The Classic period of the Maya started around 250 AD. Maya populations concentrated around Cuello, now the Orange Walk District, in northern Belize. They spread further south, to the western city-states of Caracol and Cahal Pech.
Historians believe the Maya were able to successfully settle the area because they knew how to cultivate corn, and made the soil more fertile by using additives like charcoal and pottery. At the height of the Mayan empire, Belizean Mayans are believed to have numbered around 2 million — much larger than Belize’s population today.
The Mayans of Belize became quite powerful, and at their height the Mayans of Caracol overtook the prominent Guatemalan Mayan city of Tikal.
For reasons that remain unclear, around 800 or 900 AD, the Maya culture in Belize rapidly disintegrated. Theories range from overpopulation to drought and natural disaster. Factions of the Mayan kingdom survived, and were still around when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century.
The Spanish (and English) Arrive
Belize resisted Spanish rule more successfully than Mexico because the Belizean Mayans had no centralized ruler, and the Spanish were unable to combat all the different groups at once.
There was still a large Mayan population in Belize when Cortés arrived in 1519 with the hope of forcing the local Maya into slavery. His efforts were unsuccessful. In 1530, Francisco de Montejo y Álvarez attempted to conquer the Maya and also failed.
Although the natives put up a fierce fight, the Spanish were eventually able to occupy Belize because of a massive dip in population. A huge number of Mayans were wiped out by Spanish diseases — some historians estimate the number to be as high as 80 percent.
In 1660, a group of British settlers arrived to set up a logging camp. Logwood trees grew in great number along the Belizean coast. Their wood helps with the process of dying wool, and demand for logwood was high in Europe.
Many of the logwood cutters were former pirates, and they had a rowdy reputation. The British settlers had no interest in conquering Belize the way the Spanish did — they simply wanted to harvest and export the trees.
From the very beginning, the Spanish objected to a British presence in their colony. In 1672, once the Spanish had established enough of a grip on the Belizean coast, they started to attack the English logging camps. These attacks reduced the number of English loggers, but the Spanish never managed to root them out entirely.
Mahogany and Slavery in Belize
The Spanish continued to fight with England for control of Belize. For nearly two centuries they used whatever diplomatic upper hand they could get to make the British give up their logging camps.
By the late 18th century, textile factories had started to use cheaper chemical dyes that didn’t require logwood. For a while, it looked as though the British might choose to leave Belize on their own accord.
In the late 18th century, however, mahogany became a fashionable material for furniture in England. Belize quickly became the main supplier of mahogany. Unlike logwood, mahogany takes quite a bit of manpower to harvest. The British began importing African slaves to help develop the lumber business. These slaves are the ancestors of a large percentage of modern-day Belizeans.
On August 1, 1834, Britain outlawed slavery. Around this time, there were far more slaves and freed slaves than whites in Belize. But freed slaves could not afford to purchase land from the Crown, so they continued to work for colonial landholders.
Treaties and The Final Showdown
By the time England wanted to take up exporting mahogany, Spain was struggling to control all of its unruly South American colonies. In order to end the fighting, the Spanish agreed to allow the British to continue exporting lumber, granting them official permission in 1763.
England began its official takeover of Belize with the 1786 Convention of London. This convention stated that the Spanish would have control of the “Mosquito Coast” (the coastline between Nicaragua and Honduras) and Britain would have control over Belize.
But the fighting didn’t end there. The Spanish still looked for opportunities to take back Belize. The final attack took place on September 10, 1798, at the Battle of St. George Caye. In 1862, Belize finally became an official British colony.
During the early 19th century, the Napoleonic Wars absorbed the governing attentions of both Spain and Great Britain, allowing Belize to function more independently than ever before.
New Identity, New Name
The British referred to Belize as British Honduras, or Yucatán.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the name “Belize” emerged. There are several theories on the origin of the name, although no one knows for sure.
It could be a mispronunciation of Peter Wallace, a pirate that came to Belize in the 17th century. Locals pronounced his name “Wall-eez.” Belize could also be a corruption of bellix, which is a Mayan word meaning “muddy river”.
Belize did not become the country’s official name until 1973, shortly before it became an independent country.
Caste Wars 1847–1855
After Mexico gained its independence, native Mayans sought to uproot the Europeans that had settled in Mexico. This war began in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, an area of the Yucatán just north of Belize.
The Caste War cut the population of the Yucatán from 500,000 to 300,000. From 1847 to 1850, Mexicans who wanted to get away from the fighting moved to Belize. Up until this point, Belize’s population was almost entirely made up of British settlers and the descendants of African slaves. The Caste Wars began the introduction of Latin American culture to Belize.
Economic Development at The Turn of the Century
In the 1870s, sugar and banana became important crops. But by the turn of the century the market for sugar had collapsed, stalling economic growth in Belize.
During the early 20th century, Belize did not see much economic or societal progress. World War I and the 1929 stock market crash meant that their export business suffered tremendously.
1931 brought a devastating hurricane, one that destroyed a large amount of Belize’s swampland. Both the Canadian and British Government eventually offered enough monetary support to help Belize rebuild their coast.
In 1981, Belize finally became a fully independent country, becoming a member of both the UN and the British Commonwealth. 1984 saw the first Belizean parliament.
Before Belize could finally govern itself independently, it had to first free itself from a Guatemalan claim. Once Britain announced they planned to give up their colony, Guatemala made it clear they planned to absorb Belize into their territory. Negotiations took place over several decades, and Belize and Guatemala finally established diplomatic relations in 1991.
During the 1970s, Mayan culture experienced revitalization. The Cult of the Talking Cross joined Christian and Mayan religious traditions, and brought disparate groups of Maya together.
Belize’s modern-day population of 332,000 relies mostly on tourism. Many cruise ships include Belize as a stop on their itinerary, and a significant portion of the population relies on tourism for their income.