Of 13 Commonwealth member countries in the Americas, only Belize, Canada
and Guyana lie on the mainland, three of the most sparsely populated
countries in the association; all the others are islands or
The country’s current Prime Minister, Dean Barrow, is the first of
Joined Commonwealth: 1981
Population: 332,000 (2013)
GDP: 2.0% p.a. 1990–2013
UN HDI: world ranking 84
Official language: English
Timezone: GMT minus 6hr
Currency: Belizean dollar (Bz$)
Area: 22,965 sq km
Capital city: Belmopan
Population density (per sq. km): 14
Belize forms part of the Commonwealth Caribbean, and is located in
central America, bordering Mexico to the north and Guatemala to the west
Belmopan (capital, pop. 18,326 in 2014), Belize City (former capital and
commercial centre, 60,184), San Ignacio (20,027), San Pedro (15,484),
Orange Walk (13,692), Corozal (11,427), Dangriga (10,002), Benque Viejo
(6,497) and Punta Gorda (5,795).
There is a road network of some 2,870 km, 17 per cent paved, with 1,420
km of all-weather roads. The four main highways are: Northern Highway
(Belize City to Chetumal on the Mexican border); Western Highway (Belize
City via Belmopan to the Guatemalan border); Hummingbird Highway
(Belmopan to Dangriga); and Southern Highway (Dangriga to Punta Gorda).
Belize City is the main port; the international airport, Philip S. W.
Goldson, lies 16 km north-west of Belize City.
Belize is a member of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of
States, Association of Caribbean States, Caribbean Community,
Non-Aligned Movement, Organization of American States, United Nations
and World Trade Organization.
Belize is strengthening its links with its Central American neighbours
through its membership of the Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana.
The long east coast is mostly flat with lagoons and mangrove swamps. For
16-32km out to sea the water is only about 5m deep and a barrier reef
(second in size only to Australia’s) stretches nearly 297km, with many
tiny islands known as cays or cayes inside. Three smaller reefs lie
further out. Inland, the terrain rises with Victoria Peak (1,122m), the
country’s highest point, in the Cockscomb range to the east, and the
heavily forested Maya Mountains to the south-west. Continuing north, the
Western (Cayo) District is also hilly, with the Mountain Pine Ridge. The
northern districts have wide areas of tableland. There are 17 principal
rivers, navigable at best only by vessels of shallow draught
The climate is subtropical, moderated by trade winds. The average
temperature from November to January is 24°C and from May to September
27°C; inland there is a greater range. There are two dry seasons:
March–May and August–September (the Maugre season). Annual rainfall
ranges from 1,290 mm in the north to 4,450 mm in the south. The country
is susceptible to hurricanes; Hurricane Iris in October 2001 – the
fourth in three years – was the worst for 40 years. Several years later
in August 2007 another hurricane, Hurricane Dean, hit Belize affecting
the livelihoods of up to 2,500 families in the northern parts of the
The most significant environmental issues are deforestation; water
pollution from sewage, industrial effluents and agricultural run-off;
and solid waste disposal.
Forest covers 61 per cent of the land area and includes rainforest with
mahoganies, cayune palms, and many orchids. Higher in the mountains,
pine forest and cedar predominate. Arable land comprises three per cent
of the land area.
There is a strong emphasis on conservation. By 1992, 18 national parks
and reserves had been established, including the world’s only jaguar
reserve. Other native species include ocelots, pumas, baboons, howler
monkeys, toucans and many species of parrot.
The earliest known inhabitants were the Mayans, whose extensive
civilisation (CE 250–900) reached its peak in about the 8th century,
spreading northward throughout Yucatan. The Mayans cultivated most of
the arable land in the country and built cities and ceremonial centres
out of limestone. By the time the Spanish arrived, in the early 16th
century, the numbers of Mayans had declined, and many of the remainder
were sent to Guatemala or died of introduced diseases.
