Belize is a country on the eastern coast of Central America, bordered on the north by Mexico, on the south and west by Guatemala, and on the east by the Caribbean Sea. Its mainland is about 180 miles (290 kilometers) long and 68 miles (110 km) wide. It became a British crown colony called British Honduras in 1862 and a self-governing colony in 1964. In June 1973, the colony was renamed Belize and achieved full independence in September 1981. I will recount the colonial and postal history of the British Honduras period in a future A Stamp A Day article. Currently, the government of Belize is a “unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy” with Queen Elizabeth II the monarch, Colville Young the governor-general, and Dean Barrow the prime minister. After much of Belize City was destroyed during a 1961 hurricane, the capital was moved to the newly-constructed city of Belmopan in 1970.
The origin of the name Belize is unclear, but the earliest record of the name is found in the journal of the Dominican priest Fray José Delgado, dating to 1677. Delgado recorded the names of three major rivers that he crossed while travelling north along the Caribbean coast: Rio Soyte, Rio Xibum, and Rio Balis. These names, which correspond to the Sittee River, Sibun River and Belize River, were provided to Delgado by his translator. It is likely that Delgado’s “Balis” was actually the Mayan word belix, meaning “muddy-watered”.
The Maya civilization emerged at least three millennia ago in the lowland area of the Yucatán Peninsula and the highlands to the south, in what is now southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, western Honduras, and Belize. Many aspects of this culture persist in the area despite nearly 500 years of European domination. Prior to about 2500 B.C. some hunting and foraging bands settled in small farming villages; they later domesticated crops such as corn, beans, squash, and chili peppers. A profusion of languages and subcultures developed within the Maya core culture. Between about 2500 B.C. and 250 A.D. the basic institutions of Maya civilization emerged. The peak of this civilization occurred during the classic period, which began around 250 A.D.
The recorded history of the center and south is dominated by Caracol, where the inscriptions on their monuments was, as elsewhere, in the Lowland Maya aristocratic tongue Classic Ch’olti’an. North of the Maya Mountains, the inscriptional language at Lamanai was Yucatecan as of 625 A.D. The last date recorded in Ch’olti’an within Belizean borders is 859 A.D. in Caracol.
Farmers engaged in various types of agriculture, including labor-intensive irrigated and ridged-field systems and shifting slash-and-burn agriculture. Their products fed the civilization’s craft specialists, merchants, warriors, and priest-astronomers, who coordinated agricultural and other seasonal activities with rituals in ceremonial centers. These priests, who observed the movements of the sun, moon, planets, and stars, developed a complex mathematical and calendrical system to coordinate various cycles of time and to record specific events on carved stelae. The Maya were skilled at making pottery, carving jade, knapping flint, and making elaborate costumes of feathers. the architecture of Maya civilization included temples and palatial residences organized in groups around plazas. These structures were built of cut stone, covered with stucco, and elaborately decorated and painted. Stylized carvings and paintings, along with sculptured stelae and geometric patterns on buildings, constitute a highly developed style of art.
Belize boasts many important sites of the earliest Maya settlements, majestic ruins of the classic period, and examples of late postclassic ceremonial construction. The site of Cuello dates from perhaps as early as 2,500 B.C. Jars, bowls, and other dishes found there are among the oldest pottery unearthed in present-day Mexico and Central America. Cerros, a site on Chetumal Bay, was a flourishing trade and ceremonial center between about 300 B.C. and 100 A.D. One of the finest carved jade objects of Maya civilization, the head of what is usually taken to be the sun god Kinich Ahau, was found in a tomb at the classic period site of Altún Ha. Other Maya centers located in Belize include Xunantunich and Baking Pot in Cayo District, Lubaantún and Nimli Punit in Toledo District, and Lamanai on Hill Bank Lagoon in Orange Walk District.
In the late classic period, it is estimated that at least 400,000 people inhabited the area. People settled almost every part of the country worth cultivating, as well as the cay and coastal swamp regions. But in the 10th century, Maya society suffered a severe breakdown. Construction of public buildings ceased, the administrative centers lost power, and the population declined as social and economic systems lost their coherence. Some people continued to occupy, or perhaps reoccupied, sites such as Altún Ha, Xunantunich, and Lamanai. These sites ceased being ceremonial and civic centers. The decline of Maya civilization is still not fully explained. Rather than identifying the collapse as the result of a single factor, many archaeologists now believe that the decline of the Maya was a result of several complex factors and that the decline occurred at different times in different regions.
