Belize is a small country with a rich history. This history has a span of over 10,000 years of
settlement. This section will discuss the salient points of Belizean history.
- 15,000 BC-7,000 BC
- 7,000 BC-2,500 BC
- 2,500 BC-1,500 AD
- 1502 -1641
- 1638 -1871
- Post 1981
The first peoples to occupy Belize were Paleo-Indians who were the first people to enter the Western Hemisphere by walking across the land bridge which joined Alaska to the extreme eastern seaboard of Russia during the last Ice Age. Scientists have referred to this land bridge as Beringia. The Paleo-Indians who entered the Western Hemisphere from North America were explorers and quickly moved southward. Not much is known about how long they reached Belize but their presence has been detected by archaeologists working in our country. Archaeologists know that they were here because the stone tools which they used have been found at various locations in the country. The Paleo-Indian period occurred between 15,000 BC to 7,000 BC. The Paleo-Indians hunted large animals such as wooly mammoths, mastodons and giant sloths. They also ate roots and fruits.
After the arrival of the Paleo-Indians, scientists have detected the presence of a more advanced culture. These people lived from around 7000 BC to 2,500 BC and are now referred to as the Archaic People. The Archaic people were distinct from the Paleo-Indians because they hunted smaller animals such as deer and rabbits as well as fish (Figure XX). These people also began relying more on the gathering of plants such as manoic, coco and sweet potatoes as food. These were still a stone age culture but these people also started to farm in Belize. The Archaic peoples started growing crops like sweet potatoes, yams, coco and manoic.
The food crops which the Archaic people started to produce were also used by another stone age culture which was destined for impressive achievements in Belize and the rest of Mesoamerica starting from about 2500 BC. This culture was the Maya culture which started around 2500 BC and lasted for about 4000 years (Table XX).
900 AD – 1500 AD
300 AD – 800 AD
2500 BC – 0 AD
During the Pre-Classic period, the Maya developed the groundwork for the Classic period. Specifically, the Preclassic was the period in which the crops which were used to feed the populations were domesticated. Seeds of crops like pumpkins, beans, corn, manoic, sweet potatoes and yams were collected for future use.
When the Classic Period came around, the Maya made many developments in the field of arts, manufacturing of natural products, construction, mathematics, writing, and religion. It was during the classic period that the most impressive constructions were made. Roads were built and the corbelled arch was refined.
After the Classic period the Maya societies collapsed and the populations in Belize fled north into the Yucatan area. There are a number of theories for the collapse. These include foreign invasion, revolt against the nobility, abandonment of trade routes and epidemics. The most
likely cause of the collapse was that there were more droughts.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus rediscovered the Western Hemisphere when he landed on the island of El Salvador in the Bahamas. Columbus returned on three more voyages. On his fourth voyage in 1502, Columbus entered the Gulf of Honduras and sighted the Toledo district of Belize. Other Spanish voyagers also sighted Belize from outside the reef. These included Vicente Yanez Pinzon and Juan Diaz de Solis who sailed near to our country in 1506.
One of the first Spaniards to settle in Belize was a shipwrecked sailor by the name of Gonzalo
Guerrero. In 1511, Guerrero was captured by the Maya living in the Corozal district. Guerrero was not killed but he married Sasil Ha, the daughter of the Maya chief (Na Chan Can) who had captured him. Guerrero changed his allegiance and fought along with the Maya to defend their territory. The Spanish by this time were attempting to subjugate the Maya of Belize to claim their territory but the Maya resisted.
One site where the Spanish were successfully able to temporarily form a settlement was at Lamanai. Between, the late 1580s and 1641 the Spanish occupied Lamanai. However, in 1641, the Spanish were forcefully expelled by the Maya and their buildings were destroyed. Thus, the Maya resisted the Spanish and were able to keep them out of Belize.
Although the Maya were successful in keeping Spain out of Belize, they were not able to keep the British from occupying parts of Belize. British buccaneers were first interested in using Belize as a base from which to harass Spanish shipping for gold and other valuable materials bound for Spain from the Central American Mainland. On one of these raids, the buccaneers discovered that the Spanish were taking logwood (palo de tinta) to Europe. They realized that this material was valuable and started to take Spanish ships as well as logwood stored on the Mexican coast.
