History of Belize: From Mayan Settlement To Melting Pot

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From Ancient Mayans To Pillaging Pirates And From British Colony To Melting Pot… Belize’s Fascinating History

The search for land, water, gold, timber, and oil have led people from around the world to Belize since the Maya first settled in the region thousands of years ago.

With its forests, coastlines, and rivers, it boasts an embarrassment of riches in life-sustaining natural resources. These resources once supported an agrarian population of nearly 500,000 Maya and continue to provide for a range of lifestyles today.

Heraclitus of Ephesus wisely observed, “No man steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” This is true for society as well. The wisdom of Heraclitus’ words is clear when plying the rivers of Belize. Canoe past ancient Maya sites, verdant forests, small villages, productive farms, and modern solar-powered homes and you’ll witness the past, present, and future of this tiny nation.

The rivers were once the highways of commerce and are still an important economic engine. Today, there are only four paved highways, but there are 35 major and minor riverine systems. The Belize River catchment and watershed, including the Macal and Mopan River tributaries, contains approximately half the population of Belize. The rivers have always been the lifeblood of the region, providing water for drinking, irrigation, power, and habitats for wildlife.

The waterways of Belize were once the highways of commerce

Many of the indigenous species of Belize exist in healthy populations thanks to a small human population of approximately 350,000 people. Explore caves and Maya temples and you’ll see hieroglyphs depicting the same iconic flora and fauna we see today. Towering Ceiba trees (the Maya Tree of Life), colorful toucans, and majestic jaguars still inspire our spirit and imagination today.

One of the Mayan creation stories features an iguana with the earth riding on its back. Their belief is fascinating when you realize that the ubiquitous iguana has existed in the tropical forests of Central America since the Cretaceous Period. The Yucatec Maya called the iguana huh, andtoday the locals call them bamboo chickens.

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Bamboo chicken… or huh

I know, I know… “Huh, bamboo chicken?” Very funny.

The Yucatec, Mopan, and K’iche’ Maya were the first civilizations in the jungles and coastlines of Belize and their descendants are still living here today. They represent about 11% of the population and are active in all segments of society. The Maya people, their culture, and their history are a big part of what defines modern Belize.

Today, Belize can be described as a melting pot, a salad, a bouillabaisse, or any number of other dishes with flavorful and distinct ingredients. However, none of them are as culturally appropriate as “boil up” in describing the curious and delightful country of Belize. Boil up is a Belizean Kriol gumbo made with yams, cassava, tomatoes, onions, sweet potatoes, fish, pig’s tail, water, salt and pepper, dough, eggs, plantains, and bananas. An exotic mix of familiar ingredients… that’s Belize.

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“Boil up”—a Belizean stew

Boil up is just one of many great recipes found in Belize. Many of them come from an amalgamation of disparate influences like the Kriol people themselves. The Kriol of Belize are descended from the British and Africans who settled much of the Belizean coastline in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. They continue to this day to influence the politics, economy, and social life of Belize. English is the official language of Belize, but Kriol is undoubtedly the lingua franca.

Prior to the arrival of English, Scottish, and Welsh loggers, the Spanish searched for gold and attempted to colonize the region. The apparent lack of gold and abundance of timber set Belize on a historical path that remains a legacy today. Initially, it led to one of the most notable events in Belize history, the Battle of St. George’s Caye on Sept. 10, 1798, between a Spanish flotilla and a ragtag group of Brits and Baymen (local privateers). The battle marked the last time the Spanish attempted to dislodge the British settlers.

The battle was followed by nearly three centuries of British colonization and logging. The timberworks provided Great Britain with logwood for dying fabrics and when that market dried up they turned to harvesting mahogany for furniture and shipbuilding. The value of the local mahogany wood was evidenced by its use in Buckingham Palace. However, as a logging outpost, building infrastructure was a low priority, and this issue is only now being addressed. It has become a top priority for Belize, and every district in Belize has a major road project in the works, the power and communication grid is growing, and a state-of-the-art sanitation facility is up and running.

While transitioning from crown colony status to a viable sovereign nation has been a challenge, Belize didn’t have to fight a revolutionary war to gain independence. In fact, the country has never experienced an armed conflict and still does not have a standing army. Some historians believe that even during the “Battle” of St. George’s Caye nary a shot was fired.

St. Georges Caye in Belize
St. George’s Caye has now a population of about 20

As one of the last crown colonies to gain independence, Belize benefited from the experiences of numerous former colonies. Several iterations of constitutions based on democracy were drafted and adopted prior to Belize ratifying its constitution. While it may not be perfect (is any manmade document?), it is one of history’s best charters for a young country.

Belize It Or Not…

Belize was the only British colony in the Caribbean region to not use the pound sterling as its currency until 1955.

The Belizean currency is the Belize dollar (BZ$), founded in 1885.

The value of the Belize dollar has been pegged to the U.S. dollar (at BZ$2 to US$1) since 1978. There has been talk recently among locals of the trouble Belize will have paying off its international debt this year. Speculators are wondering if it might occur to the government to unpeg the Belize dollar, either re-pegging it at 3 to 1, or letting it float. For now, though, it’s just talk, there’s no initiative on the books to make any currency changes.

George Santayana famously said, “We either learn from the past or we are condemned to repeat it.” Lest we forget, when the United States was a young republic, Vice President Aaron Burr and former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton attempted to settle a long-standing debate in a fateful duel. It has been said that countries rarely escape their foundations, and it’s comforting to know that Belize was founded peacefully.

The peaceful steps to independence progressed from colony status in 1862 to self-governance in 1964 to full independence in 1981. Along the way, Belize has grown with a diverse population of immigrants. Every generation for 200 years has contributed a new ingredient to the flavor of Belize. After colonization came the mestizo’s from the Caste War in the Yucatan, the Garifuna from St. Vincent, American Civil War refugees, East Indian indentured servants, Middle Easterners escaping conflict, Mennonites seeking religious tolerance, Chinese pursuing self-determination, Central Americans fleeing strife, and baby boomers changing latitudes and attitudes. Regardless of their past, they live in the present, remain optimistic about the future, and all bask in the sunshine and freedom of Belize.

Phil Hahn
Belize Insider

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About Author

Philip M. Hahn

Phil always dreamed of the tropics while growing up in Michigan. He started his southerly migration in 1982 by attending Florida State University. At FSU he studied Interior Design and Housing. Prior to graduation, he started a residential design business that ultimately designed over 6,000 homes and expanded into construction and development. In 2003, Phil saw the potential for development in Belize and purchased 115 acres for his new urbanism development community. Combining his experience with quality coastal home design and his love of classical architecture, he created an evocative new Caribbean town. In 2007, he Co-Founded Great Land Holdings, which has grown to include multiple properties throughout the northern and western part of Belize.