Archaeological and ethnohistorical research confirms that several groups of Maya peoples lived in the area now known as Belize in the sixteenth century. The political geography of that period does not coincide with present-day boundaries, so several Maya provinces lay across the frontiers of modern Belize, Mexico, and Guatemala. The Mayan province of Chetumal, for example, consisted of the northern part of present-day Belize and the southern coast of the Mexican state Quintana Roo. In the south, crossing the present-day frontier between Belize and Guatemala, were the Mopan Maya, and still farther south, the Ch’ol-speaking Manche groups. In central Belize lay the province of Dzuluinicob, meaning “land of foreigners” or “foreign people.” This province stretched from New River in the north to Sittee River in the south, and from close to the present-day Guatemalan border in the west to the sea. The apparent political center of this province was Tipu, located east of modern Benque Viejo del Carmen. Lamanai, several towns on New River and on Belize River, and Xibún on Sibun River, were included in this province.
Christopher Columbus traveled to the Gulf of Honduras during his fourth voyage. He landed at Puerto Castilla, near Trujillo, Honduras, on August 14, 1502, and spent the next two months exploring the coasts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, before arriving in Almirante Bay in Panama on October 16. In the first decade of the sixteenth century, Juan De Solís sailed northward along the coast of Belize to Yucatán. In 1519 Hernán Cortés conquered Mexico, and Pedro Arias Dávila founded Panama City. Spain soon sent expeditions to Guatemala and Honduras, and the conquest of Yucatán began in 1527.
When Cortés passed through the southwestern corner of present-day Belize in 1525, there were settlements of Ch’ol-speaking Manche in that area. When the Spanish “pacified” the region in the seventeenth century, they forcibly displaced these settlements to the Guatemalan highlands. The Spanish launched their main incursions into the area from Yucatán, however, and encountered stiff resistance from the Mayan provinces of Chetumal and Dzuluinicob. The region became a place of refuge from the Spanish invasion, but the escaping Maya brought with them diseases that they had contracted from the Spanish. Subsequent epidemics of smallpox and yellow fever, along with endemic malaria, devastated the indigenous population.
In the seventeenth century, Spanish missionaries from Yucatán traveled up New River and established churches in Mayan settlements with the intention of converting and controlling these people. One such settlement was Tipu, which was excavated in the 1980s. People occupied the site during preclassic, classic, and postclassic times, and through the conquest period until 1707. Though conquered by the Spanish in 1544, Tipu was too far from the colonial centers of power to be effectively controlled for long. Thousands of Maya fled south from Yucatán in the second half of the 16th century, and the people of Tipu rebelled against Spanish authority. The town was apparently too important to ignore because of its proximity to the Itzá of the Lago Petén Itzá region of present-day Guatemala. In 1618 and 1619, two Franciscans, attempting to convert the people built a church in Tipu. In 1638 a period of resistance began there, and by 1642, the entire province of Dzuluinicob was in a state of rebellion. The Maya abandoned eight towns at this time, and some 300 families relocated in Tipu, the center of rebellion. In the 1640s, the town’s population totaled more than 1,000.
Piracy along the coast increased during this period. In 1642, and again in 1648, pirates sacked Salamanca de Bacalar, the seat of Spanish government in southern Yucatán. The abandonment of Bacalar ended Spanish control over the Mayan provinces of Chetumal and Dzuluinicob. Between 1638 and 1695, the Maya living in the area of Tipu enjoyed autonomy from Spanish rule. But in 1696, Spanish soldiers used the town as a base from which they subdued the area and supported missionary activities. In 1697 the Spanish conquered the Itzá, and in 1707, the Spanish forcibly resettled the inhabitants of Tipu to the area near Lago Petén Itzá. The political center of the Mayan province of Dzuluinicob ceased to exist at the time that British colonists were becoming increasingly interested in settling the area.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Spain tried to maintain a monopoly on trade and colonization in its New World colonies, but northern European powers were increasingly attracted to the region by the potential for trade and settlement. These powers resorted to smuggling, piracy, and war in their efforts to challenge and then destroy Spain’s monopoly. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch, English, and French encroached on Spain’s New World possessions.