These buccaneers were the first Europeans to settle Belize. There are two main theories which describe how Belize was first settled by Europeans. The first account is that Belize was settled by shipwrecked buccaneers in 1638. Another account states that a buccaneer by the name of Peter Wallace founded a settlement at the mouth of the Belize River just after 1638. Peter Wallace is said to have been driven from Tortuga by the French.
Even though there is uncertainty about the first settlers of Belize, it is known that these settlers depended on the extraction of logwood for their living. Shortly after founding of the settlement, the Treaty of Madrid outlawed piracy in 1667, prompting more buccaneers to settle Belize permanently.
Settlers continued to harvest logwood and started to bring slaves to cut and carry logwood to a central storehouse which was erected where Belize City is now. By the early 1700s, Belize became the wealthiest British settlement in the Caribbean because logwood was used to dye
clothes used by royalty and wealthy persons in England and across Europe.
The importance of logwood started to decline in the late 1770s because there was an oversupply of the material in Europe. During this downturn, the settlers in Belize started to harvest another important forestry product in Belize. This product was mahogany.
Although Spain had not occupied Belize, she did not appreciate the settlement of the British in this area. Attacks on Belize were made from Bacalar and Peten from as early as 1716. Other attacks followed in 1718, 1730, 1733, 1737, 1745, 1754 and 1779. In the last of these attacks,
the settlers of Belize were captured and marched to Merida before being sent to the dungeons in Havana. These settlers were released in 1782 and returned to Belize shortly after. War broke out again between Britain and Spain in 1796. This prompted the crown to appoint Lieutenant·Colonel Thomas Barrow to the position of Superintendent of the settlement. Barrow called an important Public Meeting on June 1, 1797. The objective of this important meeting was to decide whether the settlers would stay and defend the settlement or evacuate the
settlement. The first result of this vote was a tied vote of fifty one in favor of and fifty one against staying to defend the settlement. Shortly after, fourteen free black settlers arrived from the Flowers Bank region of the settlement. These fourteen men voted in favour of defending the
After this vote, an order was made that all males were to divide their time between matters of defence and personal matters. The Spanish attack was expected and the colony went into Martial law on July 26, 1798.
The Spanish armada was sighted on September 3 of the same year. In total, the Spanish brought 31 vessels with 2,000 foot- soldiers and 500 seamen under the command of Field Marshal Arturo O’Neil. O’Niel anchored the main fleet between Long Caye and Caye Chapel. Standing against the Spanish were: His majesty’s Sloop the Merlin commanded by Captain John Ralph Moss, two other sloops the Towser and the Tickler, The Mermaid, two local scooners the Swinger and the Teaser and seven gun flats manned by the slaves.
The first Spanish attack was launched on September 3 when five Spanish ships attacked Montego Caye but these could not break the defence lines of the sloops and the gun flats.
The following day, the Spanish attempted the same manoeuvre but were repelled by three armed ships. These ships also removed the stakes and beacons which the Spanish and placed to mark a passage through the reefs.
The most important engagement of this episode in Belize’s history occurred on September 10, 1798. On that morning, fourteen of the largest Spanish ships moved aggressively toward the Merlin just off St. George’s Caye. The stalemate lasted until early in the afternoon, when Captain Moss’s ordered his ships to begin firing on the fourteen Spanish vessels. Moss was able to overpower the enemy and the battle lasted for two and a half hours. After this, the Spanish fell into confusion and they cut their cables and fled. Captain Moss signalled for his vessels to pursue the retreating Spanish. Because night was approaching, the chase was called off.
The Battle of St. George’s Caye was an important milestone because after this routing, the Spanish never again attempted to take Belize. This allowed the British Settlers to pursue extraction of natural resources from the forest to serve as exports.
