Belize hosted one of the great Mesoamerican civilizations of ancient times, the Maya. The Maya created vibrant commercial centers, monumental religious temples and exquisite art works. They possessed sophisticated knowledge about their earthly and cosmological environments, much of which they wrote down. The Maya thrived from roughly 2000 BC to AD 1500, before succumbing to domestic decline and alien assault. The stone foundations of their lordly realm became a lost world submerged beneath dense jungle.
The Maya ranged across Central America, from the Yucatán to Honduras, from the Pacific to the Caribbean. They were not ethnically homogenous, but only loosely related, divided by kinship, region and dialect. The different communities sometimes cooperated and often competed with one another, building alliances for trade and warfare.
Archaeological findings indicate that Maya settlements in Belize were among the oldest. In the west, Cahal Pech, an important commercial center between the coast and interior, was dated to at least 1200 BC. In the north, majestic Lamanai, a major religious site for over 2000 years, was founded as early as 900 BC. In Belize today, three distinct Maya tribes still exist: the indigenous Mopan in the north; the Yucatec, who migrated from Mexico, also in the north; and, the Kekchi, who migrated from Guatemala, in the west and south.
The Maya were organized into kingdoms, in which social and economic life was an extension of a rigid political hierarchy. At the top were the king – or high lord – and his royal family, followed by an elite stratum of priests, warriors and scribes; next came economically valued artisans and traders; and finally, holding it all up were subsistence farmers and servant workers. The system rested on a cultural belief that the high lord had some influence with the powerful and dark gods of the underworld, who sometimes took the form of a jaguar when intervening in human affairs. This view was reinforced through the ruling elite’s elaborately staged power displays, a temple theater of awe.
Even before the germ-ridden Europeans arrived, the cultural underpinnings of Maya society were already coming undone. A prolonged drought had caused severe economic hardship, leaving the impression that the kings and priests had somehow lost their supernatural touch. It was left to the Spanish, however, to officially cancel the show.
Possibly the most impressive of the Maya kingdoms in Belize was at Caracol, in the western Pine Ridge Mountains. At its height, in the 6th and 7th centuries, Caracol was a major urban metropolis, with over 100, 000 residents. It boasted first-rate jewelers and skilled craftsmen, an intricately terraced agriculture system, a prosperous trading market, and 40 miles of paved roads (considerably more than it has today). According to the story carved by Maya artists into commemorative stone, the king of Caracol, Water Lord, defeated his chief rival, Double Bird, king of Tikal, in a decisive battle in AD 562, ushering in a long period of Caracol supremacy in the central highlands. The pictographic stone inscriptions also suggest that Water Lord personally sacrificed Double Bird to further emphasize the Caracol triumph. Perhaps this had something to do with the still-simmering feud between Belize and Guatemala.
In the 1500s, the jaguar kings were forced to take cover in the rainforest, when the sword-wielding Spanish arrived in Belize with the aim of plundering Maya gold and spreading the word of God. The Maya population of Belize at this time numbered about a quarter of a million, but their ranks were quickly decimated by as much as 90 percent, from the lethal combination of the diseases and greed of the Spanish. In the 1540s, a conquistador force based in the Yucatán set out on an expedition through much of present-day Belize, down the coast and across to the central highlands. Disappointed by the lack of riches uncovered, they left a bloody trail of slaughtered victims and abandoned villages in their wake. Religious sites, such as Lamanai, were forcibly converted to Catholicism.
In the early 1600s, the Maya finally staged a counter offensive that successfully drove out the few Spanish settlers and missionaries that had decided to stay. Weakened and fearful, the Maya did not return to the now desolate old cities, choosing instead to stay huddled in the remote interior.
When Columbus accidentally bumped into the continental landmass soon to be known as the Americas, his Spanish royal patrons had it made. Soon, Aztec gold and Incan silver overflowed in the king’s coffers, making Spain a transatlantic superpower. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas established an exclusive Iberian claim on the region, declaring New World riches off-limits to old-world rivals. But the temptations were too great, and the hiding places too many. Spain’s spoils were set upon by British buccaneers, French corsairs and Dutch freebooters. In times of war, they were put into the service of their Crown as privateers; at other times, they were simply pirates.
Belize emerged as one of several Caribbean outposts for Britain’s maritime marauders. In the early 17th century, English sea dogs first began using the Bay of Honduras as a staging point for raids on Spanish commerce; henceforth the Brits in the region came to be known as Baymen.
