Belize can trace its history back to a Mayan ancestry that emerged at least two thousand years prior to the arrival of Europeans. During this early history, Belize was the site of several Mayan city states until their decline at the end of the first millennium A.D.
Colonized by Spaniards in the 17th century, Belize, located on the east coast of Central America, south of Mexico, became a British crown colony in 1862. Although the British and Spanish disputed the region in the 17th and 18th centuries the Treaty of Versailles (1783) between Britain and Spain, gave the British rights to cut logwood between the Hondo and Belize rivers. In 1862, the Settlement of Belize in the Bay of Honduras was declared a British colony and renamed British Honduras; the crown’s representative was elevated to a lieutenant governor, subordinate to the governor of Jamaica.
Today, English is the official language, although Kriol and Spanish are more commonly spoken.
Emigration of the Garifuna
At the same time that the settlement was grappling with the ramifications of the end of slavery, a new ethnic group—the Garifuna—appeared. In the early 19th century, the Garifuna, descendants of Carib peoples of the Lesser Antilles and of Africans who had escaped from slavery, arrived in the settlement. The Garifuna had resisted British and French colonialism in the Lesser Antilles until they were defeated by the British in 1796. After putting down a violent Garifuna rebellion on Saint Vincent, the British moved between 1,700 and 5,000 of the Garifuna across the Caribbean to the Bay Islands (present-day Islas de la Bahía) off the north coast of Honduras. From there they migrated to the Caribbean coasts of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and the southern part of present-day Belize. By 1802 about 150 Garifuna had settled in the Stann Creek (present-day Dangriga) area and were engaged in fishing and farming.
As the British consolidated their settlement and pushed deeper into the interior in search of mahogany in the late 18th century, they encountered resistance from the Maya. In the second half of the 19th century, however, a combination of events outside and inside the colony redefined the position of the Maya. During the Caste War in Yucatán, a devastating struggle that halved the population of the area between 1847 and 1855, thousands of refugees fled to the British settlement. Though the Maya were not allowed to own land, most of the refugees were small farmers who were growing considerable quantities of crops by the mid-19th century.
Belize became fully independent from the United Kingdom in 1981. Territorial disputes between the UK and Guatemala delayed the independence of Belize until 1981 and Guatemala refused to recognize the new nation until 1992 when tensions between the two countries escalated into an ongoing border dispute. Guatemala and Belize plan to hold a simultaneous referendum, set for 6 October 2013, to determine if this dispute will go before the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
Tourism has become the mainstay of the economy. Current concerns include the country’s heavy foreign debt burden, high unemployment, growing involvement in the Mexican and South American drug trade, high crime rates, and one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in Central America.