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Belize Table of Contents




British military vehicle, Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers
Courtesy Steven R. Harper

From the early seventeenth century, the area now known as Belize had a troubled and disorderly history. The British Settlement of Belize in the Bay of Honduras served as a base for privateers who carried out raids against Spanish vessels transporting gold and silver to Europe. The coral reefs and sand bars of the coast provided hiding places from which to surprise intended targets; these same features offered a place to flee from pursuing warships and other deep-draft vessels unable to navigate the area's shallow passages. By the time piracy had been suppressed, toward the end of the century, settlers--mostly British--had moved into the area's interior to develop lucrative logwood resources (see Colonial Rivalry Between Spain and Britain , ch. 6).

The small British settlement became a target for attacks from neighboring Spanish settlements as the rivalry between the Spanish and British intensified. The first attack took place in 1717 when Spanish and Mayan soldiers entered the area from what is now Guatemala. In the years that followed, Spain made several raids and incursions into various parts of the settlement. British warships were commonly dispatched to the area in response. In times of threat, the settlers at first formed an irregular militia, which was occasionally bolstered by Indians brought in from the Mosquito Coast of what is now Nicaragua and by African slaves from Jamaica. When the threat subsided, the militia disbanded, and residents returned to their usual pursuits, rebuilding what had been destroyed.

After beating back yet another attack in 1754, settlers agreed to build a fort overlooking the harbor near Belize Town and to station a full-time force there. After Spain recognized Britain's right to use the area, the fort was demolished (even though Spain maintained its claim to sovereignty over the area). Hostilities resumed in 1779, however, when local residents fled from Spanish raiders who had kidnapped a number of settlers. This exodus was short-lived; the limits of the British settlement were defined in the Treaty of Versailles in 1783, and British settlers again returned. In 1784 the British governor of Jamaica appointed a superintendent for the settlement (see Beginnings of Self Government and the Plantocracy , ch. 6). Britain also gave the title of commander in chief to the superintendent to enable him, as well as later governors, to organize defense forces. Early the next year, the superintendent established a small garrison.

Spain's last attempt to dislodge the settlers by force took place in 1798 when the Spanish fleet from Yucatán launched an attack on the settlement. Although poorly armed and badly outnumbered, local settlers resisted. Three companies of the British West India Regiment and slaves from Jamaica who had volunteered to serve in exchange for their freedom backed the settlers. The final skirmish involved a sea battle off Saint Georges Cay in which local forces, supported by the British sloop HM Merlin, forced a final Spanish retreat.

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the settlement's defense forces were essentially temporary militia. European settlers routinely led the militia, but in times of hostilities, military commissions were opened to all groups, including freed blacks and slaves who sought manumission through enlistment. Although these arrangements appeared to work satisfactorily during times of external threat, the fear of slave rebellions during the mid-1820s prompted concerns regarding the loyalties of black troops, and the local government sent for three or four companies of British troops from Jamaica.

The settlement's chief strategic threat in the nineteenth century came from Spanish colonies that began to receive their independence. The principal and most long-lasting threat came from Guatemala, which did not accept British territorial claims in the area. In 1827 a Guatemalan gunboat threatened local residents, but for the most part, the two sides aired their differences in the diplomatic arena. In 1862, when Britain declared British Honduras a colony, the borders with both Mexico and Guatemala were still undefined. The border with Mexico was finally established in 1893, but uncertainty over the Guatemalan claim continued to affect the strategic outlook of the crown colony (see Glossary) throughout the twentieth century and was responsible for the continued presence of British troops in the territory well after Belize became an independent state.

The most significant threat to public peace in the nineteenth century resulted from clashes with the Maya. At first British forces countered the Mayan raids. Approximately thirty civil police backed the forces, which were stationed in Belize Town. But as clashes grew more serious, it became necessary to impose a land tax to finance armed troops and to call in British regulars from Jamaica. The last battle with Mayan raiding parties took place in 1872, after which many Maya were forced to retire to reservations in Yucatán (see Mayan Emigration and Conflict , ch. 6).

Another threat to peace throughout the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries came from isolated internal disturbances that generally resulted from economic or social tension. In 1894, for instance, mahogany workers rioted after their wages fell as a result of a currency devaluation. Local police and British troops on a warship in the harbor easily subdued the rioters. In 1919, demobilized Creole (see Glossary) soldiers rioted, after returning from service with the British West India Regiment during World War I, in protest against unemployment, homelessness, and high prices. Order was restored only after martial law was proclaimed. Such disturbances did not seriously threaten public peace but limited outbreaks of public disorder erupted during the 1930s and 1940s, chiefly as a result of harsh economic circumstances, which had contributed to increasing labor militancy (see Interest Groups , ch. 9). By and large, however, British Honduras escaped much of the civil disorder suffered in most of the West Indies (see Glossary) during the period.

During the 1950s, the issue of independence for the colony became a topic of local concern, and by the early 1960s, Britain was willing to support independence. Britain granted the colony internal self-government in 1964 but retained responsibility for defense, internal security, and external relations. Fears arising from Guatemala's continued territorial claims, however, slowed progress toward independence. Between 1962 and 1972, talks between Britain and Guatemala occurred regularly, but even these were abandoned in 1972, after Britain announced it was sending 8,000 servicemen to conduct amphibious exercises in Belize, and other parts of the Caribbean. Guatemala responded by massing troops on the border. Although no violence resulted, Britain thereafter increased the size of its regular garrison to act as a deterrent to Guatemalan adventurism. Talks resumed in 1973 but broke off two years later when Guatemala threatened invasion, first in November 1975 and again in July 1977. Britain responded each time by sending in troops and aircraft. Britain kept a battalion of troops, a flight of fighter aircraft, and one-half squadron of RAF fighters and ground-attack aircraft in Belize after 1975. In all the British contingent grew from some 750 personnel in 1970 to about 1,500 in the mid-1970s. By this time, people living in the colony generally agreed that a continued British military presence would be necessary to guarantee security for an independent Belize.

In March 1981, Britain and Guatemala appeared to reach agreement that would clear the way for independence, with Guatemala accepting Belize's independence in return for specified concessions (see Relations with Guatemala , ch. 9). Violent demonstrations in Belize followed this agreement in April 1981. The government proclaimed a state of emergency to deal with protesters who argued that the legitimate security interests of Belize had not been protected. The agreement on independence collapsed in July 1981 as a result of Guatemala's renewed territorial claims on Belize and the violent reaction to the proposed agreement in Belize.

Nevertheless, Belize achieved independence as scheduled on September 21, 1981, and Britain agreed to continue to garrison troops in Belize and to train the new nation's defense force. Guatemala closed the borders with Belize in protest for several months. In 1984 Britain renewed its assurances to keep British troops on hand until the territorial dispute with Guatemala was resolved. Talks between Britain and Guatemala resumed in 1985, and all three countries began the work to draft a treaty to deal with outstanding economic, political, and territorial issues. Progress was interrupted in November 1988 when a Guatemalan gunboat fired on an unarmed British naval vessel in the disputed Gulf of Honduras. Britain dispatched two Royal Air Force Harrier jets to Belize in response, but the incident was quickly resolved after Guatemala indicated it had only fired warning shots at the vessel, which it claimed had strayed into Guatemalan waters.

Data as of January 1992

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