Belize History

Table of Contents

Historic Belize city harbour view by William F. Avery circa 1911. Foreground is HMS Customs and Excise, then the British Honduras Company, later known as Belize Estate and Produce Company. Middle left with arched support columns is the Belize Central Market . Top middle is the Belize City Swing Bridge, distant top right twin spires Holy Redeemer Cathedral.

The country we call today Belize has amazing and singular historical features. It has a long and convoluted history of vague and imaginary boundary definitions and names. Variously being called Balix, Belice, Bay of Honduras, Honduras, British Yucatan, Balise, Belise, and Bellese.

From the mid nineteenth century it was called British Honduras by the English invaders, until 1973 when it was officially named Belize by the British colonial office.

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.

Snapshot of British Honduras From The 19th Century

Belize used to be called British Honduras, and in 1862, it became a colony ruled by a governor who was under the governor of Jamaica. Then, in 1871, the Legislative Assembly established at Belize City was abolished, and Belize became a crown colony. For a while, Belize remained under Jamaica’s control, but in 1884, it got its own governor and became a separate colony.

The British settlers who came to Belize called themselves Baymen, and in the early 18th century, they started importing African slaves to help cut logwood and later on, mahogany. Although the work they did was different from that on plantations, the conditions were still harsh and oppressive for the slaves. Unfortunately, there were four slave revolts in Belize, and many slaves took advantage of the terrain and their freedom over the frontiers to escape. It’s sad to think about what they had to endure, but it’s important to remember and honor their struggles.

In the early 19th century, a group of people called the Garifuna, who were a mix of Carib Indians and Africans exiled from British colonies in the eastern Caribbean St. Vincent, settled on the southern coast of Belize. Later on, in 1847, there was an indigenous uprising in the Yucatán called the Caste War, which led several thousand Spanish-speaking people to seek refuge in northern Belize. Meanwhile, Mayan communities were established in the north and west. These new settlers brought with them different ways of farming, including traditional subsistence farming, and started producing sugar, banana, and citrus. To help with this, the owners of sugar estates brought in several hundred labourers from China and South Asia in the 1860s and ’70s.

Later on, in the late 19th century, people from the Mopán and Kekchí Maya communities in Guatemala came to Belize to escape oppression. They established largely self-sufficient communities in southern and western Belize.

Race Day at the Newtown Barracks north-side Belize city had residents come out in their Sunday best. US aviator Charles Lindbergh would land here 30 December 1927 in his Ryan monoplane The Spirit of St. Louis. The historic site was sold off by the Belize government and in 2023 houses the Ramada Hotel & Casino and, a small public park. Photo by William F. Avery circa 1911.

In the early 20th century, there was already a mix of different ethnic groups living in the area, but unfortunately, the economy wasn’t doing too well. The government was run by a crown colony, which meant that people didn’t have a say in how things were done. Things got even worse in the 1930s when the whole world was hit by a big economic depression, and in 1931, a hurricane destroyed much of Belize City. People were struggling to make ends meet, and there were strikes and demonstrations by workers and unemployed people. However, this difficult time also gave rise to a trade union movement and calls for more democratic participation. In 1936, people were allowed to vote for the Legislative Assembly, but only if they met certain qualifications, such as owning property, being literate, and being male.

In 1949, the governor made a decision that devalued the currency, which upset a lot of people. Leaders from the trade union and Creole middle class formed a group called the People’s Committee to demand changes to the constitution. From that committee emerged the People’s United Party (PUP) in 1950, which became the leading political party for the next 30 years and pushed for Belize’s independence.

Christopher Columbus’ Journey Through 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. He is believed to have given Placencia in Belize its name. 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.

Captain Peter Wallace and British Honduras

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. 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

Treaties With Spain

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 Public Meeting And Burnaby’s Code

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.

From Crown Colony To Independence

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 Belize-Guatemala territorial dispute is currently before the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Belizeans and Guatemalans were asked to approve a proposal to settle the long-standing dispute at the ICJ. Guatemala held its referendum in 2018 and Belize in 2019. In a closely related matter Belize has officially applied to the ICJ to seek a final and binding resolution, in accordance with international law, of the dispute between Belize and the Republic of Honduras concerning sovereignty over the Sapodilla Cayes.

Article by M..A. Romero Chief Information Officer (RET) to the Government of Belize.