Mayans, pirates and refugees – The history of Ambergris Caye
Like all of Belize, the history of Ambergris Caye centers heavily upon the Mayan civilization that thrived here between 2000 BC and about 1000 AD. At one point, an estimated 10,000 Mayans lived on Ambergris Caye in villages and trading centers throughout the caye.
During this period, Mayan canoes travelled south from the Yucatan peninsula with fish, cloth, clothing, slaves and other items before returning home to Chetumal with locally harvested cacao and seafood. Its been estimated that, at the height of the Mayan civilization, more than 4,000 canoes were active on the water on any given day. Even in those pre-Columbian days, Ambergris Caye was valued as a rest stop for weary traders, offering much-needed rest and relaxation, temple services, and boat repair. Fitting, then, that Ambergris Caye has become such a popular destination for sun-splashed rest and relaxation.
The impressive canal now known as the Bacalar Chico Marine Reserve is one legacy of this important trading route. Hand-dug by the Mayans approximately 1,500 years ago to shorten travel times, the canal is actually what separates Ambergris Caye from mainland Mexico and makes it a “caye” rather than simply the southern tip of a narrow peninsula.
The Mayan civilization was largely in decline when Europeans arrived on Ambergris Caye in the 1500s, though several villages still thrived. Their ruins can be found throughout the caye, although they tend to be much more understated than their higher-elevation counterparts on mainland Belize.
In the 1600s, Ambergris Caye offered a perfect haven for Dutch, French and – most notoriously – English Pirates, including the legendary Diego el Mulato and Abraham Bluefield. These pirates and others used Ambergris Caye as a hideout and a place to stash their plunder – they even dredged the Bacalar Chico in order to more easily transport their booty to mainland Belize.
It’s these pirates, in fact, who are largely credited with the naming of Ambergris Caye. Always eager to make a buck, they are believed to have collected ambergris, a secretion of the sperm whale that was valued in the making of perfumes, before eventually moving to the mainland and becoming loggers, leaving Ambergris Caye uninhabited.
The road to today
Around 1848, British officials allowed Mestizo refugees from the wars further north to settle on Ambergris Caye at San Pedro. The settlement quickly grew, and the English essentially became “landlords” of the caye’s farming and fishing communities.
The rest, as they say, is history.