The Belizean coast had several strategic advantages from a pirate’s perspective. The land was both bountiful and uninhabited as the Spanish had already driven the Maya out but never bothered to settle in themselves. It was just a short sail away from the heavily trafficked Yucatán Straits, where – if luck be with ye – the Treasure Fleet might be gathering in Havana or the Silver Train passing through on its way from Panama. And, the shoreline, concealed behind thick mangroves and littoral islands, offered protective cover, while the long barrier reef was a treacherous underwater trap that kept Spanish war galleons at a distance.
For the sake of historical record, the year 1638 was made the official founding date of a British settlement at the mouth of the Belize River. It was sometime around then that a Scottish pirate captain, Peter Wallace, decided to organize the building of a new port town. Legend has it that he laid the first foundations of what became Belize City with woodchips and rum bottles, presumably empty.
Meanwhile, the Baymen found yet another activity to annoy the Spanish king – poaching his rainforest. The settlement became a rich source of hardwoods, especially mahogany, much valued by carpenters, furniture-makers and shipbuilders back in Britain. In addition, the lowland forest was abundant in logwood trees, which provided a valuable dye extract used to make woolen textiles.
By the 18th century, Britain’s monarch finally had a navy and merchant fleet to match Spain’s. Privateers were no longer needed, and pirates were a nuisance. In 1765 Jamaican-based British naval commander Admiral Burnaby paid a visit to the rough-hewn Baymen and delivered a code of laws on proper imperial etiquette: thieving, smuggling and cursing were out; paying taxes and obeying the sovereign were in.
As the British settlement became more profitable, the Spanish king became more irritable. His armed forces made several unsuccessful attempts to dislodge the well-ensconced and feisty squatters. With the Treaty of Paris, in 1763, Spain instead tried diplomacy, negotiating a deal in which the Brits could stay and harvest wood as long as they paid rent to the Spanish Crown and promised not to expand the settlement. The Baymen did neither.
Spain finally got the better of the Baymen in 1779, burning down Belize City in a surprise attack and consigning the prisoners to slavery in Cuba. The conflict reached a decisive conclusion in 1798 at the Battle of St George’s Caye when a squadron of 30 Spanish warships was met and turned back by the alerted Baymen operating in smaller but faster craft. From this point, Spain gave up trying to boot the Brits from Belize. And the battle made such a good story that it eventually inspired a national holiday.
In the 19th century, modern Belize began to take form, largely shaped by its economic role and political status in the Empire, where it was officially dubbed British Honduras. At first it was administered from Jamaica, but later was made a Crown Colony with its own appointed royal governor. Belizean society was an overlapping patchwork of British, African, Maya and Spanish influences. It was a haven for refugees and a labor camp for slaves, a multicultural but hierarchical Crown Colony in living color.
At the top of the colonial social order were the descendants of the Baymen. In earlier times, their outlaw ancestors comprised an ethnically mixed and relatively democratic community. But as the colony grew larger and ties with the Empire stronger, an oligarchy of leading families emerged. They may have descended from antiestablishment renegades, but now they were all about aristocratic manners. They touted their white, cultured British lineage, and used the Crown’s authority to reinforce their status. By order of His Majesty’s Superintendent for British Honduras, they alone were given political rights in colonial affairs and private entitlement to the forest and land. This elite colonial cohort managed to hold sway until the early 20th century.
As the economy was centered on timber exports, strong bodies were needed to perform the arduous labor of harvesting hardwoods from the dense rainforest. Like elsewhere in the Americas, African slaves provided the muscle, along with much sweat and pain. By 1800 the settlement numbered about 4000 in total: 3000 black slaves, 900 mixed-race coloreds and free blacks, and 100 white colonists. Slave masters could count, and acted shrewdly to stay on top. Male slaves were kept divided into small work teams based on tribal origins. They were forced to do long tours of duty in remote jungle camps, separated from other teams and from their families. Slave women performed domestic chores and farm work. Intraracial separation, however, did not mean interracial segregation, as mixed-race Creoles (descendents of African slaves) would eventually make up nearly 75% of the population.
In 1838 slavery was abolished in the British Empire. The plight of Afro-Belizeans, however, did not much improve. They were forbidden from owning land, which would have enabled them to be self-sufficient, and thus remained dependent on the white-controlled export economy. Instead of slaves, they were called ‘apprentices’ and worked for subsistence wages.
