Cuello – the oldest city of the Maya?

The history of Belize is wonderfully rich. In the 5th millennium BC, the Maya civilization appeared, located mainly in western Guatemala. There are a lot of clues leading to the suggestion that there were also some settlements in the area now known as Belize. Around the year 1000 BC, Lamanai was already a rather developed city and the other towns within the territory of Belize had grown larger. The first significant cultural traces of the Maya civilization can be found in the western part of Belize, near San Ignacio. The first carved stela is located in the ruins of Cahal Pech and dates back to approximately 200 BC. Cuello, located in northern Belize, is the oldest known Maya settlement, so your trip to paradise is also one that can take you back in time to a spectacular ancient world.

The expansion and the decline of the Maya

The decline of the great Maya Empire occurred between the 3rd and 8th centuries AD, as the cities grew and flourished into their pinnacle period. In particular, the Late Classic Period, stretching from the 6th to 8th century resulted in a large number of cultural relics that can still be admired. In this period, the Maya civilization flourished not only in Belize, but also in the surrounding parts of Guatemala and some areas of Mexico.

However, the complete collapse of the culture came at the beginning of the 9th century AD, when the city´s population began to decrease rapidly and whole towns were abandoned en masse. The specific reasons are still unknown, leaving it as one of the great mysteries of human history. In just two centuries, many other cities that had seemed unaffected by the crisis were also deserted, including cities such as Xunantunich. Some cities continued to prosper, even until the late 14th century, but that was only a fraction of the once great empire. The collapse of the Maya civilization affected the entire nation of Belize in a dramatic and irrevocable way.

Spanish-British scramble began because of wood

In the 16th century, the Spaniards began to increase their activity in the territory of present Belize. They first set foot in Corozal in 1528. The battle for supremacy in the area lasted for nearly two centuries. In 1570, the Spanish mission settled in Lamanai. Their outposts had started to appear in the entire span of northern Belize. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Spanish tried to maintain a monopoly over trade and colonization of Central American regions, but this area was also very attractive to other European powers, most notably the English. The English buccaneers began appearing in the early 17th century to cut down valuable trees for resources. First, they attacked Spanish ships and stole their wood, but later began to acquire their own supply. In 1667, an agreement was signed under which the European powers began to suppress piracy. It was this agreement that led to the first English settlement in the Belizean territory.

It didn‘t take very long before serious conflict between the Spanish and the English broke out over rights to log in the region. The Spanish attacked the British settlers many times, but they never settled permanently to hold the region. The English always came back after the attacks and renewed the settlement. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 granted Britons the right to establish a logging industry in the region, but acknowledged Spanish sovereignty over the area. After the outbreak of war in 1779, the British left the settlement until the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1783. At that time, they were officially allowed to continue logging. However, the wood trade had decreased significantly and interest was shifting towards mahogany wood, which the area did not provide. The final attack on the British settlers is known as the Battle of St. George’s Caye and occurred two years after the outbreak of war in 1796. The British repulsed an attack from the Spanish, meaning that the last Spanish efforts to control the territory failed.

Creole culture resulted from slavery

The British were using slavery in their colonies. Slaves were brought to Belize from the other colonies in Central America and the Caribbean. Initially, there were only dozens of slaves, but only a hundred years later, there were more than two thousand of them in the territory of Belize. Most slaves were of African origin and at first they were able to maintain some vestiges of their native culture. Eventually, however, they assimilated in the area and gradually began to form something new, a combination of cultures began to emerge. Creole was born. Although some Creoles were officially freed in certain circumstances, their rights were very different from the rights of their former owners. They were still dependent on them for survival, and often employment.

The decision that official abolished slavery came in 1833 and was aimed to break all slavery bonds in the British colonies over the course of five years. Slave forces were also formed of the Garifuna ethnic group, who arrived in the country in the early 19th century. The descendants of Caribbean people and African slaves who escaped their masters have become an important part of the local population. In 1802, about 150 Garifunas had settled present-day Dangriga and survived mainly by hunting and fishing. Another few hundred of them arrived in Belize over the next decades. However, it wasn’t always easy for them to live. The British treated them as uninvited guests. In 1872, a number of reservations were created where the Garifunas could live freely. The British tried to prevent them from owning their own land and attempted to use them as a labor force for many decades.

The beginnings of British Honduras

The U.S. tried to push Great Britain away from the territory, but it didn‘t happen. Present-day Belize gradually and officially became a British colony controlled by the Colonial Office in London. Although a local government did exist, its actual power was very limited. Official confirmation came in 1862 when the British settlement in Belize was declared a British colony called British Honduras. Even this fact did not end the unrest between the Maya population of Belize and the British. The Maya still did not have an official right to own lands and attacks on the British settlements were very common. For example, in 1870, the Maya managed to capture Corozal, a city in northern Belize, away from the British. In 1872, they also unsuccessfully attacked Orange Walk Town. This attack, which British forces fought back to emerge victorious, was the last serious conflict between those groups. Over time, the situation calmed down significantly.

The Great Depression combined with a hurricane

Half a century later, Belize was unable to avoid the consequences of the Great Depression, which almost dealt the country´s economy a deathblow. As if high unemployment and a decline in exports were not enough, the worst hurricane in the history of Belize hit the country and took the lives of nearly 2,000 people. It came on the 10th of September in 1931. The situation in the country continued to get worse from that point. Working conditions in the wood factories and other places had almost reached the point of slavery once again. In 1933, the proposals to introduce a minimum wage and health insurance were rejected. In response, a year later, the poor decided to strike and actively fight for their rights. They didn’t succeed until the period of 1941 – 1943. However, those dramatic and traumatic events of the 1930s are now considered to be the foundational moments for the transformation of Belize into the modern country it is today.

Road to independence for Belize

In December of 1949, the local governor devalued the British Honduras dollar. That probably initiated the creation of a movement fighting for the independence of the country. He then angered nationalists when he explained and attempted to demonstrate how much power Great Britain had over the colony. However, this change deeply upset ordinary people who suddenly had to pay more money for many normal, inexpensive commodities. Similarly, the Creole middle class had suddenly fallen into opposition with the colonial administration. The actual battle for independence, however, was still far away. The British rejected the possibility that the locals could govern themselves, but Guatemala didn‘t accept the demand to respect the borders of the British Honduras. Guatemala even threatened the country several times with a military attack.

In 1961, the British seemed willing to negotiate the independence of British Honduras, but negotiations with Guatemala failed and local officials of British Honduras ended up being rather ineffective. Since 1964, the United Kingdom had only been concerned with certain parts of British Honduras’ government, such as homeland security and defense. In 1973, the country was renamed Belize in anticipation of a declaration of independence. However, when the negotiations with Guatemala continued to fail, the British decided to gain international support for its move in order to put pressure on Guatemala. The case was even discussed by the United Nations. Although Latin American countries supported the attitude of Guatemala, it was not until 1979 that Belize got Cuba, Mexico, Panama, and Nicaragua on its side.

Finally, in November of 1980, Guatemala was alone and the United Nations issued a resolution calling for the independence of Belize. Even the last attempt to negotiate with Guatemala just before the declaration of independence failed, so Belize became an independent country on September 21st, 1981, without any agreement with its western neighbor. British armed forces remained in the country to protect Belize from any Guatemalan attack. Guatemala finally recognized Belize´s independence in 1991.