Belize National History

Perhaps as early as 35,000 years ago, nomadic people came from Asia to the Americas across the frozen Bering Strait. In the course of many millennia, their descendants settled in and adapted to different environments, creating many cultures in North America, Central America, and South America. The Mayan culture emerged 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 half a millennium of European domination. All evidence, whether from archaeology, history, ethnography, or linguistic studies, points to a cultural continuity in this region. The descendants of the first settlers in the area have lived there for at least three millennia.

Prior to about 2500 B.C., some hunting and foraging bands settled in small farming villages. While hunting and foraging continued to play a part in their subsistence, these farmers domesticated crops such as corn, beans, squash, and chili peppers– which are still the basic foods in Central America. A profusion of languages and subcultures developed within the Mayan
core culture. Between about 2500 B.C. and A.D. 250, the basic institutions of Mayan civilization emerged. The peak of this civilization occurred during the classic period, which began about A.D. 250 and ended about 700 years later. Belize boasts important sites of the earliest Mayan settlements, majestic ruins of the classic period, and examples of late postclassic ceremonial construction. About five kilometers west of Orange Walk, is Cuello, a site from perhaps as early as 2,500 B.C. Jars, bowls, and other dishes found there are among the oldest pottery unearthed in present-day Mexico and Central America. The site includes platforms of buildings arranged around a small plaza, indicating a distinctly Mayan community. The presence of shell, hematite, and jade shows that the Maya were trading over long distances as early as 1500 B.C. The Mayan economy, however, was still basically subsistence, combining foraging and cultivation, hunting, and fishing.

Cerros, a site on Chetumal Bay, was a flourishing trade and ceremonial center between about 300 B.C. and A.D. 100. It displays some distinguishing features of early Mayan civilization. The architecture of Mayan civilization included temples and palatial residences organized in groups around plazas. These structures were built of cut stone, covered with stucco, and elaborately decorated and painted. Stylized carvings and paintings of people, animals, and gods, along with sculptured stelae and geometric patterns on buildings, constitute a highly developed style of art. Impressive two-meter-high masks decorate the temple platform at Cerros. These masks, situated on either side of the central stairway, represent a serpent god. The Maya were skilled at making pottery, carving jade, knapping flint, and making elaborate costumes of feathers. One of the finest carved jade objects of Mayan civilization, the head of the sun god Kinich Ahau, was found in a tomb at the classic period site of Altún Ha, thirty kilometers northwest of present-day Belize City. Settled at least as early as 200 B.C., the Altún Ha area at its peak had an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 inhabitants. At the beginning of the second century A.D., the inhabitants built their first major structure, a temple. The visitor today sees a group of temples, priests’ residences, and other buildings around two adjacent plazas. In the vicinity, there are hundreds of other structures, most of which are still unexcavated. The Maya continued to rebuild some of the temples until almost the end of the ninth century. Excavations at Altún Ha have produced evidence suggesting that a revolt, perhaps of peasants against the priestly class, contributed to the downfall of the civilization. People may have continued to live at or to visit the site in the postclassic period, even though the ceremonial centers were left to decay. Some rubbish found at Altún Ha shows that people were at the site in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, perhaps to reuse the old structures or undertake pilgrimages to the old religious center.

Other Mayan centers located in Belize include Xunantunich and Baking Pot in Cayo District, Lubaantún and Nimli Punit in Toledo District, and Lamanai on Hill Bank Lagoon in Orange Walk District. Xunantunich, meaning "Lady of the Rock," was occupied perhaps as early as 300 B.C., but most of the architecture there was constructed in the late classic period. As in all the lowland Mayan centers, the inhabitants continually constructed temples and residences over older buildings, enlarging and raising the platforms and structures in the process. The views are breathtaking from Xunantunich’s "El Castillo," which, at thirty-nine meters, is the tallest man-made structure in Belize. Lamanai, less accessible to tourists than Altún Ha or Xunantunich, is an important site because it provides archaeological evidence of the Mayan presence over many centuries, beginning around A.D. 150. Substantial populations were present throughout the classic and postclassic periods. Indeed, people living in the area were still refacing some of the massive ceremonial buildings after the great centers, such as Tikal in neighboring Guatemala, had been virtually abandoned in the tenth century. In the late classic period, probably at least 400,000 people inhabited the Belize area. The decline of Mayan civilization is still not fully explained. Rather than identifying the collapse as the result of a single factor, many archaeologists now believe that the decline of the Maya was a result of many complex factors and that the decline occurred at different times in different regions.

Colonially oriented historians have asserted that the Maya had left the area long before the arrival of British settlers. But many Maya were still in Belize when the Europeans came in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Archaeological and ethnohistorical research confirms that several groups of Mayan peoples lived in the area now known as Belize in the sixteenth 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. The Mayan province of Chetumal, for example, consisted of the northern part of presentday Belize and the southern coast of the Mexican state Quintana Roo. In the south, spreading west over the
present-day frontier between Belize and Guatemala, were the Mopán Maya, and still farther south, the Chol-speaking Manche groups. In central Belize lay the province of Dzuluinicob, meaning "land of foreigners" or "foreign people." This province stretched from New River in the north to Sittee River in the south, and from close to the presentday Guatemalan border in the west to the sea. The apparent political center of this province was Tipu, located east of modern Benque Viejo del Carmen. Lamanai, several towns on New River and on Belize River, and Xibún on Sibun River, were included in this province.

