The mesmerizing tale of how Belize got its name

With numerous discussions circulating about the Battle of St. George’s Caye and our first settlers, as a Belizean, have you ever wondered how the country got its name “Belize”? Many Belizeans are aware that the country was formerly known as British Honduras, then in 1973 its name was officially changed to Belize. The name of our country “Belize”, as many tourists have noted, is very exotic and unique and over the years has generated various “origin” stories. The origin of the name is unclear; however, as you will clearly see in the facts stated below, there exist two popularly espoused possibilities of the etymology of the name Belize.

The first, one of the more logical origin stories, was probably derived from the earliest records of the settlement found in a journal dated back to 1677 belonging to a Dominican priest named Fray Jose Delgado, as noted in Alan Twigg’s book, Understanding Belize: A Historical Guide. Since the Mayans were the first settlers of the country, it is believed that the name was provided by the priest’s translator and originated from the Mayan word “Balix,” which means “muddy waters,” referring to the Belize River, or from another derivation of the Mayan word “Belikin,” meaning “land facing the sea,” referring to the coast — both of which were names of popular settlements of the ancient Mayas.

Another possibility, noted in the Encyclopedia Britannica, is that the name was assigned by the Scottish buccaneer Captain Peter Wallace, who was credited in the 1827 Almanack with discovering the mouth of the Belize River. He used the river as a place of retreat and began a settlement around Belize River ca. 1638. The story goes that Wallace, or his followers, gave his own name to Belize, but since the Spaniards could not pronounce “w,” it was substituted with a “v,” creating “Vallis,” which was changed to “b,” thus resulting in “Balise”.

The timeline of the origin of the name was also noted on the below image, which was shared by Belize Archives & Records Service (BARS) on Facebook on July 19, 2011. According to BARS this image was scanned from a framed document donated by Stephen Fairweather from a book; however, the name of the book, its author and the creator of the image are unknown. Photocopied records from Spanish archives refer to the settlement as Wallix (1796-1798), while Belize’s records state the name of the settlement as Bay of Honduras or British Honduras and possibly Belize. Other maps and correspondence during this time had a complicated range of different names stated on the documents.

Upon analyzing the image, it can noted that the recorded dates in the document are not in order and contradict the creator’s timeline for the deterioration of the name. Interestingly enough, you can clearly see a scanned copy of the portion of the journal belonging to the priest Delgado on the fifth image from the top. But, if one should rearrange the image and reference the names in the proper chronological order, it will result as follows:

Balis: 1677 — Copy of Fray Joseph Delgado’s Journey to Bacalar

Bullys: 1705 — Extracted from John Fingas’ letter to the Council of Trade

Bellefe: 1720 –Extracted from Capt. Nathan Uring’s Voyage to Belize.

Valis: 1724 — Report in Madrid of the number of English settlers

Valiz: 1780 — Spanish map showing “Rio de Valiz Yngles River Bellese”

Walis: 1785 — Spanish map showing the logwood area occupied by the English settlers

Wallix: 1790 – Map drawn by Rafael Llobet showing the new area cleared in Belize

Belize : 1790 – Extracted from Peter Hunter’s Letter to Baltasar Rodriguis

Therefore, in the correct chronological order, one can clearly see that although not in the proper order, the creator of the image is somewhat accurate in his determination that the name was derived from Balis (Mayan) and Walis (Wallance).

It is fascinating to see how many origin stories exist for Belize, The Jewel of the Caribbean. Whichever the case of the Belize etymology, Belizeans should be proud of our long heritage of settlers, ranging from the Maya and British buccaneers in the past to the current presence of various ethnic groups from all over the world, who are spread throughout the country. By peeping into our past, we can truly appreciate our present.

Happy St. George’s Caye Day, Belize!

(Ref: Belize Archives & Records Service (BARS); “British Honduras” — Encyclopædia Britannica 12. New York: The Britannica Publishing Company. 1892. Retrieved September, 1, 2015.; Twigg, Alan (2006). Understanding Belize: A Historical Guide. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing. pp. 9–10, 38–45.)



