In 1530, the conquistador Francisco de Montejo y Alvarez attacked the Nachankan and Belize Maya, but his attempt to conquer them failed. This introduction of Spanish influence did not have the impact on Belize that it did in the northern part of the Caribbean coast until the Caste War.
After Columbus’s arrival in the New World, other adventurers traveling the same seas soon found the Yucatán Peninsula. In 1519, 34-year-old Cortés sailed from Cuba against the will of the Spanish governor. With 11 ships, 120 sailors, and 550 soldiers, he set out to search for slaves, a lucrative business with or without the blessings of the government. His search began on the Yucatán coast and eventually encompassed most of Mexico. However, he hadn’t counted on the resistance and cunning of the Maya. The fighting was destined to continue for many years—a time of bloodshed and death for many of his men and for the Maya. Anthropologists and historians estimate that as many as 90 percent of Mayans were killed by diseases such as smallpox after the arrival of the Spaniards.
Over the years, the majority of Maya were baptized into the Catholic faith. Most priests did their best to educate the people, teach them to read and write, and protect them from the growing number of Spanish settlers who used them as slaves. The Maya practiced Catholicism in their own manner, combining their ancient beliefs, handed down throughout the centuries, with Christian doctrine. These mystic yet Christian ceremonies are still performed in baptism, courtship, marriage, illness, farming, house building, and fiestas.
While all of Mesoamerica dealt with the problems of economic colonialism, the Yucatán Peninsula had an additional problem: harassment by vicious pirates who made life in the coastal areas unstable. In other parts of the Yucatán Peninsula, the passive people were ground down, their lands taken away, and their numbers greatly reduced by the European settlers’ epidemics and mistreatment.
British buccaneers sailed the coast, attacking the Spanish fleet at every opportunity. These ships were known to carry unimaginable riches of gold and silver from the New World back to the king of Spain. The Belizean coast became a convenient place for pirates to hole up during bad weather or for a good drinking bout. And, though no one planned it as a permanent layover, by 1650 the coast had the beginnings of a British pirate lair/settlement. As pirating slacked off on the high seas, British buccaneers discovered they could use their ships to carry logwood back to a ready market in England (logwood is a low-growing tree that provided rich dyes for Europe’s growing textile industry until man-made dyes were developed). These early settlers were nicknamed the Baymen.
For 300 years, the Baymen of Belize cut the logwood and then, when the demand for logwood ceased, they starting cutting down mahogany trees from the vast forests. For three centuries, the local economy depended on exported logs and imported food.
In the meantime, the Spanish desperately tried to maintain control of this vast New World across the ocean. But it was a difficult task, and brutal conflicts continually flared between the Spanish and either the British inhabitants or the Maya. The British Baymen were continually run out but always returned. Treaties were signed and then rescinded. The British, meanwhile, made inroads into the country, importing slaves from Africa (beginning in the 1720s) to help cut and remove trees.
Politically, Belize (or, more to the point, its timber) was up for grabs, and a series of treaties did little to calm the ping-pong effect between the British and the Spanish over the years. One such agreement, the Treaty of Paris, did little to control the Baymen—or the Spanish.
In 1763, Spain “officially” agreed to let the British cut logwood. The decree allowed roads (along the then-designated frontiers) to be built in the future, though definite boundaries were to be agreed upon later. For nearly 150 years, the only “roads” built were narrow tracks to the rivers; the rivers became Belize’s major highways. Boats were common transport along the coast, and somehow road building was postponed, leaving boundaries vaguely defined and countrymen on both sides of the border unsure.
This was the important bit of history that later encouraged the Spanish-influenced Guatemalans to believe that Belize had failed to carry out the 1763 agreement by building roads, which meant the land reverted back to Spain. Even after Spain vacated Guatemala, Guatemalans tried throughout the 20th century to claim its right to Belizean territory.
The Baymen held on with only limited rights to the area until the final skirmish on St. George, a small caye just off Belize City . The Baymen, with the help of an armed sloop and three companies of a West Indian regiment, won the battle of St. George’s Caye on September 10, 1798, ending the Spanish claim to Belize once and for all. After that battle, the British Crown ruled Belize until independence was gained in 1981.
In 1807, slavery was officially abolished in Belize by England. This was not agreeable to the powerful British landowners, and in many quarters it continued to flourish. Changes were then made to accommodate the will of the powerful. The local government no longer “gave” land to settlers as it had for years (the British law now permitted former slaves and other “coloureds” to hold title). The easiest way to keep them from possessing the land was to charge for it—essentially barring the majority in the country from landownership. So, in essence, slavery continued.
It was inevitable that the Maya would eventually erupt in a furious attack. This bloody uprising in the Yucatán Peninsula in the 1840s was called the Caste War. Though the Maya were farmers and for the most part not soldiers, in this savage war they took revenge on every white man, woman, and child by rape and murder. When the winds of war reversed themselves and the Maya were on the losing side, vengeance on them was merciless. Some settlers immediately killed any Maya on sight, regardless of his beliefs. Some Maya were taken prisoner and sold to Cuba as slaves; others left their villages and hid in the jungles, in some cases for decades.
Between 1846 and 1850, the population of the Yucatán Peninsula was reduced from 500,000 to 300,000. Guerrilla warfare ensued, with the escaped Maya making repeated sneak attacks upon the white settlers. Quintana Roo, adjacent to Belize along the Caribbean coast, was considered a dangerous no-man’s-land for more than a hundred years until, in 1974, with the promise of tourism, the territory was admitted to the Federation of States of Mexico. The “war” didn’t really end on the peninsula until the Chan Santa Cruz people finally made peace with the Mexican federal government in 1935, more than 400 years after it had begun.
Many of the Maya who escaped slaughter during the Caste War fled to the isolated jungles of Quintana Roo and Belize. The Maya revived the religion of the “talking cross,” a pre-Columbian oracle representing gods of the four cardinal directions. This was a religious/political marriage. Three determined survivors of the Caste War—a priest, a master spy, and a ventriloquist—all wise leaders, knew their people’s desperate need for divine leadership. As a result of their leadership and advice from the talking cross, the shattered people came together in large numbers and began to organize. The community guarded the location of the cross, and its advice made the Maya strong once again.
They called themselves Chan Santa Cruz (“People of the Little Holy Cross”). As their confidence developed, so did the growth and power of their communities. Living very close to the Belize (then British Honduras) border, they found they had something their neighbors wanted. The Chan Santa Cruz Maya began selling timber to the British and in return received arms, giving the Maya even more power. Between 1847 and 1850, in the years of strife during the Caste War in neighboring Yucatán, thousands of Maya, mestizo, and Mexican refugees who were fleeing the Spaniards entered Belize. The Yucatecans introduced the Latin culture, the Catholic religion, and agriculture. This was the beginning of the Mexican tradition in northern Belize, locally referred to as “Spanish tradition.” The food is typically Mexican, with tortillas, black beans, tamales, squash, and plantain (a type of banana that can be cooked). For many years, these mestizos kept to themselves and were independent of Belize City.
They settled mostly in the northern sections of the country, which is apparent by the Spanish names of the cities: Corozal, San Estevan, San Pedro, and Punta Consejo. By 1857, the immigrants were growing enough sugar to supply Belize, with enough left over to export the surplus (along with rum) to Britain. After their success proved to the tree barons that sugarcane could be lucrative, the big landowners became involved. Even in today’s world of low-priced sugar, the industry is still important to Belize’s economy.