Christopher Columbus traveled to the Gulf of Honduras during his fourth voyage in 1502. A few years later, two of his navigators, Martín Pinzón and Juan De Solís, sailed northward along the coast of Belize to Yucatán. In 1519 Hernán Cortés conquered Mexico, and Pedro Arias Dávila founded Panama City. Spain soon sent expeditions to Guatemala and Honduras, and the conquest of Yucatán began in 1527. When Cortés passed through the southwestern corner of present-day Belize in 1525, there were settlements of Cholspeaking Manche in that area. When the Spanish "pacified" the region in the seventeenth century, they forcibly displaced these settlements to the Guatemalan highlands. The Spanish launched their main incursions into the area from Yucatán, however, and encountered stiff resistance from the Mayan provinces of Chetumal and Dzuluinicob. The region became a place of refuge from the Spanish invasion, but the escaping Maya brought with them diseases that they had contracted from the Spanish. Subsequent epidemics of smallpox and yellow fever, along with endemic malaria, devastated the indigenous population and weakened its ability to resist conquest.

In the seventeenth century, Spanish missionaries from Yucatán traveled up New River and established churches in Mayan settlements with the intention of converting and controlling these people. One such settlement was Tipu, which was excavated in the 1980s. People occupied the site during preclassic, classic, and postclassic times, and through the conquest period until 1707. Though conquered by the Spanish in 1544, Tipu was too far from the colonial centers of power to be effectively controlled for long. Thousands of Maya fled south from Yucatán in the second half of the sixteenth century, and the people of Tipu rebelled against Spanish authority. Although Tipu was too far south for the Spanish of Yucatán to control, it was apparently too important to ignore because of its proximity to the Itzá of the Lago Petén Itzá region of present-day Guatemala. In 1618 and 1619, two Franciscans, attempting to convert the people built a church in Tipu. In 1638 a period of resistance began in Tipu, and by 1642, the entire province of Dzuluinicob was in a state of rebellion. The Maya abandoned eight towns at this time, and some 300 families relocated in Tipu, the center of rebellion. In the 1640s, Tipu’s population totaled more than 1,000. 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 Maya 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 center 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 sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Spain tried to maintain a monopoly on trade and colonization 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. Early in the seventeenth century, the Dutch, English, and French encroached in areas where Spain was weak: the small islands of the Lesser Antilles, the no-man’s-land of the Guianas between the Spanish and Portuguese dominions, and the uncharted coasts of Yucatán and Central America. Later in the seventeenth century, England effectively challenged Spain in the western Caribbean, capturing Jamaica in 1655 and subsequently using this base to support settlements all the along the Caribbean coast from the Yucatán to Nicaragua. Early in the seventeenth century, on the shores of the Bay of Campeche in southeastern Mexico and on the Yucatán Peninsula, English buccaneers began cutting logwood, which was used in the production of a dye needed by the woolen industry. According to legend, one of these buccaneers, Peter Wallace, called "Ballis" by the Spanish, settled near and gave his name to the Belize River as early as 1638. English buccaneers began using the tortuous coastline of the area as a base from which to attack Spanish ships. Some of the buccaneers may have been refugees expelled by the Spanish in 1641-42 from settlements on islands off the coasts of Nicaragua and Honduras. Buccaneers stopped plundering Spanish logwood ships and started cutting their own wood in the 1650s and 1660s. Logwood extraction then became the main reason for the English settlement for more than a century.

A 1667 treaty, in which the European powers agreed to suppress piracy, encouraged the shift from buccaneering to cutting logwood and led to more permanent settlement. The 1670 Godolphin Treaty between Spain and England confirmed English possession of countries and islands in the Western Hemisphere that England already occupied. Unfortunately, those colonies were not named and ownership of the coastal area between Yucatán and Nicaragua remained unclear. Conflict continued between Britain and Spain, over the right of the British to cut logwood and to settle in the region. In 1717 Spain expelled British logwood cutters from the Bay of Campeche west of the Yucatán. This action had the unintended effect of enhancing the significance of the growing British settlement near the Belize River.

During the eighteenth century, the Spanish attacked the British settlers repeatedly. In 1717, 1730, 1754, and 1779 the Spanish forced the British to leave the area. The Spanish never settled in the region, however, and the British always returned to expand their trade and settlement. At the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, the Treaty of Paris conceded to Britain the right to cut and export logwood but asserted Spanish sovereignty over the territory. Still, there was never an agreement on the precise area in which logwood cutters could operate. The Spanish frontier town of Bacalar in the Yucatán, refounded in 1730 after having been deserted for almost a century, became a base for operations against the British. When war broke out again in 1779, the commandant of Bacalar led a successful expedition against the British settlement, which was abandoned until the Treaty of Versailles in 1783 allowed the British to cut logwood in the area between the Hondo and Belize rivers. By that time, however, the logwood trade had declined and mahogany had become the chief export, so the settlers petitioned for a new agreement.

The British were reluctant to set up any formal government for the settlement for fear of provoking the Spanish. On their own initiative and without recognition by the British government, the settlers had begun annual elections of magistrates to establish common law for the settlement as early as 1738. In 1765 Rear Admiral Sir William Burnaby, commander in chief of Jamaica, arrived in the settlement and codified and expanded their regulations into a document known as Burnaby’s Code. When the settlers began returning to the area in 1784, the governor of Jamaica named Colonel Edward Marcus Despard as superintendent to oversee the Settlement of Belize in the Bay of Honduras. The Convention of London, signed in 1786, allowed the British settlers, known as Baymen, to cut and export logwood and mahogany from the Hondo River in the north southward to the Sibun River. The convention, however, did not allow the Baymen to build fortifications, establish any form of government, military or civil, or develop plantation agriculture. Spain retained sovereignty over the area and asserted the right to inspect the settlement twice a year. Britain also agreed to evacuate its settlement on the Mosquito Coast (Costa de Mosquitos) in eastern Nicaragua. Over 2,000 of these settlers and their slaves arrived in 1787 in the settlement of Belize, reinforcing the British presence.

