Once the center of the ancient Mayan Empire, which extended north to Chiapas in Mexico and south to northwestern Honduras, Belize has a long and rich history…
It was home to some of the oldest Maya civilizations, with cities like Cahel Pech in Cayo dating to 1,200 BC. Astronomy, mathematics, a complex bureaucracy, and advanced agriculture systems allowed an empire that rivaled the size of the Roman empire to flourish here.
The Maya kingdoms operated under a feudal caste system with their priests worshipped as gods. The ancient city of Cerros in northern Belize was an important pre-classical trading center for the entire Mayan Empire.
The long-abandoned city of Caracol in the Cayo region had a population of over 100,000 people—larger than any city in modern Belize today. Ruins, temples, and a preponderance of archaeological sites trumpet the former glory of the once mighty empire. Now it exists only in ruins, myth, and legend.
Starting around the year 1000 AD, a series of droughts and wars destabilized the Mayan empire, which weakened the kingdoms enough to be susceptible to conquest by much smaller armies.
In 1540, the conquistador Hernán Cortés crossed northern Belize with 140 soldiers on his way to subjugate the remnants of the Mayan Empire. They conquered the region, aided by the diseases they brought with them, which wiped out the native populations.
In 1544, the settlement of Bacalar administered what was to become modern-day Belize.
Pirates Of The Caribbean
From the late 16th to late 17th century, Belize was rife with privateers (English Crown-sanctioned pirates) and buccaneers (unlicensed pirates) because of the lure of Spanish treasure ships.
These pirates used the shallow drafts, mangrove thickets, 400 islands, and coral reef to elude the Spanish ships that were hunting them. From the mid-17th century onward, they extracted logwood from the swampy regions of Belize as an alternative to the dangerous task of piracy, as the dyes extractable from the logwood were highly valued.
In 1798 the Battle of Saint Georges Caye took place, in which a handful of soldiers and baymen reputedly drove off the Spanish fleet in what is now the most celebrated battle of independence of Belize. (The actual intensity of the battle is debated—scholars claim the Spanish left of their own accord, but Belizeans prefer the more dramatic version of the story.)
The Mayan Caste War
In 1847, hostilities in Yucatán began when the Spanish Crown executed three Mayan leaders for plotting rebellions for the genocide being perpetrated against them by the Europeans.
The Mayan armies almost had the Europeans defeated when the rains came, and they left the battle to plant crops. In 1849, the town of Corozal was founded by refugees fleeing the massacre at Bacalar.
Corozal gets its name from the Cahone Palms common here, which were valued by the Maya for the high-quality cooking oil, meat, and palm fronds they produce.
By 1850, the Mayan armies were on the brink of defeat, and they had retreated into jungle communities for protection… In 1858 the Mayans were massacred at Bacalar and the fort at San Felipe was captured.
In 1872, the revered Maya leader Marcus Canul led a desperate last attack on the British Fort in Orange Walk. This last drive for independence failed, and the Maya disbanded, with some seeking refuge in the jungles in what is now Progresso, Orange Walk, Sarteneja, and Caye Caulker.
In 1964 Belize became self-governing and in 1973, it officially changed its name from British Honduras to Belize. Independence was gained in 1981, and the country was recognized as a sovereign nation by Guatemala in 1991.