From: 13 teen chapters of a history of Belize. 2000. Assad Showman. The Angelus Press Ltd. Belize City, Belize.

The transformation of the Maya world through contact with European colonial nations began soon after the coming of Christopher Columbus who initially thought that he had reached India, and so called the local inhabitants Indians and the Caribbean Sea the West Indies. Columbus claimed the whole area for Spain, and in 1493 the Pope divided the new world between Spain and Portugal. Other European Nations largely disregarded the Papal Bull and by the 17th Century, British, French, and Dutch had succeeded in wresting many parts of America from Spain.

The Maya were in the terminal-classic period that extended from 800 to 1508 AD the date of the first Spanish contact with the Maya. Many experts consider that by the late classic period from 550 to 800 AD the Maya had settled almost all cultivatable portions of Belize, with coastal and inland locations on trade routes of particular economic or strategic value. During the classic period from 250 to 800 AD some of the oldest and most powerful centers were in Belize, including Cuello near Orange Walk dating from 1200 BC, and Lamanai, La Milpa, Xunantunich, and Caracol. Several sites in Belize also served as trading points including Ambergris Key and Moho Key. Sarteneja served as a port and an agricultural district, and an early salt producing area.

Ambergris Key was an important and strategic trading post facing Corozal near the mouth of the New River and Chetamul near the River Hondo at the base of the Yucatan Peninsula. Amergris Key traded as widely as Pachuca in central Mexico and the Guatemalan Highlands. Around 600 AD the Maya constructed a one mile channel at the point where the Belizean Barrier Coral Reef and land converge, and so created Ambergris Key in Belize and the border with Mexico.

There were many Maya communities in Belize when the Spanish landed and then exercised jurisdiction for a century and a half. At that time there was no Belize, no Mexico, and no Guatemala as countries. Throughout these regions there were many indigenous societies and civilizations that had contact with each other through trade and occasionally war. Centralised government never eventuated probably because Mayan religion did not envision centralisation as part of the cosmological order see Maya Heritage. The Spanish did not conquer the last Maya city on the Yucatan until 200 years after contact, and the Maya fought for independence in Guatemala into the last decade of the 20th century, and there was even a Maya uprising in Chiapas, Mexico in 1994.

J. Eric Thompson considered that in 1544 there were at least 50,000 Maya in Belize towns alone, and that in 1500 before Spanish contact that there were about 200,000. Consequently, there was a substantial Maya presence in Belize for most of the 16th and 17th century.

At the time of Spanish contact the Maya lived as organised societies, practicing religion, and engaging in in agriculture, mining, manufacturing and trading. Maya society was integrated vertically through reciprocity and was a stratified system in which a hereditary elite monopolized the substance and emblems of power. The community formed an extended family to combine forces for the common good and spread the burden and risks evenly among its members. Collective “corvee” labor was used for public works.

When the Spanish arrived in Belize there were three distinct Maya polities, the Chetamul province, the Dzuluinicob province, and the area south of the Monkey to Sarstoon Rivers occupied by the Manche Chol Maya. The Chetamul and Dzuluinicob provinces had the greatest contact with the Spanish. Chetamul province was a small area around the town of Chetamul possibly at the Santa Rita Site. However, some consider that Chetamul was south of Calderitas in Quintana Roo. Chetamul may have encompassed the area across Corozal Bay including the mouths of the New and Hondo Rivers as far as Progresso Lagoon and was in control of coastal trade. It is hard to image that Chetamul did not also trade with Sarteneja as a small port within site of Chetamul.

The elite controlled trade and other relations with other communities and the Maya had extensive trade networks stretching along the entire coast of Southern Yucatan and Central America, central Mexico, the Guatemalan Highlands and pacific Coast and the Caribbean as far as Cuba. Most Maya towns in the south east Yucatan produced corn, beans and other produce, but Chetamul thrived on the production of honey and management of trade.

Dzuluinicob was a province that spoke Yucatec which lay roughly between Orange Walk and the New (Dzuliunicob) River, then west to Sabal River San Ignatio, with the city at Benque Viejo de Carmen The Spanish established the Villa of Bacalar in the early 1500’s on lake Bacalar in present day Quintana Roo. The area was variously under Spanish and Maya control between 1544 and 1707. The Spanish never conquered further south or west.

The Maya lived in extended families to combine resources for common interest, and to control inheritance. Common labour was used for various community projects, and corvee labour demanded by the elite. Traditional Maya society was vertically integrated through reciprocity, in a stratified system in which a hereditary elite monopolized the substance and essence of power and the masses took no part in choosing leaders or directly making decisions.

The Maya had extensive trade networks extending along the coast of the Southern Yucatan and Central America, central Mexico, the Guatemalan Highlands and Pacific coast as well as Caribbean islands including Cuba. Most towns of the region produced corn, beans, with Chetamul in particular producing honey and managing coastal trade from points inland. Towns of the Dzuluinicob province traded in cocoa and goods between Peten and Bacalar between the upper Belize River and as far as northern Yucatan.

