Belize is an independent and sovereign country located on the north eastern coast of Central America. Belize is bordered on the northwest by Mexico, on the east by the Caribbean Sea, and on the south and west by Guatemala.
Belize is a Commonwealth realm, with Queen Elizabeth II as its monarch and head of state.
Geography & Administracion
Belize has an area of 22,970 square kilometres (8,867 sq mi).
Its mainland is about 290 km (180 mi) long and 110 km (68 mi) wide.
Belize is divided into six districts. These districts are further divided into 31 constituencies.
Guatemalan territorial dispute
Throughout Belize’s history, Guatemala has claimed ownership of all or part of Belizean territory. This claim is occasionally reflected in maps drawn by Guatemala’s government, showing Belize as Guatemala’s twenty-third department.
Belize is on the Caribbean coast of northern Central America. It shares a border on the north with the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, on the west with the Guatemalan department of Petén, and on the south with the Guatemalan department of Izabal.
To the east in the Caribbean Sea, the second-longest barrier reef in the world flanks much of the 240 miles (386 km) of predominantly marshy coastline.
The many lagoons along the coasts and in the northern interior reduces the actual land area to 8,263 square miles (21,400 km2).
Belize is shaped like a rectangle that extends about 174 miles (280 km) north-south and about 62 miles (100 km) east-west, with a total land boundary length of 321 miles (516 km).
The undulating courses of two rivers, the Hondo and the Sarstoon River, define much of the course of the country’s northern and southern boundaries. The western border follows no natural features and runs north-south through lowland forest and highland plateau.
The north of Belize consists mostly of flat, swampy coastal plains, in places heavily forested.
The south contains the low mountain range of the Maya Mountains. The highest point in Belize is Doyle’s Delight at 3,688 ft (1,124 m).
Flora & Fauna
The flora is highly diverse considering the small geographical area.
Belize’s abundance of terrestrial and marine species and its diversity of ecosystems give it a key place in the globally significant Mesoamerican Biological Corridor.
Belizean jungles are home to the jaguar and many other mammals.
Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary was founded in 1990 as the first wilderness sanctuary for the jaguar and is regarded by one author as the premier site for jaguar preservation in the world.
Environment preservation and biodiversity
Scarlet macaws are native to Central and northern South America. Various bird sanctuaries exist in Belize, such as the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary.
Belize has a rich variety of wildlife because of its unique position between North and South America and a wide range of climates and habitats for plant and animal life.
Belize’s low human population and approximately 8,867 square miles (22,970 km2) of undistributed land make for an ideal home for the more than 5,000 species of plants and hundreds of species of animals, including armadillos, snakes, and monkeys.
The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary is a nature reserve in south-central Belize established to protect the forests, fauna, and watersheds of an approximately 150 sq mi (400 km2) area of the eastern slopes of the Maya Mountains. The reserve was founded in 1990 as the first wilderness sanctuary for the jaguar and is regarded by one author as the premier site for jaguar preservation in the world.
Vegetation and flora
While over 60% of Belize’s land surface is covered by forest, some 20% of the country’s land is covered by cultivated land (agriculture) and human settlements.
Savanna, scrubland and wetland constitute the remainder of Belize’s land cover. Important mangrove ecosystems are also represented across Belize’s landscape. As a part of the globally significant Mesoamerican Biological Corridor that stretches from southern Mexico to Panama, Belize’s biodiversity – both marine and terrestrial – is rich, with abundant flora and fauna.
Belize is also a leader in protecting biodiversity and natural resources. According to the World Database on Protected Areas, 37% of Belize’s land territory falls under some form of official protection, giving Belize one of the most extensive systems of terrestrial protected areas in the Americas. By contrast, Costa Rica only has 27% of its land territory protected.
Around 13.6% of Belize’s territorial waters, which contain the Belize Barrier Reef, are also protected. The Belize Barrier Reef is a UNESCO-recognized World Heritage Site and is the second-largest barrier reef in the world, behind Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Demographics & Language
Population of Belize is 387,879 (2017).
It has the lowest population and population density in Central America.
Belize has a very diverse society that is composed of many cultures and languages that reflect its rich history.
English is the official language of Belize, while Belizean Creole is the most widely spoken national language, being the native language of over a third of the population. Over half the population is multilingual, with Spanish being the second most common spoken language.
