The British versus the Maya
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Sunday May 17, 2015

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Andy Chuc
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The British versus the Maya

In the past, some historians claimed that when the British settlers came in the 17th century, Belize was uninhabited. But we have seen that the Maya still lived in the area. As the British moved deeper into the interior they came into contact with them.

The Maya strongly resisted British attempts to take over their territory. In 1788, the British reported a Maya attack on woodcutters at New River. In 1802 some troops were ordered to "be sent up river to punish the Indians who are committing depredations upon the mahogany works". There were many such conflicts throughout the 19th century.

Despite their strong resistance, the Maya were forced back by the British. By 1839, they had retreated into the forests around San Ignacio. But they did not stop fighting. The Maya continued to attack mahogany camps and to control inland areas of Belize.

In 1866, the Maya leader Marcos Canul led a raid on a mahogany camp at Qualm Hill on the Rio Bravo in what is today the Orange Walk District. Two men died and a ransom was demanded for the captured prisoners. Mestizo familyThe Maya also demanded rent to be paid for the use of the land the British occupied. Later that year Canul's army defeated a detachment of British troops. Five British soldiers were killed and 16 wounded.

The settlers were very scared. The British sent more troops and weapons, went into Maya villages and burnt their houses and fields. Their intention was to drive the Maya out by destroying their food supplies. Over the next five years the Maya rebuilt their villages and replanted their fields. Canul and his men continued to fight. In 1870 they took over Corozal Town. In 1872 they attacked the British barracks at Orange Walk, New River but they could not capture it. Canul was mortally wounded, and they retreated. This was the last major Maya attack on the British.

The British had been determined to get the Maya from their lands so they could cut mahogany in the areas surrounding the colony. They saw them as an obstacle to their mahogany business. They felt the Maya could provide them with cheap labour, and try to prevent them from owing land. In 1867, Governor Austin ruled that "No Indians will be at liberty to reside upon or occupy or cultivate any land without previous payment or engagement to pay rent whether to the Crown or the owner of the land".

By 18XX, the British wanted to attract white settlers to the land. Refugees from the United States Civil War were encouraged to settle in Belize and farm. The Maya, who had farmed the interior of Belize for hundreds of years, were forced off their land.

Photograph courtesy Andy Chuc

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