History of Belize: From Mayan Settlement To Melting Pot

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

Since Survivor and Temptation Island put it on America’s radar, sleepy little Belize has been attracting attention for its white-sand beaches, coral reef, Mayan ruins, and virgin rain forest.

Historically, it was the country’s land, water, gold, timber, and oil. These are the agendas that have been bringing people to Belize since the Maya settled in the region more than four thousand years ago. At one time, the forests, coastlines, and rivers of this country supported an agrarian Maya population of nearly 500,000, about 150,000 more people than live in Belize today.

Life in Belize, in the time of the Maya and today, revolves around its rivers, once its highways of commerce and still an important part of this country’s economy. Belize has only three paved highways but thirty-five riverine systems. The Belize River catchment and watershed, including the Macal and Mopan River tributaries, is home to half the country’s population.

The natural life in Belize today is similar to the natural life of this country in Mayan times. Explore caves and Mayan temples, and you find hieroglyphs depicting the same iconic flora and fauna you see in modern-day Belize. Towering ceiba trees (the Maya Tree of Life), colorful toucans, and wild jaguars continue to thrive in this still very undeveloped country.


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, and today the locals call them bamboo chickens.

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Bamboo chicken… or huh

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

People sometimes wonder what happened to the Maya. They’re alive and well in Belize. The Yucatec, Mopan, and K’iche’ Maya were the country’s first civilizations, and their descendants live along this country’s coastline and in its interior jungles still today. They represent about 11% of the population and are active in all segments of society. The Mayan people, their culture, and their history are a big part of what defines modern Belize.

In addition to the Maya, you’ve got the Kriol people. The Kriol of Belize are descended from the British and Africans who settled much of the country’s coastline in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. They, like the Maya, continue to influence local politics, the economy, and social life.

English is the official language of Belize, but Kriol is the lingua franca.
Belize is a melting pot, a bouillabaisse—or, as the Belizeans might say, a boil-up.

“Boil-up” is a Belizean Kriol gumbo made with yams, cassava, tomatoes, onions, sweet potatoes, fish, pig’s tail, water, salt, pepper, dough, eggs, plantains, and bananas. An exotic mix of familiar ingredients… and that’s very Belize.

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“Boil up”—a Belizean stew


Prior to the arrival of English, Scottish, and Welsh loggers, the Spanish searched for gold and attempted to colonize the region. They found no gold, but, in their searching, they noticed something else—an abundance of timber. The timber trade has played an important role in Belize’s development and led to one of the most notable events in the country’s history, the Battle of St. George’s Caye, on Sept. 3, 1798, between a Spanish flotilla and a ragtag group of Brits and Baymen (local privateers).

The Battle of St. George’s Caye marked the last time the Spanish attempted to dislodge the British settlers and was followed by nearly three centuries of British colonization and logging. The timberworks provided Great Britain with logwood for dyeing fabrics, and, when that market dried up, they turned to harvesting mahogany for furniture and shipbuilding. Belize mahogany was used to make dining tables and chairs for Buckingham Palace.

For the British, Belize was a logging outpost. They saw no need, therefore, to invest in infrastructure in the country… and didn’t. Infrastructure development has become a priority only in recent years. The power and communication grids are growing, and a new state-of-the-art sanitation facility is up and running.

While transitioning from crown colony to sovereign nation has been a challenge, Belize didn’t have to fight a revolutionary war to gain independence. In fact, the country has no standing army and has never been involved in an armed conflict other than the Battle of St. George’s Caye, during which, it’s reported, 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 mestizos from the Caste War in the Yucatán, 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, most recently, baby boomers looking to change latitudes and attitudes.

Regardless of where they’ve come from, the people who find their way to Belize live in the present, remain optimistic about the future, and bask in the sunshine and spirit of one of the world’s quirkiest nations.

Belize is a country of freedom seekers. The pirates came to ply their trade out of view. The Mennonites came from Germany and the Netherlands so they could be Mennonites without anyone bothering them. The British came so they could bank in private. And the folks from the surrounding countries who’ve sought out Belize over the past few decades typically have made their way across this country’s borders in search of safety.

These days, Belize is welcoming—in ever-greater numbers—a new population of freedom seekers—North American retirees and expats.

Belize is a nation of independent thinkers and doers, a country where you make your own way and where, while you’re doing it, no one is making any attempt to thwart your efforts.

Including the Belizean government. This is a poor country. The government doesn’t have enough money to get up to any real trouble. And, if they tried, the Belizeans wouldn’t allow it. The focus here is on very local-level government—addressing the crime problems in certain neighborhoods of Belize City, for example, or trying to dissuade the Guatemalan banditos who occasionally wander over into Belize in search of a couple of good horses to steal.

Leave The Troubles Of Today’s World Behind

Arriving in Belize, stepping off the plane, and walking across the tarmac to the one-room arrivals hall of the airport, you have a sense of leaving the rest of the world behind. Belize and her people operate according to their own rules and mind their own business. The troubles, uncertainties, and worries that seem so all-consuming in the United States and elsewhere in the world right now fade away here. You’re faced with a land that remains a frontier, delightfully undeveloped and oozing potential.

Remember, this is also a tax haven, thanks to the British, a place where your financial affairs are your own.

Belize is one more thing—one of the most user-friendly places in the world to establish foreign residency, meaning that, if you decide Belize is a place where you’d like to stick around indefinitely, you won’t have any trouble organizing to do that legally.

At the same time, you don’t have to be physically present year-round in the country to qualify for permanent residency and to take advantage of the tax benefits of that status. Come to visit for as few as four weeks a year, and your status remains intact.

After they’d colonized this spot, the English were under such constant pressure from Spain that they were reluctant to establish any formal government to manage Belize for at least a century. From the beginning, as a result, Belizeans have had to be self-sufficient. This remains the driving force behind Belizean culture.

The country has always attracted folks who value independence and freedom. It also boasts some of the Caribbean’s most beautiful beaches, world-class diving, an abundance of sunshine, rain forest adventure, and an affordable cost of living. If those things interest you, you should get to know Belize better.

Kathleen Peddicord


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