The last Spanish attack on the British settlement occurred two years after the outbreak of war in 1796. The governor general of Yucatán commanded a Spanish flotilla of some thirty vessels with some 500 sailors and 2,000 troops and attacked the British colonists in 1798. During several brief engagements culminating in a two-and-a-half-hour battle on September 10, the British drove off the Spanish. The attack marked Spain’s last attempt to control the territory or dislodge the British. The landowners resisted any challenge to their growing political power. Colonel Edward Marcus Despard, the first superintendent appointed by the governor of Jamaica in 1784, was suspended in 1789 when the wealthy cutters challenged his authority. When Superintendent George Arthur attacked what he called the "monopoly on the part of the monied cutters" in 1816, he was only partially successful in breaking their monopoly on landholding. He proclaimed that all unclaimed land was henceforth crown land that could be granted only by the crown’s representative but continued to allow the existing monopoly of landownership.

Cutting logwood was a simple, small-scale operation, but the settlers imported slaves to help with the work. Slavery in the settlement was associated with the extraction of timber, first logwood and then mahogany, as treaties forbade the production of plantation crops. This difference in economic function gave rise to variations in the organization, conditions, and treatment of slaves. The earliest reference to African slaves in the British settlement appeared in a 1724 Spanish missionary’s account, which stated that the British recently had been importing them from Jamaica and Bermuda. A century later, the total slave population numbered about 2,300. Most slaves, even if they were brought through West Indian markets, were born in Africa, probably from around the Bight of Benin, the Congo, and Angola–the principal sources of British slaves in the late eighteenth century. The Eboe or Ibo seem to have been particularly numerous; one section of Belize Town was known as Eboe Town in the first half of the nineteenth century. At first, many slaves maintained African ethnic identifications and cultural practices. Gradually, however, the process of assimilation was creating a new, synthetic Creole culture. The whites, although a minority in the settlement, monopolized power and wealth by dominating the chief economic activities of trade and cutting timber. They also controlled the first legislature and the judicial and administrative institutions. As a result, the British settlers had a disproportionate influence on the development of the Creole culture. Anglican, Baptist, and Methodist missionaries helped devalue and suppress African cultural heritage.

The slaves’ experience, though different from that on plantations in other colonies in the region, was nevertheless oppressive. They were frequently the objects of "extreme inhumanity," as a report published in 1820 stated. The settlement’s chaplain reported "instances, many instances, of horrible barbarity" against the slaves. The slaves’ own actions, including suicide, abortion, murder, escape, and revolt, suggest how they viewed their situation. Slaves who lived in small, scattered, and remote groups could escape with relative ease if they were willing to leave their families. In the eighteenth century, many escaped to Yucatán, and in the early nineteenth century a steady flow of runaways went to Guatemala and down the coast to Honduras. Some runaways established communities, such as one near Sibun River, that offered refuge to others. When freedom could be attained by slipping into the bush, revolt was not such a pressing option. Nevertheless, numerous slave revolts took place. The last revolt in 1820, led by two black slaves, Will and Sharper, involved a considerable number of well-armed individuals who "had been treated with very unnecessary harshness by their Owner, and had certainly good grounds for complaint."

The "Coloured Subjects of Free Condition" were granted civil rights on July 5, 1831, a few years before the abolition of slavery was completed. The essence of society, a rigidly hierarchical system in which people were ranked according to race and class was well established by the time of full emancipation in 1838. The act to abolish slavery throughout the British colonies, passed in 1833, was intended to avoid drastic social changes by effecting emancipation over a five-year transition period. The act included two generous measures for slave owners: a system of "apprenticeship" calculated to extend their control over the former slaves who were to continue to work for their masters without pay, and compensation for the former slave owners for their loss of property. These measures helped ensure that the majority of the population, even when it was legally freed after apprenticeship ended in 1838, depended on their former owners for work. These owners still monopolized the
land. Before 1838, a handful of the inhabitants controlled the settlement and owned most of the people. After 1838, the masters of the settlement, a tiny elite, continued to control the country for over a century by denying access to land, and by promoting economic dependency of the freed slaves through a combination of wage advances and company stores.

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 1800s, 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. Other Garifuna later came to the British settlement of Belize after finding themselves on the wrong side in a civil war in Honduras in 1832. Many Garifuna men soon found wage work alongside slaves as mahogany cutters. In 1841 Dangriga, the Garifuna’s largest settlement, was a flourishing village. The American traveler John Stephens described the Garifuna village of Punta Gorda as having 500 inhabitants and producing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. The British treated Garifuna as squatters. In 1857 the British told the Garifuna that they must obtain leases from the crown or risk losing their lands, dwellings, and other buildings. The 1872 Crown Lands Ordinance established reservations for the Garifuna as well as the Maya. The British prevented both groups from owning land and treated them as a source of valuable labor.

In the 1850s, the power struggle between the superintendent and the planters coincided with events in international diplomacy to produce major constitutional changes. In the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, Britain and the United States agreed to promote the construction of a canal across Central America and to refrain from colonizing any part of Central America. The British government interpreted the colonization clause as applying only to any future occupation. But the United States government claimed that Britain was obliged to evacuate the area, particularly after 1853, when President Franklin Pierce’s
expansionist administration stressed the Monroe Doctrine. Britain yielded on the Bay Islands and the Mosquito Coast in eastern Nicaragua. But in 1854, Britain produced a formal constitution establishing a legislative for its possession of the settlement in present-day Belize. The Legislative Assembly of 1854 was to have eighteen elected members, each of whom was to have at least £400 sterling worth of property. The assembly was also to have three official members appointed by the superintendent. The fact that voters had to have property yielding an income of £7 a year or a salary of a £100 a year reinforced the restrictive nature of this legislature. The superintendent could defer or dissolve the assembly at any time, originate legislation, and give or withhold consent to bills. This situation suggested that the legislature was more a chamber of debate than a place where decisions were made. The Colonial Office in London became, therefore, the real political-administrative power in the settlement. This shift in power was reinforced when in 1862, the Settlement of Belize in the Bay of Honduras was declared a British colony called British Honduras, and the crown’s representative was elevated to a lieutenant governor, subordinate to the governor of Jamaica.

