A Brief History of Belize

By Tim Lambert

Early Belize

The Mayans created a great civilization in what is now Belize. The ancestors of the Mayans were hunters but about 2,000 BC they adopted farming as a way of life. In the years from 300 BC to 250 AD organized Mayan kingdoms emerged. Then from 250 AD to 600 AD, an advanced civilization emerged. The Mayans invented writing and they made great advances in astronomy and mathematics.

The Mayan civilization was at its peak from 600 AD to 900 AD. However, after 900 AD it declined. In the central rainforest, cities were abandoned. We are not sure why. Perhaps there were ecological changes and famines occurred. Or perhaps warfare between the different Mayan kingdoms caused a disaster. At any rate in the far north and south people continued to live in cities. Mayan civilization did not die completely.

From the 1540s the Spanish tried to control Belize but the Mayans resisted fiercely. The Spanish never gained effective and lasting control of Belize. However, they did bring new diseases to which the native people had no resistance. The population fell dramatically and the surviving Mayans withdrew into the interior.

In the 17th century, British loggers began to settle on the coast of Belize in search of valuable wood – although the Spanish still claimed the territory. At first, the British settlers sold logwood but in the late 18th century they began to export mahogany.

Several times during the 18th century the Spanish attacked and forced the British loggers, known as Baymen to leave. However, the Spanish never settled themselves and the British Baymen always returned. Meanwhile, a large number of African slaves were brought to Belize.

The Spanish made one last attempt to take control of Belize and drive out the British Baymen in September 1798. However, their fleet was defeated in the battle of St George’s Caye and they gave up the attempt. However, Britain did not formally take responsibility for Belize until 1862 when it became British Honduras.

Meanwhile, the British parliament voted to abolish slavery in 1833. During the 19th century fighting against the Mayans in the interior continued. Intermittent warfare went on until 1882.

In the late 19th century mahogany was still the main export from Belize although there was also an important sugar industry.

Modern Belize

By 1901 more than 37,000 people were living in Belize. Many of them were very poor. n In the 1950s an independence movement grew in Belize. The People’s United Party was formed in 1950. It was led by George Price. In 1954 an election was held with universal suffrage. The PUP led by Price won the election overwhelmingly.

Then in 1964, Belize was made a self-governing colony with Britain responsible for its foreign policy and defense. Finally, on 21 September 1981, Belize became an independent country.

After independence, the population of Belize grew rapidly. Tourism in Belize also boomed. Tourism is now the most important industry in Belize although the country also exports sugar and bananas. In 2020 the population of Belize was 402,000.

Last revised 2023