/bə-li-z/) is a country in Central America, bordered on the north by Mexico, on the south and west by Guatemala, and east by the Caribbean Sea. The origin of the name Belize is unclear, but one idea is that it derives from the Spanish pronunciation of the surname of the pirate who created the first settlement in Belize in 1638, Peter Wallace. Another possibility is that the name is from the Maya word belix, meaning "muddy water", referring to the Belize River.
With 8,867 square miles of territory and a present day population of only 297,651 people
the population density is the lowest in the Central American region and one of the lowest in the world. However, the country's growth rate is 3.5%.
Belize also consists of over 200 cayes (islands), ranging in size from a few hundred feet to 25 miles long and four miles wide, most of which are located inside the 200 mile Belize Barrier Reef, the
second longest reef in the world.
After many centuries of Maya habitation, Spanish, and then British colonizers in the area, Belize has remained the only English speaking country in Spanish-dominated Central America. Nonetheless, Belize has been strongly
influenced by the neighboring Spanish language, cultures, foods and music.
The ethnic diversity of Belize sets it apart from its
neighbors on the Central American mainland and in the Caribbean.
The area now comprising Belize was originally inhabited by the Maya. The Maya civilization rose in the Yucatán Peninsula to the north, spreading to Belize between the 16th century BC and the 4th century AD. Their achievements in mathematics and astronomy were advanced well beyond other comparable cultures of the time. Belize contains the archeological remains of the Mayan cities of Altun Ha, Caracol, Cahal Pech, Lamanai, Lubaantun, Nim Li Punit, Santa Rita, and Xunantunich.
In the late 1600's the British and Scottish (mostly pirates and buccaneers) arrived bringing slaves to harvest the logwoods and hardwoods that were indigenous to the area.
Spain, who had claimed domain over the New World following the discoveries of Columbus, continued to try to dislodge the European settlers, who by this time became known as Baymen. In September of 1779, the Spanish captured St. Georges' Caye, which was the principal dwelling area of the slave owners, taking prisoners and slaves and shipping them to Havana, but, the Baymen resettled the area by 1786. There was another attack on the settlement on September 10, 1798, and, with the help of the African slaves the white settlers won what came to be known as The Battle of St. George's Caye. This started Belize as a colony of Britain.
Throughout the Caribbean slavery was associated with sugar
production. Large numbers of slaves worked on huge plantations and
slave communities developed. This became the typical Caribbean
society, divided by race, culture, and class. In Belize, however,
slaves were used primarily for logging. Therefore, slavery and
Belizean society developed differently from other parts of the
Caribbean and the Americas. Slaves in Belize worked in scattered
groups in the forests, separated from their families in Belize
city. Because of the kind of work they did slaves were able to
maintain some control over their lives. Historical records of
black slaves report that they were "introduced" from
Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba and Bermuda but some were brought directly
from Africa, or from the United States. During this period,
Congoes, Nangoes, Mongolas, Ashantees, Eboes, and other African
tribes could be found in Belize. One section of Belize town was
known throughout the first half of the 19th century as Eboe town.
Blacks are the descendants of slaves brought in to work as woodcutters in the forests. "Creole" is most frequently used to describe this group. The main languages of this group are English and Creole, a patois language.
The Garifuna (pronounced ga-RI-foo-nah) are descendants of West African slaves who were shipwrecked in 1635 off the coast of what is now the island of St. Vincent and intermarried with local Arawak and Carib people. They were expelled from the Eastern Caribbean to the coast of Honduras and from there migrated to Belize in the nineteenth century. Garifuna villages arose on the coasts of Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize. There are now an estimated 250,000 Garifuna people worldwide, a minority culture under pressure from assimilation and coastal development. The Garifuna language is an integral part of their culture.
The Chinese were originally brought as indentured agricultural
labor for the sugar estates of the south in the nineteenth century. Some died from disease and harsh conditions under which they were put to work, others fled to live with the Santa Cruz Maya and the remaining moved into trading and commerce.
Indians were also brought in as indentured agricultural labor for sugar estates in the south of the country in the nineteenth century. They have migrated throughout the country and many have remained in the agriculture sector as
laborers and small farmers. A new group of Chinese and Indian immigrants arrived in the twentieth century, largely concentrating in commerce in the urban areas.
Kekchi, Yucatec and Mopanero "Indians" are often included under the rather generic term "Maya". However, these are different groups living in different areas of the country, with different languages.
Waika "Indians" are descended from migrant labor from the Nicaraguan coast and operated in the forest economy as woodcutters and chicleros.
Europeans include the descendants of the British colonizers, American settlers and other Caucasians. The Mennonites form a part of this group. They are of German descent and came to Belize in the late 1950s from Mexico and Canada. For religious reasons, they have not traditionally participated in the political process, though this is changing in more recent times. They participate in the economic process, producing a variety of food crops for sale on the local and export market and are involved as well in the construction industry.
Belize received its independence from England on September 21, 1981, and 4 days later became a member of the United Nations.
Music and Dance
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, and is sometimes said to be ready for international popularization like similarly-descended styles (reggae, calypso, merengue, etc). Established stars include Andy Palacio, Herman "Chico" Ramos, "Mohobub" Flores, Adrian "The Doc" Martinez, and Lindsford "Supa G" Martinez. A slower, more melodic variant, known as Paranda, has been catching on recently behind the talents of Honduras' Aurelio Martinez and Paul Nabor of Punta Gorda, Belize; Nabor's signature track "Naguya Nei" is considered the informal popular anthem of the Garifuna nation.
Brukdown is a very popular modern style of Belizean music. It evolved out of the music and dance of loggers, especially a form called buru. Its greatest proponents include Wilfred Peters and Gerald "Lord" Rhaburn of Belize City and Leela Vernon of Punta Gorda.
Mestizo culture in north and west Belize, and also Guatemala, is
characterized by marimba, a xylophone-like instrument descended from an African instrument. Marimba bands use trap drums, double bass and sometimes other instruments. Famous performers include Alma Belicena and the Los Angeles Marimba Band.
Spanish music and dance continue to be an integral part of the Belizean culture, as is the Spanish language.
Belize's musical base has expanded considerably in recent years with the addition of local reggae, hip-hop and jazz stars. Belize counts among its local reggae stars Dan Marcus I and Dan Man, as well as other groups. Various hip-hop groups often open for more accomplished international stars at local concerts, and there has even been a jazz revival, with an annual jazz festival and at least three popular jazz music programs on local radio.