Numerous ruins indicate that the area now called Belize was once heavily populated by Maya Indians, whose civilization collapsed around AD 900. Columbus sailed along the coast in 1502, but did not land. The first permanent settlement was established in 1638 by shipwrecked English seamen. Later immigrants included African slaves and British sailors and soldiers.
In its early colonial history the area was a virtual backwater, used only for logging and as a pirate base. A power struggle between England and Spain ensued over possession of the area, with the British prevailing by the 19th century. In 1862 the British organized the area as the colony of British Honduras. For the next century, forestry continued as the main enterprise until eventually supplanted by sugar.
On 1 January 1964, a constitution was promulgated, providing for self-government, although the UK maintained the defense force. That force remained in place partly because of a border dispute with Guatemala, going back to an 1859 treaty. The Guatemalan government pressed territorial claims over the southern quarter of the area. A settlement guaranteeing the country's independence by 1970 seemed to resolve the dispute, but rioting in British Honduras in May 1968 led to the repudiation of the agreement by both the United Kingdom and Guatemala.
The country dropped the appearance, if not the reality, of colonial dependence in 1973, adopting Belize as the official country name. The border dispute continued unabated until 1977, when Guatemala and the United Kingdom began new negotiations on Belize. The United Kingdom, Guatemala, and Belize reached agreement on a solution in March 1981, but disagreement soon followed. Finally, the United Kingdom decided to take matters into its own hands and granted Belize independence as of 21 September 1981. Guatemala refused to recognize the new nation, severed diplomatic relations with the UK, and declared the date of independence a national day of mourning. In December 1986, the UK and Guatemala resumed diplomatic ties, but the 1,800-member British garrison remained in Belize. Since independence, control of the government has alternated between the People's United Party (PUP) led by George C. Price, which had dominated Belize's politics since the 1950s, and the United Democratic Party (UDP), led by Manuel Esquivel. The UDP won the elections of 1984 and 1993; in between, the PUP governed from 1989 to 1993.
In 1991 Belize was admitted to the Organization of American States (OAS). The same year, Guatemala's new president, Jorge Serrano, reached an agreement with then-prime minister George Price that led to full Guatemalan recognition of Belize's independence the following year and the signing of a nonaggression pact between the two nations in 1993. The UK withdrew its troops from Belize in 1994.
Belize's tourism industry became a mainstay of the economy in the 1980s and 1990s, growing from 64,000 tourists in 1980 to 247,000 in 1992. By 1995, tourism surpassed all other sectors, including the sugar industry, as a source of foreign exchange, and it continued to grow through the remainder of the decade. Challenges facing Belize in the late 1990s included high unemployment, a growing involvement in South American cocaine trafficking, and increased urban crime, which worsened in 1998 and 1999, prompting new gun control measures.
Negotiations continued with Guatemala over territorial disputes not settled by the 1991 agreement, mainly Guatemalan claims to land in the southern part of the country. Tensions between the two countries continued into the early months of 2000, when Belize's ambassador was expelled from Guatemala, and talks scheduled for February were suspended. But a hurricane in 2001 hurt Belize and Guatemala and help reduce tensions between both countries. After three years of rapid economic growth, Belize's economy expanded by just 3% in 2001 and 2002.