Prelude To The Battle Of St. George’s Caye
by Emory King
Back in 1796, almost two years before the famous battle of St. George’s Caye, Spanish ships from Mexico captured three Belize ships near Lighthouse Reef and took them back to Yucatan. It was then that the Baymen learned that Spain and Britain had gone to war again.
Almost immediately a group of men in Belize Town said the best solution was to evacuate the Settlement and go to the Mosquito Shore. Another group said the best solution was to prepare for war and defend Belize.
The debate came to a head on June 1st 1797 at the largest Public Meeting ever held in the Settlement up to that time.
Did you ever hear of William Flowers, Caesar Flowers, Joseph Toney, Adam Flowers, William Scott, William Pinder, George Grant, James Hercules, William Crofts, David Dawson, John Dawson or Joseph Smith?
Probably not, but you should have heard of them.
These twelve men were the first Black Heroes of Belize to have their names recorded in the Public Records of the Settlement. (See Public Meetings, June 1, 1797 in the Belize Archives, Belmopan.)
On that day, these dozen Black men, together with two White men, George Raybon and Thomas Robertson, voted down a resolution to Evacuate the Settlement before the Spanish Army came to invade. (They cast the last 14 votes at the Public Meeting in Belize Town.)
The vote that day against Evacuation, (65 to 51 with 11 abstentions), set the stage for the Battle of St. George’s Caye the following year. Had the vote gone the other way the Settlement would have abandoned and lost forever to Spain and then Mexico or Guatemala. (They found out, after the Battle, that the Spanish had an Occupation Army waiting in Bacalar, just across the border in Mexico, to march on Belize as soon as the invasion was successful.)
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.
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, Britain 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 on the Caribbean from which to plunder Spanish merchant ships.
Eventually, the 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 Maya in the area were staunchly anticolonial. 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. The Baymen of British Honduras were descendants of the British and Scottish pirates that made Belize their base.
After months of the most acrimonious debate the question came before the largest Public Meeting ever held in Belize. The issue was decided by the Free Black Men’s vote at the end of the day.
Who were these Black men? According to the Belize Archives some came from up the Belize River. We can guess that the Flowers men, William, Caesar and Adam, lived at Flowers Bank Village. Perhaps others lived there as well or at Convention Town or St. James Boom or Black Creek.
Joseph Toney, together with his partner, Joseph Lascelles, was a turtler and fisherman who probably lived in Belize Town. (A little over a year later, in 1798, Toney and Lascelles reported seeing the Spanish Fleet assembling off Cozumel to load soldiers for the invasion.)
The Dawsons probably lived up the Belize River too. The family name is still well represented in Boom, Crooked Tree and elsewhere along the river.
Of the two White Men who voted with them, Thomas Robertson ran a tavern in Belize Town. George Raybon, an American Loyalist, perhaps lived somewhere around Black Creek or the Crooked Tree Lagoon.
Apparently, the leaders of the Free Black men were the Flowers families. These people had been slaves in the Mosquito Shore and owned by William Flowers from Bristol, England. In 1756 he decided to return to England and he freed his slaves before he left.
Known as the Flowers Negroes throughout the Mosquito Shore, they worked hard and provided for themselves and their children. But, in 1786 William Flowers died in England and his heirs claimed the Flowers Negroes were still slaves and tried to sell them at the Shore.
The Flowers men became alarmed at this turn of events, broke into some homes, took items and food and took their families into the bush determined to fight, if necessary, to keep their freedom.
The Superintendent of the Shore, Colonel James Pitt Lawrie, called a meeting of the Council, declared the Flowers families free, that they had been free for the past thirty years and forgave them for their thefts.
The Flowers families returned, gave back the things stolen and agreed to come to Belize with the Mosquito Shore people in 1787. (See Mosquito Shore Records, Belize Archives, Belmopan.)
It is not surprising that they voted to stay and fight for their freedom in Belize, even if it meant defeating their friend Colonel Lawrie’s desire to evacuate the Settlement.
These twelve are the only names we know, but they were just a few of the hundreds of Black Men and Women, free and slave, who were determined to fight for Belize against the Spaniards and in spite of the cowards and fools who wanted to run away.
These Black Belizeans became the founders of families that today number in the tens of thousands of Belize Creoles.
A monument to the Belizeans who voted to stay and defend Belize was erected at Flowers Bank Village in 2009. The construction of the monument was financed by Dr. Neil Garbutt who passed away that same year.