Early in the seventeenth century, English buccaneers began cutting logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum) in southeastern Mexico and on the Yucatán Peninsula. This was used in the production of a textile dye. According to legend, one of these buccaneers, Peter Wallace, called “Ballis” by the Spanish, settled near and gave his name to the Belize River as early as 1638. English buccaneers began using the coastline as a base from which to attack Spanish ships. Buccaneers stopped plundering Spanish logwood ships and started cutting their own wood in the 1650s and 1660s. Logwood extraction then became the main reason for the English settlement for more than a century.
A 1667 treaty, in which the European powers agreed to suppress piracy, encouraged the shift from buccaneering to cutting logwood and led to more permanent settlement. During the winter of 1717-1718 the notorious pirate Blackbeard, also known as Edward Teach, harassed shipping sailing to and from the port of Vera Cruz, Mexico, while sailing in the Bay of Honduras. In April of 1718, Blackbeard captured the logwood cutting sloop Adventure at Turneffe Atoll, and forced its captain David Herriot to join him. Blackbeard then made Israel Hands captain of the Adventure and began sailing for North Carolina.
Conflict continued between Britain and Spain over the right of the British to cut logwood and to settle in the region. In 1717 Spain expelled British cutters from the Bay of Campeche west of the Yucatán. During the eighteenth century, the Spanish attacked the British settlers repeatedly. The Spanish never settled in the region, however, and the British always returned to expand their trade and settlement. The 1763 Treaty of Paris conceded to Britain the right to cut logwood but asserted Spanish sovereignty over the territory. When war broke out again in 1779, the British settlement was abandoned until the Treaty of Versailles in 1783 allowed the British to again cut wood in the area. By that time, however, the logwood trade had declined and Honduras mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) had become the chief export.
The British were reluctant to set up any formal government for the settlement for fear of provoking the Spanish. On their own initiative, settlers had begun electing magistrates to establish common law as early as 1738. In 1765 these regulations were codified and expanded into Burnaby’s Code. When the settlers began returning to the area in 1784, Colonel Edward Marcus Despard was named superintendent to oversee the Settlement of Belize in the Bay of Honduras. The 1786 Convention of London allowed the British settlers to cut and export timber but not to build fortifications, establish any form of government, or develop plantation agriculture. Spain retained sovereignty over the area.
Despite treaties banning local government and plantation agriculture, both activities flourished.. During this period, a few wealthy settlers gained control of the local legislature, known as the Public Meeting, as well as of most of the settlement’s land and timber. These settlers claimed about four-fifths of the available land; owned about half of all slaves; controlled imports, exports, and the wholesale and retail trades; and determined taxation. A group of magistrates, whom they elected from among themselves, had executive as well as judicial functions. The landowners resisted any challenge to their growing political power.
The last Spanish attack on the British settlement, the Battle of St. George’s Caye, occurred on September 10, 1798. The British repelled the Spanish fleet in a short engagement with no known casualties on either side. The anniversary of the battle is a national holiday in Belize and is celebrated to commemorate the “first Belizeans” and the defence of their territory.
In the early nineteenth century, the British sought greater control over the settlers, threatening to suspend the Public Meeting unless it observed the government’s instructions to eliminate slavery outright. Slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, As a result of their slaves’ superior abilities in the work of mahogany extraction, slave owners in the region were compensated at £53.69 per slave on average, the highest amount paid in any British territory. However, the end of slavery did little to change the former slaves’ working conditions. A series of institutions were put in place to restrict the ability of individuals to obtain land, in a debt-peonage system to organise the newly freed. The position of being “extra special” mahogany and logwood cutters undergirded the early ascriptions of the capacities (and consequently the limitations) of people of African descent in the colony. Because a small elite controlled the settlement’s land and commerce, former slaves had no choice but to continue to work in timber cutting.
