History of Belize
Long before the arrival of the Europeans, Belize was the heartland of a vast Maya empire that stretched from El Salvador in the south to what is now Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the north. With an estimated 1-2 million people at its zenith, the ancient Maya built impressive city-states with soaring temples, majestic temples, and vast squares in locations like Lamanai, Xunantunich, Altun Ha, and Caracol.
Historians now categorize the ancient Maya civilization into three periods. The earliest period, running from around 1000 BC to the year 300 in the Common Era is known as the Pre-Classic era. During this time, the Maya built some of their most impressive monuments and impressive irrigation systems that were used to water enormous fields of corn (maize) and other staple crops.
The Classic Period of the Maya civilization ran from around 300 to 900 of the Common Era and is marked by impressive dynasties and additional massive construction at sites like Tikal (now in Guatemala), Caracol, and Xunantunich. The Post-Classic period (AD 1000 to around 1500) saw a rapid decline in Maya civilization, ending with almost all of their impressive cities being abandoned to be reclaimed by the jungle. Archeologists are still divided as to the causes for the rapid decline of the Maya but believe a combination of frequent warfare, climate change, and civil unrest are to blame.
On his fourth and final voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus sailed down the coast of Belize and claimed the Bay of Honduras (off the southern part of Belize) in 1502. Initially focusing on more lucrative areas for sourcing gold, Spanish forays into the area were brief, and no permanent settlements were built.
The earliest permanent European residents were English sailors who used the offshore reef as a base of operations for buccaneering, piracy, and shipping valuable hardwoods logged from Belize’s coast. The first settlements in what was to become Belize were logging camps along the Bay of Honduras. Today, these pioneers are referred to as “Baymen” and this heritage is reflected on modern Belize’s national flag with a picture of an English logger.
As the English presence became more permanent, numerous skirmishes with the Spanish were a constant source of tension. After a monumental naval battle offshore of St. George’s Caye in 1798, Spain completely relinquished the territory to the British.
Belize rapidly began to grow once it was secure as Britain’s westernmost territory in the region. English settlers intermarried with freed slaves to form the Creole population, the largest ethnic group in modern Belize. Other groups began emigrating to Belize, including the Mestizos from Mexico and the Garifuna from Caribbean islands.
In 1954, voting rights were extended to all adults in the colony, and Britain agreed to a path of full independence for Belize in 1961. In 1973, the colony was renamed from British Honduras to Belize. On September 21, 1981, Belize gained full independence and is now a prosperous country with a democratic parliamentary form of government.