When the timber market declined in the 1860s, landowners diversified their holdings by introducing fruit and sugarcane. One persistent historical narrative has it that slave life in Belizean logging camps was more benign than the harsh conditions that existed on Caribbean sugar plantations. While this may be so, the facts remain that Belize experienced four major slave revolts between 1760 and 1820, and recorded high annual incidences of runaways, suggesting instead that repressive inhumanity may come in different packages.
Toward the mid-19th century, British colonists finally came into contact – and conflict – with the indigenous Maya. As loggers penetrated deeper into the interior, they encountered the elusive natives, who responded with hit-and-run assaults on the encroaching axmen.
At this time in the neighboring Yucatán Peninsula, an armed conflict broke out among the lowly Maya, second-class Mestizos and privileged Spanish-descended landlords. The bloody War of the Castes raged for over a decade and forced families to flee. Caste War refugees more than doubled the Belize population, from less than 10, 000 in 1845 to 25, 000 in 1861.
The movement of peoples redefined the ethnic character of northern Belize. Mestizo refugees, of mixed Spanish-Indian stock, brought their Hispanic tongue, corn tortillas and Catholic churches to scattered small town settlements. Yucatecan Maya refugees, meanwhile, moved into the northwestern Belizean forest, where they quickly clashed with the logging industry. In 1872 the desperate Maya launched a quixotic attack on British colonists at Orange Walk, in what was a fierce but futile last stand. Diminished and dispirited, the remaining Maya survived on the territorial and social fringes of the colony.
Belize remained a British colony until 1981; rather late for the West Indies. Spain and France lost most Caribbean possessions in the early 19th century, while Her Majesty’s island colonies were liberated in the 1960s. With its deep ethnic divisions, a unifying national identity formed slowly, and the Belizean independence movement displayed more patience than resistance.
As the 19th century closed, the orderly ways of colonial life in British Honduras showed signs of breakdown. The old elite was becoming more isolated and less feared. Its cozy connections to the mother country were unraveling. By 1900 the United States surpassed Britain as the main destination of the mahogany harvest; by 1930 the US was taking in 80% of all Belizean exports.
The colonial elite’s economic position was further undercut by the rise of a London-based conglomerate, the British Estate and Produce Company, which bought out local landowners and took over the commodity trade. Declining timber fortunes caused colonial capitalists to impose a 50% wage cut on mahogany workers in Belize City, which provoked riotous protests and the first stirrings of social movement.
During the first half of the 20th century, Belizean nationalism developed in explosive fits and starts. During WWI, a regiment of local Creoles was recruited for the Allied cause. The experience proved both dishearteningand enlightening. Ill-treated because of their dark skin, they were not even allowed to go to the front line and fight alongside white troops. They may have enlisted as patriotic Brits, but they were discharged as resentful Belizeans. Upon their return, in 1919, they coaxed several thousand into the streets of Belize City in an angry demonstration against the existing order.
It was not until the 1930s that a more sustained anticolonial movement arose. It began as the motley ‘Unemployed Brigade, ’ staging weekend rallies in Battlefield Park in Belize City. The movement fed on the daily discontents of impoverished black workers, and spewed its wrath at prosperous white merchants. It soon was organizing boycotts and strikes, and shortly thereafter its leaders were thrown into jail.
Finally, in the early 1950s, a national independence party, the People’s United Party (PUP), became politically active. When WWII caused the sudden closing of export markets, the colony experienced a severe economic crisis that lasted until well after the war’s end. Anti-British demonstrations spread all across Belize, becoming more militant and occasionally violent. Colonial authorities declared a state of emergency, forbidding public meetings and intimidating independence advocates.
In response, the PUP organized a successful general strike that finally forced Britain to make political concessions. Universal suffrage was extended to all adults and limited home rule was permitted in the colony. The imperial foundations of the old ruling elite crumbled, as the colony’s ethnically divided peoples now danced to a common Belizean drum beat.
Full independence for Belize was put off until a nagging security matter was resolved. Spain never formally renounced her territorial claim to Belize, which was later appropriated by Mexico and Guatemala. In the 19th century, Britain signed agreements with both claimants to recognize the existing colonial borders, but the one with Guatemala did not stick.
