Features — 09 September 2017 — by Compton Fairweather
The etymology of the name “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.

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