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HISTORY > Spanish/British Discovery and Settlement

The early exploration and settlement of Belize can be pieced together from the journals and letters of Spanish explorers, though identifying landmarks and villages mentioned in these accounts is often difficult. Probably the first Europeans to see the Cockscomb Range in the Maya Mountains were the Spanish explorers Pinzón and De Solis in 1506 or 1508.

1524 map of the Gulf of Mexico from the Cortés voyage. The map's orientation has south at top. In this section, the western tip of Cuba (Cabo San Antonio) is at left, and the Rio Panuco is at right. Yucatan is depicted inaccurately as an island.

Hernan Cortez

In 1524, the famous conquistador (Spanish conqueror) Hernan Cortés with about 140 soldiers and three thousand Indians, traversed the Southwest corner of Belize, and that the crossing of the rapids described by one of his men were actually the falls of Gracias a Dios on the Sarstoon River.

There is little evidence of Spanish exploration after the mid 16th century with the exception of a journey by a Dominican priest, Fray Joseph Delgado, who in 1677 traveled the length of Belize to Bacalar. Along the way, he was captured and stripped by some English near the Rio de Texoc, thought to be the Mullins River. This incident shows that the British were established on the coast at this time.

Buccaneers roamed the Caribbean from the late 16th to the late 17th century. Sometimes acting under the authority of European sovereigns, but more often without it, the buccaneers raided the Spanish treasure ships, and hid among the coral reefs and lagoons off the coast of what is now Belize.

Buccaneer Ships
Examples of Buccaneer Ships

During the second half of the 17th century, a number of woodcutting establishments grew up on the coasts of Yucatan, including Belize. For nearly 200 years, the Yucatan peninsula was the main source of logwood. Logwood is a small tree which provides dye for cloth in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Logwood
Close-up of logwood leaves from Belize

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain and England continually vied for control of the West Indies as well as waged war throughout Europe. The British logwood cutters were a constant thorn in the side of the Spanish and the small settlement at the mouth of the Belize River (Belize City today) is one of the most ransacked settlements in the new world.

One of the darkest periods in the settlements history occurred in September of 1779 when the Commandant of Bacalar surprised the residents of St. George's Caye with a Spanish fleet of 19 vessels. Approximately 140 prisoners and 250 slaves were captured and shipped to Havana for three years. During that period, the settlement of logwood cutters nearly died.

Fort George, Belize
Fort George from the mouth of Belize River. ca 1828

Finally, the long years of tension, attacks and imprisonment culminated in the Battle of St. Georges Caye between September 3 and 10, 1798. Once again a fleet of Spanish ships set sail from Bacalar in an attempt to remove the British interlopers. After several unsuccessful attempts, the Spanish fleet retreated to Bacalar, never again to try and dislodge the British.

MayanSpanish/BritishCaste WarRecent

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