|Know Belize - History|
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Early recorded comments following Columbus's fourth voyage to the New World led the Spaniards to hastily conclude that the swampy shoreline of what is now Belize was unfit for human habitation. Someone should have told that to the Maya, who had been enjoying the area for quite some time already.
As early as 10,000 b.c., Ice Age man hunted woolly mammoth and other large animals roaming the cool, moist landscape of Central America. Between 7000 and 2000 b.c., society evolved from hunters and gatherers to farmers. Such crops as corn, squash, and beans were independently domesticated in widely separated areas of Mesoamerica after about 6000 b.c. The remains of clay figurines from the Pre-Classic period, presumed to be fertility symbols, marked the rise of religion in Mesoamerica, beginning about 2000 b.c.
Around 1000 b.c., the Olmec culture, believed to be the earliest in the area and the predecessors to the Maya, began to spread throughout Mesoamerica. Large-scale ceremonial centers grew along Gulf Coast lands, and much of Mesoamerica was influenced by the Olmecs' religion of worshiping jaguarlike gods. They also developed the New World's first calendar and an early system of writing.
A Society Collapses
All signs point to an abrupt work stoppage. After about a.d. 900, no buildings were constructed and no stelae, which carefully detailed names and dates to inform future generations of their roots, were erected.
Whatever happened, it's clear that the special knowledge concerning astronomy, hieroglyphics, and architecture was not passed on to Maya descendants. Sociologists who have lived with the indigenous people in isolated villages are convinced that this privileged information is not known by today's Maya. Why did the masses disperse, leaving once-sacred stone cities unused and ignored? It's possible that lengthy periods of drought, famine, and epidemic caused the people to leave their once-glorious sacred centers. No longer important in day-to-day life, these structures were ignored for a thousand years and faced the whimsy of nature and its corroding elements.
Anthropologists and historians do know that perhaps as many as 500,000 Maya were killed by diseases such as smallpox after the arrival of the Spaniards into the New World. But no one really knows for sure what halted the progress of the Maya culture.
Secrets of the Ruins
Hernán Cortés and Other Explorers
Although the Maya in Mérida, in Yucatán, Mexico, were a long distance from Belize and not directly bothered by the intrusion of the Spanish, the actions of the Spanish Franciscan priests toward the Mérida Maya would have a great influence on Belize in the years that followed. The Catholic priests were wiping out ceremonies and all other traces of the Maya, further setting the stage for the bloodshed to come. The ripple effect that followed eventually exploded into the Caste War, which, in turn, brought both Maya and mestizos across the borders of Belize.
Diego de Landa was the Franciscan priest who, while trying to gather the Maya into the fold of Christianity, leaned on them and their beliefs with a heavy hand, destroying thousands of Maya idols, many of their temples, and all but four of their books. Because his methods were often cruel, in 1563 he was called back to Spain after colonial civil and religious leaders accused him of "despotic mismanagement." He spent a year in prison, and while his fate was being decided, he wrote a book, Relaciones de las Cosas de Yucatán, defending himself against the charges.
Ironically, this book gave extensive information about the Maya, their beliefs, the growth and preparation of their food, the structure of their society, the priesthood, and the sciences-essentially a broad insight into the culture that otherwise would have been lost forever. Fortunately, he included in his book a one-line formula that, when used as a mathematical and chronological key, opened up the science of Maya calculations and their great knowledge of astronomy. De Landa returned to the Yucatán Peninsula and lived out his remaining years, continuing his previous methods of proselytizing until his death in 1579.
Pirates and the Baymen
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. These early settlers were nicknamed the Baymen.
In the meantime, the Spanish desperately tried to maintain control of this vast New World they had grasped from 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. However, the British relentlessly made inroads into the country, importing slaves from Africa beginning in the 1720s to laboriously thrash through the jungles and cut the timber-work that the fiercely independent Maya resisted with their lives.
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, so it was their turf. Even after Spain vacated Guatemala, Guatemalans tried for generations to assume ownership across the existing Belize borders. Since 1988, however, the boundary disagreement appears to have blown over with the Guatemalan threat of a takeover stopping on their side of the frontier. But because no official agreements have been made, most believe this conflict is still unresolved.
Treaty of Paris
The Baymen held on with only limited rights to the area until the final skirmish in 1798 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, ending the Spanish claim to Belize once and for all. After that battle, Belize was ruled by the British Crown until gaining its independence in 1981.
During the first 400 years after Europeans arrived, nothing much was done to develop the country, not even (as mentioned) roads or railroads, and you can count on one hand how many historic buildings are standing (because few were ever built).
Growing Maya Power
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. The colonial administration kept its distance, and a community-appointed headman made and kept the laws. Both Hispanic and non-Hispanic Belizeans who live in the northern area speak Spanish. Today all the towns and cities of Belize come under the jurisdiction of the central Belizean government.
The Sugar Industry
The mestizos 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.
In a 1984 Audubon Society report, it was noted that despite the widespread use of slash-and-burn farming by the Maya a millennium ago, and the more recent selective logging of logwood and mahogany since the 16th century, Belize still has extensive forests. The large-scale abandonment of farms with the decline of the Maya civilization about a.d. 900 permitted forest regeneration that has attained what plant ecologists consider to be "climax" status. The removal of logwood had little effect on the forest structure. It's in today's economy that logging can cause serious damage to the forest with the indiscriminate removal of large tracts of trees, no matter the variety, because of modern methods and high-tech equipment.
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