The Spanish then moved north to Mexico, and British pirates (who had
lost their occupation when Britain and Spain made peace in 1670) moved
in to cut logwood for export to Europe. In time, the settlers expanded
inland to cut mahogany and cedar, and African slaves were brought over
from Jamaica. Attempts by the Spanish to dislodge the Baymen (as the
woodcutters were called) failed, but the settlers asked England for
In 1765 Admiral Sir William Burnaby arrived with a fleet from Jamaica
and, without recourse to violence, established a constitution known as
Burnaby’s Code and the Public Meeting, a law-making body. Friction
continued, however, until 1798, when the Spanish were defeated at the
battle of St George’s Caye.
In 1847, Mayans in neighbouring Mexico rebelled against Spanish rule and
refugees (Mayans, Mestizos and dissident Spaniards) made their way into
Belize, a migration which set up new tensions. In an attempt to resolve
the situation, the settlement, at its own request, became a British
colony (supervised by the Governor of Jamaica) in 1862 and the country
took the name British Honduras. It became a Crown colony in 1870. In
1884, it was detached from Jamaica and given its own governor. Burnaby’s
Code and the Public Meeting were abolished in 1840 and 1853 respectively
and replaced by a nominated legislative council.
Economic recession followed. Mahogany prices slumped in the 1870s and
sugar (introduced by the immigrants from Mexico) slumped in the 1880s.
An upturn in the early 20th century was short-lived and poverty
continued between the world wars.
In 1935, the principle of voting was reintroduced, with elections for
five of the 12 seats on the legislative council, although with a very
limited franchise (1,000 out of the population of 50,000). The number of
elected members increased under a new constitution in 1954, when the
council changed its name to legislative assembly and extended the
franchise to universal adult suffrage. By now the movement for
independence was under way; it had gained momentum in 1949 when the
British Honduras dollar was devalued. This became a rallying point with
the cry: ‘Give us back our dollar. Give us independence.’
In 1954 the first general election was won by the People’s United Party
(PUP), headed by George Price (the PUP won all subsequent elections
until 1984). In 1964, the country became self-governing with a bicameral
legislature. In 1971, the seat of government was moved from Belize City
to the new inland site of Belmopan. In 1961 Hurricane Hattie left Belize
City in ruins. The country’s name was changed from British Honduras to
Belize in 1973.
Independence was delayed by the claim to the whole of its territory by
neighbouring Guatemala and in 1975 and 1977 British troops and aircraft
were used to protect Belize from the threat of invasion. The UN passed
several resolutions asserting Belize’s right to its sovereignty and
territorial integrity. By the late 1970s, although the claim was
unresolved, constitutional talks on independence were successful, and
the UK agreed to provide a defence guarantee, notably by patrolling the
border with Guatemala.
After 20 years in power, George Price and the PUP lost the 1984
elections to the United Democratic Party (UDP) led by Manuel Esquivel;
returned to government in 1989; and were ousted again in 1993 by UDP in
coalition with the National Alliance for Belizean Rights, a new party
which was formed after five members left the UDP in 1992 following
disagreements over the negotiations with Guatemala.
Relations with Guatemala
From 1986 relations between the two countries improved and in 1991
Guatemala recognised Belizean sovereignty, Belize joined the
Organization of American States (OAS) and diplomatic relations between
Belize and Guatemala were established.
In January 1994 responsibility for defence was transferred to the Belize
Defence Force and later that year the UK withdrew most of its
1,500-strong garrison. In March 1994, however, Guatemala renounced its
earlier agreements and formally reaffirmed its claim to the territory of
Belize. A tense period ensued during which Belize continued to receive
strong support from the Caribbean Community and the Commonwealth.
It was thus not until February 1997 that an ambassador was sent to
Guatemala City, opening the way for a diplomatic resolution of the
dispute. The two countries embarked, through the good offices of the
OAS, on a peace process leading, in September 2005, to agreement on a
framework for negotiations to resolve the dispute and
confidence-building measures. Included in this agreement was a
mechanism, should the parties fail to reach agreement in negotiations,
to allow recourse to an international judicial body.
An account of the British settlement of Honduras
Being a brief view of its commercial and agricultural resources, soil,
climate, natural history, &c. : to which are added, Sketches of the
manners and customs of the Mosquito Indians, preceded by the journal of
a voyage to the Mosquito shore by Henderson, Capt. (George) (1809) (pdf)
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