Belize’s name, like much about the country, is unique and original. But histories differ on exactly where it came from, and depending on which story you hear, the name either pays tribute to the original inhabitants of this area, the Maya; or the visiting Europeans who made it their home.

The name Belize was first in use about 1790, eight years before the Battle of St. George’s Caye, but it was not officially adopted until 1973, more than a century and a half later, when local political leaders broke with the colonial name of “British Honduras.”

The Maya etimology of the name Belize holds that, according to a 1677 journal by a Dominican priest name Fray Jose Delgado (quoted in Alan Twigg’s Understanding Belize: A Historical Guide), the Maya pronounciation was rendered by Father Delgado’s translator as “Balix” or “muddy waters”, referring to the Belize River, or a derivation of the word “Belikin”, meaning “land facing the sea” referring to the coastline. Both were names of popular settlements, and the latter survives as the brand name of Sir Barry Bowen’s locally brewed beer which calls itself “The Beer of Belize.”

On the other hand, the European version credits the name, misspelled, to Scot buccaneer Captain Peter Wallace, who is said to have discovered the mouth of the River and began the first settlement around 1638 (though not officially credited until 1827). Wallace apparently named the land for himself but the Spanish substituted V for W, leading to Vallis. Since in Spanish the letters B and V are pronounced similarly, that became Balise.

Belize’s archival service received an image said to trace the history of the name from an unknown book in 2011. By 1796, the Spanish called the settlement “Wallix” even as the English termed it the Settlement in the Bay of Honduras. That became British Honduras on its becoming a colony although the Old Capital is referred to as “Belize Town.”

The following table is a chronological progression of the name as rearranged from the BARS document:

Balis: 1677 — Copy of Fray Joseph Delgado’s Journey to Bacalar

Bullys: 1705 — Extracted from John Fingas’ letter to the Council of Trade

Bellefe: 1720 –Extracted from Capt. Nathan Uring’s Voyage to Belize.

Valis: 1724 — Report in Madrid of the number of English settlers

Valiz: 1780 — Spanish map showing “Rio de Valiz Yngles River Bellese”

Walis: 1785 — Spanish map showing the logwood area occupied by the English settlers

Wallix: 1790 – Map drawn by Rafael Llobet showing the new area cleared in Belize

Belize: 1790 – Extracted from Peter Hunter’s Letter to Baltasar Rodriguis

It can therefore be said that the name owes something to both the Maya and English settlers; but either way, it is now our homeland and known all over the world. Hail Belize!

According to legend (no proof available), the name “Belize” is a corruption of the name of one Peter Wallace, a buccaneer who sometime in the 1600’s was driven from the island of Tortuga by the Spaniards, but then sailed west, arriving at the mouth of what is now the Haulover Creek (not the mouth of the Belize River), where he set up a camp. It is alleged that the Spaniards called the “river” Valis or Balis; this legend is attributed to the Dominican priest, Fray Jose Delgado.

There is also the suggestion that “Belize” is derived from the French word balise, or beacon. E. O. Winzerling, in his book “The Beginning of British Honduras 1506-1765,” suggested that French corsairs were in the area before 1600 and others have suggested that they used to mark channels through the mangroves with “beacons.”

The most plausible or reasonable hypothesis is that “Belize” is of Maya origin, at least most scholars are of that view, and my most believable is that of the late Dr. Eric Thompson, the world-renowned anthropologist and hieroglyphics expert credited with cracking the Maya code.

The Mayas were in this part of the world around 2000 B.C., and we know that there was a town in the Cayo District called “Tipu” with a population of four to five hundred inhabitants. Tipu was situated on the river which was also called Tipu. It we debate the two Maya words that are the possible origin of Belize, “Belix,” which means “muddy river,” and “Belkin,” which means “route to the sea,” there would be no muddy water in the rapidly running Tipu River, so I would choose Belkin for the river going east to the sea.