Guatemala’s caudillo rulers – mostly inept at managing their own affairs – remained obsessed with the perceived wealth of British Honduras. The 1945 Guatemalan constitution explicitly included Belize as part of its territorial reach. Britain, in turn, stationed a large number of troops in the west. Guatemala barked, but did not bite. By the 1960s, the border threat was stabilized and the demand for independence was renewed.
Belizeans waited patiently. In 1964 the colony became fully self-governing, installing a Westminster-style parliamentary system. In 1971 the capital was relocated to Belmopan, a geographic center symbolically uniting all regions and peoples. In 1973 the name was officially changed from the colonial sounding British Honduras to the more popular Belize. And in September 1981 Belize was at last declared an independent nation-state within the British Commonwealth. Even Guatemala recognized Belize as a sovereign nation in 1991, although to this day it maintains its territorial claim, whatever that means.
Independence did not turn out to be a cure-all. The angry nationalists that led Belize to independence turned into accommodating capitalists. The country had a small economy whose fortunes were determined beyond its control in global commodity markets. Belizeans eventually discovered that rather than remain vulnerable to exports, they had something valuable to import: tourists. The rise of ecotourism and revival of Maya culture has reshaped contemporary Belize, and cleared the jungle overgrowth for a return of the jaguar king.
Belizean politics was long dominated by the founder of the nationalist People’s United Party, George Price. His party won nearly every parliamentary election, consolidating political independence and promoting a new middle class. In 1996, at age 75 years, Price finally stepped down with his national hero status intact; the PUP, however, looked vulnerable.
The party was tainted by corruption scandals: missing pension funds, selling off of public lands. According to critics, the PUP never met a greased palm it wouldn’t shake. Supporters argue that other parties’ politicians are guilty of similar crimes. Once a haven for pirates, Belize became a new kind of haven – for tax-avoiding North Americans. In a hotly contested 2008 election, the PUP was sent packing.
The frail economy inherited at the time of independence was slow to recover. Many Creoles began to look for work outside the country, forming sizable diaspora communities in New York and London. As much as one third of the Belizean people now live abroad. Meanwhile, civil war and rural poverty in neighboring Guatemala and Honduras sent more refugees into Belize, whose demographic profile changed accordingly, with Spanish-speaking Mestizos becoming the majority ethnic group. From the time of independence, the Belize nation has doubled in size, from 150, 000 in 1981 to 321, 000 in 2008.
Belize was an ideal candidate for a green revolution. Wide swaths of lowland rainforest were unspoiled by loggers, while sections of the interior highland had never even been explored by Europeans. The jungle hosted a rich stock of exotic flora and fauna, feathered and furry; while just offshore was the magnificent coral reef and mysterious Blue Hole, which Jacques Cousteau had already made famous.
A Tourist Ministry was created in 1984, but it was not until the 1990s that the government began to recognize ecotourism as a viable revenue source and invested in its promotion and development. Infrastructure associated with various sites improved, small business loans became available, training programs were organized for guides, and a Bachelor’s degree in tourism was created at Belize University.
Over the next decade, more than 20 sites from the western mountains to the eastern cayes were designated as national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, forest reserves and marine preserves. More than 40% of Belizean territory received some form of protective status, including 80% of its pristine rainforest. The number of visitors rose steadily, from 140, 000 in 1988 to 250, 000 in 2006. By the end of the 1990s, tourism was Belize’s fastest growing economic sector, surpassing commodity exports.
The ecocraze coincided with archaeological advances to spur a revival of Maya culture. In the 1980s, significant progress was made in cracking the Mayan hieroglyphic code, enabling researchers to gain deeper insight into this once-shrouded world, while NASA satellite technology revealed over 600 previously unknown sites and hidden temples beneath the Belizean rainforest. In 2000 the government allocated nearly $30 million to support excavation projects. A lost culture became a live commodity. Maya descendants re-engaged with traditional ceremonies, craft-making, food preparation and healing techniques, often in response to touristy curiosity.
The commercial aspects of cultural revival are controversial. Maya human-rights activist and Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú spoke out against the outside world’s desire to mystify the Maya experience, stating ‘we are not the myths of the past, or ruins in the jungle; we are people, and we want to be respected.’
In contemporary Belize, the new understanding of the Maya past fostered a changed attitude in the Maya present. The Maya culture is no longer disparaged at the fringe of society, but now is a source of pride and a defining feature of Belizean identity, just as is the jaguar king, who has reclaimed his ancient throne.