After the Battle of St. George’s Caye, the settlers could continue exploiting the vast logwood and mahogany resources of Belize. Mahogany from Belize was highly prized in the manufacture of ships, railway cars and furniture in England. Furniture manufacturers like Thomas Chippendale and George Hepplewhite created high priced furniture from Belize’s mahogany in England.
Extraction of mahogany and logwood depended on the work of Africans who the British enslaved in Belize. The first Africans were brought to the country in the 1720s to extract logwood. The Africans who were brought to Belize were originally from around the Bight of Benin, the Congo, and Angola.
After the 1720s, the rise in importance of the mahogany industry saw enslavement of increasing numbers of people to service this business. Extraction of mahogany was much more demanding than logwood and large numbers of Africans were brought to do the labour intensive tasks for the Europeans.
African slaves in Belize were never pleased to be used for the enrichment of the European settlers and they resisted dominance in various ways. These included running away to villages like San Benito in Guatemala and to Mexico. The runaways also created secret settlements in
the interior of Belize. Another major method of resistance was revolting against their masters. It is known that there were slave revolts in Belize in 1745, 1765, 1768, 1773 and 1820. The largest of these revolts was in 1773 when the slaves revolted for five months killing six white men before walking 100 miles to enter Mexico. Runaway slaves also formed two communities in the area of the Sibun River and its tributaries such as Runaway Creek.
Because of revolts in the Caribbean, the British abolished the slave trade in 1809. Emancipation of all slaves took place on August of 1834. This was followed by a period of transition from slavery to freedom called Apprenticeship which lasted until 1838. After slavery was abolished in Belize, the need for labourers increased as most slaves preferred not to work for their former masters. This caused the business class and government of Belize to devise various schemes to attract labourers to Belize. Chinese, Indians and West Indians were brought to work in Belize.
Refugees from Mexico also entered the country as a result of the Caste War in the Yucatan area
in 1848. American refugees from the United States Civil War also arrived in 1867.
Belize remained an independent settlement during the days of the logwood and mahogany industries and after slavery and the ensuing years of immigration. However, in 1864, Belize became a British colony governed from Jamaica. Movement from an independent settlement to a colony was because settlers felt threatened by the entrance of a large number of Mestizo refugees and hostile Maya from the Caste War. Settlers were threatened by Maya such as Marcos Canul and Asuncion Ek who won victories over the British West Indian Regiment in Belize. As a result of these skirmishes, settlers were successful in convincing the King of England to make Belize become a Crown Colony in 1871.
This period represents the time when the British government exerted full control of the colony. This occurred because the settlers were afraid of being overrun by Maya engaged in the Caste War in southern Mexico. Consequently, the settlers requested the English Crown to protect the settlement with British soldiers.
During this period, the Governor was the seat of power in the colony and he had an appointed Legislative Council to work with. The Legislative Council was appointed in 1871 and this body was not replaced until 1954.
Considerable immigration continued to occur during this period. Mexican refugees, American Ex-Confederates, West Indians, Indians and Chinese and some Middle Eastern people from Lebanon and Palestine also arrived.
In the late 1800s, the influence of the United States of America became more prominent in British Honduras. This was with the blessing of the British Government which created the British Honduran Dollar and set its value on parity with the American dollar in 1894 (Prior to this, Central American currency were used in British Honduras). American companies started to buy Belizean lumber. Companies such as the United Fruit Company bought Belizean bananas and the William Wrigley, Jr. Company imported Belizean chicle into the United States.
Besides chicle and lumber, investments were made in coconuts, cohune and citrus. Together with the mahogany industry, all these industries declined in the early 1900s.
Thus, when British Honduran soldiers returned from helping Britain to prosecute World War I (The Great War) in 1919, there were no jobs for the ex-servicemen to commit themselves to. Coupled with the experiences of racism they had faced in Europe and the unemployment they experienced on return home, they rioted starting in July 1919. The mob harassed persons on the Welfare Committee and order was not restored until the H.M.S. Constance and the U.S.S. Castine came to British Honduras.
After WWI, the decline in traditional industries in British Honduras was especially devastating to British Honduran workers during the time of the Great Depression which started in 1929.