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. The Legislative Assembly had given large landowners in the colony firm titles to their vast estates in 1855 but did not allow the Maya to own land. The Maya could only rent land or live on reservations. Nevertheless, most of the refugees were small farmers who, by 1857, were growing considerable quantities of sugar, rice, corn, and vegetables in the Northern District (now Corozal and Orange Walk districts). In 1857 the town of Corozal, then six years old, had 4,500 inhabitants, second in population only to Belize Town, which had 7,000 inhabitants. Some Maya, who had fled the strife in the north but had no wish to become subjects of the British, settled in the remote area of the Yalbac Hills, just beyond the woodcutting frontier in the northwest. By 1862 about 1,000 Maya established themselves in ten villages in this area, with the center in San Pedro. One group of Maya, led by Marcos Canul, attacked a mahogany camp on the Bravo River in 1866, demanding ransom for their prisoners and rent for their land. A detachment of British troops sent to San Pedro was defeated by the Maya later that year. Early in 1867, more than 300 British troops marched into the Yalbac Hills and destroyed the Mayan villages, provision stores, and granaries in an attempt to drive them out of the district. The Maya returned, however, and in April 1870, Canul and his men marched into Corozal and occupied the town. Two years later, Canul and 150 men attacked the barracks at Orange Walk. After several hours of fighting, Canul’s group retired. Canul, mortally wounded, died on September 1, 1872. That battle was the last serious attack on the colony.

In the 1880s and 1890s, Mopán and Kekchí Maya fled from forced labor in Guatemala and came to British Honduras. They settled in several villages in southern British Honduras, mainly around San Antonio in Toledo District. The Maya could use crown lands set aside as reservations, but these people lacked communal rights. Under the policy of indirect rule, a system of elected alcaldes (mayors), adopted from Spanish local government, linked these Maya to the colonial administration. However, the remote area of British Honduras in which they settled, combined with their largely subsistence way of life, resulted in the Mopán and Kekchí Maya maintaining more of their traditional way of life and becoming less assimilated into the colony than the Maya of the north. The Mopán and Kekchí Maya maintained their languages and a strong sense of identity. But in the north, the distinction between Maya and Spanish was increasingly blurred, as a Mestizo culture emerged. In different ways and to different degrees, then, the Maya who returned to British Honduras in the nineteenth century became incorporated into the colony as poor and dispossessed ethnic minorities. By the end of the nineteenth century, the ethnic pattern that remained largely intact throughout the twentieth century was in place: Protestants largely of African descent, who spoke either English or Creole and lived in Belize Town; the Roman Catholic Maya and Mestizos who spoke Spanish and lived chiefly in the north and west; and the Roman Catholic Garifuna who spoke English, Spanish, or Garifuna and settled on the southern coast.

Largely as a result of the costly military expeditions against the Maya, the expenses of administering the new colony of British Honduras increased, at a time when the economy was severely depressed. Great landowners and merchants dominated the Legislative Assembly, which controlled the colony’s revenues and expenditures. Some of the landowners were also involved in commerce but their interest differed from the other merchants of Belize Town. The former group resisted the taxation of land and favored an increase in import duties; the latter preferred the opposite. Moreover, the merchants in the town felt relatively secure from Mayan attacks and were unwilling to contribute toward the protection of mahogany camps, whereas the landowners felt that they should not be required to pay taxes on lands given inadequate protection. These conflicting interests produced a stalemate in the
Legislative Assembly, which failed to authorize the raising of sufficient revenue. Unable to agree among themselves, the members of the Legislative Assembly surrendered their political privileges and asked for establishment of direct British rule in return for the greater security of crown colony status. The new constitution was inaugurated in April 1871 and the new legislature became the Legislative Council. Under the new constitution of 1871, the lieutenant governor and the Legislative Council, consisting of five ex officio or "official" and four appointed or "unofficial" members, governed British Honduras. This constitutional change confirmed and completed a change in the locus and form of power in the colony’s political economy that had been evolving during the preceding half century. The change moved power from the old settler oligarchy to the boardrooms of British companies and to the Colonial Office in London.

The forestry industry’s control of land and its influence in colonial decision making retarded the development of agriculture and the diversification of the economy. In many parts of the Caribbean, large numbers of former slaves, some of whom had engaged in the cultivation and marketing of food crops, became landowners. British Honduras had vast areas of sparsely populated, unused land. Nevertheless, landownership was controlled by a small European monopoly, thwarting the evolution of a Creole landowning class from the former slaves. Rather than the former slaves, it was the Garifuna, Maya, and Mestizos who pioneered agriculture in nineteenth-century British Honduras. These groups either rented land or lived as squatters. However, the domination of the land by forestry interests continued to stifle agriculture and kept much of the population dependent on imported foods. Landownership became even more consolidated during the economic depression of the mid-nineteenth century. Exports of mahogany peaked at over 4 million linear meters in 1846 but fell to about 1.6 million linear meters in 1859 and 8,000 linear meters in 1870, the lowest level since the beginning of the century. Mahogany and logwood continued to account for over 80 percent of the total value of exports, but the price of these goods was so low that the economy was in a state of prolonged depression after the 1850s. Major results of this depression included the decline of the old settler class, the increasing consolidation of capital and the intensification of British landownership. The British Honduras Company emerged as the predominant landowner of the crown colony. The firm originated in a partnership between one of the old settler families and a London merchant and was registered in 1859 as a limited company. The firm expanded, often at the expense of others who were forced to sell their land. In 1875 the firm became the Belize Estate and Produce Company, a London-based business that owned about half of all the privately held land in the colony. The new company was the chief force in British Honduras’s political economy for over a century.

