From Balix to Belize: What’s in a name?
Belize’s name, like much about the country, is unique and original. But histories differ on exactly where it came from, and depending on which story you hear, the name either pays tribute to the original inhabitants of this area, the Maya; or the visiting Europeans who made it their home.
The name Belize was first in use about 1790, eight years before the Battle of St. George’s Caye, but it was not officially adopted until 1973, more than a century and a half later, when local political leaders broke with the colonial name of “British Honduras.”
The Maya etimology of the name Belize holds that, according to a 1677 journal by a Dominican priest name Fray Jose Delgado (quoted in Alan Twigg’s Understanding Belize: A Historical Guide), the Maya pronounciation was rendered by Father Delgado’s translator as “Balix” or “muddy waters”, referring to the Belize River, or a derivation of the word “Belikin”, meaning “land facing the sea” referring to the coastline. Both were names of popular settlements, and the latter survives as the brand name of Sir Barry Bowen’s locally brewed beer which calls itself “The Beer of Belize.”
On the other hand, the European version credits the name, misspelled, to Scot buccaneer Captain Peter Wallace, who is said to have discovered the mouth of the River and began the first settlement around 1638 (though not officially credited until 1827). Wallace apparently named the land for himself but the Spanish substituted V for W, leading to Vallis. Since in Spanish the letters B and V are pronounced similarly, that became Balise.
Belize’s archival service received an image said to trace the history of the name from an unknown book in 2011. By 1796, the Spanish called the settlement “Wallix” even as the English termed it the Settlement in the Bay of Honduras. That became British Honduras on its becoming a colony although the Old Capital is referred to as “Belize Town.”
The following table is a chronological progression of the name as rearranged from the BARS document:
Balis: 1677 — Copy of Fray Joseph Delgado’s Journey to Bacalar
Bullys: 1705 — Extracted from John Fingas’ letter to the Council of Trade
Bellefe: 1720 –Extracted from Capt. Nathan Uring’s Voyage to Belize.
Valis: 1724 — Report in Madrid of the number of English settlers
Valiz: 1780 — Spanish map showing “Rio de Valiz Yngles River Bellese”
Walis: 1785 — Spanish map showing the logwood area occupied by the English settlers
Wallix: 1790 – Map drawn by Rafael Llobet showing the new area cleared in Belize
Belize: 1790 – Extracted from Peter Hunter’s Letter to Baltasar Rodriguis
It can therefore be said that the name owes something to both the Maya and English settlers; but either way, it is now our homeland and known all over the world. Hail Belize!