Even before the depression, workers in Belize had faced very low wages and unemployment for extended periods. Inhabitants of the colony looked to the Crown for relief work but only minimal attention was forthcoming from the Governor. The only relief came in the form of a daily ration of a pound of cooked rice and three ounces of sugar per person. One leader who emerged to fight for relief to unemployed persons and workers was a barber by the name of Antonio Soberanis. Soberanis volunteered to lead a group called the Unemployed Brigade. Soberanis later founded a new organization which he called the Labourers and Unemployed Association (LUA). The LUA demanded a minimum wage of $ 1.50 per hour, and 8 hour work day and that “all men so employed must be 90 per cent British Subjects.” Soberanis was able to successfully negotiate an increase in wages from 8 to 25 cents per hour work for stevadores in Stann Creek.
Soberanis was arrested for the third time in 1935 and this led to a breakdown of the LUA and the progress of the nationalist movement was temporarily derailed.
During World War II unemployment was cut significantly as war jobs in Panama, Peten and Scotland became available. It was not until 1950 that the nationalist movement re-emerged.
A prelude to the nationalist movement was the formation and agitation of the General Workers Union (GWU) in 1943. Although the GWU supported the British Empire, its leader Clifford Betson and others organized a successful sawmill strike against the BEC in 1947. The GWU continued with agitation but it was not until the devaluation of the British Honduran dollar on December 31, 1949 that another formidable nationalist movement would emerge in the colony.
After the end of WWII, Britain was experiencing severe economic challenges. Consequently, British Honduras was also experiencing lean times. In order to make its exports attractive, Britain devalued its currency. Britain also devalued the British Honduran dollar from parity with the US dollar to the new rate of exchange which saw four British Honduran Dollars equal to one pound sterling. Despite promising not to devalue the British Honduran dollar, the Governor went behind the backs of the Legislative Council and executed the devaluation on December 31, 1949.
The devaluation of the British Honduran dollar hurt the rich and poor alike. Wealthy merchants like Henry Melhado, Guy Nord and Robert Sydney Turton were affected. As a result, men like Robert Sydney Turton started to support the nationalist movement and threw finances behind the first political party which would emerge in Belize. Turton who had made his money from the transportation industry (Texan and Honduras mules, pitpans and boats), mahogany, boom chain, chicle and real estate businesses in Belize. Mr. Turton supported George Price in the early days of the PUP. It was said that Mr. Turton tried “everything” in businesses and was in a good position to support the nationalist movement of the early 1950s.
After World War II, the finances of the British government were dire. To improve the price of British products on the international markets, the London government devalued the pound. The Belize dollar was also devalued from $2.80 for the pound to $4.00 to the pound. This meant that cost of imports and cost of living in general would increase immediately in British Honduras.
The very night of the devaluation, the People’s Committee was formed with John Smith as Chairman and George Price as Secretary. The People’s Committee was originally an ad hocorganization but support from the masses caused it to morph into Belize’s first political party, the PUP.
September of 1950 when the People’s Committee dissolved itself to become the PUP. The leader of the party was John Smith, Chairman Leigh Richardson, Secretary George Price and Assistant Secretary Philip Goldson. The paramount goal for the PUP was the attainment of political independence for Belize.
Realizing that the British would not simply give up Belize, the immediate goals of the PUP were to achieve national elections under Universal Adult Suffrage and to get a new democratic constitution for Belize. However, there were differences within the leadership as to how Belize would achieve independence. These differences of opinion caused John Smith to resign from the PUP in November of 1951. This resignation affected the PUP for a brief period but the movement was able to achieve Universal Adult Suffrage in 1954.
Universal Adult Suffrage came in time for national elections in 1954. In this election, George Price, Philip Goldson, Leigh Richardson, Herman Jex, Enrique Depaz, Jose Chin, George Flowers and Nathaniel Cacho from the PUP all won seats in the Legislative Assembly which had replaced the appointed Legislative Council.
