Belize History

Hundreds of ruins and ceremonial centers show that for thousands of years Belize was populated by the Maya Civilization that reached its peak known as the Classic Period between A.D. 250 and 900. At its height, the Maya of Belize and Central America formed one of the most densely populated and culturally dynamic societies in the world. Eventually the civilization declined leaving behind large groups whose offspring still exist in Belize. Photo: Mask at Lamanai Maya Ruin in northern Belize.

altuna ha maya ruin detail

Detail of Altun Ha Maya Temple in Central Belize District

In 1502, Columbus sailed through parts of the Caribbean, but apparently did not actually visit the area later known as British Honduras. The first European to make Belize his home was Gonzalo Guerrero, a sailor from Palos, in Spain who shipwrecked along the Yucatan Peninsula in 1511 and was captured by the Maya and later married and settled at Chactemal now modern day Corozal Town in northern Belize.

The first reference to an informal European settlement in the colony was in 1638 when Belize was used a hiding place by pirates from Scotland and England. The population grew with the addition of disbanded British soldiers and sailors after the capture of Jamaica from Spain in 1655. The settlement, whose main activity was logwood cutting (logwood was used in the past to produce dye), had a troubled history during the next 150 years. It was subjected to numerous incursions from neighboring Spanish settlements (Spain claimed sovereignty over the entire New World except for regions in South America assigned to Portugal)..

The Honduras Almanack for 1826, the first officially authorized historical effort in Belize, states that the Settlement is no older than 1650, when it was used as a refuge from the Spaniards. In the 1829 Almanack, however, the first British Settlement was stated to have been made by shipwrecked sailors in 1638.

In the 1827 Almanack the credit for discovering the mouth of the River Belize and making it his place of retreat is given to Captain Peter Wallace, a Lieutenant amongst the Buccaneers from whose name ‘Belize’ is said to be derived. But another theory is that the word Belize comes from the Maya word “balix” which means muddy waters.

The 1839 Almanack gives the founder as the Scots Corsair Chief Wallace, native of Falkland in Kinross-shire (Scotland), who, after being driven from Tortuga, erected huts and a fortalice at a spot called after him by the Spaniards “Wallis” or “Balis”. G.W. Bridges, in the “Annals of Jamaica” 1828 stated that Willis, the notorious Pirate and ex-Governor of Tortuga, was the first Englishman to settle on the river, to which he gave his name. He dates this 1638, the year in which the Spaniards drove the Buccaneers out of Tortuga.

Bancroft’s “History of Central America” gives Peter Wallace, with 80 men, as the first settlers at the Belize River. And finally, Nobel Prize-winning Miguel Angel Asturias, a Guatemalan historian, poet, playwright,  novelist and diplomat said in 1925 that the Settlement was founded by Wallace, formerly Sir Walter Raleigh’s First Lieutenant and right-hand man, who, he says, is supposed to have first reached Belize in 1617. Asturias, however, quoting Spanish authorities, says that Wallace left England for America on May 14th, 1603, with six ships, and believes that he then founded the Settlement, remaining as its leader. The credit for discovering the mouth of the River Belize and making it his place of retreat is given to Captain Peter Wallace.

colonial building Belize City

Former residence of the British Colonial Governor in Belize City

In 1763 Spain in the Treaty of Paris allowed the British settlers to engage in the logwood industry. The British introduced slavery to Belize and imported thousands of slaves from Africa to cut logwood (used at that time to extract a dye) and later mahogany. The inter-marriage between Europeans and their African slaves led to modern day Creoles in Belize.

The Treaty of Versailles in 1783 affirmed the boundaries set by the Treaty of Paris to cut logwood and later extended by the Convention of London in 1786. But Spanish incursions to defend its rights over territory continued until a victory was won by settlers, in the Battle of St. George’s Caye in 1798. After that, British control over the settlement was augmented and in 1871 British Honduras was formally declared a British Colony.

The History of Modern Belize shows that settlers governed themselves under a system of basic democracy formally called the Public Meeting. A set of regulations referred to as Burnaby’s Code was formalized in 1765 and this, with some modification, continued until 1840 when an Executive Council was created.

In 1853 the Public Meeting was replaced by a Legislative Assembly (partly elected, and controlled by landowners), with the British Superintendent, an office created in 1786 at the settlers’ request, as Chairman. When the settlement became a colony in 1871 the Superintendent was replaced by a Lieutenant Governor under the Governor of Jamaica. A good article to review is the classic A Brief History Of Modern Belize.

The Crown Colony System of Government was introduced in 1871, and the Legislative Assembly by its own vote was replaced by a nominated Legislative Council with an official majority presided over by the Lieutenant Governor. An unofficial majority was created in 1892, and this constitution, with minor changes, continued until 1935 when the elective principle was once again introduced on the basis of adult suffrage with a low-income qualification. The administrative connection with Jamaica was severed in 1884, when the title of Lieutenant Governor was changed and a Governor was appointed.

Maya girl Belize

Modern day Maya girl in Belize.

Further constitutional advances came in 1954 with the introduction of Universal Adult Suffrage and an elected majority in the Legislature, the Ministerial System was adopted in 1961 leading up to Self Government in 1964.

The country’s name was changed on 1st June, 1973, from British Honduras to Belize. Belize independence was achieved on September 21, 1981 and a new independence constitution introduced.

Guatemala retains a territorial claim against Belize stemming from its rights as a former a colony of Spain. The two countries signed an agreement on 8 December 2008 to put the matter before the International Court of Justice at The Hague. A referendum in both countries is scheduled for 2013 that will determine placing the matter before the I.C.J and hopefully arrive at a definitive solution to the dispute.

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