The Maya are thought to have been in Belize and the Yucatán region since the second millennium BC; however, much of Belize’s original Maya population was wiped out by conflicts between constantly warring tribes. There were many who died of disease after contact and invasion by Europeans.
Three Maya groups now inhabit the country: The Yucatec (who came from Yucatán, Mexico, to escape the savage Caste War of the 1840s), the Mopan (indigenous to Belize but were forced out to Guatemala by the British for raiding settlements; they returned to Belize to evade enslavement by the Guatemalans in the 19th century), and Q’eqchi’ (also fled from slavery in Guatemala in the 19th century).
The latter groups are chiefly found in the Toledo District. The Maya speak their native languages and Spanish, and are also fluent in English and Belize Kriol.
Creoles, also known as Kriols, are descendants of the Baymen slave owners, and slaves brought to Belize for the purpose of the logging industry.
These slaves were ultimately of West and Central African descent (many also of Miskito ancestry from Nicaragua) and born Africans who had spent very brief periods in Jamaica and Bermuda.
Bay Islanders and ethnic Jamaicans came in the late 19th century, further adding to these already varied peoples, creating this ethnic group.
For all intents and purposes, Creole is an ethnic and linguistic denomination. Some natives, even with blonde hair and blue eyes, may call themselves Creoles.
Belize Creole English or Kriol developed during the time of slavery, and historically was only spoken by former slaves. However, this ethnicity has become an integral part of the Belizean identity, and as a result it is now spoken by about 45% of Belizeans.
Belizean Creole is derived mainly from English. Its substrate languages are the Native American language Miskito, and the various West African and Bantu languages brought into the country by slaves. Creoles are found all over Belize, but predominantly in urban areas such as Belize City, coastal towns and villages, and in the Belize River Valley.
The Garinagu (singular Garifuna), at around 4.5% of the population, are a mix of West/Central African, Arawak, and Island Carib ancestry.
Though they were captives removed from their homelands, these people were never documented as slaves.
The two prevailing theories are that, in 1635, they were either the survivors of two recorded shipwrecks or somehow took over the ship they came on.
Throughout history they have been incorrectly labelled as Black Caribs. When the British took over Saint Vincent and the Grenadines after the Treaty of Paris in 1763, they were opposed by French settlers and their Garinagu allies. The Garinagu eventually surrendered to the British in 1796. The British separated the more African-looking Garifunas from the more indigenous-looking ones. 5,000 Garinagu were exiled from the Grenadine island of Baliceaux. However, only about 2,500 of them survived the voyage to Roatán, an island off the coast of Honduras. The Garifuna language belongs to the Arawakan language family, but has a large number of loanwords from Carib languages and from English.
Because Roatán was too small and infertile to support their population, the Garinagu petitioned the Spanish authorities of Honduras to be allowed to settle on the mainland coast. The Spanish employed them as soldiers, and they spread along the Caribbean coast of Central America. The Garinagu settled in Seine Bight, Punta Gorda and Punta Negra, Belize, by way of Honduras as early as 1802. However, in Belize, 19 November 1832 is the date officially recognized as “Garifuna Settlement Day” in Dangriga.
According to one genetic study, their ancestry is on average 76% Sub Saharan African, 20% Arawak/Island Carib and 4% European.
The Mestizo culture are people of mixed Spanish and Maya descent. They originally came to Belize in 1847, to escape the Caste War, which occurred when thousands of Mayas rose against the state in Yucatán and massacred over one-third of the population. The surviving others fled across the borders into British territory. The Mestizos are found everywhere in Belize but most make their homes in the northern districts of Corozal and Orange Walk. Some other mestizos came from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, & Nicaragua. The Mestizos are the largest ethnic group in Belize and make up approximately half of the population. The Mestizo towns centre on a main square, and social life focuses on the Catholic Church built on one side of it. Spanish is the main language of most Mestizos and Spanish descendants, but many speak English and Belize Kriol fluently.
Due to the influences of Kriol and English, many Mestizos speak what is known as “Kitchen Spanish”. The mixture of Latin and Maya foods like tamales, escabeche, chirmole, relleno, and empanadas came from their Mexican side and corn tortillas were handed down by their Mayan side. Music comes mainly from the marimba, but they also play and sing with the guitar. Dances performed at village fiestas include the Hog-Head, Zapateados, the Mestizada, Paso Doble and many more.
