Belize is the only country in Central America whose official language is English, though Belizean Creole (Kriol) and Spanish are also commonly spoken. It is bordered on the north by Mexico, on the south and west by Guatemala, and on the east by the Caribbean Sea. It has an area of 22,800 square kilometres and a population of around 350,000.
The Maya civilization spread across what is now Belize around 1500 BC, and flourished there until about 900 AD. The recorded history of the middle and southern regions is dominated by Caracol, an urban political centre that may have supported over 140,000 people. At the peak of Maya civilization, as many as 1 million people may have lived in the area that is now Belize.
Spanish explorers arrived in the 16th century and declared it a Spanish colony but chose not to settle because of its lack of resources like gold and the strong defence of the Yucatán by the Mayans. English and Scottish settlers and pirates known as the Baymen entered the area in the 17th and 18th centuries respectively and established a logwood trade colony, slave economy and port in what became the Belize District. Later, the Spanish granted the British settlers the right to occupy the area and cut logwood in exchange for an end to piracy.
The British first appointed a superintendent over the Belize area in 1786. Before then the British government had not recognised the settlement as a colony for fear of provoking a Spanish attack. In 1836, after the emancipation of Central America from Spanish rule, the British claimed the right to administer the region. In 1862, Great Britain formally declared it a British Crown Colony, subordinate to Jamaica, and named it British Honduras.
As a colony, Belize began to attract British investors. Among the British firms that dominated the colony in the late 19th century was the Belize Estate and Produce Company, which eventually acquired half of all the privately held land in the colony. Belize Estate’s influence accounts in part for the colony’s reliance on the mahogany trade throughout the rest of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.
The Great Depression of the 1930s caused a near-collapse of the colony’s economy as British demand for timber plummeted. The effects of widespread unemployment were worsened by a devastating hurricane that struck the colony in 1931. Perceptions of the government’s relief effort as inadequate were aggravated by its refusal to legalise labour unions or introduce a minimum wage. Economic conditions improved during World War II as many Belizean men entered the armed forces or otherwise contributed to the war effort.
Following the war, the colony’s economy stagnated because of the pressures caused by the war’s spending. Britain’s decision to devalue the British Honduras dollar in 1949 worsened economic conditions and led to the creation of the People’s Committee, which demanded independence. Under a new constitution Britain granted British Honduras self-government in 1964. In 1973 British Honduras was officially renamed Belize and it was granted independence in 1981, although territorial disputes with Guatemala continued.
The capital city is Belmopan, although Belize City is much larger.
The north of Belize consists mostly of flat, swampy coastal plains, in places heavily forested. The flora is highly diverse considering the small geographical area. The south contains the low mountain range of the Maya Mountains. The highest point in Belize is Doyle’s Delight at 1,124 m. Belize’s rugged geography has also made the country’s coastline and jungle attractive to drug smugglers, who use the country as a gateway into Mexico.
Belize is a country with a rich variety of wildlife, because of its unique position between both North and South America, and a wide range of climates and habitats for plant and animal life. The country’s low human population makes for an ideal home for the more than 5,000 species of plants, and hundreds of species of animals, including armadillos, snakes, and monkeys. Belizean jungles are home to the jaguar and many other mammals. The Baird’s tapir is one of the country’s symbols.
Various bird sanctuaries exist in Belize, such as the Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. Belize is a leader in protecting biodiversity and natural resources. 37% of Belize’s land territory falls under some form of official protection. Around 13% of Belize’s territorial waters, which contain the Belize Barrier Reef, are also protected. This is a UNESCO-recognised World Heritage Site and is the second-largest barrier reef in the world, behind Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It is Belize’s top tourist destination, popular for scuba diving and snorkelling, and attracting almost half of its 260,000 visitors. It is also vital to its fishing industry. In 1842 Charles Darwin described it as “the most remarkable reef in the West Indies”.
Hurricanes have played key and devastating roles in Belizean history. In 1931 an unnamed hurricane destroyed over two-thirds of the buildings in Belize City and killed more than 1,000 people. In 1961 Hurricane Hattie struck the central coastal area of the country, with winds in excess of 300 km/h. The devastation of Belize City for the second time in thirty years prompted the relocation of the capital some 80 kilometres inland to the planned city of Belmopan. Other hurricanes and storms continued to cause enormous damage.
Belize has a small economy that is based primarily on export of petroleum and crude oil, agriculture, agro-based industry, and merchandising, with tourism and construction recently assuming greater importance. Sugar, like in colonial times, remains the chief crop, accounting for nearly half of exports, while the banana industry is the populations’s largest employer.
Belize is known for its diversity of cultures and races. Ethnic groups include the Maya, the Creoles, also known as Kriols, who are descendants of the Baymen slave owners, and slaves brought to Belize for the purpose of the logging industry, the Garifuna people and even roughly 10,000 Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonites, farming the land and living according to their religious beliefs, among other groups.
English is the official language of Belize and the primary language of public education, government and most media outlets. The majority of Belizeans regardless of ethnicity speak an English-based creole called Belizean Creole (or Kriol) for most informal, social and interethnic dialogue. Approximately 30% speak Spanish as a native language. When Belize was a British colony, Spanish was banned in schools but today it is widely taught as a second language. Belize is also home to three Mayan languages.
The only university in the country is the University of Belize, that evolved out of the University College of Belize founded in 1986. The literacy rate is estimated at 80%, one of the lowest in the Western Hemisphere.
Belize has relatively high rates of violent crime. The majority of violence in Belize stems from gang activity, which includes trafficking of drugs and persons. In 2015, the country had a homicide rate of 34 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the highest in the world, but lower than some of its neighboring countries.
Belizean cuisine is an amalgamation of all ethnicities in the nation, and their respectively wide variety of foods. It might best be described as both similar to Mexican/Central American cuisine and Jamaican/Anglo-Caribbean cuisine.
Punta is by far the most popular genre of Garifuna music and has become the most popular genre in all of Belize. It is distinctly Afro-Caribbean. Brukdown is a very popular modern style of Belizean music related to calypso.
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