Belize, previously known as British Honduras, lies in the East coast of Central America in the heart of the Caribbean Basin, bordering on Mexico to the North, Guatemala to the West and South, and the Caribbean Sea to the East.
The cayes (pronounced keys), the offshore atolls, and the barrier reef are the main attractions of Belize. The barrier reef, which is 185 miles long, is the longest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. The cayes are islands and/or mangroves, which are located between the mainland and the barrier reef, and on or within the barrier reef perimeters of the offshore atolls.
Although the mangrove cayes are normally uninhabitable by humans, they do provide a superior habitat for birds and marine life. Many birds, fish, shellfish, and marine organisms begin their lives within the protection of the mangrove.
On the other hand, the island cayes, which are distinguishable by their palm trees, have provided the foundation for the development of many fine resorts to serve the water sports enthusiasts and the marine naturalists. The cayes and atolls provide superior opportunity for SCUBA diving, snorkeling, fishing, boating, sailing, sail boarding, and sea kayaking, as well as habitat for both nesting birds and turtles.
The northern half of the mainland of Belize is a plain that was once the bed of a sea. The land is covered with a thin layer of soil that supports scrub vegetation and dense hardwood tropical forest. The coastal area is neither land nor sea, but a sodden, swampy transition between the two. It consists of mangrove and grasses, and it is bordered by tussock grasses, cypress and sycamore where the land separates the water.
The central part of Belize consists of sandy soil that supports large savannas. Approximately thirty miles southwest of Belize City, the land begins to rise dramatically to between 1,500 and 3,680 feet above sea level in the enchanting Mountain Pine Ridge District and the Maya Mountains. Abundant rainfall runs off the northwest from the highlands in a number of streams which flow into the Macal River. Ultimately, the Macal River and the Mopan River converge to provide the headwaters of the Belize River.
The southern part of Belize, with its watershed to the southeast from the Maya Mountains, consists of short rivers that rush through slopes combed with overhanging ledges and caves. The rivers, carrying sand, clay and silt, have enriched the coastal belt over the years, allowing Belize to develop significant agricultural products such as citrus and bananas. Along with an annual rainfall of some 170 inches, southern Belize has a true tropical rain forest that is rich with ferns, palms, lianas, and tropical hardwoods.
The first inhabitants of Belize were the Maya. Belize was a part of the great Mayan empire which stretched through Guatemala, southern Mexico and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. Though the history of the Maya can be traced back for over 4000 years, the Classic Period of more advanced Mayan civilization began around the 3rd century AD and reached its height between the 6th and 8th centuries. By the 14th century it was in serious decline. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, many of the Mayan cities were deserted.
The Spanish considered Belize a backwater suitable only for cutting logwood to be used for dye. Although the Spanish "owned" Belize, they did not rule it. The lack of effective government and the safety afforded by the reef attracted English and Scottish pirates during the 17th century.
When piracy became passé, many of the pirates began working in the logging trade. Belize was already British by tradition and sympathy when a British force routed the Spanish armada off St. George's Caye in 1798, delivering Belize from Spanish rule. In 1862, while in the USA was embroiled in its Civil War and unable to enforce the terms of the Monroe Doctrine, Great Britain declared Belize to be the colony of British Honduras.
After WWII, the Belize economy weakened, leading to agitation for independence. Democratic political parties and institutions were formed and self-government was granted in 1964. The government decided to build a new capital at Belmopan in 1970, after Hurricane Hattie all but destroyed Belize City in 1961. Full independence became a reality in 1981 when British Honduras officially became Belize. Guatemala, which had territorial claims on Belize, threatened war in 1972, but British troops were stationed in Belize to make sure the dispute remained purely diplomatic.
During the volatile 1980s, Belize remained stable and pro-US, thanks predominantly to large influxes of US aid. In 1992, a new Guatemalan government recognized Belize's territorial integrity. The British garrison was withdrawn in 1994.
Climate and Rainfall
The climate is subtropical, with a brisk prevailing wind from the Caribbean Sea. The country has an annual mean temperature of 79 degrees Fahrenheit, and the humidity is nicely tempered by the Sea breezes. Variation in weather features emphasizes the interesting difference in elevation, geology, plant and animal life. A summer temperature usually never exceeds 96 degrees Fahrenheit and winter lows are seldom below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, even at night. Saltwater temperature varies between 75 degrees Fahrenheit and 84 degrees Fahrenheit. Annual rainfall ranges from 50 inches in the North to 170 inches in the South. The rainy season is usually between June and August and the dry season is between February and May. Average humidity is 85 percent.
The People of Belize
The English and French ventured into the Caribbean in 1625, beginning 35 years of
warfare against the Caribs. In 1660, a British peace treaty guaranteed the "perpetual possession" of the islands of St. Vincent and Dominica to the Carib people. But eight years later the British broke the treaty and took possession of the islands.
Meanwhile in 1635, two Spanish ships carrying captured Nigerian slaves were shipwrecked off the St. Vincent coast. Some of the African captives managed to swim ashore and found shelter in the Carib settlements. The relationship between the two races went from reluctant acceptance to intermittent warfare and finally wholesome fusion of the two.
By 1773, this hybrid people now known as Garifuna, was the dominant population of St. Vincent. But Europeans were ready to take over the entire Caribbean, and the colonial forces would never allow a free black community. More and more British settlers landed on St. Vincent, and in 1796, following repeated raids to remove British settlers, the Caribs attempted an all out attack. Five thousand Black Caribs were captured and the great Carib Chief Joseph Chatoyer was killed.
Fearful of resurgence of Black Caribs, in less than a year, Britain deported some 2,000 to the island of Roatan. Many died of disease on the journey and the rest were abandoned with supplies for only three months. Those that survived were faced with continued persecution in Honduras and this time they moved on to British Honduras now known as Belize. In 1832, under the leadership of Alejo Beni, a large group of Garifuna landed on the coast of Stann Creek followed by many more. They've been there ever since, and on November 19th a celebration is held in commemoration of their arrival.
Besides the annual 19th November celebration, which includes the reenactment of the arrival of the Garinagu followed by a mass in Garifuna, there is performed during the Christmas season the popular John Canoe dance, or wanaragua. The dancers wear masks which resemble the English face with a pencil thin mustache, topped by a colorful handmade hat.
The dances incorporate martial arts movements and was first performed to hone the skills of warrior slaves.
The Garifuna are also skilled artists. Primitivism dominates their paintings, with great elaboration of details, flat colors, and unreal perspective. Benjamin Nicholas' paintings depict events in Garifuna history as well as lifestyle and culture. Pen Cayetano is also an accomplished painter, whose work is more realistic than other painters but it still retains the attractive aspects of primitivism.