However, the unity displayed by the early nationalists was short lived. This was because of a change in the PUP which occurred on September 26, 1956 when a split in the leadership of the party occurred. According to one account, Leigh Ricahardson, William Coffin, Herman Jex and Philip Goldson resigned their positions in the PUP during a public meeting.
These leaders accused George Price and Nickolas Pollard of creating disunity in the party. Another account states that Leigh Ricahardson, William Coffin, Herman Jex and Philip Goldson were expelled from the PUP because they had held secret negotiations with the British for the colony to enter into the West Indian Federation. This Federation was envisioned as a British oriented political union among the colonies in the West Indies.
Despite the resignations and the split, the PUP matured and became the most important political party in the country.
In addition to the PUP, the National Party was formed with W. H. Courtney as President and Herbert Fuller as Vice President shortly after the PUP came into existence.
After the split in the PUP in September of 1956, Leigh Richardson and Philip Goldson formed the Honduran Independence Party in October of the same year.
In 1958, the HIP disbanded itself and jointed with the National Party to form the National Independence Party. Other parties which formed also included the Christian Democratic Party, the United Black Association for Development and the People’s Development Movement. The United Democratic Party was not formed until 1973.
Thus, in the late 1950s, party politics in Belize was developing rapidly and there was constant agitation for independence. Britain was spending £5 million in annual grants in Belize and was interested in cutting the costs of propping up its former colonies. For Belize, the only impediment was the Guatemalan Claim.
In 1957, George Price and a six member delegation were invited to London to discuss British aid to Belize. During this visit, members of the Belize delegation, including George Price, met with Jorge Granados, the Guatemalan representative in London. Granados presented a proposal which would have Belize attain self government but within a Central American Federation. This meeting was not “authorized” by the British who immediately accused Mr. Price of selling out Belize “lock, stock and barrel.” The Governor returned to Belize and presented his case on the radio. However, the Belizean public did not accept his assertions. Instead, Mr. Price was given a hero’s welcome home when he returned from London. Shortly after, the PUP went on to win the Municipal elections of 1958.
Three years later the PUP won all eighteen seats in the Legislative Assembly. From this point on, the Belize Government participated in the negotiations which the British and the Guatemalans undertook to solve the territorial dispute.
During this period, a defining moment was the passage of Hurricane Hattie on October 31, 1961. Hurricane Hattie killed 262 people in Belize City, and rural Belize, Stann Creek and Cayo Districts including many on the Cayes.
Belizeans achieved self government in 1964. This meant that all the ministries except Foreign Affairs and Defence were managed by Belizeans. During the period between 1964 and 1981 the PUP continued as the most successful political party and its main objective as the Government was the attainment of Independence. The majority of voters agreed and the PUP was given a mandate to openly pursue Independence.
The task of attaining independence was difficult because of the Guatemalan claim. The Guatemalans threatened to invade if Belize got independence.
Prior to Belize gaining self government, only the British and the Guatemalans negotiated about the future of Belize. This however changed when self government was attained.
One of the first attempts to solve the problem with Guatemala in which Belizeans were involved came in 1965. The British had agreed with the Guatemalans to allow the US to act as an arbiter in the negotiations. An American lawyer by the name of Bethuel M. Webster was given the task of making a proposal. What resulted were the Webster Proposals. These proposals were agreed upon by the British and the United States. The plan was to give Belize independence from Britain but also give Guatemala control of the defense and foreign affairs of Belize. The Proposals also allowed for free movement of nationals between Belize and Guatemala and for free movement of goods through each country’s ports.
Philip Goldson was an observer in the talks between the British and the Guatemalans and was given a draft of the proposals to read. At the meeting, Philip Golson secretly wrote the terms of the Webster Proposals and leaked them to the people of Belize in 1966. Two years later the full proposals were released. Belizeans rejected the Webster Proposals and rioted in Belize City.
By 1975, the Belizean government had made only limited progress in the challenge of negotiating the withdrawal of Guatemala’s claim to Belize. Around this time, Mr. Price was advised by Mr. Salim Ahmed Salim, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Tanzania that Belize should seek solidarity from nations that were not familiar with its case by “internationalizing” the claim. This is precisely what Mr. Price proceeded to do.
