Formerly known as British Honduras, the Spanish Conquistadors had first claimed the area. Eventually the British did take over, and it became one of the many areas they would bring Africans as part of the slave trade. The major export for this area is mahogany, which became most of the slave’s number one job. Even after they were freed, most had no choice but to keep working in this field.
Belize is fairly diverse, as far as demographics go. Of course, the Maya were originally in the area. Three of its groups found here include the Yucatec (originally from Mexico but came to Belize to escape war), the Mopan, and the Kekchi, (both of whom fled the country at various times to avoid slavery, returning later). The Creoles are descendants of the slave owners (mostly English and Scottish pirates and other settlers) and the African slaves who were brought here. Then you have the Garifuna (also called Garinagu), who are a mix of African, Arawak and other Carib peoples. Primarily settled in and around Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the British started separating them based on how “African” they looked when they took over the island nation. Eventually they were traded to the Spanish who employed them as soldiers, and spread them throughout the Caribbean, many “deployed” to Belize where they stayed. And of course there are mestizos (mixtures of Spanish and Maya), as well as Mennonite farmers, East Indians, East Asians, North Americans, and Mediterraneans.
Thanks to the British, English is the official language of Belize, making it the only English-speaking country in Central America. While English is the language of public education, many Belizeans also speak Spanish, and most speak a Belizean Creole. Belize is proudly a dual-language nation and encourage bilingualism.
It’s somewhat unclear as to where the name Belize actually came from. Some think it may be from the Maya word “belix” which means “muddy waters” that described the muddy waters of the Belize River. Another theory is that it may have been brought over from the numerous Africans who were brought to the area; there is a Belize in the country of Angola as well. Like the Tootsie Roll Pop, the world may never know.
The capital is Belmopan, not its largest city Belize City. The name Belmopan was created as a merging of the words “Belize” and “Mopan,” the name of two major rivers. Actually, the capital used to be in the port city of Belize City, but was eventually moved to Belmopan after Hurricane Hattie nearly demolished Belize City in 1961.
Since the British were the ones who controlled the area until Belize’s independence in 1981, almost 72% of Belizeans identify themselves as some denomination of Christianity. Around 10% follow some other religion (Buddhist, Mayan, Garifuni, Islam, Obeah, Hindu, Rastafarian, Baha’i, etc.), and over 15% say they have no religion.
Belize is now a popular ecotourism hotspot with its many rainforests, coral reefs, flora and fauna. The mahogany tree that was once the object of exploitation during slavery days is now a national treasure (in fact, the national motto is “Sub Umbra Florero” which roughly means “Under the Mahogany Tree, I flourish”), along with Baird’s tapir (one of the ugliest animals, in my opinion; it’s just so weird to look at. However, it’s on the endangered list and is protected in Belize) and the brightly-colored keel billed toucan. Its diversity in its people and cultural traditions is what makes Belize a very captivating country. With influences from the British, the Spanish, and the Caribbean, you can certainly see its history emerge through its music, arts, and cuisine into something better than what it started out as.
Up next: Holidays and Celebrations