All you have to know about the history of Belize

History of Belize

by Joel Walsh

Joel Walsh ( has written for numerous web sites, in addition to the Let's Go: Mexico travel guidebook, and translations for a Venezuelan human rights NGO. At university, he studied Spanish literature and the history of Spanish-speaking countries, spending his final semester at the University of Havana.

Belize’s people number little more than a quarter million, and its land, 23,000 square kilometers. But those people, that land, and the history that built them, have the depth and breadth of a much larger country.

During its long history Belize has been many places. An important outpost of the Mayan empire. One of the last strongholds of that empire in its decline. An almost forgotten backwater of the Spanish empire. An enclave of pirates. A late feather in the cap of the British empire. And now, one of the most culturally and biologically diverse countries in the world. Though never the center of anything, the history of Belize has never been boring.

The Maya

Today, only a little more than one in ten people in Belize is Mayan, in sharp contrast to neighboring Guatemala, where Mayans form the majority. Yet the stone temples and fortresses that rise up from the jungle attest to a much greater presence in the history of Belize.

The Maya, along with the Carib (the ones whose name was used for the neighboring sea), were probably the area’s first inhabitants.

The Maya, whose history can be traced back to around 2000 B.C., started building great stone structures in Belize in the first centuries AD.

What makes the remaining structures special is just how old they are. The “classic” Maya period came later, in the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries. The smaller “pre-classic” buildings in Belize thus represent a unique style of architecture you are less likely to find amid the grander “classic” sites in Mexico.

By the 14th century, the Maya’s empire was in decline, and many—but not all—Mayan sites in Belize were abandoned and quickly reclaimed by the jungle.

The Spaniards Intrusion in the history of Belize

When the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, they found only a few of the Mayan sites occupied. The ruins of mission churches in the area from this time attest to the fact that at least some Mayans were still in the area.

The Spaniards harvested Belize’s logwood to make dye, but did little else with the area.

The British influence in the history of Belize

Spanish indifference together with the coral reef off Belize’s coast made the country a haven for pirates, especially British pirates.

Eventually, Britain made Belize’s status as a British colony semi-official by attacking the Spanish armada near St. George’s Caye in 1798 and taking over.

In 1862, while the United States was mired in civil war, Britain took the opportunity to defy the Monroe Doctrine (the US policy that no new colonies be created in the Americas), officially declaring Belize the colony of British Honduras.

Belize Becomes Independent

Agitation for independence gained momentum as the British did a poor job of managing the country. But self-government was not finally granted until 1962, and Belize did not officially become independent until 1981.

In the meantime, for the first time in the history of Belize political parties and other government institutions were established, and a new capital was built at Belmopan after a hurricane wrecked Belize City (which nonetheless remains the only true city in Belize).

Border Disputes

Like too many countries in the Americas, Belize has struggled with border disputes with one of its neighbors, in this case, Guatemala.

In 1972 Guatemala threatened war. British troops were brought in to safeguard the country.

A new Guatemalan government recognized Belize’s borders in 1992. But in 1994 Guatemala restated its dispute of Belize’s borders, and the issue was only partially resolved until 2001 with the signing of a provisional agreement. Smaller disputes continued to erupt over small settlements on either side of the border.

Stability and Turbulence in the Recent History of Belize

Meanwhile, Belize stayed out of the civil war that engulfed much of Central America in the 1970s and 1980s, thanks in large part to US influence, especially aid to the government.

Unfortunately, when the US invaded Panama to remove its head of state, General Noriega, much of Panama’s cocaine smuggling moved to Belize.

Today, along with underdevelopment and poverty, Belize is also coping with the saturation of its culture by foreign, especially US, mass media and commercial culture.

Belize’s own cultures represent an exciting mix of Mayan and other indigenous groups, the descendents of Europeans from Spain, Britain, elsewhere in Europe, and Africa, as well as people who came from all over the British Empire.

It would be well worth visiting this unique spot on the map before it becomes just another smattering of McDonald’s and Tower Records.

At present you know more about the history of Belize, discover the country's map.
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History of Belize
Histories of the Spanish Speaking Countries
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