A side note on the Belize River – in the early 1950s I was part of a team which did a geological survey of Belize from the Sarstoon to the Hondo, and everywhere in between (especially rivers and creeks), and at the end of our work our chief petroleum geologist, Dr. Giovani Flores, was able to prove that the mouth of the Belize River many centuries ago was at what is now the English Caye channel. Today, thanks to Google Earth, this ancient Belize River bed can be seen leading from the Haulover Bridge to the English Caye channel. Also, our famous Blue Hole was once a land cave; stalactites and stalagmites cannot form under water.

In Belize there are the Yucatec Maya mainly in Corozal and Orange Walk, the Kekchi in Toledo, and the Mopan in the west in Cayo. During our geological explorations in Corozal and Orange Walk, we would be able to work out of hotels in the towns; whereas in Toledo, “the forgotten District” (and still is to a certain extent), we had to live in the jungle among the Kekchi. We loaded a brand new Land Rover on the bow of the Heron H, and in a couple of days we off-loaded it in the town of Punta Gorda, drove it as far as we could towards Gracias a Dios Falls, then walked. According to our pedometer we averaged about 20 miles per day all over Toledo. At night we would sleep in U.S. Army surplus hammocks with rubber boots for protection against rain with zip around netting as protection against mosquitoes and other pests. Living like that allowed me to learn a few words in Kekchi and to appreciate their food. In memory of two of my advisors – Samuel Haynes, the author of our national anthem, and the composer of its music, Dr. Selwyn Walford Young, I would like to say part of our “wealth untold” are the magnificent temples left us by our Maya ancestors that will earn our country tourist dollars in perpetuity.

In the early 1970s there was a crisis in Belize on the Maya issue, and I had to call Dr. Thompson at his home in Essex, England for clarification. He told me he was working on his book, THE MAYA OF BELIZE – HISTORICAL CHAPTERS SINCE COLUMBUS, and he had sent Premier George Price a draft and he hoped Mr. Price was not using it for political purposes. I don’t believe Dr. Thompson was able to finish his book before his death. It was published by Cubola in 1988 with only about 48 pages with information added locally.

The “crisis” I refer to concerns the Maya hieroglyphic facade on all four sides of the upper floor of the Royal Bank of Canada (now Belize Bank Marker Square) and the attached map of Maya Belize which was leaked to us in the Freedom Committee. Before his death on the 9th September 1975, Sir Eric Thompson was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. Guatemala, after first refusing because of the dispute over Belize, later awarded him the Order of the Quetzal. He had already received top orders from Mexico and Spain.


A tale of two mysteries

(The date chosen for Belize’s Independence and the origin of the name “Belize”)

Belize originally should have been politically independent in the mid 1960s; at least that was what the UK hoped during the government of Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home. The Prime Minster wanted to join the European Common Market and his chances would have been improved without the encumbrance of colonial territories. However, Alec Douglas–Home was Prime Minister for less than a year, so his successor, PM Harold Wilson, had to continue the task which was first offered to Colonial Secretary, Anthony Greenwood (he came to Belize in October of 1965 to inaugurate the city of Belmopan). Greenwood refused the offer and threatened to resign if his hand was forced. He was moved to Ministry of Overseas Development and Duncan Sandys accepted the post of Colonial Secretary and was able to get rid of eleven colonies. Belize would have been #12 but for the territorial dispute with the Republic of Guatemala.

Sandys was eager to do the job and in a secret memo to his staff he is quoted as saying, “Britain has no desire to hold on to her remaining colonies a day longer than is necessary. Politically, they involve much unwelcome controversy with the outside world and economically we draw no profit from our sovereignty.”

The Webster Proposals insisted that Belize become independent by 1970. The United Nations General Assembly “suggested” that Belize become independent by 1980. During the government of Margaret Thatcher, the Minister of State in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Nicholas Ridley, the driving force behind The Heads of Agreement and a quick constitutional conference, made it known, “like it or not”, Belize will be “forced” into independence. On 20th June 1981 he took the Belize independence bill to the House of Commons which was debated until almost 1:00 a.m. the following day. The Bill was passed with the date in September left blank. Ridley and his government insisted that the PUP victory of November 1979 was a mandate; therefore was no need for a referendum on the issue.

