Battle of Saint George's Caye: English Settlers Foil Spanish Invasion of Belize

 
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Battle of Saint George's Caye: English Settlers Foil Spanish Invasion of Belize

Location of Belize (green area) in Central America
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: September 3-10, 1798

I know that Mothax has been eagerly waiting for the day when I would post this momentous battle in the TIMH section of the Burn Pit. [For those unaware, Mothax took an overseas vacation a few years ago to Central America.] So, for my friend and mentor, here it is…

Background

While most of the territories in the Americas were originally granted to Spain by the Pope in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 (with a portion going to Portugal), England had other plans for the wealth coming from Spain's colonies. By enlisting English and Scottish pirates such as Sir Francis Drake, Britain quickly got a toe hold in the Caribbean from which to plunder Spanish merchant ships. In addition to the British colonies in North America, several other outposts of English civilization were established in the Caribbean – Jamaica and Barbados come to mind.

Eventually, British pirates made their way to what would one day be British Honduras (modern day Belize), in Central America that was protected from the large and ungainly Spanish warships by the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. The Spanish saw the area as being not worth their effort, as the Mayans in the area were staunchly anti-colonial. It was safe for pirates such as Captain Henry Morgan and Blackbeard to seek refuge in the reefs of British Honduras before embarking on adventures to pillage and plunder from Charleston to Panama City.

Haematoxylum campechianum, Logwood
Haematoxylum campechianum, Logwood

Eventually, the descendants of these English and Scottish pirates found that they could make just as much money at pursuits other than privateering. They began harvesting the logwood trees (Haematoxylum campechianum) of this area, shipping them back to England. Parts of these flowering plants could be used for medicinal purposes, but more importantly the inner heartwood could be used for dying textiles. This plant began to gain prominence in English textile manufacturing, yielding either a red or blue dye.

Swietenia macrophylla, Honduras Mahogany (also known as Baywood)
Swietenia macrophylla, Honduras Mahogany (also known as Baywood)

In the 1720's, another important export was exploited by the Baymen: mahogany. The tropical hardwood became insanely popular in England, Europe and the American colonies. Honduras mahogany was known as "baywood," which probably loaned the British-descended loggers their nickname of "Baymen." Importations of mahogany into England reached 525 tons per annum by 1740, 3,688 tons by 1750, and more than 30,000 tons in 1788, the peak year of the 18th century trade. Probably similar amounts were imported into Europe.

The Spanish incursions started as early as 1718, when an attempt was made to dislodge the settlers from the Belize River by a land expedition from Guatemala. Mention is made of an unsuccessful Spanish attack in 1726, and another attack in 1730 (when fifty prisoners were taken). In 1745 a Spanish attack destroyed of the camps along the New River and captured several slaves. In 1747 the Spaniards compelled the Baymen to move to the island of Roatan. Another attack (made sometime between 1747 and 1760) by way of Guatemala was halted at Laboring Creek by some Baymen and their slaves.

'Squaring Mahogany Logs for Export' mahogany logging in Belize, circa 1936; Photograph by Paul Carpenter Standley (1884-1963); From the collection of the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago IL
"Squaring Mahogany Logs for Export" mahogany logging in Belize, circa 1936
Photograph by Paul Carpenter Standley (1884-1963)
From the collection of the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago IL

After 1760 two treaties were promulgated that solidified the Baymen's resolve to retain the settlement of Belize. Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1763, Spain was forced to recognize the logwood cutting activities of the Baymen for the first time. Since no boundaries were drawn, this likely gave the Spaniards cause to attack St. George's Cay in 1779, Spanish ships surprised the inhabitants of St. George's Caye, burning down the buildings and taking away 140 prisoners. These were imprisoned in the dungeons of Havana and not released until 1782.

The Treaty of Versailles of 1783, along with a Convention of 1786, gave the Baymen the right to cut and carry away logwood within certain boundaries; to cut mahogany; and to reoccupy St. George's Caye. At some point between 1786 and 1796, a Spanish official visited the Yucatan area to report on the Baymen's activities. His report stated that the Baymen were extending their logwood cutting borders dangerously close to a nearby Spanish town. As a result, Spain issued orders for the immediate and effective expulsion of the settlers occupying British Honduras.

