From agriculture to high culture: the Maya
The area of today’s state of Belize was already around 2000 BC. Settled by the Maya. They developed a high culture that had its prime in the period between 250 and 900. Many temples and palace buildings were built during this time. You can visit its ruins today, for example in Caracol, Xunantunich or Altun Ha. The descendants of the Maya inhabited the region even after the decline of culture.
The Spanish came to Central America in the 16th century. They conquered Mexico and Guatemala. However, the impassable coast and the inaccessible hinterland as well as resistance by the Maya kept them from Belize.
So it was British pirates who came here first. They used the coast as a retreat. From there they undertook raids against the Spanish fleets. In 1670 Spain and Great Britain signed a treaty to end piracy.
The pirates became settlers. They were called Baymen because they were in the Bay, that is, the Gulf of Honduras. They sought their livelihood here by selling logs. This is a dye wood. A dye is extracted from it that can be used to dye clothes, for example. When these dyes could later be made artificially (and therefore much cheaper), the Baymen turned to cutting wood, especially mahogany.
For this work they used slaves who came from Africa. Soon there were many more black slaves living here than white settlers. When Britain abolished slavery in 1833, the slaves were released.
Conflicts with the Spaniards
But there were always conflicts between the English Baymen and the Spaniards, who also wanted the country for themselves. The Baymen were expelled several times in the 18th century, but kept coming back.
In 1798 there was the battle on St. Georges Caye off the coast. The British won and now had full control of the area. Until the end of the 19th century, however, there were often bloody conflicts with the resident Maya.
History of Belize from the 19th Century to the Present
In 1802 the first Garifuna came to Belize. They are the descendants of black slaves from West Africa who mingled with the inhabitants of the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. In 1635, two slave ships ran aground there. In 1795 the British took possession of the island and relocated the Garifuna to islands off Honduras, from where they spread to Belize and Guatemala.
British Colony: British Honduras
According to usaers.com,the area officially became a British colony in 1862 under the name British Honduras. Between 1847 and 1901 there was a war on the Yucatán peninsula (today Mexico) between the Maya and the Spanish-born upper class, the so-called caste war. The British supported the Maya by supplying them with weapons and ammunition. Many later came as refugees and stayed here.
The road to independence in the 20th century
Above all, the Maya and the descendants of the slaves strived for independence. But it would be a long time before then. Political parties emerged by 1962 and the country’s administration became more and more independent. In 1973 the name was changed from British Honduras to Belize. But independence was only declared in 1981, on September 21st. British troops initially stayed in the country, as Guatemala still declared its claim to the territory of Belize. In 1992 Guatemala recognized Belize’s independence, but the territorial claims have not yet been finally clarified.
Belize after independence
Belize is considered a politically stable country. There were no civil wars or military dictatorships as in neighboring countries. However, the national debt rose sharply in 2003 due to the creation of housing and jobs. The government therefore decided to launch an austerity program with tax increases, which in turn led to unrest among the population in 2005. There were demonstrations, riots and a general strike.
Belize is part of the Commonwealth of Nations. That is why Queen Elizabeth II, the British Queen, is the official head of state of Belize (as is also the case in Australia, for example). It is represented by the Governor General of Belize. It’s been Sir Colville Young since 1993.
Prime Minister Dean Barrow has been Prime Minister since 2008. He is a member of the UDP, the United Democratic Party, a conservative party. In 2012 and 2015, Barrow was narrowly re-elected. The second big party in the country is the PUP, the People’s United Party, which is more of a social democratic party.