Long before the arrival of Europeans, close to 2 million Maya lived in the area that now compromises modern-day Belize. Powerful city states like Lamanai, Xunantunich, and Caracol were built to dominate their neighbors, large metropolises built from stone, surrounded by agricultural communities.
Historians divide the long reign of the Maya into three periods: the Pre-Classic (approximately 1000 BC to 300 AD), the Classic Period (AD 300-900), and the Post-Classic (AD 1000-1500). The spectacular achievements of the Maya reached their peak during the Classic Period with a sharp drop-off in the Post-Classic Period that culminated in all of the big cities being abandoned for reasons that no one today fully understands.
The Europeans Arrive
On his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502, Christopher Columbus sailed up and down the coast of Central America, charting and naming the Bay of Honduras which lies off the southern coast of modern-day Belize.
The first permanent European settlers in what was to become Belize were English Puritans, attracted to the area because of the valuable hardwood trees. These early settlers were joined by a motley assortment of pirates, buccaneers, and sailors. Collectively the English were known as “Baymen” after the nearby Bay of Honduras.
Later, Spain and Britain vied for control of the area, resolving the issue when Spain agreed to let English settlers live in the area in exchange for expelling all pirates.
In the 1840s, Britain declared the area to be an official colony of the empire, naming it British Honduras for the nearby bay. After slavery was outlawed in Britain, the composition of local people began to change with freed slaves becoming today’s Creoles. Civil wars in nearby Mexico led to the emigration of both Maya people as well as other indigenous people who are now known as Mestizos in Belize.
The Garifuna people, descended from African slaves who intermarried with indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, arrived in Belize after being exiled from their original home on the island of St. Vincent. One last addition to the make-up of the colony’s population was when a group of veterans from the American Civil War emigrated to the village in southern Belize now known as Punta Gorda.
At the turn of the 20th century, Belize had approximately 40,000 inhabitants. In 1954, Britain gave all adult residents the right to vote. In 1961, Britain agreed to set Belize on the path to independence.
In 1973, the colony’s name was officially changed to Belize. On September 21, 1981, Belize became a fully independent country.