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Belize: A Brief History of Slavery, Colonialism and Class

Belize is a small country with 8,867 square miles of land and population of only 297,651 people, making it the country with the lowest population density in Central America. It borders borders with Mexico, Guatemala, and the Caribbean Sea. 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.



Belize City- The Capital City

The earliest reference to African slaves in Belize, can be traced to a 1724 Spanish missionary’s account. Slaves were exported to Belize from Jamaica, Bermuda, and other Central American British Colonies. A century later, the total slave population numbered about 2,300. Most slaves were born in Africa, and many at first maintained African ethnic identifications and cultural practices. Gradually, however, slaves assimilated and a new, synthetic Kriol (creole) culture was formed.

The slaves in Belize, were used primarily for logging which was different from the experiences of slaves in other Caribbean countries and the Americas. Slaves in Belize worked in scattered groups in the forests, separated from their families in Belize city. Because of the nature of their work they 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. The black people in Belize are the descendants of slaves brought in to work as woodcutters in the forests.

Slavery in the settlement was associated with the extraction of timber, because treaties forbade the production of plantation crops. Settlers needed only one or two slaves to cut logwood, but as the trade shifted to mahogany in the last quarter of the 18th century, the settlers needed more money, land, and slaves for larger-scale operations. Other slaves worked as domestic helpers, sailors, blacksmiths, nurses, and bakers. The slaves’ experience, though different from that on plantations in other colonies in the region, was nevertheless oppressive. They were often the objects of “extreme inhumanity,” as a report published in 1820 stated. In the 18th century, many slaves escaped to Yucatán, and in the early 19th century a steady flow of runaways went to Guatemala and down the coast to Honduras.

One way the settler minority maintained its control was by dividing the slaves from the growing population of free Kriol people who were given limited privileges. Though some Kriols were legally free, their economic activities and voting rights were restricted. Privileges, however, led many free blacks to stress their loyalty and acculturation to British ways.

The act to abolish slavery throughout the British colonies, passed in 1833, was intended to avoid drastic social changes by effecting emancipation over a five-year transition period, by implementing a system of “apprenticeship” calculated to extend masters’ control over the former slaves, and by compensating former slave owners for their loss of property. After 1838, the masters of the settlement continued to control the country for over a century by denying access to land and by limiting freedmen’s economic freedom

Belize slavesThe Garifuna 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.

Emigration of the Garifuna

At the same time that the settlement was grappling with the ramifications of the end of slavery, a new ethnic group—the Garifuna—appeared. In the early 19th century, the Garifuna, descendants of Carib peoples of the Lesser Antilles and of Africans who had escaped from slavery, arrived in the settlement. The Garifuna had resisted British and French colonialism in the Lesser Antilles until they were defeated by the British in 1796. After putting down a violent Garifuna rebellion on Saint Vincent, the British moved between 1,700 and 5,000 of the Garifuna across the Caribbean to the Bay Islands (present-day Islas de la Bahía) off the north coast of Honduras. From there they migrated to the Caribbean coasts of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and the southern part of present-day Belize. By 1802 about 150 Garifuna had settled in the Stann Creek (present-day Dangriga) area and were engaged in fishing and farming.

Other Garifuna later came to the British settlement of Belize after finding themselves on the wrong side in a civil war in Honduras in 1832. Many Garifuna men soon found wage work alongside slaves as mahogany cutters. In 1841 Dangriga, the Garifuna’s largest settlement, was a flourishing village. The American traveler John Stephens described the Garifuna village of Punta Gorda as having 500 inhabitants and producing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. The British treated Garifuna as squatters so in 1857 the British instructed the Garifuna to obtain leases from the crown or risk losing their lands, dwellings, and other buildings. The 1872 Crown Lands Ordinance established reservations for the Garifuna as well as the Maya. The British prevented both groups from owning land and treated them as a source of valuable labor.


By 1975, the Belizean and British governments were frustrated at dealing with the military-dominated regimes in Guatemala. Between 1975 and 1981, Belizean leaders stated their case for self-determination at a meeting of the heads of Commonwealth of Nations governments, the conference of ministers of the Nonaligned Movement, and at meetings of the United Nations (UN). Latin American governments initially supported Guatemala but between 1975 and 1979, Belize won the support of Cuba, Mexico, Panama, and Nicaragua. Finally, in November 1980, the UN passed a resolution that demanded the independence of Belize.

Belize became independent on September 21, 1981 after the Belize Act, without reaching an agreement with Guatemala