In 1836, after the emancipation of Central America from Spanish rule, the British claimed the right to administer the region. In 1862, Great Britain formally declared it a British Crown Colony, subordinate to Jamaica, and named it British Honduras, a name that lasted until it was officially renamed Belize on June 1, 1973. Progress toward independence, however, was hampered by a Guatemalan claim to sovereignty over Belizean territory.
The first stamps issued for the newly-renamed Belize appeared on June 1, 1973, and used stamps of the former British Honduras overprinted with BELIZE and two stars in black on a silver panel. These are listed in the Scott catalogue in its proper place in the alphabet (after Belgium) but numbered following the issues of British Honduras. Thus, this first thirteen-stamp release is numbered Scott #312-324. The first issue without overprinting were those marking Princess Anne’s wedding issued on November 14, 1973 (Scott #325-326).
Belize was granted independence on September 21, 1981. Guatemala refused to recognize the new nation because of its longstanding territorial dispute with the British colony, claiming that Belize belonged to Guatemala. About 1,500 British troops remained in Belize to deter any possible incursions. Throughout Belize’s history, Guatemala has claimed ownership of all or part of Belizean territory. This claim is occasionally reflected in maps showing Belize as Guatemala’s twenty-third department. As of September 2016, the border dispute with Guatemala remains unresolved and quite contentious. Guatemala’s claim to Belizean territory rests, in part, on Clause VII of the Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty of 1859, which obligated the British to build a road between Belize City and Guatemala.
Independence was marked philatelically on September 21, 1981 with a number of earlier Belizean stamps and souvenir sheets overprinted INDEPENDENCE / 21 SEPT., 1981 in black or gold. There are several varieties of overprints — one in all capital letters applied to stamps released in May 1981 marking the 75th anniversary of the International Rotary Club (Scott #563-571); overprints in upper- and lower-case letters, italicized on horizontal stamps but upright on vertical stamps, applied to the seashell stamps of January 1980 (Scott #572-587); and upright capitals on a pair of souvenir sheets (Scott #588-589). A “proper” independence issue was also released on December 18, 1981, in a set of six stamps (Scott #594-599), with a souvenir sheet following on February 10, 1982 (Scott #600).
In 1990, the United Kingdom announced that it would end its military involvement in Belize, and the RAF Harrier detachment was withdrawn the same year, having remained stationed in the country continuously since its deployment had become permanent there in 1980. British soldiers were withdrawn in 1994, but the United Kingdom left behind a military training unit to assist with the newly created Belize Defence Force.
A combination of natural factors — climate, the Belize Barrier Reef, over 450 offshore Cayes (islands), excellent fishing, safe waters for boating, scuba diving, and snorkelling, numerous rivers for rafting, and kayaking, various jungle and wildlife reserves of fauna and flora, for hiking, bird watching, and helicopter touring, as well as many Maya ruins — support the thriving tourism and ecotourism industry. It also has the largest cave system in Central America.
Belize is a fairly heavy issuer of stamps, the majority of which are topical issues such as those picturing birds, portraying sporting events or royal birthdays and the like. However, there are occasional issues that focus on more local subjects. An example is a set of four stamps and one souvenir sheet released on November 14, 1983, marking Mayan monuments (Scott #680-684). Lithographed and perforated 13½x14, the stamps portray Altún Ha (10 cents), Xunantunich (15 cents), Cerros (75 cents), and Lamanai (2 dollars).
Scott #684, the $3 souvenir sheet, pictures a view of Xunantunich different to that on the 15 cent stamp. This is a Mayan archaeological site in western Belize, about 80 miles (130 km) west of Belize City, in the Cayo District. Xunantunich is located atop a ridge above the Mopan River, well within sight of the Guatemala border — which is a mere 1 kilometer (0.62 mi) to the west. It served as a Maya civic ceremonial center in the Late and Terminal Classic periods to the Belize Valley region. At this time, when the region was at its peak, nearly 200,000 people lived in Belize.
Xunantunich’s name means “Stone Woman” in the Maya language (Mopan and Yucatec combination name), and, like many names given to Mayan archaeological sites, is a modern name; the ancient name is currently unknown. The “Stone Woman” refers to the ghost of a woman claimed by several people to inhabit the site, beginning in 1892. She is dressed completely in white, and has fire-red glowing eyes. She generally appears in front of “El Castillo”, ascends the stone stairs, and disappears into a stone wall.