Some of the first group of countries that supported Belize’s quest for independence included the Caribbean Community and Cuba. The Commonwealth of Nations and the Non-Aligned Movement also supported Belize from the early 1970s. Because of this overwhelming support, the first United Nations Resolution was passed with 110 countries in favour and 9 against in 1975. The countries that voted against Belize were Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Morocco, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Dominican Republic and Uruguay. Sixteen countries chose to abstain. Cuba was the only Latin American country that voted for Belize. This was the bloc of votes that the Belize Government was committed to swing.
Taking the advice of Mr. Salim Ahmed Salim from Tanzania, the country embarked on missions to court the Latin American countries that had abstained or voted against Belize in 1975.
The first opportunity to forge a friendship with a Latin American country was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1976. The occasion was a meeting of Non-Aligned countries. At this meeting, General Omar Torrijos was making the case for Panama to regain control of the Panama Canal. Belize’s Premier George Price was also making the case for the independence of the country. The two leaders stayed at the same hotel and had made arrangements for an informal meeting. Price explained the problem to Torrijos who became convinced that Belize had just cause to be independent. The two men formed a friendship and agreed to support each other’s cause. Thus when the next United Nations Resolution was voted on, Panama voted for Belize. The following year, Mexico, voted for Belize. By 1979, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua voted in favour of Belize. In 1980, the most important convert was secured. This was because the United States which had abstained since 1975 elected to vote in favour of Belize. The US President who changed the American vote was President Jimmy Carter. Soon after, Belize achieved independence. The OAS also changed its stance and supported the UN resolution to accept Belizean independence and territorial integrity.
The other goals which the government of Belize pursued in the years leading up to independence were the task to improve the living conditions of Belizeans and creating more industries.
The government flexed its early muscles by making lands available in the Corozal district for cane farmers. Government negotiated the purchase of land from BSI for the cañeros. The Government also became involved as a grower in the revival of the Banana industry. Investors were also invited in to develop the rice industry.
Belmopan was probably the largest project undertaken by Belize’s first national government. Although the idea is said to have existed in the minds of early nationalists, it was the destruction of Belize City caused by Hurricane Hattie that crystallized the idea of a new capital. The idea was taken to the British who agreed to provide US $10 million for the construction of the new capital. Ground was broken in 1967 and the first phase of the city was opened in 1970.
As the Government matured, it became involved in Land Reform and Land Registration. Roads and bridges also took on a high level of priority. Power plants were installed at Ladyville and San Pedro and the grid around the major towns was extended. The Canadian government in the person of Premier Pierre Trudeau was engaged for a water and sewerage project in 1969. By 1971, WASA was created and works began in the following year. A new telephone exchange was built on Princess Margret Dive in Kings Park in 1973 and a Cable and Wireless Station was built in Ladyville.
As the country reached the late 1970s, Education, Health, Housing, Community Development and Credit Unions/Cooperatives became the developmental priorities.
Much of the recent history of Belize from the time self government was achieved in 1964 were in the political and social field. Post independence however, the environmental, economic and social fields were the main beneficiaries of development. Passage of the Wildlife Protection Act and the National Parks System Act in 1981 were important laws passed for the protection of the natural environment in the country. The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Preserve and the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Jaguar reserve were created in 1986 and 1987 respectively.
A number of economic developments also occurred in the country after the country gained independence. One of the new sectors was the shrimp mariculture industry which started in 1982 and peaked around 2000 – 2003.
Tourism which had its origins in the 1950s took off significantly between 1984 and 2003. The most lucrative period occurred between 2000 and 2003 when cruise tourism took off in Belize.
Developments in the social field also occurred with the gaining of independence. Social Security was launched in June of 1981. Since the initial days of Social Security, changes at the fund have encompassed a combination of extension of social protection, strengthening of the scheme’s administration and implementation of strategies to ensure sustainability of the fund. Other advancements in the social arena have included the development of BELCAST in 1981, the University College of Belize in 1984 and the University of Belize in 2000.