Like the neighbouring regions of Guatemala and Mexico, this area was inhabited for thousands of years by the Mayan people. They are still here, an important part of the people and culture of Belize. Although the Spanish Empire claimed the area in the 16th century, the Spanish made little progress in settling it. The British initially settled on the coast and offshore islands for timber. In 1798, British troops in Belize defeated the Spanish who tried to drive them out in the Battle of St. George’s Caye, the anniversary of which is still celebrated on 10 September.
The British colony of Honduras came into being in the 19th century. Initially, Africans were brought here as slaves, but slavery was abolished in 1838. Many refugees from the Yucatán Caste War of the 19th century fled the conflict and settled in Belize, especially in the northern part.
The government of Guatemala has long claimed to have inherited the original 15th century Spanish claim to Belize. Although the British were ready to grant independence to British Honduras as early as the mid-1960s, this ongoing dispute played a major role in delaying full independence for Belize until 1981, long after London had granted independence to other former colonies in the region. Guatemala refused to recognise an independent Belize until 1991 and to this day claims almost all Belizean territory south of Belize City. The issue remains sensitive, especially in the southern half of Belize.
Belize escaped the bloody civil wars of the 1980s that engulfed much of Central America, and refugees from the Guatemalan conflict arrived, settling mainly in the west. Although Belize is not immune to the drug-related crime and extreme poverty of its neighbours, it is a relatively safe destination in a conflict-ridden part of the world. Belize has particularly close diplomatic and economic ties with the UK and the US.
Tourism has become the mainstay of the economy, while the former agricultural products – sugar, bananas and oranges – have lost importance. The country continues to be plagued by high unemployment, increasing involvement in the South American drug trade and rising urban crime. In 2006, commercial quantities of oil were discovered in the Spanish Lookout region.