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 settlement.
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.