Belize City owes its existence to the harbor at the mouth of Haulover Creek, a branch of the Belize River, down which the Baymen (early British woodcutters) floated lumber from their inland camps. It had little significance until the Spanish briefly captured St George’s Caye, the Baymen’s first main settlement, in 1779. ‘Belize Town’ then became and remained the British headquarters in Belize. Popular lore has it that the settlement, at first just a few huts surrounded by mosquito-ridden swamps, grew on a landfill of mahogany chips and rum bottles deposited by the Baymen, who would come to the coast after the rainy season to dispatch their lumber overseas and spend most of the proceeds on rum.
During the 19th century the town grew on both sides of Haulover Creek, with the British merchants’ homes and buildings of the ruling elite clustered along and near the southern seafront. African slaves and their descendants lived in cabins inland of here. By the 1880s the town had a population of around 5000; the great majority being Creoles descended from the British and their slaves – though whites still held all the power and wealth. Belize City witnessed most of the significant events on the long road to Belizean independence, including riots in 1894, 1919 and 1950.
The city was devastated by hurricanes in 1931 and 1961. It was 1961’s Hurricane Hattie that spurred the government to build a new capital at Belmopan, 52 miles inland. This left Belize City, and the Creole population in general, feeling rather neglected; it was then that people started to emigrate to the USA to seek an escape from overcrowding, unemployment and poor sanitation in Belize City.
Drug-related gangsterism kicked in during the 1980s and 1990s, which helped keep conditions pretty tough for the city’s underemployed working class. Middle-class residential areas have developed on the northern and northwestern fringes of the city, while the central areas either side of Haulover Creek remain the country’s cultural and commercial hub.
The biggest change to the city’s face in the 21st century has been the invasion of cruise-ship tourists: cruise liners anchoring off Belize City brought 850, 000 passengers in 2004, up from almost zero five years previously. Most cruise-ship tourists come ashore at the city’s new Tourism Village, located at the mouth of Haulover Creek. Generally, the passengers wander around the downtown area for a few hours or head off on excursions to inland attractions.