Monday, August 15, 2016

Belize and the Bucaneers

I first heard of the nation of Belize while reading the introduction to Colin Woodard’s excellent book, The Republic of Pirates. In it, Woodard states that he decided to write the book while vacationing in Belize. He also notes that the tiny nation is one of the few places on earth where the original accent of 18th century pirates lingers on.

The accent of the region sounds like the Caribbean to me…. Which makes sense, because the area was inhabited by Mayans, Spanish, English, and Africans. To me, the sound of Belezian words is one of the most beautiful in the world.



Belize history starts with the Maya. Maya civilization emerged at least three millennia ago in the lowland area of the Yucatán Peninsula and the highlands to the south. A wide variety of languages and subcultures developed within the Maya core culture. The peak of this civilization occurred during the classic period, which began about 250 AD.

The Maya civilization flourished in the area of Belize until about 900 AD. In the late Classic Era of Maya civilization (600–1000 AD), as many as 1 million people may have lived in the area that is now Belize. Many aspects of this culture persist in the area despite nearly 500 years of European domination.

 Photo by Ian Mackenzie from Ottawa, Canada Xunantunich, Belize

It is believed that the region takes its name from the Belize River. Though many legends surround the name, ranging from the names of discoverers to corruption of colorful Spanish words, most authorities today think that the river’s name is simply the Mayan word for “muddy.”

Though Belize had several Mayan city-centers, and may have been home to over a million people in classic Mayan times, it was not attractive to the conquering Spanish. Local farmers raised crops of squash, beans, peppers and corn, but did not have reserves of gold or jewels.


When the conquistadors “pacified” what is now Mexico, the region of Belize was largely overlooked. This led to the are becoming a haven for natives trying ot escape Spanish enslavement and forced religious conversion. Unfortunately, refugees fleeing from the conquerors had already been exposed to European diseases such as smallpox.  By the mid 1500’s the population was decimated.

But the native people still held to their traditions. The region of Tipu, today only and archaeological site, was continuously repopulated by incoming refugees. Though technically conquered by the Spanish, the area was too far from the main population centers to be closely controlled.  In 1638 the natives began to resist the Spanish, and by 1642 the area was in all out rebellion. Over 300 native families, from 8 towns, relocated to Belize.

Aiding the natives in their fight for freedom were the local pirates. In 1642 and again in 1648, pirates sacked Salamanca de Bacalar, the seat of Spanish government in southern Yucatán. After the second devastating attack, the Spanish withdrew from the region.


Local people remained free until 1696. But then the Spanish came back in force. The transported the people and razed Tipu in 1707. From that time on, the area was a haven only for pirates, buccaneers, escaped slaves, and the few natives who still strove to escape their Spanish masters.

The English were becoming interested in the area, but early English settlers were, to put it mildly, wild men. These were some of the original “buccaneers.”  Groups of independent individuals created rough seaside settlements, where they hunted wild game, mostly pigs, and cured the meat by smoking it on wooden frames. These frames went by the French world “boucan” which in turn gave their name to the product produced on them – “bacon” and “barbecue” – and to the men who used them – boucaneers or buccaneers.

Buccaneers in a canoe attacking a Spanish galleon 

When not producing delicious smoked meats, some settlements of buccaneers used native canoes to attack shipping that wandered too close to their shores. They also cut local timber. A native tree known as “logwood” produced a valuable dye. Logwood cutters lived independently ruing themselves by the equivalent of town meetings.

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. The 1670 Godolphin Treaty between Spain and England confirmed English possession of countries and islands that England already occupied. Unfortunately, those colonies were not named and ownership of the coastal area remained unclear. In 1717 Spain expelled British logwood cutters from the Bay of Campeche west of the Yucatán. This action had the unintended effect of enhancing the significance of the growing British settlement near the Belize River.

A boucan

The first British settlers lived a rough and disorderly life. According to Captain Nathaniel Uring, who was shipwrecked and forced to live with the logwood cutters for several months in 1720, the buccaneers were "generally a rude drunken Crew, some of which have been Pirates." He said he had "but little Comfort living among these Crew of ungovernable Wretches, where was little else to be heard but Blasphemy, Cursing and Swearing."

A twenty-first century archaeological dig in the area produced an enormous number of broken clay pipes. Archaeologists claimed to have never seen anything like it. So apparently, smoking went right along with drinking and swearing. 




During the 18th century, the Spanish attacked the British settlers repeatedly. In 1717, 1730, 1754, and 1779 the Spanish forced the British to leave the area. The Spanish never settled in the region, however, and the British always returned to expand their trade and settlement. The conflict remained until the logwood trade faded, and the locals began to cut mahogany instead.

On their own initiative and without recognition by the British government, the settlers had begun annual elections of magistrates to establish common law for the settlement as early as 1738. In 1765 Rear Admiral Sir William Burnaby, commander-in-chief of Jamaica, arrived in the settlement and codified their regulations into a document known as Burnaby's Code. When the settlers began returning to the area in 1784, the governor of Jamaica named Colonel Edward Marcus Despard as superintendent to oversee the Settlement of Belize.

England held the area, calling in British Honduras for a time, and larger landowners began to import African slaves from Jamaica. The usual horrible stories of inhumanity and mistreatment ensued, but slavery was abolished in 1838. The African-Belizian people had profound effect on the areas food, customs and language.

Belize gained its independence in 1981. Today tourism is a major part of the economy, providing 25% of jobs. The country is still a rough-and-tumble place, however, with a national murder rate similar to downtown Detroit. Still the government is continually working to increase safety for travelers. Vacations here are budget-friendly, and a careful tourist can enjoy tropical weather, wonderful food, and a piratical history.  

tourists in belize


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