From: 13 teen chapters of a history of Belize. 2000. Assad Showman.
The Angelus Press Ltd. Belize City, Belize.
The transformation of the Maya world through contact with European
colonial nations began soon after the coming of Christopher Columbus who initially thought that he
had reached India, and so called the local inhabitants Indians and the Caribbean Sea the West
Indies. Columbus claimed the whole area for Spain, and in 1493 the Pope divided the new world
between Spain and Portugal. Other European Nations largely disregarded the Papal Bull and by the
17th Century, British, French, and Dutch had succeeded in wresting many parts of America from
The Maya were in the terminal-classic period that extended
from 800 to 1508 AD the date of the first Spanish contact with the Maya. Many experts consider that
by the late classic period from 550 to 800 AD the Maya had settled almost all cultivatable
portions of Belize, with coastal and inland locations on trade routes of particular economic
or strategic value. During the classic period from 250 to 800 AD some of the oldest and most
powerful centers were in Belize, including Cuello near Orange Walk dating from 1200 BC, and
Lamanai, La Milpa, Xunantunich, and Caracol. Several sites in Belize also served as trading points
including Ambergris Key and Moho Key. Sarteneja served as a port and an agricultural district, and
an early salt producing area.
Ambergris Key was an important and strategic trading post facing
Corozal near the mouth of the New River and Chetamul near the River Hondo at the base of the
Yucatan Peninsula. Amergris Key traded as widely as Pachuca in central Mexico and the Guatemalan
Highlands. Around 600 AD the Maya constructed a one mile channel at the point where the Belizean
Barrier Coral Reef and land converge, and so created Ambergris Key in Belize and the border with
There were many Maya communities in Belize when the Spanish landed
and then exercised jurisdiction for a century and a half. At that time there was no Belize, no
Mexico, and no Guatemala as countries. Throughout these regions there were many indigenous
societies and civilizations that had contact with each other through trade and occasionally war.
Centralised government never eventuated probably because Mayan religion did
not envision centralisation as part of the cosmological order see Maya Heritage. The Spanish did not conquer the last Maya city on the
Yucatan until 200 years after contact, and the Maya fought for independence in Guatemala into the
last decade of the 20th century, and there was even a Maya uprising in Chiapas, Mexico in
Eric Thompson considered that in 1544 there were at least 50,000 Maya in Belize towns
alone, and that in 1500 before Spanish contact that there were about 200,000. Consequently,
there was a substantial Maya presence in Belize for most of the 16th and 17th
At the time of Spanish contact the Maya lived as organised
societies, practicing religion, and engaging in in agriculture, mining, manufacturing and trading.
Maya society was integrated vertically through reciprocity and was a stratified system in which a
hereditary elite monopolized the substance and emblems of power. The community formed an extended
family to combine forces for the common good and spread the burden and risks evenly among its
members. Collective “corvee” labor was used for public works.
When the Spanish arrived in Belize there were three distinct Maya
polities, the Chetamul province, the Dzuluinicob province, and the area south of the Monkey to
Sarstoon Rivers occupied by the Manche Chol Maya. The Chetamul and Dzuluinicob provinces had
the greatest contact with the Spanish. Chetamul province was a small area around the town of
Chetamul possibly at the Santa Rita Site. However, some consider that Chetamul was south of
Calderitas in Quintana Roo. Chetamul may have encompassed the area across Corozal Bay including the
mouths of the New and Hondo Rivers as far as Progresso Lagoon and was in control of coastal trade.
It is hard to image that Chetamul did not also trade with Sarteneja as a small port within site of
The elite controlled trade and other relations with other
communities and the Maya had extensive trade networks stretching along the entire coast of Southern
Yucatan and Central America, central Mexico, the Guatemalan Highlands and pacific Coast and the
Caribbean as far as Cuba. Most Maya towns in the south east Yucatan produced corn, beans and
other produce, but Chetamul thrived on the production of honey and management of trade.
Dzuluinicob was a province that spoke Yucatec which lay roughly
between Orange Walk and the New (Dzuliunicob) River, then west to Sabal River San Ignatio, with the
city at Benque Viejo de Carmen The Spanish established the Villa of Bacalar in the early 1500’s on
lake Bacalar in present day Quintana Roo. The area was variously under Spanish and Maya control
between 1544 and 1707. The Spanish never conquered further south or west.
The Maya lived in extended families to combine resources for common
interest, and to control inheritance. Common labour was used for various community projects, and
corvee labour demanded by the elite. Traditional Maya society was vertically integrated through
reciprocity, in a stratified system in which a hereditary elite monopolized the substance and
essence of power and the masses took no part in choosing leaders or directly
The Maya had extensive trade networks extending along the coast of
the Southern Yucatan and Central America, central Mexico, the Guatemalan Highlands and Pacific
coast as well as Caribbean islands including Cuba. Most towns of the region produced corn, beans,
with Chetamul in particular producing honey and managing coastal trade from points inland.
