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Mon, 09.21.1981

Belize Gains Independence From Britain

*On this date in 1981, Belize gained independence from Britain. The History of Belize dates back thousands of years.

The Maya civilization spread into the area of Belize between 1500 BC to 1200 BC and flourished until about 1000 AD. Several Maya ruin sites reflect the advanced civilization and much denser population of that period. The first recorded European invasions in the region were made by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries in the 16th century. One attraction of the area was the availability of timber, which also brought British invaders. The earliest reference to African slaves in the British settlement appeared in a 1724 Spanish missionary's account, which stated that the British recently had been importing them 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 slaves at first maintained African ethnic identifications and cultural practices. Gradually, however, slaves assimilated, and a new, synthetic Kriol culture was formed. Slavery in the settlement was associated with the extraction of timber because treaties forbade the production of plantation crops. As the trade shifted to mahogany in the last quarter of the 18th century, the slave owners needed more money, land, and slaves for larger-scale operations. The chattel slave experience, though different from that on plantations in other colonies in the region, was oppressive. They were frequently 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 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. In the early 19th century, the Garifuna, descendants of indigenous people 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 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. 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. While the settlement was grappling with the ramifications of the end of slavery, and the ethnic group the Garifuna. 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 British treated Garifuna as squatters. In 1857 the British told the Garifuna that they must obtain leases from the crown or risk losing their lands, dwellings, and other buildings.

Belize was not formally termed the "Colony of British Honduras" until 1862. It became a crown colony in 1871. Several constitutional changes were enacted to expand representative government. 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. Internal Self-Government was granted in January 1964. The official name of the territory was changed from British Honduras to Belize in June 1973, and full independence was granted on September 21, 1981.

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