This concentration and centralization of capital meant that the direction of the colony’s economy was henceforth determined largely in London. It also signaled the eclipse of the old settler elite. By about 1890, most commerce in British Honduras was in the hands of a clique of Scottish and German merchants, most of them newcomers. This clique encouraged consumption of imported goods and thus furthered British Honduras’s dependence on Britain. The European minority exercised great influence in the colony’s politics, partly because it was guaranteed representation on the wholly appointed Legislative Council. The manager of the Belize Estate and Produce Company, for example, was automatically a member of the council, while members of the emerging Creole
elite were excluded from holding seats on the council. The Creoles requested in 1890 that some seats on the council be opened to election (as had occurred in Canada and New Zealand) in the hope of winning seats, but the Legislative Council refused. In 1892, the governor appointed several Creole members, but whites remained the majority. In the 1920s, the Colonial Office supported agitation for an elective council as long as the governor had reserve powers to allow him to push through any measures he considered essential without the council’s assent. But the council rejected these provisos, and the issue of restoring elections was postponed.

Despite the prevailing stagnation of the colony’s economy and society during most of the century prior to the 1930s, seeds of change were being sown. The mahogany trade remained depressed, and efforts to develop plantation agriculture in several crops, including sugarcane, coffee, cocoa, cotton, bananas, and coconuts failed. A brief revival in the forestry industry
took place early in the twentieth century as new demands for forest products came from the United States. Exports of chicle, a gum taken from the sapodilla tree and used to make chewing gum, propped up the economy from the 1880s. Much of the gum was tapped in Mexican and Guatemalan forests by Mayan chicleros who had been recruited by labor contractors in British Honduras. A short-lived boom in the mahogany trade occurred around 1900 in response to growing demand for the wood in the United States, but the ruthless exploitation of the forests without any conservation or reforestation depleted resources. The introduction of tractors and bulldozers opened up new areas in the west and south in the 1920s, but this development led again to only a temporary revival. At this time, mahogany, cedar, and chicle together accounted for 97 percent of forest production and 82 percent of the total value of exports. The economy, which was increasingly oriented toward trade with the United States, remained dependent and underdeveloped. Creoles, who were well-connected with businesses in the United States, challenged the traditional political-economic connection with Britain as trade with the United States intensified. Men such as Robert S. Turton, the Creole chicle buyer for Wrigley’s of Chicago, and Henry I. Melhado, whose merchant family dealt in illicit liquor during prohibition, became major political and economic figures. In 1927, Creole merchants and professionals replaced the representatives of British landowners, (except for the manager of the Belize Estate and Produce Company) on the Legislative Council. The participation of this Creole elite in the political process was evidence of emerging social changes that were largely concealed by economic stagnation. These changes accelerated with such force in the 1930s that they ushered in a new era of modern politics.

The Great Depression shattered the colony’s economy, and unemployment increased rapidly. The Colonial Report for 1931 stated that "contracts for the purchase of mahogany and chicle, which form the mainstay of the Colony, practically ceased altogether, thereby throwing a large number of the woodcutters and chicle-gatherers out of work." On top of this economic disaster, the worst hurricane in the country’s recent history demolished Belize Town on September 10, 1931, killing more than 1,000 people and destroying at least three-quarters of the housing. The British relief response was tardy and inadequate. The British government seized the opportunity to impose tighter control on the colony and endowed the governor with reserve powers, or the power to enact laws in emergency situations without the consent of the Legislative Council. The Legislative Council resisted but eventually passed a resolution agreeing to give the governor reserve powers in order to obtain disaster aid. Meanwhile, people in the town were making shelters out of the wreckage of their houses. The economy continued to decline in 1932 and 1933. The total value of imports and exports in the latter year was little more than one-fourth of what it had been in 1929.

The Belize Estate and Produce Company survived the depression years because of its special connections in British Honduras and London. Since 1875 various members of the Hoare family had been principal directors and maintained a controlling interest in the company. Sir Samuel Hoare, a shareholder and former director, was a former British cabinet member and a
friend of Leo Amery, the British secretary of state for the colonies. In 1931, when the company was suffering from the aftereffects of the hurricane and the depression, family member Oliver V.G. Hoare contacted the Colonial Office to discuss the possibility of selling the company to buyers in the United States. The British government rescued the company by granting it an area of virgin mahogany forest and a loan of US$200,000 to erect a sawmill in Belize Town. When the government almost doubled the land tax, the large landowners refused to pay. The government accepted some virtually worthless land in lieu of taxes and in 1935 capitulated completely, reducing the tax to its former rate and annulling the landowners’ arrears by making them retroactive to 1931. But small landowners had paid their taxes, often at a higher rate.

