Like the neighbouring parts of Guatemala and Mexico, this area was settled for thousands of years by the Maya people. They are still here, an important part of Belize's people and culture. While the Spanish Empire claimed the area in the 16th century, the Spanish made little progress in settling here. The British settled first on the coast and offshore islands for logging. In 1798 British Belizean forces defeated a Spanish attempt to drive them out in the Battle of St. George's Caye, an anniversary still celebrated as a holiday each 10 September.
The colony of British Honduras grew in the 19th century. At first Africans were brought in as slaves, but slavery was abolished here in 1838. Many refugees from the 19th century Caste War of Yucatán escaped the conflict to settle in Belize, especially the northern section.
The government of Guatemala has long claimed to have inherited the original 15th century Spanish claim to Belize. Although the British were willing to grant independence to British Honduras as early as the mid 1960s, this ongoing dispute played a major role in delaying full Belizean independence until 1981, long after London granted independence to other former colonies in the region. Guatemala refused to recognize an independent Belize at all until 1991, and to this day lays claim to virtually all Belizean territory south of Belize City. The topic remains a sensitive one, particularly in the southern half of Belize.
Belize escaped the bloody civil conflicts of the 1980s that engulfed much of Central America, and refugees from the conflict in Guatemala arrived, mostly settling in the west. While Belize has not been immune to the rampant drug crime and grinding poverty of its neighbours it is a comparatively safe destination in a conflict-prone part of the world. Belize shares particularly close diplomatic and economic ties with both the United Kingdom and the United States.
Tourism has become the mainstay of the economy as the old agricultural products — sugar, banana, and oranges — have lost ground. The country remains plagued by high unemployment, growing involvement in the South American drug trade, and increased urban crime. In 2006 commercial quantities of oil were discovered in the Spanish Lookout area.