Some 4% of the population are German-speaking Mennonite farmers and craftsmen. The vast majority are so-called Russian Mennonites of German descent who settled in the Russian Empire during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Most Russian Mennonites live in Mennonite settlements like Spanish Lookout, Shipyard, Little Belize, and Blue Creek. These Mennonites speak Plautdietsch (a Low German dialect) in everyday life, but use mostly Standard German for reading (the Bible) and writing.
The Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonites came mostly from Mexico in the years after 1958 and they are trilingual with Spanish. There are also some mainly Pennsylvania German-speaking Old Order Mennonites who came from the United States and Canada in the late 1960s. They live primarily in Upper Barton Creek and associated settlements. These Mennonites attracted people from different Anabaptist backgrounds who formed a new community. They look quite similar to Old Order Amish, but are different from them.
The remaining 5% or so of the population consist of a mix of Indians, Chinese, Whites from the United Kingdom, United States and Canada, and many other foreign groups brought to assist the country’s development. During the 1860s, a large influx of East Indians who spent brief periods in Jamaica and American Civil War veterans from Louisiana and other Southern states established Confederate settlements in British Honduras and introduced commercial sugar cane production to the colony, establishing 11 settlements in the interior. The 20th century saw the arrival of more Asian settlers from mainland China, South Korea, India, Syria, and Lebanon. Said Musa, the son of an immigrant from Palestine, was the Prime Minister of Belize from 1998 to 2008. Central American immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, & Nicaragua and expatriate Americans and Africans also began to settle in the country.
English is the official language of Belize. This stems from the country being a former British colony. Belize is the only country in Central America with English as the official language.
Also, English is the primary language of public education, government and most media outlets. About half of Belizeans regardless of ethnicity speak a mostly English-based creole called Belize Creole (or Kriol in Belize Creole). Although English is widely used, Kriol is spoken in all situations whether informal, formal, social or interethnic dialogue, even in meetings of the House of Representatives.
When a Creole language exists alongside its lexifier language, as is the case in Belize, a continuum forms between the Creole and the lexifier language. It is therefore difficult to substantiate or differentiate the number of Belize Creole speakers compared to English speakers. Kriol might best be described as the lingua franca of the nation.
When Belize was a British colony, Spanish was banned in schools but today it is widely taught as a second language. “Kitchen Spanish” is an intermediate form of Spanish mixed with Belize Creole, spoken in the northern towns such as Corozal and San Pedro.
Over half the population is multilingual. Being a small, multiethnic state, surrounded by Spanish-speaking nations, multilingualism is strongly encouraged.
Belize is also home to three Maya languages: Q’eqchi’, Mopan (an endangered language), and Yucatec Maya.
Approximately 16,100 people speak the Arawakan-based Garifuna language, and 6,900 Mennonites in Belize speak mainly Plautdietsch while a minority of Mennonites speak Pennsylvania German.
Origin of the name & Heraldry
The earliest known record of the name “Belize” appears in the journal of the Dominican priest Fray José Delgado, dating to 1677.
Delgado recorded the names of three major rivers that he crossed while travelling north along the Caribbean coast: Rio Soyte, Rio Xibum and Rio Balis.
The names of these waterways, which correspond to the Sittee River, Sibun River and Belize River, were provided to Delgado by his translator.
It has been proposed that Delgado’s “Balis” was actually the Mayan word belix (or beliz), meaning “muddy-watered”.
More recently, it has been proposed that the name comes from the Mayan phrase “bel Itza”, meaning “the road to Itza”.
In the 1820’s, the créole elite of Belize invented the legend that the toponym Belize derived from the Spanish pronunciation of the name of a Scottish buccaneer, Peter Wallace, who established a settlement at the mouth of the Belize River in 1638.
There is no proof that buccaneers settled in this area and the very existence of Wallace is considered a myth.
Writers and historians have suggested several other possible etymologies, including postulated French and African origins.
The national flower is the black orchid (Prosthechea cochleata, also known as Encyclia cochleata).
The national tree is the mahogany tree (Swietenia macrophylla), which inspired the national motto Sub Umbra Floreo, which means “Under the shade I flourish”.
The national animal is the Baird’s tapir and the national bird is the keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulphuratus).