Robert Turton, the Creole millionaire who made his fortune from chicle exports, defeated C.H. Brown, the expatriate manager of the company, in the first elections for some of the Legislative Council seats in 1936. After the elections, the governor promptly appointed Brown to the council, presumably to maintain the influence of what had for so long been the colony’s chief business. But Brown’s defeat by Turton, one of the company’s chief local business rivals, marked the decline of old British enterprises in relation to the rising Creole entrepreneurs with their United States commercial connections. Meanwhile, the Belize Estate and Produce Company drove Mayan villagers from their homes in San Jose and Yalbac in the northwest and treated workers in mahogany camps almost like slaves. Investigators of labor conditions in the 1930s were appalled to discover that workers received rations of inferior flour and mess pork and tickets to be exchanged at the commissaries, in lieu of cash wages. As a result, workers and their families suffered from malnutrition and were continually in debt to their employers. The law governing labor contracts, the Masters and Servants Act of 1883, made it a criminal offense for a laborer to breach a contract. The offense was punishable by twenty-eight days of imprisonment with hard labor. In 1931 the governor, Sir John Burdon, rejected proposals to legalize trade unions and to introduce a minimum wage and sickness insurance. The conditions, aggravated by rising unemployment and the disastrous hurricane, were responsible for severe hardship among the poor. The poor responded in 1934 with a series of demonstrations, strikes, petitions, and riots that marked the beginning of modern politics and the independence movement.

Riots, strikes, and rebellions had occurred before, during and after the period of slavery, but the events of the 1930s were modern labor disturbances in the sense that they gave rise to organizations with articulate industrial and political goals. In 1894 mahogany workers rioted against a cut in their real wages caused by devaluation. In 1919 demobilized Creole servicemen protested British racism. But British troops soon stopped these spontaneous protests, which were indicative of discontent but had little lasting effect. In contrast, a group calling itself the Unemployed Brigade marched through Belize Town on February 14, 1934, to present demands to the governor and started a broad movement. Poor people, in desperation, turned to the governor, who responded by creating a little relief work–stone-breaking for US$0.10 a day. The governor also offered a daily ration of two kilograms of cooked rice at the prison gates. The unemployed, demanding a cash dole, turned to Antonio Soberanis Gómez (1897-1975), who denounced the Unemployed Brigade’s leaders at a meeting on March 16, 1934, and took over the movement. For the next few weeks, Soberanis and his colleagues of the Labourers and Unemployed Association (LUA) attacked the governor and his officials, the rich merchants, and the Belize Estate and Produce Company at biweekly meetings attended by 600 to 800 people. The workers demanded relief and a minimum wage. They couched their demands in broad moral and political terms that began to define and develop a new nationalistic and democratic political culture.

Soberanis was jailed under a new sedition law in 1935. Still, the labor agitation achieved a great deal. Of most immediate importance was the creation of relief work by a governor who saw it as a way to avoid civil disturbances. Workers built more than 300 kilometers of roads. The governor also pressed for a semirepresentative government. But when the new constitution was
passed in April 1935, it included the restrictive franchise demanded by the appointed majority of the Legislative Council, which had no interest in furthering democracy. High voter- eligibility standards for property and income limited the electorate to the wealthiest 2 percent of the population. Poor people, therefore, could not vote; they could only support members of the Creole middle classes that opposed big-business candidates. The Citizens’ Political Party and the LUA endorsed Robert Turton and Arthur Balderamos, a Creole lawyer, who formed the chief opposition in the new council of 1936. Working-class agitation continued, and in 1939 all six seats on the Belize Town Board (the voting requirements allowed for a more representative electorate) went to middle-class Creoles who appeared more sympathetic to labor.

The greatest achievements of the agitation of the 1930s were the labor reforms passed between 1941 and 1943. Trade unions were legalized in 1941, but the laws did not require employers to recognize these unions. Furthermore, the penal clauses of the old Masters and Servants Act rendered the new rights ineffectual. Employers among the unofficial members at the Legislative Council defeated a bill to repeal these penal clauses in August 1941, but the Employers and Workers Bill, passed on April 27, 1943, finally removed breach-of-labor-contract from the criminal code and enabled British Honduras’s infant trade unions to pursue the struggle for improving labor conditions. The General Workers’ Union (GWU), registered in 1943, quickly expanded into a nationwide organization and provided crucial support for the nationalist movement that took off with the formation of the People’s United Party (PUP) in 1950. The 1930s were therefore the crucible of modern Belizean politics. It was a decade during which the old phenomena of exploitative labor conditions and authoritarian colonial and industrial relations began to give way to new labor and political processes and institutions.

The origins of the independence movement also lay in the 1930s and 1940s. Three groups played important roles in the colony’s politics during this period. One group consisted of working-class individuals and emphasized labor issues. This group originated with Soberanis’s LUA between 1934 and 1937 and continued through the GWU. The second group, a radical nationalist movement, emerged during World War II. Its leaders came from the LUA and the local branch of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. The group called itself variously the British Honduras Independent Labour Party, the People’s Republican Party, and the People’s National Committee. The third group consisted of people who engaged in electoral politics within the narrow limits defined by the constitution and whose goals included a "Natives First" campaign and an extension of the franchise to elect a more representative government. In 1947 a group of graduates of the elite Saint John’s College won control of the Belize City Council and started a newspaper, the Belize Billboard. One member of this group, George Cadle Price, topped the polls in the 1947 election when he opposed immigration schemes and import controls and rode a wave of feeling against a British proposal for a federation of its colonies in the Caribbean. Price was an eclectic and pragmatic politician whose ideological position was often obscured under a cloak of religious values and quotations. He has remained the predominant politician in the country since the early 1950s.

The event that precipitated Price’s political career and the formation of the PUP, was the devaluation of the British Honduras dollar on December 31, 1949. In September 1949, the British government devalued the British pound sterling. In spite of repeated denials by the governor that the British Honduras dollar would be devalued to maintain the old exchange rate with
the British pound, devaluation was nevertheless effected by the governor, using his reserve powers in defiance of the Legislative Council. The governor’s action angered the nationalists because it reflected the limits of the legislature and revealed the extent of the colonial administration’s power. The devaluation enraged labor because it protected the interests of the big transnationals, such as the Belize Estate and Produce Company, whose trade in British pounds would have suffered without devaluation while it subjected British Honduras’s working class, already experiencing widespread unemployment and poverty, to higher prices for goods–especially food–imported from the United States. Devaluation thus united labor, nationalists, and the Creole middle classes in opposition to the colonial administration. On the night that the governor declared the devaluation, the People’s Committee was formed and the nascent independence movement suddenly matured.

