Translation or Pirates: How Belize Got its Name

From 1871 to June 1973, the country of Belize was known as “British Honduras.” The name change happened eight years before gaining independence, so it made me wonder where the name “Belize” comes from. The name is beautiful and exotic and must have an interesting story. I did some research and found that the exact origin of the name is not known, but it reflects the history of the country that has been influenced by many cultures.

There are two tales of the origin of the name Belize, each rich in history. One of the stories involves pirates, while the other simply involves Mayan language. The true origin is hidden in history, but it is intriguing to think about regardless of which story you choose to believe.

The first story, and probably the most believable, can be found in the earliest records of the settlement found in a journal dated back to 1677. It belonged to Dominican priest Fray Jose Delgado. The journal says the word “Belize” derives from the Mayan word “Belix,” which means “muddy waters,” referring to the Belize River. It could have also derived from the word “Belikin,” meaning “land facing the sea,” a reference to the coast. Both of these were names of popular settlements of the ancient Mayas.

You may not believe the word Belize could have come from the name of a Scottish man, but one theory claims just that. I never really thought about the historical importance of pirates of the Caribbean, but during the 17th century, the Caribbean seas were ruled by organized bands of pirates, an idea straight out of a story. It is not uncommon to hear that the shores of Belize were frequented by the pirates, often referred to as buccaneers, of several nationalities including Dutch, French, Spanish, and British.  

Captain Peter Wallace was a Scottish buccaneer and was the first of the pirates to enter the area, with 80 or more companions. It has been said that Wallace was an ex-Governor who was driven out of Tortuga and forced to leave when the Spaniards invaded.

Wallace and his followers found themselves at the mouth of the Belize River, which he is credited with discovering. He used the area as a place of refuge, hiding from Spaniards who roamed the nearby cayes, reefs, and atolls in the Caribbean, and he began a settlement around the Belize River in 1638.

They sought to find stray merchantmen, but the settling buccaneers found that the river contained greater treasures than those that came from passing ships. The river was convenient for transportation and was used to transport thousands of logs. The men gave up their sea expeditions and continued to manufacture logwood, an aspect of Belizean history that continued into the 1900s.

This theory claims that Wallace’s followers named the river after him, but the name evolved after the visiting Spaniards could not pronounce “w,” substituting it for a “v,” calling it “Vallis.” This later became “Balise,” which is much closer to the current name. “Belize” was finally agreed upon in the late 1700s.

Evidence can be found in the following image. It was scanned from a framed document. The origins are unknown but is used as evidence of the Wallace to Belize evolution story.

Both stories are intriguing and rich with Belizean history. Though, the first story of the Mayan language origin makes the most sense, the story involving Scottish pirates is much more exciting to me. Buccaneers traveling from all over Europe to settle in various places in the Caribbean, influencing history of Belize, is fascinating.