The earliest known inhabitants were the Mayans, whose extensive civilisation (CE 250–900) reached its peak in about the 8th century, spreading northward throughout Yucatan. The Mayans cultivated most of the arable land in the country and built cities and ceremonial centres out of limestone. By the time the Spanish arrived, in the early 16th century, the numbers of Mayans had declined, and many of the remainder were sent to Guatemala or died of introduced diseases.
The Spanish then moved north to Mexico, and British pirates (who had lost their occupation when Britain and Spain made peace in 1670) moved in to cut logwood for export to Europe. In time, the settlers expanded inland to cut mahogany and cedar, and African slaves were brought over from Jamaica. Attempts by the Spanish to dislodge the Baymen (as the woodcutters were called) failed, but the settlers asked England for help.
In 1765 Admiral Sir William Burnaby arrived with a fleet from Jamaica and, without recourse to violence, established a constitution known as Burnaby’s Code and the Public Meeting, a law-making body. Friction continued, however, until 1798, when the Spanish were defeated at the battle of St George’s Caye.
In 1847, Mayans in neighbouring Mexico rebelled against Spanish rule and refugees (Mayans, Mestizos and dissident Spaniards) made their way into Belize, a migration which set up new tensions. In an attempt to resolve the situation, the settlement, at its own request, became a British colony (supervised by the Governor of Jamaica) in 1862 and the country took the name British Honduras. It became a Crown colony in 1870. In 1884, it was detached from Jamaica and given its own governor. Burnaby’s Code and the Public Meeting were abolished in 1840 and 1853 respectively and replaced by a nominated legislative council.
Economic recession followed. Mahogany prices slumped in the 1870s and sugar (introduced by the immigrants from Mexico) slumped in the 1880s. An upturn in the early 20th century was short-lived and poverty continued between the world wars.
In 1935, the principle of voting was reintroduced, with elections for five of the 12 seats on the legislative council, although with a very limited franchise (1,000 out of the population of 50,000). The number of elected members increased under a new constitution in 1954, when the council changed its name to legislative assembly and extended the franchise to universal adult suffrage. By now the movement for independence was under way; it had gained momentum in 1949 when the British Honduras dollar was devalued. This became a rallying point with the cry: ‘Give us back our dollar. Give us independence.’
In 1954 the first general election was won by the People’s United Party (PUP), headed by George Price (the PUP won all subsequent elections until 1984). In 1964, the country became self-governing with a bicameral legislature. In 1971, the seat of government was moved from Belize City to the new inland site of Belmopan. In 1961 Hurricane Hattie left Belize City in ruins. The country’s name was changed from British Honduras to Belize in 1973.
Independence was delayed by the claim to the whole of its territory by neighbouring Guatemala and in 1975 and 1977 British troops and aircraft were used to protect Belize from the threat of invasion. The UN passed several resolutions asserting Belize’s right to its sovereignty and territorial integrity. By the late 1970s, although the claim was unresolved, constitutional talks on independence were successful, and the UK agreed to provide a defence guarantee, notably by patrolling the border with Guatemala.
After 20 years in power, George Price and the PUP lost the 1984 elections to the United Democratic Party (UDP) led by Manuel Esquivel; returned to government in 1989; and were ousted again in 1993 by UDP in coalition with the National Alliance for Belizean Rights, a new party which was formed after five members left the UDP in 1992 following disagreements over the negotiations with Guatemala.
From 1986 relations between the two countries improved and in 1991 Guatemala recognised Belizean sovereignty, Belize joined the Organization of American States (OAS) and diplomatic relations between Belize and Guatemala were established.
In January 1994 responsibility for defence was transferred to the Belize Defence Force and later that year the UK withdrew most of its 1,500-strong garrison. In March 1994, however, Guatemala renounced its earlier agreements and formally reaffirmed its claim to the territory of Belize. A tense period ensued during which Belize continued to receive strong support from the Caribbean Community and the Commonwealth.
It was thus not until February 1997 that an ambassador was sent to Guatemala City, opening the way for a diplomatic resolution of the dispute. The two countries embarked, through the good offices of the OAS, on a peace process leading, in September 2005, to agreement on a framework for negotiations to resolve the dispute and confidence-building measures. Included in this agreement was a mechanism, should the parties fail to reach agreement in negotiations, to allow recourse to an international judicial body.