Northern Belize Feature


Belize: What's in a Name?

The name Belize is a conundrum. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, it derives from belix, an ancient Mayan word meaning "muddy water." Anyone who's seen the Belize River swollen by heavy rains can vouch for this description. Others trace the name's origin to the French word balise (beacon), but no one can explain why a French word would have caught on in a region once dominated by the English (Belize was known as British Honduras). Perhaps nothing more than a drinker's tale, another theory connects Belize to the Mayan word belikin (road to the east), which also happens to be the name of the national beer. A few even think the name may have come from Angola in West Africa, where some of the slaves who were brought to the West Indies and then to Belize originated, and where today there is a town called Belize. Some say Belize is a corruption of Wallace, the name of a Scottish buccaneer who founded a colony in 1620; still others say the pirate wasn't Wallace but Willis, that he wasn't Scottish but English, and that he founded a colony not in 1620, but in 1638.

There was indeed a pirate named Wallace, a onetime lieutenant of Sir Walter Raleigh’s who later served as Tortuga's governor. Perhaps it was liquor or lucre that turned him into a pirate, but at some point in the early-to-mid-1600s he and 80 fellow renegades washed up near St. George's Caye. They settled in and lived for years off the illicit booty of cloak-and-dagger raids on passing ships. In 1798 a fleet of 31 Spanish ships came to exterminate what had now blossomed into an upstart little colony. Residents had a total of one sloop, some fishing boats, and seven rafts, but their maritime knowledge enabled them to defeat the invaders in two hours. That was the last Spanish attempt to forcibly dislodge the settlement, though bitter wrangles over British Honduras's right to exist continued for nearly a century.

We may never know whether Wallace and Willis were one and the same, but what's in a name, anyway? Grab a Belikin and come up with a few theories of your own.

Updated: 12-2013

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