Archaeologists have determined that the Maya settled in Belize as early as 1500 BC. Their civilization reached its height between AD 250 and 900 – descendants of the Maya continue to live in Belize today.
The Spanish claimed Central America along with the rest of their New World possessions, but they didn’t settle the area that would become Belize. The first sustained European presence came instead from British buccaneers and shipwrecked British sailors, who soon realized that Belize ‘s forests of mahogany were a valuable commodity. Slaves were brought in to harvest the timber, and the Baymen – as the British settlers were known – began to extract a tidy profit from the jungle.
Spain continued to claim the area, however, and the decisive battle between the Spanish and British was fought September 10 1798, off St. George’s Caye. The British won and continued to rule the area despite advances by Mexico and Guatemala in the 1820s. The settlement became known as British Honduras, though it wasn’t until 1862 that it officially became a British colony. In 1973 the name was changed to Belize, and on 21 September 1981 , the country declared its independence from Britain .
Today, Belize is a multicultural and multilingual society. Descendants of the Maya, the English and the African slaves have been joined by Mennonites who immigrated to Belize by way of Canada after World War II. Mestizos are a large and growing group, and East Indians, Chinese and expatriate Europeans and North Americans are also part of the Belizean melting pot.