Between 1950 and 1954, the PUP, formed upon the dissolution of the People’s Committee on September 29, 1950, consolidated its organization, established its popular base, and articulated its primary demands. Belize Billboard editors Philip Goldson and Leigh Richardson were prominent members of the PUP. They gave the party their full support through anticolonial editorials. The PUP received the crucial support of the GWU, whose president, Clifford Betson, was one of the original members of the People’s Committee. Before the end of January 1950, the GWU and the People’s Committee were holding joint public meetings and discussing issues such as devaluation, labor legislation, the proposed West Indies Federation, and constitutional reform. The GWU was the only mass organization of working people, so the early success of the PUP would have been impossible without the support of this union. On April 28, however, the middle-class members of the People’s Committee (formerly members of the Christian Social Action Group, to which the founders of the Belize Billboard belonged) took over the leadership of the union and gave Betson the dubious honorific title of "patriarch of the union." A year later, George Price, the secretary of the PUP, became vice president of the union. The political leaders took control of the union to use its strength, but the union movement declined as it became increasingly dependent upon politicians in the 1950s.

The PUP concentrated on agitating for constitutional reforms, including universal adult suffrage without a literacy test, an all-elected Legislative Council, an Executive Council chosen by the leader of the majority party in the legislature, the introduction of a ministerial system, and the abolition of the governor’s reserve powers. In short, PUP pushed for
representative and responsible government. The colonial administration, alarmed by the growing support for the PUP, retaliated by attacking two of the party’s chief public platforms. In July 1951, the governor dissolved the Belize City Council on the pretext that it had shown disloyalty by refusing to display a picture of King George VI. Then, in October, the governor charged Belize
Billboard
publishers and owners, including Richardson and Goldson, with sedition. The governor jailed them for twelve months with hard labor. Soon after, PUP leader John Smith resigned because the party would not agree to fly the British flag at public meetings. The removal of three of four chief leaders was a blow to the party, but the events left Price in a powerful position. In
1952 he comfortably topped the polls in Belize City Council elections. Within just two years, despite persecution and division, the PUP had become a powerful political force, and George Price had clearly become the party’s leader.

The colonial administration and the National Party, which consisted of loyalist members of the Legislative Council, portrayed the PUP as pro-Guatemalan and even communist. The leaders of the PUP, however, perceived British Honduras as belonging to neither Britain nor Guatemala. The governor and the National Party failed in their attempts to discredit the PUP on the issue of its contacts with Guatemala, which was then ruled by the democratic, reformist government of President Jacobo Arbenz. When voters went to the polls on April 28, 1954, in the first election under universal literate adult suffrage, the main issue was clearly colonialism–a vote for the PUP was a vote in favor of self-government. Almost 70 percent of the electorate voted. The PUP gained 66.3 percent of the vote and won eight of the nine elected seats in the new Legislative Assembly. Further constitutional reform was unequivocally on the agenda.

British Honduras faced two obstacles to independence: British reluctance until the early 1960s to allow citizens to govern themselves, and Guatemala’s complete intransigence over its long-standing claim to the entire territory (Guatemala had repeatedly threatened to use force to take over British Honduras). By 1961, Britain was willing to let the colony become independent. From 1964 Britain controlled only defense, foreign affairs, internal security, and the terms and conditions of the public service. On June 1, 1973, the colony’s name was changed to Belize in anticipation of independence. After 1975 Britain allowed the colonial government to internationalize its case for independence, so Belizeans participated in international diplomacy even before the area became a sovereign nation. The stalemate in the protracted negotiations between Britain and Guatemala over the future status of Belize led Belizeans to seek the international community’s assistance in resolving issues associated with independence. Even after Belize became independent in 1981, however, the territorial dispute remained unsettled.

The territorial dispute’s origins lay in the eighteenth-century treaties in which Britain acceded to Spain’s assertion of sovereignty while British settlers continued to occupy the sparsely settled and ill-defined area. The 1786 Convention of London, which affirmed Spanish sovereignty was never renegotiated, but Spain never attempted to reclaim the area after 1798. Subsequent treaties between Britain and Spain failed to mention the British settlement. By the time Spain lost control of Mexico and Central America in 1821, Britain had extended its control over the area, albeit informally and unsystematically. By the 1830s, Britain regarded the entire territory between the Hondo River and Sarstoon River as British. The independent republics that emerged from the disintegrating Spanish Empire in the 1820s claimed that they had inherited Spain’s sovereign rights in the area. Britain,
however, never accepted such a doctrine. Based on this doctrine of inheritance, Mexico and Guatemala asserted claims to Belize. Mexico once claimed the portion of British Honduras north of the Sibun River but dropped the claim in a treaty with Britain in 1893. Since then, Mexico has stated that it would revive the claim only if Guatemala were successful in obtaining all or part of the nation. Still, Mexico was the first nation to recognize Belize as an independent country.

