Belize History, Language and Culture
History of Belize
The Maya civilisation that covered much of Central America incorporated Belize from around 2,500 BC to AD 900. The country has some spectacular and remarkably well-preserved ruins from this era and there are still some 30 Maya villages in the south of Belize, which retain a traditional way of life.
Yet it is the British that have given the country its modern shape. They occupied the territory in 1638 and, by the end of the 18th century, had brought African slaves over to cut the country’s mahogany. Despite attacks from the Spanish, the settlers remained, although it was not until 1862 that the territory was recognised as a British colony, and named British Honduras.
Belize achieved internal self-government in 1964 and elections the following year brought the leader of the People's United Party (PUP), George Price, to power. He presided over Belizean independence in 1981, but his party lost the 1985 elections to the United Democratic Party (UDP). Price was then returned to office in 1989.
Tensions have long existed between Belize and Guatemala, because, even though the boundary between them was determined in 1859, Guatemala continued to claim sovereignty of Belize. Throughout the 1970s, British troops were sent over to deter Guatemalan invasion threats.
In 1993 the British garrison withdrew and shortly afterwards, Premier George Price called a snap election. Despite expectations he was narrowly defeated by Manuel Esquival, the new leader of the UDP.
The Belizean government has come under pressure from the USA for its alleged laxity in the 'War on Drugs' – Washington believes that Belize has become a major transit point for shipments into the USA, and for the laundering of drug profits through the country's banking system.
Did you know?
• Belize is the only country in the region with English as its official main language.
• Belize’s Barrier Reef is the second largest reef system in the world, running the whole length of its coastline for some 174 miles (280 km).
• Belize is thought to have been named after the British pirate Wallace, who formed the first settlement here.
Religion in Belize
The people of Belize are mainly Roman Catholic (approximately 49.6% of the population). Approximately 27% is Protestant with a growing evangelical movement. There are growing Rastafarian communities along with smaller pockets of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Bahai.
Social Conventions in Belize
You can still see British influence in many social situations. Flowers or confectionary are acceptable gifts to give to hosts if invited to their home for a meal. Dress is casual, although beachwear should not be worn in towns. It may be inadvisable to discuss politics, particularly if of a partisan nature. Time is much more flexible here and any impatience towards the lack of punctuality will not be well received. You'll be asked to get onto Belizean Time. Gay travellers should be aware that male homosexuality is still illegal in Belize, and demonstrable homosexuality from either gender will not be looked upon well and could be dangerous for the traveller.
Language in Belize
English is the official language, but Spanish is spoken to some extent by over half the population. Garifuna (Carib), Maya and Creole are also spoken as well as a German dialect (by the Mennonites).