People & Culture

Belize Ethnic Groups


History & Culture of Belize

Belize is a small, friendly English speaking country south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Unlike most of Central America, Belize has not suffered violent civil conflict or repression.

Indigenous people

The Maya were the first to inhabit the land referred to as La Ruta Maya, whose territory also included Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. From as early as 9000 B.C.E. they flourished as a master civilization, constructing impressive ceremonial centers and villages, until their mysterious disappearance in 1000 C.E.

Today, about 12% of the population of Belize are Maya. At the peak of the vast Mayan empire, archeologists estimate that 1 to 2 million Mayans lived within the borders of Belize.

Colonial history

The Spanish were the first to lay claim to the area now known as Belize, having colonized the area now know as Belize in the 16th and 17th centuries. The British, however, were the first to actually settle in the territory. Pirates sheltered inside the reef, using the small cayes as a base for attack against Spanish ships. By the late 1600’s many British settled along the coast, making their living cutting logwood. These British settlers came to depend on slave labor for the harsh logging work in Belize.

Many skirmishes between the British Baymen and the Spanish arose, for the Spanish still claimed control of the area. The showdown came on September 10, 1798, at St. George’s Caye when Baymen chased Spanish ships away from what had come to be known as British Honduras. The date is still celebrated as a national holiday in Belize.

Ethnically diverse culture

In the days of the Baymen, work crews of slaves accompanied their owners to the logging camps in the interior of Belize. According to a 1790 census, 75 percent of the territory’s residents were slaves, 10 percent were whites, and the rest were free blacks. Ignored by the census were the Mayan Indian communities.

Belize society today is ethnically diverse and culturally rich. Historically it is a country of immigrants, with even most of the Mayan tracing their roots to Mexico or Guatemala. The ancestors of the mestizo population lived at one time in the Yucatan. Both groups of Belizeans – the Creoles and the Garifunas – trace their origins to Africa by way of the Caribbean.

During most of this century Creoles were the largest ethnic group, followed by mestizos, Garifunas, and Mayas. As of the 1991 census mestizos outnumbered the Creoles. This multi ethnic country is also home to communities of German Mennonites, Chinese, East Indians, and immigrants from the Middle East.