Towns of the Dzuluinicob province traded in cocoa and goods between
Peten and Bacalar between the upper Belize River and as far as northern Yucatan.
The Maya at Tipu had a very wide range of idols with animals,
people and especially women, and chimeras between people and animals, with a regularity of dress
and visage that apparently had symbolic meaning. Elizabeth Graham considered that these figures
depicted minor deities similar to Biblical angels (spirits) or saints of
The position of Maya women in society is unclear. The Spanish
invariably asked for contact with males and most Maya kings and leaders were males and therefore
history is male biased in reports. However, there were Maya queens and wives of Maya leaders were
recorded to have strongly influenced some decisions regarding political relationships with the
The first contact of the Spanish with Belize was in 1508 with a
small fleet travelled along the coast. In 1531, following a similar attempt 3 years earlier by a
smaller fleet, the Spanish set out from the Yucatan coast and at the town on Chable, some distance
from Chetamul, were met by Maya lords. In response to Spanish demads for tribute the Maya said
that they would "pay tribute as turkeys in the form of spears and corn in the shape of
When the Spanish arrived at Chetamul it was deserted. The Spanish
set up a base there but the Maya conducted guerrilla raids and finally drove them out in 1532. The
Spanish moved along the coast and inland and found no coastal settlements as the Maya had moved two
or three days travel up the rivers. However, along the rivers the Spanish found no
shortage of settlements to raid for slaves and provisions.
Consequently, Sarteneja was probably largely deserted in 1532 and
almost certainly deserted by Maya after 1544, as below.
In 1544 the Spanish conducted a military expedition against the
Maya in the southern Yucatan and Belize and succeed in conquering Maya settlements as far inland as
Tipu just over the Belizean border in Guatemala.
This expedition was noted for its acts of shocking cruelty “The
captain, with his own hands, committed outrages: he killed many with the garrote .. trying them to
stakes, he cut of the breasts of many women, and hands, and noses and ears off the men, and he tied
squashes to the feet of women and threw them in the lakes to drown merely to amuse himself”.
The Spanish went inland as far as Chanlucan, probably on the New River near Lamanai or around
Progresso Lagoon, and Tipu.
The Maya responded by making Chanlucan the headquarters of a Maya
revolt. In 1567 the Spanish sent a force that extended deep into southern Belize that destroyed
religious symbols, burned native books and forcibly removed part of the population.
J Eric Thomson wrote that there was a Maya language society
called the Chol from Chiapas to the Bay of Honduras and in Belize from the Monkey River to
Sarstoon. One of the main settlements was at Campin perhaps at Cowpen on the Swansey branch of the
Monkey River. This society apparently lived in small scattered settlements with low political
cohesion, but they used the same calendar, religious and agricultural practices as other Maya.
Polygamy was common and transported Manche Col were reported to have died of lovelorness and
vexation from only having one wife.
By 1582 the Spanish had missions in 9 major Belizean towns,
including Lamanai, where town councils ruled and tributes were paid to administrators. In 1615 the
Spanish rounded up people in smaller towns into central villages to increase their control. This
strategy was similar to USA attempts at subjugation using “strategic hamlets” during the Vietnam
War, or against Guatemalans during the 1960s.
However, the Maya continued their resistance against the Spanish
burning and deserting Spanish settlements. In 1642 Lamanai and Zaczuz were burned and deserted.
Around 1642 Franciscans reported that there were coastal towns and went as far south as Zoite and
Cehake near the mouth of the Sittee (or Zoite) River, but privateers were beginning just beginning
to raid and take slaves.
Between Maya resistance inland and to the south, and increasing
attacks by privateers the Spanish deserted Belize and the way in Belize was open for British
colonization and depopulation by slavery. Nevertheless, the inland center of Tipu, in Guatemala,
was finally conquered in 1697 by a Spanish force from the Pacific north bringing to an end the 200
year resistance of the Maya against the Spanish.
The overall Maya population of Central America was estimated at 2.5
million in 1523, but was only 500,000 fifty years later. More than 500,000 slaves were taken and
coastal settlements were depopulated by raids for slaves from Cuba, Hispaniola, and Jamaica.
Slavery was continued by the British, or their Miskitos-Sambos mercenaries from Nicaragua, during
the 18th century often with the population of entire towns being enslaved.
The recorded history of Belize that establishes that the
pre-Spanish invasion, the Belizean population of Maya was about 200,000. In contrast a prominent
British historian, Stephen Caiger, as misleading British colonial propaganda reported that “in
the sixteenth century the country seems to have been virtually uninhabited. Neither the Spanish
(sic) when they crossed it, nor the British when they eventually settled it, met with any
opposition from native tribes”
It would appear that Sarteneja would have been depopulated by Maya
from 1544 and over the period of slave raids until at least the end of slavery in 1834. However,
Sarteneja may have been a settlement of privateers with Maya associates shortly