonize the land, and has weathered the effects of slavery, colonialism, agricultural advancements, and industrialization. Today the country remains a beautiful, lush country of breathtaking terrain that has endured great struggles to gain its independence.

Early Civilizations

The early inhabitants of the Caribbean and Central America were the Arawaks and the Caribs, who were skilled hunters, fishermen, and farmers. The Arawak people learned the skill of farming about 9,000 years ago through cultivating wild seed fruits and roots and growing crops of maize, yams, cassava, cotton, and tobacco. The Maya people developed complex civilizations in Central America and Mexico, thousands of years before Europeans arrived in the region.


The Maya civilization took thousands of years to develop, and reached its height between 250 A.D. and 900 A.D. These ancient peoples were farmers and thrived on crops of beans, corn, cocoa, squash, and chile peppers. The Maya were also proficient potters and cloth makers. They made beautiful clay pots that they hardened with fire. They wove fabrics from the cotton that they farmed and dyed the cloth with bright patterns. The multi-faceted Maya were also great stone workers, making jewelry from jade, gold, silver, copper, and bronze, as well as erecting various architectural wonders including plazas, palaces, public buildings, temples, and sculptures of their gods and heroes.

Archaeologists and anthropologists have discovered that the Maya civilization heavily used mathematics and astronomy, and that Mayans also developed a system of writing that they recorded on big slabs of stones that can still be read today. The great Maya civilization experienced a period of rapid decline during the middle of the 10th century, which can be attributed to several different reasons including climate change and lack of items for the merchants to trade, which was a major part of the Maya society. Many of the Maya people began to migrate elsewhere, but many stayed in Belize during the 16th and 17th centuries, until the arrival of European explorers who began to take over the land.

Colonization of Belize

In the 15th century, the Europeans began their efforts to colonize the "New World" in order to claim land for their countries and take advantage of the rich agricultural value of the Caribbean. The English, Spanish, Dutch, and French began to fight over control of the territories in the Caribbean and what is now Central America. Many of the confrontations were violent as these countries struggled to extend their power over new territories.

The Spanish began conquering Central American countries, including Guatemala and Honduras, and devastating the Maya settlements. Spaniards tried to gain control of the Maya of Chetumal, which was the capital of a large Maya area in Belize, but the Maya people opposed the Spanish invasion with methods that included burning Spanish buildings, making the capital a refuge for the Maya in other areas who were trying to escape the Spaniards. The Spanish never gained control of the Maya who resided in Belize. Still, the Spanish took their toll on the Mayas. Before the Spanish invasion, the Maya population numbered about 400,000. Afterward, the number of Maya people in the region dropped about 86 percent due to war and European diseases.

When the British came to Belize, the Maya were no longer living on the coast, and there are no recorded encounters between the two cultures until the late 18th century. The British who arrived in Belize were pirates and buccaneers who set up rough camps in the countryside and raided Spanish ships. The British and Spanish explorers often engaged in battles over the British settlement in Belize. In the 18th century, the Spanish forced the British out of the land, but never inhabited it, so the British returned to Belize and expanded their settlements and logwood trade.

As the British moved deeper into Belize, they inevitably came in contact with the Maya. The Maya were pushed back into the forests, but did not surrender easily. In 1866 Marcos Canul, the leader of the Mayans, led a revolt against a British mahogany camp and captured British prisoners. He demanded ransom for the hostages as well as payment for the land that the British had stolen. The British retorted by burning the Maya crops and destroying their villages and food supplies in hopes of starving them out of the region. But within five years the Mayans had rebuilt their villages and replanted their crops. They continued attacking the British settlements until the death of Canul.

Slavery in the Colonies

With the woodcutting industry flourishing, the British looked for cheap labor. They used the same source as the sugarcane industry: slaves brought from Africa. Slaves had to be imported because the region's indigenous people had been so severely diminished due to war and disease brought by the Europeans. As the plantations grew larger, more workers were needed to maintain them, so the British exported white convicts from Europe, indentured servants, and slaves from Africa. In 1518, the first African slaves were taken to the Americas, and so began Belize's role in slave trade.

In most Caribbean countries, slaves lived and worked on sugarcane plantations. But in Belize, slaves did logging work and lived in groups spread around the forests, away from their families, who were forced to stay in Belize City. In either case, slaves were treated like mere property and endured harsh and cruel working conditions. The woodcutting process was long and tedious, and slaves were forced to stay in secluded camps. The British divided the slaves into groups by the color of their skin, country of origin, and skill level, and tried to convert them to Christianity. Because of their inhumane and brutal treatment, many slaves revolted against against their British slave masters, resulting in much bloodshed. Finally, in 1838, slaves in Belize and other British colonies were emancipated.

The history of Belize is similar to that of most islands in the Caribbean with colonization, slavery, and the dispossession of indigenous people from their homelands. Though Belize's history is one of turmoil and strife, the result is a melting pot of cultures, which makes this country a unique and wonderful place, rich in history and culture.


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