'Col. Alexander Lindsay, Earl of Balcarras [sic], Lieut. Col. of the 24th Foot' Author unknown
"Col. Alexander Lindsay, Earl of Balcarras [sic],
Lieut. Col. of the 24th Foot" Author unknown

In March of 1796 it was reported that the Spaniards had started warlike preparations to capture British Honduras and run off the Baymen once and for all. This, of course, made the people of Belize very worried, and the Baymen immediately requested defensive help from the Governor of Jamaica, Alexander Lindsay, 6th Earl of Balcarres (see above). The governor complied by sending Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Barrow to the Belize as Commander-In-Chief. Barrow arrived at the settlement on December 31, 1796. He immediately began preparations to defend the area, bringing a degree of militarism to colony as he immediately mounted regular guards and drilled the men, proving to be a much more gallant spirit than the unruly Baymen.

The Fateful Public Meeting, and Preparations for the Spanish Invasion

Over the next year, a number of letters were exchanged between Lt. Col. Barrow and Gov. Lindsay on a regular basis. Barrow constantly asked the Jamaican governor for supplies, arms and ammunition to defend Belize. In January of 1797, Lt. Col. Barrow reported to Earl Balcarres that Spanish ships from Mexico captured three Belize ships near Lighthouse Reef and took them back to Yucatan. During those encounters, the Baymen captured a Spanish captain and interrogated him. The Spaniard told his captors Spain and Britain had been at war since October of 1796.

During this time a few wealthy settlers gained control of the local legislature, known as the "Public Meeting," a sort of proto-parliament. These wealthier men also controlled most of the settlement's land and timber. On February 11, 1797, a Public Meeting was held and a resolution was passed calling for the imposition of martial law

On June 1, 1797, the most important – and the largest – Public Meeting in the history of British Honduras was held, with 128 prominent citizens attending. A day-long debate was held to decide whether to evacuate the settlement or stand and fight. The argument over evacuation had been going on for almost a year. One group, led by Colonel James Pitt Lawrie and others, wanted to leave Belize and move to the Mosquito Shore, as the Baymen had always done in the past when the Spanish invaded. A second group, led by Thomas Paslow and Marshall Bennett, was determined to stay and defend Belize. Finally, the decision was put to a vote.

By the narrowest of margins, the vote was 65 to stand and fight, 51 to evacuate with 11 abstentions. The colony was put on a war footing and preparations to defend the settlement were begun. Fourteen of the last votes in favor of fighting were made by a dozen free black settlers and two whites. One of the white men, Thomas Robertson, ran a tavern in Belize Town. The other was George Raybon, formerly an American Loyalist.

Map of St. George's Caye, app. 1764 (Map courtesy of >www.belizemusicworld.com)
Map of St. George's Caye, app. 1764
(Map courtesy of www.belizemusicworld.com)

St. George's Caye was much bigger than it is today. It was roughly the shape of a horeshoe and measuring very nearly two miles in length by about one third mile at its widest point, lying about eight miles east-northeast of Belize City. The island was largely self-sufficient, supporting seventeen families and their slaves, with vegetable gardening and turtle trapping.

Meanwhile, over the past year the Spanish had mustered a fleet of about 30 vessels, manned by 500 seamen, carrying about 2000 soldiers to effect the invasion. However, many of the sailors and soldiers were laid low by disease – primarily yellow fever. In addition, there was a mutiny and several of the ships were commandeered and sailed back to Mexico. This delayed the invasion by over a year.

The settlement for its part had mustered the following:

  • HM Sloop of War Merlin, commanded by Capt. John R. Moss, with eight 18-pound cannon and 50 men;
  • Two sloops, Towser and Tickler, mounting one 18-pounder and 25 men each;
  • The local sloop Mermaid, armed with one 9-pounder and 25 men;
  • Two local schooners, Swinger and Teaser, each mounting six 4-pounders and 25 men; and,
  • Seven gun flats (reinforced logwood rafts), each deploying one 9-pounder and 25 men. Most of the flats were crewed by freed slaves.

