While touching up on some facts and history about Belize City, I noticed how small the population was, just shy of 58,000 people. I knew that it was once the capital city (that honor now belongs to Belmopan which is significantly smaller at 14,000), but for some reason I thought the city was bigger, if for no other reason than it is a much talked about tourist destination. In case you’re wondering, I know I was, King Edward Point of the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands is the smallest capital city in the world with a population of 18 folks. But I guess when the total population of the country is only 350,000, you have to expect that there won’t be much room for large cities. With such few inhabitants of the country, Belize has the lowest population density of all Central American countries. But don’t let that fool you as their growth rate is one of the highest in the Western hemisphere, so all those wide open spaces won’t be there for too much longer!
Belize is the only country in Central America that has English as its official language, which is likely a big reason it is such a travel hot spot for Americans, but there are eight recognized regional languages which helps to showcase their diversity in culture and history. Originally part of the British Empire and formally known as the British Honduras until 1973 (in hindsight, what a good PR move changing that name, with Honduras being home to the murder capital of the world), Belize was previously under Mayan control as a territory of the Yucatán Peninsula. The Spanish tried to colonize the country, but due to the perceived lack of natural resources and the stern Mayan defense, the Spaniards were thwarted – for a time at least.
The Battle of St. George’s Caye was the Spaniards’ seventh attempt at colonizing what is now known as Belize. The battle lasted from September 3rd to the 10th and it pitted Great Britain and Spain against one another, both claiming rights to the territory. Spain assumed it was theirs because they occupied and controlled both Mexico and Guatemala, but Britain had been in Belize for nearly 150 years at the time of this conflict. The 10th was the day the brunt of the battle was bore, as the Spaniards previous attempts to gain footing on the soil failed. On that final day, the Baymen (the British settlers in Belize) were able to defeat the Spaniards and send them on their way, thus leading to British control for nearly another 200 years after the seven-day battle.
As previously mentioned, Belize City was once the capital of Belize, but Hurricane Hattie’s devastation in 1961 pushed the government further inland, much to the disdain of the inhabitants of the former capital. The bureaucrats hoped the constituents would follow, but they chose to stick in the more active and metropolitan Belize City. The city is divided into north and south by a swing bridge at the mouth of the Haulover Creek, where the Belize River meets the Caribbean. The bridge is the only manually-moved swing bridge left in operation in the world, and it swings open twice a day to allow large boats to pass by. It does so once at ‘rush’ hour in the evening, creating significant traffic jams. Plan accordingly!
Another attraction that brings in locals and tourists alike is the Museum of Belize. Built in 1857, it was formerly a jailhouse known as Her Majesty’s Prison. Inside you’ll tour through nearly 400 years of Belize history and 3,000 years of Mayan culture. For example, you will find an originally preserved jail cell, but don’t get too comfortable, they no longer have ‘three hots and a cot’ to keep you cozy and full. Other attractions include the Buenavista Vase, with a depiction of the mythical Mayan Hero Twins, and the earliest stamp of Queen Victoria from 1837 – I imagine its current value is far greater than that with which it is adorned!
My father was a US diplomat and I lived in Guatemala in the late 50’s and early 60’s from when I was 6 until I was 11. At the time (and probably still now) Guatemala claimed that Belize was Guatemalan territory, “Belize es nuestro”. All national maps had Belize in Guatemala as another province, next to El Petén (where Tikal is).
Northern Belize is Maya, central and southern coastal Belize are Afro-Carribean, with a strong Garifuna population in the south. (The Garifuna are a fascinating group, look them up.) There are a lot of Mennonite farmers in the center of the country around Belmopan.