Arrival of the British: British Honduras Early Colonial Period

Table of Contents

  1. The "New World" the age of discovery: 
  2. From the land, the Spaniards set their sights on the British stronghold: 
  3. The Battle Of St. George's Caye: 1798 Spain's Last Stand 
  4. 1798 – 1981: British Honduras to Belize 

The “New World” the age of discovery:

During the 15th century, Europe was experiencing an intellectual and economic revival, conventionally called the Renaissance; this surge laid the foundation for the subsequent expansion of European culture worldwide.

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Western Hemisphere–Maps–Early works to 1800

The Portuguese led the way, and by 1492, Christopher Columbus had made four trips across the Atlantic in a quest fuelled by the thirst to find great wealth, vast undiscovered lands to claim, and to attain much-wanted fame and fortune. 

 In October 1492, he made landfall on one of the Bahamian Islands; in 1493, he returned to the Americas with an agenda to rebuild the now-destroyed Hispaniola Settlement and gift Queen Isabella 500 enslaved indigenous people. In 1498, he sailed once more and visited Trinidad and South America, and by this time, Colonialism was in full swing in the Hispaniola settlement. Although he did not find vast riches in gold or precious jewels, his journey kicked off centuries of exploration and exploitation on the American continent. 

From the land, the Spaniards set their sights on the British stronghold:

Belize’s first inhabitants are known to be the Indigenous Maya. However, the first written documents about the Spanish presence in Belize were in 1544; then, they settled in the Mayan City of Lamanani, where they built a Spanish Colonial Church.

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Folding Screen with Indian Wedding, Mitote, and Flying Pole (Biombo con desposorio indígena, mitote y palo volador)

It’s important to note the Mayan civilization was already in significant decline when the Spaniards came to Belize. Although they didn’t have the resources or manpower to defeat the Spaniards, they were never conquered by them. 

Rivalries surfaced, and Great Britain set its eyes on Spain’s “territory,” which led to the signing of treaties in which Spain granted British subjects the privilege of exploiting logwood and later Mahogany in specified and poorly surveyed territories as history has it. This included Belize.

As the British Buccaneers and logwood cutters settled on the once thought inhospitable coast, they appointed superintendents after 1786 and later exercised their executive authority. 

The Battle Of St. George’s Caye: 1798 Spain’s Last Stand

In the eyes of the Spaniards, the British had violated the treaty signed in 1783; in the eyes of the British, they had found a thriving industry they wouldn’t easily let go. Thus, a last stand known as the Battle of St. George’s Caye was a pivotal event that defined Belize as we now know it. 

The conflict was between the Spanish and British; the Spaniards wanted to gain possession of St. George’s Caye (an island) off the coast of Belize, the settlement’s first capital. It started on September 3rd and continued until September 10th, when 14 large Spanish vessels anchored at the shores of the tiny island. 

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The first clash between the men began with the Baymen outnumbered two to one and the assault lasted about two and a half hours; the Spaniards began to fall into confusion and soon afterward cut their cables and sailed or rowed offshore. The Spanish later returned but by then the Baymen had regrouped. The Spanish were defeated by the wits of a handful of British Baymen and their cohorts.

1798 – 1981: British Honduras to Belize

After the Battle of St. George’s Caye, it’s safe to say that Britain held a firm hand in colonizing Belize, which they named British Honduras. Authority was assumed, and in 1854, a constitution was formally created along with a legislative Assembly of 18 elected members. In 1856, a final treaty was drafted, which defined the boundaries between Belize and its neighbouring country, Guatemala. 

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From 1862 to 1884, Belize was ruled by a Governor who was subordinate to the governor of Jamaica. The logwood and Mahogany Industry thrived under the British settlers who called themselves Baymen, and soon, they began importing enslaved Africans to the colony. 

The British and Spaniards dominated the Americas well into the late 1800s. The indigenous populations suffered significant abuse, genocide, and oppression; much of their pre-Columbian culture had been infused with the European one. 

Nevertheless, development, growth and a widening of horizons took shape, and as the Spanish Colonies gained independence from 1808 – 1826, an awakening in British Honduras slowly began; perhaps our new age of discovery was due!

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