In addition, the Baymen had a reserve force of several hundred men, ready to embark to challenge Spanish landings at any point on the island. There were detachments from two British regiments sent by the governor of Jamaica, the 63rd Regiment of Foot and the 6th West India Regiment of Foot. Also present was a section of Royal Artillery, consisting of one howitzer and two 6-pounders. Finally, many of the local inhabitants had organized themselves to resist any Spanish landing. The wealthy landowners had consented to allow their slaves to be enlisted to defend their homes. Lord Balcarres of Jamaica arranged to enlist the slaves, so long as they were freed after the crisis. After first resisting this arrangement, the landowners finally consented after they were paid £50 for each emancipated slave.

[Many of the conscripted slaves, due to a lack of sufficient numbers of muskets, were armed with wooden lanced, their points fire-hardened.]

Modern reconstruction of HM Sloop of War Merlin (Illustration courtesy of http://westernbelizehappenings.blogspot.com)
Modern reconstruction of HM Sloop of War Merlin
(Illustration courtesy of http://westernbelizehappenings.blogspot.com)

Battle of Saint George's Caye

The first action started on September 3, 1798 when the Spanish tried to force a passage over the shoals which protected most of the coast, seeking to capture Belize City. They were repelled by the sloops and the gun flats. On each of the next two days, the invaders again tried to force their way over the barrier reef, but again without success. On September 6, the Spaniards sought to capture St. George's Caye, as it controlled one of the few passages through the reef. Divining their intention, Capt. Moss and the sloop Merlin sailed toward a flotilla of 12 enemy vessels. Apparently cowed by the appearance of the Baymen's largest and best armed vessel, in the words of Capt. Moss, "They hauled their wind [pointing the ship towards the direction of the wind] and returned to Long Key, on my hauling my wind towards them."

The Spaniards spend the next three days probing the shoals around St. George's Caye, positioning their various vessels to launch another attack. Finally, September 10 dawned, and the Baymen were confronted by a formidable task.

Fourteen of the largest vessels of the Spanish fleet came to about a mile and a half away from the Baymen's flotilla. Nine of the Spanish ships – each mounting between 12 and 20 guns – began to approach the island. These ships were towing launches full of Spanish soldiers, seeking to make a landing. The engagement started about 2:30 pm as the Baymen's flotilla opened fire, and lasted about two and a half hours. At that time, the Spanish ships started to become confused (perhaps the shooting of the Baymen's flotilla had damaged sails, rigging, or even steering). Soon after, most of the Spanish vessels cut their cables and sailed off, many with their launches now towing the larger ships. At about 5:00 pm Capt. Moss ordered a pursuit of the retreating Spaniards. The pursuit was called off as darkness approached because of the navigational hazards.

Aftermath

The Baymen and their allies reported no casualties from the battle. Spanish fatalities are unknown, but there were likely a few. Some of the Spanish ships were visible from the caye until September 15, when a general retreat back to Mexico began. Never again was the settlement of Belize to suffer military invasions by the Spanish.

Footnote #1: Much of the island was destroyed by hurricanes. In fact, the western two thirds of the caye were submerged by a 1961 hurricane.

Footnote #2: On June 6, 1797, Thomas Paslow – one of the leaders of the "Defend Belize" group – requested that a proposition be considered by the Public Meeting that all inhabitants wishing to evacuate the country and not inclined to defend it were at liberty to leave after giving notice to the British authorities. These persons would also be granted a definite time to carry out their intention; if they failed to accomplish their evacuation within the time granted, they would be considered and treated as forfeiting their allegiance. He furthermore declared that, "… the man who will not defend his Country is not entitled to reap the benefit thereof…"

In addition, Mr. Paslow commanded one of the gun flats crewed by his own slaves. It was reported that he wore a brocaded Court suit previously owned by George II of England. He urged his men heartily; at one point his men began rowing towards the Spanish ships, but were ordered back to their position by Capt. Moss.

Footnote #3: The Baymen later acknowledged, in writing, that the outcome showed the settlement could not have successfully been defended without the aid of hundreds of adult male slaves. Their collective battle cry was "Shoulder to Shoulder."

Footnote #4: In 1898, September 10 was declared a public holiday, which is observed to this day, celebrating the Baymen's victory at the battle of St. George's Caye.

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