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Belize History

H. Belizean History

(1.) Early Belize History

The peopled history of the Americas are in a constant state of flux, however in general it is thought that people came to the Americas between 10-50,000 years ago. Among some of the more famous civilizations, the Maya, could be found in Central America, including Mexico, Honduras, Belize and El Salvador. According to A History of Belize: Nation in the Making, “The peak of the Maya civilization was between 250 A.D. and 900 A.D. But it took thousands of years to develop.” In fact this source goes on to cite that in the Orange Walk district of Northern Belize located on the map above, can boast the earliest known Mayan settlement dating back to 2000 B.C.[6]

(2.) Belize Colonialism

Despite many potential legitimate claims to the contrary, Spain is generally credited with (re)discovering the new world. Through warfare, enslavement and primarily the spread of foreign disease, the Spanish were able to defeat great swaths of Native American civilizations. The remains of the Mayan population at the time of the Spanish invasion was not easily defeated by the Spanish.

The Spaniards tried to control the Maya of Chetumal. Chetumal was then the capital of a large Maya area, and was located just west of present-day Corozal Town, possibly at Santa Rita. In answer to a demand to submit to Spain, Chetumal’s chief, Nachankan, replied that his only tribute would be “turkeys in the shape of spears and corn in the shape of arrows. The Maya defeated the Spanish and old Chetumal in Belize became a place of refuge for Maya fleeing the Spanish rule. — A History of Belize: Nation in the Making[7]

During the 1700s, a group of British pirates actually settled on the shores that would later be known as Belize. The area was heavily contested for the rich Longwood and mahogany timber during this period. The Spanish contested, British sovereignty over the area and even expelled the British inhabitants on occasion. However as the century ended the British inhabitants were able to successfully defend against Spanish attacks. As in many of the American and Caribbean countries, the British utilized slaves and ensuing revolts and poor relations were the norm until emancipation in 1838. However, minorities such as emancipated slaves and Mayans were not allowed to own land during the 1800’s due to beliefs that this would reduce the available wage earning workforce.

As the area was settled, the British began to imported slaves to work the land. There was no record of British contact with the native Mayans until the 1800s. As the British moved westward, they began to encounter the Mayan’s and strong conflicts resulted. In fact the Mayans often were victorious and held back the British for the first half of the century. However, eventually attrition from warfare and disease had its tolls and the Mayans last major attack was in 1872. To encourage more settlers to move to a region that was notorious for fierce Mayan opposition, the British government even encouraged disenfranchised Confederate soldiers to move to the area in the late 1860s.[8]

(3.) Belize Colonial Dependency

Belize City in 1914 in what was then British Honduras : License from Wikimedia Commons : This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division under the digital ID pan.6a23393 - Description=Belize City, British Honduras |Source={{LOC-image|pan.6a23393}} |Date=c. 1914 |Author=Frank E. Read |Permission={{PD-US}}

As a colony of the British Empire, Belize was subject to the whims of international markets. Logging being one of the primary forms of industry, ownership of land was essential to wealth. The early settlers had monopolized this ownership in the 18th and 19th century. What they did not own the Crown claimed for itself and kept until the 1960s. To encourage British citizens and disenfranchised confederates to buy land in Belize a law was drafted to allow for the sale of untitled land in the mid-1800s. This sale of land was primarily controlled one company, who’s founder had drafted the law. This company, originally known as the British Honduras Company and later the Belize Estate & Produce Company (BEC) owned one-fifth of the countries land and was played a huge role in the countries history until sold in 1970 to an American company.[9]

To state that the colony relied on logging is an understatement. Diversification into other industries including farming and sugar cane production was highly discouraged. Even after the slave trade ended the British Empire brought indentured servants from East India to work the land as late as 1917. With the advent of the Great Depression in the United States, the value of timber dropped drastically. Furthermore, no infrastructure investments had taken place as the forests were harvested. Subsequently, loggers had to venture further inland on poor roads. This lack of infrastructure later proved even more devastating when attempts were made to diversify.

In the stagnant and suffering economy that resulted the divisions between class and race were exacerbated. This was witnessed by race and labor riots through the end of the 19th and early half of the 20th century. The fight for more rights and universal suffrage and even independence often found itself pitted against the strongest organization in the country, the BEC. However, as colonialization was ending throughout the world progress was slowly made.

A study as late as 1971 showed that 3 per cent of the landowners held 95 per cent of the land, and 91 per cent of the landowners held only 1 per cent in small plots. This study also showed that over 90 per cent of the freehold land in the country was owned by foreigners, and most of the land was not being used.– A History of Belize: Nation in the Making[10]

Land redistribution policies and key legislative initiatives in the 60’s an 70’s worked to transform a society that was attempting to recover from a dependency on exporting natural resources like lumber. In the 1950s, Belize saw export trade drop from 80% to 1.9%.


[6] A History of Belize, The First People of the Americas, Cubola & Naturallight Productions, available at http://www.belizenet.com/history/chap1.html (last visited on Oct. 1, 2002).
[7] A History of Belize, The Spanish and British in Belize, Cubola & Naturallight Productions, available at http://www.belizenet.com/history/chap3.html (last visited on Oct. 1, 2002).
[8] Id.
[9] A History of Belize, The Monopolization of Land, Cubola & Naturallight Productions., available at http://www.belizenet.com/history/chap7.html (last visited on Oct. 1, 2002).
[10] A History of Belize, How Colonialism Underdeveloped Belize, Cubola & Naturallight Productions, available at http://www.belizenet.com/history/chap9.html (last visited on Oct. 1, 2002).