Considering its small size, Belize boasts what is undoubtedly one of the most culturally diverse societies in the world.
Made up primarily of Mestizo (48.7%), Creole (24.9%), Maya (10.6%), Garifuna (6.1%), other races including Chinese, East Indians, and Middle East and European stock (9.7% – all according to a 2000 census), Belizean culture is a unique and harmonious blend of languages, religions, arts, cooking and musical styles.
Belize’s geography, economy and society fostered a sense of interdependence and the need to work together as opposed to the more rigidly divided racial and class structures common to other colonies in the region. People of different backgrounds have always associated freely in Belize and often intermarry, resulting in a naturally diverse and harmonious culture. Belize is the only Central American country having English as the official language, but many people speak Spanish as well, and almost everyone speaks at least a bit of Creole (known as Belize Kriol).
Belize’s cultural identity began with the Maya, who inhabited the rainforests, coastline and tiny islands, or cayes, from at least 2600 BC, and began developing extensive trade routes and vibrant metropolises as far back as 1800 BC. The Maya civilisation flourished until around 900, but was in decline by the 17th century and conquest by the Spanish conquistadors. The descendants of the Maya and Spanish became the Mestizo of Belize, who now make up the majority of the population.
Although Spain laid prior claim to the land that is now Belize, it was the English who first actually settled in the area, initially with the pirates who took refuge inside the Belize Great Barrier Reef and the early loggers, known as the Baymen. However, fighting between England and Spain continued over the years until the Baymen, their slaves, Creoles and other inhabitants defeated a Spanish force on September 10, 1798, at St. George’s Caye, a date celebrated as a national holiday in Belize.
As with most Caribbean destinations, colonisation brought with it the slave trade. Belize’s early economy centred on logging and was labour intensive, with a 1790 census listing 75 percent of the territory’s residents as slaves, 10 percent as whites, and the rest as free blacks, with the Maya left unacknowledged.
Relations between the races were more casual than in other colonial societies, resulting in a large proportion of mixed race offspring, especially between the whites and Africans, whose descendents make up the vibrant Creole culture, representing some 25% of Belizeans today.
The late 17th century saw the arrival of the Garifuna or Garinagu, a people of St Vincent’s Island who were a mix of escaped West African slaves and the island’s native Carib or Arawak people. The British colonists, after a lengthy military campaign, finally managed to expel the Garifuna from St Vincent’s and “settled” them on the island of Roatán off Honduras. Rather than quietly dying out as expected, the Garifuna established villages along the coasts of Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua and kept their language and customs alive, eventually producing many of Belize’s early police officers and teachers. Garifuna music, especially the popular Punta, is arguably Belize’s most distinctive musical form and popular on the world music scene.
The Creoles of Belize, once concentrated around Belize City, now live throughout Belize and over the years have contributed greatly to the Belizean national identity, especially in areas of music, crafts, art and language. Brukdown music, an African call and response style with European melodies that originated in mahogany camps is an example of indigenous Belizean Creole music still played today.
The Maya of Belize’s are our oldest inhabitants, having lived here since well before the time of Christ.
Early logging and other inroads into the forest by the British resulted in fierce resistance from Belize’s Maya, and during the destructive Yucatan Caste War of the mid 1800s thousands of Maya refugees flooded into Belize and formed their own communities. These groups were generally opposed to British rule, and a guerrilla force led by Marcos Canul eventually occupied Corozal Town in 1870. However, a later attack on the Orange Walk barracks resulted in Canul’s death and effectively, the end of the Maya resistance in Belize.
Maya from Guatemala also settled in Belize’s south during the end of the 19th century, especially in the Toledo district, where they continued a traditional life, retaining their language and strong cultural identity in fairly isolated, self-sufficient villages.
By the 1950s Belizeans of all backgrounds were united in demanding self rule and finally achieved adult suffrage in 1954. Progress towards independence continued steadily despite impediments such as Guatemala’s long standing claim to Belizean territory, but the drive towards nationhood gained force and internal self-government became a reality in 1964, with full independence on 21 September 1981, Belize Independence Day.
Since then, new immigrants continue to arrive from around the world, adding to the cultural mix and diverse skills base. As a young nation Belize continues to forge a national identity based on tolerance and mutual respect for the different cultural expressions and religious views of the community. Most Belizeans give the impression of being relaxed, friendly and welcoming. Common courtesies are very important, and strangers will usually acknowledge each other in passing with a smile or short greeting. Respect for the elderly is evident, especially on public transportation, and schools and churches play an important role in most towns and villages.
Belize’s culture is influenced not only by the diversity of the people, but of the natural environment, which in the 70 mile width of the country runs from dense jungle punctuated by ancient archaeological sites and the Maya Mountains to rolling pasture land, savannas and the Caribbean Sea, Great Barrier Reef and numerous cayes. This combination of geology and lifestyles, along with a very gentle year round climate gives Belize a rich, easygoing diversity not to be found elsewhere.
To travel from the border towns of Guatemala and Mexico to the sweeping, tidy farmlands of the German speaking Mennonites, the cool, airy pine forests of Mountain Pine Ridge to jungle lodges set along meandering rivers and on to the distinctive Caribbean flavour of Belize’s islands and Reef is to take in a heady and vibrant mix of ethnic backgrounds coming together to form a fascinating, unique culture that retains many traditional elements while that continuing to make its own way within an ever shrinking world. It is no wonder that Belizeans proudly refer to their country simple as “the Jewel”.