History & Timeline
The Maya Civilization emerged at least three millennia ago in the lowland area of the Yucatán Peninsula and the highlands to the south, in the area of present-day southeastern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and western Honduras. Many aspects of this culture persist in the area despite nearly 500 years of European domination. Prior to about 2500 BC, some hunting and foraging bands settled in small farming villages; they later domesticated crops such as corn, beans, squash, and chili peppers.
A profusion of languages and subcultures developed within the Maya core culture. Between about 2500 BC and 250 AD, the basic institutions of Maya civilization emerged. The peak of this civilization occurred during the classic period, which began about 250 AD.
The Maya civilization spread across what is now Belize around 1500 BC, and flourished there until about AD 900. The recorded history of the middle and southern regions is dominated by Caracol, an urban political centre that may have supported over 140,000 people.
North of the Maya Mountains, the most important political centre was Lamanai. In the late Classic Era of Maya civilisation (600–1000 AD), as many as one million people may have lived in the area that is now Belize.
When Spanish explorers arrived in the 16th century, the area that is now Belize included three distinct Maya territories: Chetumal province, which encompassed the area around Corozal Bay; Dzuluinicob province, which encompassed the area between the New River and the Sibun River, west to Tipu; and a southern territory controlled by the Manche Ch’ol Maya, encompassing the area between the Monkey River and the Sarstoon River.
Early colonial period (1506–1862)
Spanish conquistadors explored the land and declared it part of the Spanish empire but failed to settle it because of its lack of resources and the hostile Indian tribes of the Yucatán.
English pirates sporadically visited the coast of what is now Belize, seeking a sheltered region from which they could attack Spanish ships (see English settlement in Belize) and cut logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum) trees.
The first British permanent settlement was founded around 1716 in what became the Belize District, and during the 18th century, established a system using black slaves to cut logwood trees. This yielded a valuable fixing agent for clothing dyes, and was one of the first ways to achieve a fast black before the advent of artificial dyes. The Spanish granted the British settlers the right to occupy the area and cut logwood in exchange for their help suppressing piracy.
The British first appointed a superintendent over the Belize area in 1786. Before then the British government had not recognized the settlement as a colony for fear of provoking a Spanish attack. The delay in government oversight allowed the settlers to establish their own laws and forms of government. During this period, a few successful settlers gained control of the local legislature, known as the Public Meeting, as well as of most of the settlement’s land and timber.
Throughout the 18th century, the Spanish attacked Belize every time war broke out with Britain. The Battle of St. George’s Caye was the last of such military engagements, in 1798, between a Spanish fleet and a small force of Baymen and their slaves. From 3 to 5 September, the Spaniards tried to force their way through Montego Caye shoal, but were blocked by defenders. Spain’s last attempt occurred on 10 September, when the Baymen repelled the Spanish fleet in a short engagement with no known casualties on either side. The anniversary of the battle has been declared a national holiday in Belize and is celebrated to commemorate the “first Belizeans” and the defence of their territory.
As part of the British Empire (1862–1981)
In the early 19th century, the British sought to reform the settlers, threatening to suspend the Public Meeting unless it observed the government’s instructions to eliminate slavery outright. After a generation of wrangling, slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833. As a result of their slaves’ abilities in the work of mahogany extraction, owners in British Honduras were compensated at £53.69 per slave on average, the highest amount paid in any British territory.
However, the end of slavery did little to change the former slaves’ working conditions if they stayed at their trade. A series of institutions restricted the ability of individuals to buy land, in a debt-peonage system. Former “extra special” mahogany or logwood cutters undergirded the early ascriptions of the capacities (and consequently the limitations) of people of African descent in the colony. Because a small elite controlled the settlement’s land and commerce, former slaves had little choice but to continue to work in timber cutting.
In 1836, after the emancipation of Central America from Spanish rule, the British claimed the right to administer the region. In 1862, Great Britain formally declared it a British Crown Colony, subordinate to Jamaica, and named it British Honduras.
As a colony, Belize began to attract British investors. Among the British firms that dominated the colony in the late 19th century was the Belize Estate and Produce Company, which eventually acquired half of all privately held land and eventually eliminated peonage. Belize Estate’s influence accounts in part for the colony’s reliance on the mahogany trade throughout the rest of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.
The Great Depression of the 1930s caused a near-collapse of the colony’s economy as British demand for timber plummeted. The effects of widespread unemployment were worsened by a devastating hurricane that struck the colony in 1931. Perceptions of the government’s relief effort as inadequate were aggravated by its refusal to legalize labour unions or introduce a minimum wage. Economic conditions improved during World War II as many Belizean men entered the armed forces or otherwise contributed to the war effort.