There is evidence of Xunantunich being settled as early as the ceramic phase of the Preclassic period. The findings have been insubstantial to prove that Xunantunich was a site of importance. It was not until the Samal phase in 600-670 A.D. that Xunantunich began to grow significantly in size. Architectural constructions boomed in the Hats’ Chaak phase (670-750) when Xunantunich’s connection with the polity Naranjo solidified. Left in a state of abandonment in approximately 750 A.D. due to an unknown violent event (possibly an earthquake), Xunantunich did not re-establish itself as a strong presence in the region until the Tsak’ phase in 780-890.
During a time period when most of Mayan civilizations were crumbling, Xunantunich was managing to expand its city and its power over other areas within the valley. It lasted a century longer than most of the sites within the region. It is known that Xunantunich superseded Buenavista as the hub of sociopolitical administration for the upper valley, in addition to the main location for elite ancestral and funeral rites and ceremonies. One theory is the move was made due to political strife in the lowlands due to neighbors vying for control over Buenavista, and that Xunantunich was a much more easily defensible site (located on top of a hill).
Farmers that fed the people living in Xunantunich typically lived in small villages, divided into kin-based residential groups. The farms were spread out widely over the landscape, though the center of Xunantunich itself is rather small in comparison. These villages were economically self-sufficient, which may be the reason why Xunantunich lasted as long as they did; they were not dependent on the city to provide for them. Settlement density was relative to soil quality, proximity to rivers, and localized political histories. Since the farmers were long established on their plots of land, they would not want to be involved with a polity that was under constant upheaval due to invading forces and more. Other nearby Maya archaeological sites include Chaa Creek and Cahal Pech, Buenavista del Cayo, and Naranjo.
The first modern explorations of the site were conducted by Thomas Gann in the mid-1890s. Gann moved from Britain and served as the district surgeon and district commissioner of Cayo, British Honduras, starting in 1892. He chose this area to settle in because he had an interest in Mayan archaeology, and he wished to be able to explore the (at the time) unknown wonders of the indigenous people. Gann’s successor, Sir J. Eric S. Thompson, implemented a more methodical approach, and was able to establish the region’s first ceramic chronology.
The core of the city Xunantunich occupies about one square mile (2.6 km²), consisting of a series of six plazas surrounded by more than 26 temples and palaces. As a polity in whole, Xunantunich contains 140 mounds per square kilometers One of Xunantunich’s better known structures is the pyramid known as “El Castillo” (not to be confused with the El Castillo at Chichen Itza). The site is broken up into four sections — Group A, Group B, Group C, and Group D, with Group A being central and most significant to the people. Prior to the seventh century, the site was mainly occupied by small houses, formulating the occasional village. With the architectural boom in the Samal phase, we see the extreme importance of cosmological and political placing of the monuments in relation to the axis mundi (the heart of the site).
The second tallest structure in Belize (after the temple at Caracol), at some 130 feet (40 meters) tall, El Castillo is the axis mundi of the site, or the intersection of the two cardinal lines. Evidence of construction suggests the temple was built in two stages (the earlier dubbed Structure A-6-2nd, which dates to around 800 AD, and the later Structure A-6-1st). Structure A-6-2nd had three doorways, whereas Structure A-6-1st only had doors on the north and south. The pyramid lays underneath a series of terraces. The fine stucco or “friezes” are located on the final stage. The northern and southern friezes have eroded, and the others were covered during the reconstruction and over time. There is a plaster mold on the Eastern wall frieze, each section of which is broken up by framing bands of plaited cloth or twisted cords (which represent celestial phenomena). The frieze depicts the birth of a god associated with the royal family, gods of creation, as well as the tree of life (which extends from the underworld, the earth, and the heavens).
On July 19, 2016, a team lead by Jaime Awe discovered an untouched burial chamber attached to a larger building. It is considered to be one of the largest Mayan burial chambers found within the last 100 years. The chamber contained the corpse of a male, aged between 20 and 30 years. The chamber also contained a number ceramic vessels, obsidian knives, jade pearls, animal bones and some other artifacts made of stone.