Published on Tuesday, 04 October 2011 17:45
Written by Trys
Diversities of Cultural & Nature
The origin of the name Belize is unclear, but one idea is that the name is from the Maya word belix, meaning "muddy water", applied to the Belize River.
Before the arrival of Europeans, Belize was part of the territory of the Maya. The Mopan Maya were the original inhabitants of Belize. The Maya civilization spread itself over Belize beginning around 1500 BC and flourished until about AD 900. In the late classic period of Maya civilization (before A.D. 1000), as many as 400,000 people may have lived in the area that is now Belize. Some lowland Maya still occupied the area when Europeans arrived in the 1500s. Spanish colonists tried to settle the inland areas of Belize, but they abandoned these efforts following Maya rebellion against Spanish authority.
English and Scottish buccaneers known as the Baymen first settled on the coast of Belize in 1638, seeking a sheltered region from which they could attack Spanish ships The settlers turned to cutting logwood during the 1700s. The wood yielded a fixing agent for clothing dyes that was vital to the European woolen industry. The Spanish granted the British settlers the right to occupy the area and cut logwood in exchange for an end to piracy. Historical accounts from the early 1700s note that Africans were brought to the settlement from Jamaica to work as slaves and cut timber. As early as 1800 Africans outnumbered Europeans by about four to one. By then the settlement's primary export had shifted from logwood to mahogany.
For fear of provoking Spanish attack, the British government did not initially recognize the settlement in Belize as a colony. It allowed the settlers to establish their own laws and forms of government. During this time a few wealthy settlers gained control of the local legislature, known as the Public Meeting, as well as of most of the settlement's land and timber. The British first appointed a superintendent over the area in 1786.
The Spanish, who claimed sovereignty over the whole of Central America, tried often to gain control by force over Belize, but they were not successful. Spain's last attack ended on 10 September, 1798, when the people of Belize decisively defeated a Spanish fleet at the Battle of St. George's Caye. The anniversary of the battle is now a national holiday in Belize.
In the early 1800s the British sought greater control over the settlers, threatening to suspend the Public Meeting unless it observed the government's instructions to abolish slavery. Slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1838, but this did little to change working conditions for laborers in the Belize settlement. Slaves of the colony were valued for their potentially superior abilities in the work of mahogany extraction. As a result, former slave owners in British Honduras earned £53.6.9 on average per slave, the highest amount paid in any British territory.
Soon after, a series of institutions were put in place to ensure the continued presence of a viable labor force. Some of these included greatly restricting the ability of individuals to obtain land, a debt-peonage system to organize the newly "free". The position of being "extra special" mahogany and logwood cutters undergirded the early ascriptions of the capacities (and consequently limitations) of people of African descent in the colony. Because a small elite controlled the settlement's land and commerce, former slaves had no choice but to continue to work in timber cutting.
In 1836, after the emancipation of Central America from Spanish rule, the British claimed the right to administer the region. In 1862 Great Britain formally declared it a British Crown Colony, subordinate to Jamaica, and named it British Honduras. As a colony Belize began to attract British investors. Among the British firms that dominated the colony in the late 1800s was the Belize Estate and Produce Company, which eventually acquired half of all the privately held land in the colony. Belize Estate's influence accounts in part for the colony's reliance on the mahogany trade throughout the rest of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.