The story usually begins when the settlements began, in the 1600s. But the Maya had settlements here on Moho Caye centuries before that. And the site at Altun Ha that the Maya occupied for over 1200 years before their mysterious collapse is thought to date back to around 250 BC . Beginnings in Belize are really anybody's guess but since we have to start somewhere we begin at St. George's Caye.
View of Fort George, In the Harbor of Honduras - 23 March, 1828 - Pickstock
The buccaneers based themselves on the island of St. George's Caye between trips out to plunder the British and Spanish merchant ships that plied the Caribbean. Deciding to opt for legitimacy and respectability over the uncertainty of buccaneering, no doubt, they gradually moved their settlements and their slaves to the mouth of what is today Haulover Creek. But, shiver me timbers and all that, what could possibly be more lucrative, or more fun, than being a pirate? Well how about logging the incredibly rich forests of Belize's interior, floating the logs down a big river and into the waiting hulls of European ships sitting in the pretty blue Caribbean. Fabrics needed dyes, respectable furniture demanded mahogany, and money was money. Still is.
But the Spanish and British weren't friends and couldn't agree on who needed the trees more, or who the whole place belonged to, and they weren't asking the Maya. So they battled and they feuded until on September 10th, 1798 a small group of former pirates, now called Baymen, and one British Schooner along with a sizable contingent of slaves and fishermen took on and put down an attacking armada of 32 Spanish ships. The Spanish limped off to their hammocks on one of the nearby cayes, buried their dead, downed a couple of rum and coconut cocktails and hit the high seas for home with the bad news. The Baymen returned heroes, forever to be regaled in books, movies and websites just like this one.
And so began the land of the free by the Caribe Sea. Sort of.
Following the Battle of St George's Caye, the buccaneers hit their stride back on the mainland and the population of African slaves and Europeans exploded. More land was cleared and Belize City begun to take a shape that hasn't changed all that much in the years since.
The descendants of those Europeans and their slaves created a Belize that blended their blood as well as their cultures. The Creoles are so many mixtures of mixtures from which come a people whose ancestors are both slave and slave owner, oppressor and oppressed, white and black. By the start of the 18th century they were well on the path to building British Honduras with settlements being established all over Belize District and beyond. The increased demand for tropical hardwoods fed the expansion and attracted new immigrants who created new settlements inland.
Hauling logs to New River
If a single trait could characterize the people that made their homes in and around Belize City, it would be resilience. A major fire in 1856, eighteen years after emancipation, wiped out most of the north side and six years later another fire attributed to arson destroyed most of the south side. They rebuilt, expanding as they went, installing infrastructure that another fire in 1918 destroyed most of. They rebuilt and expanded again, only to face a devastating hurricane in 1931 that razed most of the city and claimed 2000 lives out of a population of around 16000. Then Hurricane Hattie arrived in 1961 claiming 250 lives and costing fifty million dollars in damage. Unlike most of the population, the government retreated to Belmopan, today's capital.
During and after Hurricane Hattie, October 31, 1961
The depression that gripped the rest of the world in the early thirties had its inevitable effect on Belize and, combined with the effects of the '31 hurricane, turned Belize City into a swampy mess of flooded dirt roads and overflowing sewers with no remedial resources. Dysentery, malaria and yellow fever hit hard and Belizeans started to become aware of the conspicuous lack of support from their colonial rulers. Political organizations and labor unions began to form and for the first time independence from Britain was seriously considered.
The People's United Party was formed in 1949 under the leadership of George Price, an American educated middle class Belizean. Universal suffrage came about in 1954 and the P.U.P. consolidated its position garnering the support of nearly 70% of the population and securing eight of the nine seats in the new legislative assembly. Though opposition parties formed over the next few years the P.U.P. continued to dominate the political scene through 1964 when Britain granted Belize control of the local government and appointed George Price as Premier.
Independence finally came in 1981 with the promulgation of a new constitution and Belize's induction into the Commonwealth as an independent state. A government based on the Westminster model was established and has been primarily a two party affair ever since, with the opposition forming around the United Democratic Party.
Scenes of Independence Day September 21, 1981
Independent Belize turned 21 in 2002, and though the past has shaped the identity of the country and the people, it is hope for the future that defines and unites Belizeans. Prime Minister Said Musa articulates the sentiment like this:
"But the culture of Belize is much more than the sum of its parts. It is a culture that embraces freedom and tolerance. It acknowledges the supremacy of God and the dignity of the human person. It recognizes that men and women and institutions remain free only when freedom is founded upon respect for moral and spiritual values and upon the rule of law. It is also a culture that is open and fragile. It needs to be nurtured and reinforced. It is in search of greater self-esteem."