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History of Belize

The first great civilization in Belize arose over 3,000 years ago with the rise of the Mayan Empire. Originally, these people held nothing close to an empire as they were simply hunters, fishers, and gatherers, who later began to cultivate their own foods and crops. These people had a slow transition from this simple lifestyle to the empire they later became.

The Mayan empire peaked in their domination over neighboring peoples and in building great monuments in about 250 AD. This empire expanded due to advanced technologies, such as irrigation systems and other methods to more efficiently produce food, and hence their population. As their population grew so did the industries the people partook in as math and astronomy became significant fields of study, which led to great building and an emphasis on the importance of time, stars, and calendars.

During the peak of the Mayan Empire nearly half a million people lived in what is today known as Belize, but in the 900s the empire's influence and prosperity in what is today Belize began to crumble. From this time until Spanish arrival in the 1500s the people and society declined as social organizations, food production, and communication collapsed.

In 1527 the Spanish entered the Yucatan Peninsula (in modern day Mexico and today' Belize) to take the region. More than weapons the people in the Yucatan, as well as the people in Belize were destroyed by European diseases, to which the Mayans has no immunizations or defense. This alone destroyed much of the remaining population as the Spanish numbers increased over time.

In the 1600s the Spanish sent numerous missionaries to convert the locals to Roman Catholicism as the Spanish Conquistadors continued their takeover of these "new" lands. This was a time of colonization, wars, continuing epidemics, and the slow transition from local Mayan power to both Spanish and outlaw pirate power.

In addition to the Spanish government, the British and numerous pirates (of various ethnicities) sought money and power from the region. This altered Spain's focus from simply colonization and religious conversion to battles with the British, French, and Dutch among others. On the land itself many Spanish and Mayans were intermarrying, but off the coast the British began to take control in the 1600s. This control over the coast slowly moved inland as the English found great profit in the logging industry, hence attempting to take over power from the Spanish.

By 1700 most privateering has ceased as what is today known as Belize became exploited for their natural resources. However, the battles between the Spanish and British changed little as both countries fought over logging rights and territorial claims. The British though only sought the financial gain from this land and never made any true attempt to create a government or to directly rule over the region. The worst of these battles finally ended in 1796 when the British beat back the Spanish.

What is more significant during the 1700s though is that most of the Spanish settlers intermarried with locals, while most of the British settlers maintained separate settlements. Despite laws against owning land or starting governments in the region, most of Belize was controlled by British settlers in the form of land control, trade, and even local governments. These British land owners also began to bring in slaves to work their fields, adding to the region's diversity as an African Kriol culture arose.

In 1833 slavery was abolished by the British government and a large number of slaves in Belize were given freedom. In a way, this shift gave the local Brits more power as many of these freed slaves adopted British tendencies, culture, and language. However, it also struck a terrible blow to British economic dominance. Despite this, many land owners refused to sell their lands to freed slaves or local Spanish-Mayans, maintaining land control in the hands of wealthy Brits.

This tension rose as numerous people settled in the region, leading to a formal British act in 1854, essentially legalizing British control over Belize. Shortly after this Mayan resistance to the British rose as battles between the groups came to a pinnacle, eventually leading to another act in 1872 pushing Mayans and Garifunas (people of African and Carib Indian descent) onto reservations as the British restricted their rights. By these acts, Britain had gained complete control over the territory.

Once control was solidified the country remained dived by language, religion, and ethnicity, however it was the British that maintained most of the wealth and power. These divisions, along with arguments of taxation and the distribution of governmental funds led to direct British rule as the region was made an official British colony in 1871 known as British Honduras.

Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s the British government and government ruling over the colony took more and more power and land in Belize. This shifted power from local landowners to the central government in London. It was also in the early 1900s that most of Belize's logging resources had collapsed as there was little replanting done after the original logging stripped the landscape of its forests. As logging declined the wealthy British landowners lost more power. Just as the ethnic minorities began to shift towards the United States for economic prosperity the United States' stock market crashed and the great depression began in the U.S. as well as in Belize.

Between the great depression and the exploitation of logging laborers, the people began to rebel against British rule. This movement continued throughout the 1930s and 40s, although World War II (WWII) slowed progress and communication efforts. At the conclusion of WWII the fight for independence again gained steam. In 1954 the first vote open to all took place and it was essentially a referendum on gaining independence from Britain. The results were overwhelming as political discussions shifted to full independence.

In the 1960s Britain began negotiations to grant Belize independence, but Guatemala also sought the land so the two groups began negotiating as the local people were left out of discussions. These talks led to decreasing relations between the British and Guatemalans as Belize slowly gained power. In 1973 the name of the country was officially changed from "British Honduras" to Belize.

Despite the name change, Belize wasn't yet free as Guatemala continued to push for Belizean lands. Belize responded with gaining international support until 1980 when the United Nations (UN) supported Belize's independence with its modern day borders, giving the country independence in 1981, without Guatemala's support, until 1992 when the country was finally recognized by Guatemala, although the exact border was still debated.

Since independence, Belize has made great strides forward economically, however not without setbacks and arguments. They have also opened their tourism industry to great lengths, which has become a great source of income for the nation. Relations with Britain have improved as the two are great allies, but the relations with Guatemala continue to be contended as border disputes are unsettled; fortunately these arguments remain diplomatic as no violence has grown from these debates.

This page was last updated: March, 2013