Understanding Belize: A Historical Guide

by Alan Twigg

Published by Harbour Publishing

328 pages, 2006

Buy it online



History With A Twist

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen


South of Mexico and east of Guatemala is Belize, a slice of country once called the British Honduras. Although it receives only ten per cent of the tourists of nearby Costa Rica, travel books on this feisty and complicated little country abound.

And why not? According to Alan Twigg, author of Understanding Belize, there is much to come for. Belize boasts a water supply that is actually safe to drink, buses and planes that run on time, an absence of American fast food chains and political stability. According to him, it's one of the warmest and least populated English speaking countries on earth. According to the government, 42 per cent of its territory is protected for conservation with 20 new nature reserves, and 600 Mayan archeological sites. According to guidebooks, there are 250 varieties of orchids, 70 varieties of forest, over 700 species of trees, 500 species of birds and 4000 species of plants. Now add the 185-mile long Belize barrier reef, second only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef in length, and proclaimed a World Heritage Site in 1996. Despite all of the good stuff, the author advises caution. "I love Belize," he told me recently, "but I want to clearly stress that it's definitely not for everyone."

In Understanding Belize, Twigg explains why. He gives startling details travelers are unlikely to get in the tourist guides -- like a murder rate three times that of the United States, for example. Then there are hurricanes, horrific highway carnage -- considering this is a country of only 250,000 inhabitants -- and the terrible condition of the few roads. Visitors also need to guard against tropical diseases like malaria and dengue fever and to remember they are sharing Belize with creatures like scorpions, nine varieties of poisonous snakes, alligators, tarantulas and Africanized killer bills. Alcohol abuse is also common, writes Twigg, as is unemployment and police corruption, and adds that it's "no shame to prefer Hawaii."

But he doesn't. His understated affection for the country and its rainbow of peoples pulses through the historical detail, enlivening material that could otherwise occasionally overwhelm. The text is also made more accessible by the maps, photos, charts, sketches and portraits that pepper nearly every page, and the concise timeline section at the back of the book is invaluable. In another historian's hands this might not be enough, but Twigg has written eleven books on eclectic topics, his work-in-progress being on soccer/football. An ex-singer in a rock band and occasional film producer, Twigg knows how to keep interest.

He does it partially through a quirky blend of authoritative, factual writing and informal, wry comments which lighten the facts; with catchy phrases like "a live-and-let-live cultural patina" concerning the cultural mix in Belize, and a description of travel to Belize, as "an anecdote for First Worlditis." Smiles are added with lines like, "Belize isn't paradise unless your vision is restricted to scuba goggles."

Chapters deal with Belize's struggles to fend off its neighbours, its early colonial history, the exploitation of its resources and its heroes. Here, some little known facts emerge. Considered a prophet by many, Belize's own Marcus Mosiah Garvey, was for a time considered the most powerful Black man on the planet. In the early 20th century he founded the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities League. In 1920, UNIA, as it was commonly called, claimed 1100 branches in 40 countries. Another later political giant was George Price, regarded as the liberator of Belize. A deeply religious man who instigated a peaceful revolution and strove all his life for a free Belize, he was first elected in 1947 and served in public office for 39 years. Price was "unparalleled in the history of democracy-the most successful democrat ever to walk the earth," writes the author.

By 2000, 200,000 tourists were visiting Belize annuually. Two years later, cruise ships began to stop. If you plan to follow in the footsteps of famous people like Ringo Starr, Madonna, Francis Ford Coppola, Harrison Ford and Cyndi Lauper, Understanding Belize in advance would probably be helpful. | July 2006


Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.