The Maya at Tipu had a very wide range of idols with animals, people and especially women, and chimeras between people and animals, with a regularity of dress and visage that apparently had symbolic meaning. Elizabeth Graham considered that these figures depicted minor deities similar to Biblical angels (spirits) or saints of Catholicism.

The position of Maya women in society is unclear. The Spanish invariably asked for contact with males and most Maya kings and leaders were males and therefore history is male biased in reports. However, there were Maya queens and wives of Maya leaders were recorded to have strongly influenced some decisions regarding political relationships with the Spanish.

The first contact of the Spanish with Belize was in 1508 with a small fleet travelled along the coast. In 1531, following a similar attempt 3 years earlier by a smaller fleet, the Spanish set out from the Yucatan coast and at the town on Chable, some distance from Chetamul, were met by Maya lords. In response to Spanish demads for tribute the Maya said that they would "pay tribute as turkeys in the form of spears and corn in the shape of arrows".

When the Spanish arrived at Chetamul it was deserted. The Spanish set up a base there but the Maya conducted guerrilla raids and finally drove them out in 1532. The Spanish moved along the coast and inland and found no coastal settlements as the Maya had moved two or three days travel up the rivers. However, along the rivers the Spanish found no shortage of settlements to raid for slaves and provisions.

Consequently, Sarteneja was probably largely deserted in 1532 and almost certainly deserted by Maya after 1544, as below.

In 1544 the Spanish conducted a military expedition against the Maya in the southern Yucatan and Belize and succeed in conquering Maya settlements as far inland as Tipu just over the Belizean border in Guatemala.

This expedition was noted for its acts of shocking cruelty “The captain, with his own hands, committed outrages: he killed many with the garrote .. trying them to stakes, he cut of the breasts of many women, and hands, and noses and ears off the men, and he tied squashes to the feet of women and threw them in the lakes to drown merely to amuse himself”. The Spanish went inland as far as Chanlucan, probably on the New River near Lamanai or around Progresso Lagoon, and Tipu.

The Maya responded by making Chanlucan the headquarters of a Maya revolt. In 1567 the Spanish sent a force that extended deep into southern Belize that destroyed religious symbols, burned native books and forcibly removed part of the population.

J Eric Thomson wrote that there was a Maya language society called the Chol from Chiapas to the Bay of Honduras and in Belize from the Monkey River to Sarstoon. One of the main settlements was at Campin perhaps at Cowpen on the Swansey branch of the Monkey River. This society apparently lived in small scattered settlements with low political cohesion, but they used the same calendar, religious and agricultural practices as other Maya. Polygamy was common and transported Manche Col were reported to have died of lovelorness and vexation from only having one wife.

By 1582 the Spanish had missions in 9 major Belizean towns, including Lamanai, where town councils ruled and tributes were paid to administrators. In 1615 the Spanish rounded up people in smaller towns into central villages to increase their control. This strategy was similar to USA attempts at subjugation using “strategic hamlets” during the Vietnam War, or against Guatemalans during the 1960s.

However, the Maya continued their resistance against the Spanish burning and deserting Spanish settlements. In 1642 Lamanai and Zaczuz were burned and deserted. Around 1642 Franciscans reported that there were coastal towns and went as far south as Zoite and Cehake near the mouth of the Sittee (or Zoite) River, but privateers were beginning just beginning to raid and take slaves.

Between Maya resistance inland and to the south, and increasing attacks by privateers the Spanish deserted Belize and the way in Belize was open for British colonization and depopulation by slavery. Nevertheless, the inland center of Tipu, in Guatemala, was finally conquered in 1697 by a Spanish force from the Pacific north bringing to an end the 200 year resistance of the Maya against the Spanish.

The overall Maya population of Central America was estimated at 2.5 million in 1523, but was only 500,000 fifty years later. More than 500,000 slaves were taken and coastal settlements were depopulated by raids for slaves from Cuba, Hispaniola, and Jamaica. Slavery was continued by the British, or their Miskitos-Sambos mercenaries from Nicaragua, during the 18th century often with the population of entire towns being enslaved.

The recorded history of Belize that establishes that the pre-Spanish invasion, the Belizean population of Maya was about 200,000. In contrast a prominent British historian, Stephen Caiger, as misleading British colonial propaganda reported that “in the sixteenth century the country seems to have been virtually uninhabited. Neither the Spanish (sic) when they crossed it, nor the British when they eventually settled it, met with any opposition from native tribes

It would appear that Sarteneja would have been depopulated by Maya from 1544 and over the period of slave raids until at least the end of slavery in 1834. However, Sarteneja may have been a settlement of privateers with Maya associates shortly afterwards.