Because of Cabinet confidentiality we cannot be sure when the choice of a date for Belize’s independence was discussed, but we speculate that it was in 1979, because that was the reason given by Minister Santiago Perdomo why he resigned from the People’s United Party (he held 3 Ministries during his time). He joined the United Democratic Party in June 1980 and shortly thereafter came to one of our Freedom Committee public Sunday afternoon meetings held in the basement of the St. Mark’s United Methodist Church at #2017 Beverly Road in Brooklyn, New York. Mr. Perdomo asked to be allowed to address the audience and he then elaborated on the reason for his leaving the PUP: it was because September 21st was chosen instead of September 10th, which the Party traditionally labeled as our National Day. He gave all the reasons we speak of today, i.e., too many holidays, the significance of the day in 1798, the cost in treasury and logistics for a poor country to undertake holiday after holiday, etc. There was never given an official reason or rationale for the choice of the 21st. You will hear that the Battle of St. George’s Caye was a myth; you can glean the reason from the editorials of The Belize Times over the decades since that time, that the day commemorates the mandate given to the People’s United Party for “manifesto of Belizeans First”. There is also the suggestion that the date is based on astrology and the occult (à la Nancy Reagan, who reportedly suggested to her husband, President Ronald Reagan, what would be the best date to travel or take an operation, etc.)

It was a different Santiago Perdomo, a loyal PUP, I met in Washington DC in April of 1968 on the occasion of Bethuel Webster’s presenting his 17 Proposals to the Belize delegation. The delegation left Belize on April 23rd. I arrived in Washington from New York on April 26th, in time for the big “End of Mediation” banquet on the night of April 26th laid on by U.S. businessmen who had interests in Guatemala. The following morning for some reason I sat or was placed across from Santiago at the same breakfast table in the restaurant of the hotel where we all stayed, and he began ribbing me, asking, “How many tamales and how many panades the New York Belizeans had to sell” to pay for me to come to Washington. Truth be told, I paid all my own expenses. Professor Bloomfield, however, complained to me that Premier George Price had promised to pay all his expenses for coming from Canada, but he did not receive a penny.

For the record, it is important to note that the Belize delegation was “set up” by both the British and the Americans. The Guatemalan government was given the Proposals on April 18th; they rejected them on the 23rd, even before the Delegation left Belize City; their Foreign Minister, Emilio Arenales Catalan, even tried to “blackmail” the U.S. government by refusing to lobby his superiors on accepting the Proposals unless the U.S. would assist him to become President of the United Nations General Assembly. The British rejected the Proposals on June 18th, long after the riots in Belize City.

Arenales did become president of the United Nations General Assembly, but he passed away within a year in April of 1969. It was because of this elaborate charade that the British Honduras Emergency Committee invited Dean Lindo and me to a special meeting held at the House of Commons in London on May 8th to explain to interested members of Parliament what transpired. I remember Dean, who at that time was shadow minister of finance, telling the parliamentarians how Mr. Price paid for four nights in hotels, meals and airfares for the group of eleven members of the Belize delegation, funds which could have been better spent on the local needs of Belizeans.

Among the Belize delegates arriving for the delivery of the Bethuel Webster Proposals in Washington on April 27th, 1968, only Dean Lindo and I are still alive.

Following are the names of delegation members:

FOR THE PUP – George Price, Alexander Hunter, Lindbergh Rogers, Santiago Ricalde, Santiago Perdomo.
FOR THE NIP – Philip Goldson, Dean Lindo, Edwin Morey.
THE SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE – Woolrich Harrison Courtenay
Professor Louis M. Bloomfield of Canada – invited by Premier George Price

Chairman of the British Honduras Freedom Committee – Compton Fairweather, invited by Richard A. Frank, US State Department legal advisor to Ambassador Webster.