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History of Belize

Early History

The Mayan civilisation emerged at least three millennia ago in the lowland area of the Yucatán Peninsula and the highlands to the south, in what is now southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, western Honduras and Belize. Many aspects of this culture persist in the area despite nearly 500 years of European domination. Prior to about 2500 BC, some hunting and foraging bands settled in small farming villages; they later domesticated crops such as corn, beans, squash and chilli peppers. A profusion of languages and subcultures developed within the Mayan core culture. Between about 2500 BC and AD 250, the basic institutions of Mayan civilisation emerged. The peak of this civilisation occurred during the classic period, which began about AD 250. The recorded history of the centre and south is dominated by Caracol, where the inscriptions on their monuments was, as elsewhere, in the Lowland Maya aristocratic tongue Classic Ch'olti'an.

Farmers engaged in various types of agriculture, including labour-intensive irrigated and ridged-field systems and shifting slash-and-burn agriculture. Their products fed the civilisation's craft specialists, merchants, warriors and priest-astronomers, who coordinated agricultural and other seasonal activities with a cycle of rituals in ceremonial centres. These priests, who observed the movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars, developed a complex mathematical and calendrical system to coordinate various cycles of time and to record specific events on carved stelae. The Mayans were skilled at making pottery, carving jade, knapping flint, and making elaborate costumes of feathers. The architecture of the Mayan civilisation included temples and palatial residences organised in groups around plazas. These structures were built of cut stone, covered with stucco, and elaborately decorated and painted. Stylised carvings and paintings, along with sculptured stelae and geometric patterns on buildings, constitute a highly developed style of art.

Spanish Colonial Period

Many Mayans were still in Belize when the Europeans came in the 16th and 17th centuries. Archaeological and ethno-historical research confirms that several groups of Mayan peoples lived in the area now known as Belize in the 16th century. The political geography of that period does not coincide with present-day boundaries, so several Mayan provinces lay across the frontiers of modern Belize, Mexico and Guatemala.

Spain soon sent expeditions to Guatemala and Honduras, and the conquest of Yucatán began in 1527. Though the Mayans offered stiff resistance to Spanish "pacification", diseases contracted from the Spanish devastated the indigenous population and weakened its ability to resist conquest. In the 17th century, Spanish missionaries established churches in Mayan settlements with the intention of converting and controlling these people.

Piracy along the coast increased during this period. In 1642, and again in 1648, pirates sacked Salamanca de Bacalar, the seat of Spanish government in southern Yucatán. The abandonment of Bacalar ended Spanish control over the Mayan provinces of Chetumal and Dzuluinicob.

Between 1638 and 1695, the Mayans living in the area of Tipu enjoyed autonomy from Spanish rule. But in 1696, Spanish soldiers used Tipu as a base from which they pacified the area and supported missionary activities. In 1697 the Spanish conquered the Itzá, and in 1707, the Spanish forcibly resettled the inhabitants of Tipu to the area near Lago Petén Itzá. The political centre of the Mayan province of Dzuluinicob ceased to exist at the time that British colonists were becoming increasingly interested in settling the area.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain tried to maintain a monopoly on trade and colonisation in its New World colonies, but northern European powers were increasingly attracted to the region by the potential for trade and settlement. These powers resorted to smuggling, piracy, and war in their efforts to challenge and then destroy Spain's monopoly. In the 17th century, the Dutch, English and French encroached on Spain's New World possessions.

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