Following the war, the colony’s economy stagnated. Britain’s decision to devalue the British Honduras dollar in 1949 worsened economic conditions and led to the creation of the People’s Committee, which demanded independence. The People’s Committee’s successor, the People’s United Party (PUP), sought constitutional reforms that expanded voting rights to all adults. The first election under universal suffrage was held in 1954 and was decisively won by the PUP, beginning a three-decade period in which the PUP dominated the country’s politics. Pro-independence activist George Cadle Price became PUP leader in 1956 and the effective head of government in 1961, a post he would hold under various titles until 1984.
Under a new constitution Britain granted British Honduras self-government in 1964. On 1 June 1973, British Honduras was officially renamed Belize. Progress toward independence, however, was hampered by a Guatemalan claim to sovereignty over Belizean territory.
Independent Belize (since 1981)
Belize was granted independence on 21 September 1981. Guatemala refused to recognize the new nation because of its longstanding territorial dispute with the British colony, claiming that Belize belonged to Guatemala. About 1,500 British troops remained in Belize to deter any possible incursions.
Traditions, Holidays & Festivals
Belize is known for its September Celebrations, its extensive barrier reef coral reefs and punta music.
In Belizean folklore, there are the legends of Lang Bobi Suzi, La Llorona, La Sucia, Tata Duende, X’tabai, Anansi, Xtabay, Sisimite and the cadejo.
Most of the public holidays in Belize are traditional Commonwealth and Christian holidays, although some are specific to Belizean culture such as Garifuna Settlement Day and Heroes and Benefactors’ Day, formerly Baron Bliss Day.
In addition, the month of September is considered a special time of national celebration called September Celebrations with a whole month of activities on a special events calendar.
Besides Independence Day and St. George’s Caye Day, Belizeans also celebrate Carnival during September, which typically includes several events spread across multiple days, with the main event being the Carnival Road March, usually held the Saturday before the 10th of September.
In some areas of Belize, however, Carnival is celebrated at the traditional time before Lent (in February).
Punta is a popular genre of Garifuna music and has become one of the most popular kinds of music in Belize. It is distinctly Afro-Caribbean, and is sometimes said to be ready for international popularization like similarly-descended styles (reggae, calypso, merengue).
Brukdown is a modern style of Belizean music related to calypso. It evolved out of the music and dance of loggers, especially a form called buru. Reggae, dancehall, and soca imported from Jamaica and the rest of the West Indies, rap, hip-hop, heavy metal and rock music from the United States, are also popular among the youth of Belize.
Gastronomy & Cuisine
Belizean cuisine is an amalgamation of all ethnicities in the nation, and their respectively wide variety of foods. It might best be described as both similar to Mexican/Central American cuisine and Jamaican/Anglo-Caribbean cuisine but very different to these areas as well with Belizean touches and innovation which have been handed down by generations. All immigrant communities add to the diversity of Belizean food including the Indian and Chinese Communities.
Belizean diet is very modern and traditional. There are no rules. Breakfast typically consists of bread, flour tortillas, or fry jacks that are often homemade. Fry jacks are eaten with various cheeses, “fry” beans, various forms of eggs or cereal, along with powdered milk, coffee, or tea. Tacos made from corn or flour tortillas and meatpies can also be consumed for a hearty breakfast from a street vendor. Midday meals are the main meals for Belizeans, usually called “dinner”. They vary, from foods such as rice and beans with or without coconut milk, tamales (fried maize shells with beans or fish), “panades”, meat pies, escabeche (onion soup), chimole (soup), caldo, stewed chicken and garnaches (fried tortillas with beans, cheese, and sauce) to various constituted dinners featuring some type of rice and beans, meat and salad or coleslaw. Fried “fry” chicken is also consumed at this time.
In rural areas, meals are typically more simple than in cities. The Maya use maize, beans, or squash for most meals, and the Garifuna are fond of seafood, cassava (particularly made into cassava bread or Ereba) and vegetables. The nation abounds with restaurants and fast food establishments selling fairly cheaply. Local fruits are quite common, but raw vegetables from the markets less so. Mealtime is a communion for families and schools and some businesses close at midday for lunch, reopening later in the afternoon. Steak is also common.