At the center of Guatemala’s claim was the 1859 treaty between Britain and Guatemala. From Britain’s viewpoint, this treaty merely settled the boundaries of an area already under British dominion. But Guatemala later developed the view that this agreement was a treaty of cession through which Guatemala would give up its territorial claims only under certain conditions, including the construction of a road from Guatemala to the Caribbean coast. Guatemala said it would repudiate the treaty in 1884 but never followed up on the threat. The dispute appeared to have been forgotten until the 1930s, when the government of General Jorge Ubico claimed that the treaty was invalid because the road had not been constructed. Britain argued that because neither the short- lived Central American Federation (1821-39) nor Guatemala had ever exercised any authority in the area or even protested the British presence in the nineteenth century, British Honduras was clearly under British sovereignty. In its constitution of 1945, however, Guatemala stated that British Honduras was the twenty-third department of Guatemala. Since 1954 a succession of military and right-wing governments in Guatemala frequently whipped up nationalist sentiment, generally to divert attention from domestic problems. Guatemala has also periodically massed troops on the border with the country in a threatening posture.

Negotiations between Britain and Guatemala began again in 1961, but the elected representatives of British Honduras had no voice in these talks. George Price refused an invitation from Guatemalan President Ydígoras Fuentes to make British Honduras an "associated state" of Guatemala. Price reiterated his goal of leading the colony to independence. In 1963 Guatemala broke off talks and ended diplomatic relations with Britain. In 1965 Britain and Guatemala agreed to have a United States lawyer, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson, mediate the dispute. The lawyer’s draft treaty proposed giving Guatemala so much control over the newly independent country, including internal security, defense, and external affairs, that Belize would have become more dependent on Guatemala than it was already on Britain. The United States supported the proposals. All parties in British Honduras, however, denounced the proposals, and Price seized the initiative by demanding independence from Britain with appropriate defense guarantees.

A series of meetings, begun in 1969, ended abruptly in 1972 when Britain announced it was sending an aircraft carrier and 8,000 troops to Belize to conduct amphibious exercises. Guatemala then massed troops on the border. Talks resumed between 1973 and 1975 but again broke off as tensions flared. At this point, the Belizean and British governments, frustrated at
dealing with the military-dominated regimes in Guatemala, agreed on a new strategy that would take the case for self-determination to various international forums. The Belize government felt that by gaining international support, it could strengthen its position, weaken Guatemala’s claims, and make it harder for Britain to make any concessions. Belize argued that Guatemala frustrated the country’s legitimate aspirations to independence and that Guatemala was pushing an irrelevant claim and disguising its own colonial ambitions by trying to present the dispute as an effort to recover territory lost to a colonial power. Between 1975 and 1981, Belizean leaders stated their case for self-determination at a meeting of the heads of Commonwealth of Nations governments in Jamaica, the conference of ministers of the Nonaligned Movement in Peru, and at meetings of the United Nations (UN). The support of the Nonaligned Movement proved crucial and assured success at the UN.

Latin American governments initially supported Guatemala. Cuba, however, was the first Latin country, in December 1975, to support Belize in a UN vote that affirmed Belize’s right to self-determination, independence, and territorial integrity. The outgoing Mexican president, Luis Echeverría Alvarez, indicated that Mexico would appeal to the Security Council to prevent Guatemala’s designs on Belize from threatening peace in the area. In 1976 President Omar Torrijos of Panama began campaigning for Belize’s cause, and in 1979 the Sandinista government in Nicaragua declared unequivocal support for an independent Belize. In each of the annual votes on this issue in the UN, the United States abstained, thereby giving the Guatemalan government some hope that it would retain United States backing. Finally, in November 1980, with Guatemala completely isolated, the UN passed a resolution that demanded the independence of Belize, with all its territory intact, before the next session of the UN in 1981. The UN called on Britain to continue defending the new nation of Belize. It also called on all member countries to offer their assistance.

A last attempt was made to reach an agreement with Guatemala prior to the independence of Belize. The Belizean representatives to the talks made no concessions, and a proposal, called the Heads of Agreement, was initialed on March 11, 1981. However, when ultraright political forces in Guatemala labeled the proposals as a sellout, the Guatemalan government refused to ratify the agreement and withdrew from the negotiations. Meanwhile, the opposition in Belize engaged in violent demonstrations against the Heads of Agreement. The demonstrations resulted in four deaths, many injuries, and damage to the property of PUP leaders and their families. A state of emergency was declared. However, the opposition could offer no real alternatives. With the prospect of independence celebrations in the offing, the opposition’s morale fell. Independence came to Belize on September 21, 1981, without reaching an agreement with Guatemala.

However, the new Guatemalan president, Jorge Serrano, who took office in January 1991, declared his government’s urgent desire to reach a settlement. An agreement was duly reached in September 1991 (including the establishment of diplomatic relations), under which Guatemala recognised Belizean sovereignty (although it maintains its territorial claim) in exchange for access to Belizean ports. In May 1993, the British garrison withdrew. Shortly afterwards, Premier George Price called a snap election. Despite expectations, his PUP was narrowly defeated by Manuel Esquival, the new leader of the UDP. The Guatemala problem emerged once again in 1994, when a formal sovereignty claim was lodged at the United Nations. The Belizean government responded by opening talks with Britain on future military assistance. Since then Belize and Guatemala have held a series of inconclusive bilateral negotiations under the auspices of the UN – as recently as 2000, the Guatemalans formally lodged a claim to half of Belizean territory. In the same forum, the Belizean government has come under pressure from the USA for its alleged laxity in the ‘war on drugs’ – Washington believes that Belize has become a major transit point for shipments into the USA and for the laundering of drug profits through the country’s banking system. Belize’s present ambassador at the UN is a controversial figure; Michael Ashcroft, a wealthy British entrepreneur (and treasurer of the British Conservative party), was the driving force behind Belize’s newly developed ‘offshore’ finance industry. He also controls a significant portion of the financial sector as well as key parts of Belize’s economic infrastructure. Ashcroft has developed a very close relationship with the PUP government led by Said Musa, which took office after a landslide victory in the August 1998 election. The result was repeated at the most recent poll in March 2003.

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