That vote did not completely quell the movement of Evacuation, but its proponents could not get enough support to bring the question before the Public Meeting a second time, thanks in part to the spirited written objections of Thomas Paslow. In a letter to the Public Meeting he thundered, “A MAN WHO WILL NOT DEFEND HIS COUNTRY IS NOT ENTITLED TO REAP THE BENEFIT THEREOF.”
The sentence should be chiseled in stone over the doors of the National Assembly building in Belmopan, keeping in mind there are many ways for men and women to defend our Country.
Celebrating Belize History: Happy St George’s Caye Day!!
The Battle of St George’s Caye, commemorated as a national holiday in Belize on September 10, was the defining moment in the birth of the country, bringing together a disparate group of individuals willing to risk their lives to foster a unified British Honduras and paving the road to the eventual creation of today’s Belize.
The story itself, with a small ragtag group defeating a vastly superior professional Spanish military force over a week of fighting on one of the most picturesque battlefields on earth, is one of the more colourful chapters in an area and history long associated with adventure and romance. This is, after all, the setting for The Pirates of the Caribbean and countless other tales of swashbuckling and derring-do.
Racial and class divides were put aside when the settlers and African slaves went up against a well-trained and heavily armed professional military force from Spain, going into battle completely outnumbered and out gunned with the beautiful Caribbean as a backdrop, complete with sandy islands, swaying palms and sparkling waves breaking over a stunning reef.
We always said it has all the makings of an epic film.
Living far from any seat of government or authority, Belize’s early inhabitants were hearty souls who had developed a unique frontier society with their own standards and rules. Pirates may have been accommodated; supplied with game from ashore as they hid behind the barrier reef, but the predominately English speaking settlers rejected the very idea of Spanish rule.
Word of a Spanish invasion arrived, and after a referendum to decide whether to evacuate, or stand and fight, the final vote was in favour of standing to defend the settlement.
With a Spanish fleet of 32 vessels and some 500 sailors and 2000 soldiers on the way, a defence was quickly organised with Captain John Moss in command, with the HMS Merlin and a small fleet of three sloops, the Towser, Tickler and Mermaid, each with a crew of 25 men and a compliment of light cannon ranging from one eighteen pounder, a short nine pounder, four 6 pounders and a couple of 4 pounders. There were also two schooners, the Swinger and Teazer, and eight gun-flats, each carrying one 9-pounder and 16 men.
Except for the crews of Towser and Tickler, the vessels were manned by volunteers from the “Colonial Troops”. The Baymen, for their part, had 700 fighters of all colours, descriptions and stations in life.
The Spanish fleet was spotted approaching the Belize Great Barrier Reef, and the battle began on September 3rd, 1798 when the Spanish attempted to pass over the shoals near St George’s Caye, but were successfully repelled.
On September 10th after a fierce two and a half hour engagement, the Spanish were defeated and fled. The final battle began beginning with the largest Spanish vessels opening fire and attacking, and ending with their flotilla in disarray, cutting their cables and retreating with the Baymen in hot pursuit until darkness made navigation through the reef too hazardous.
The Spanish continued their retreat back up to the Yucatan and never again tried to invade Belize.
The leaders of the Baymen later wrote back to England that if it were not for the valour and fighting capabilities of the many slaves who took part in the defence, with everyone fighting together under the cry of “Shoulder to Shoulder,” victory would never have been possible.
The battle of St George’s Caye has always captivated historians with its combination of brilliant tactics, sheer courage and the solidarity of the defenders. For Belizeans, it marks the moment when the people of the settlement, of all races and creeds, decided to stand “shoulder to shoulder” to defend something they all saw as worthy of fighting for.
One hundred years later, in 1898, the 10th of September was declared a Public Holiday, and today it continues to be exuberantly celebrated.
Imagine if those early Belizeans knew that almost two hundred years later their valour would be rewarded when the former colony of British Honduras, on September 21, 1981, became a fully independent, sovereign nation, respected around the world as a model of democracy and free speech as well as for its commitment to environmental sustainability.
It’s easy to understand why even today its citizens are so passionate about Belize and continue to fight to protect what makes their country so special. That reef on which their ancestors fought with its hundreds of pristine cayes, sparkling clean water and abundant marine life remains very much the way it was back in 1798, largely due to the efforts of today’s Belizeans who recognise the same thing their ancestors did - that this is a very special country that deserves protection.
We think those early defenders at St George’s Caye would be proud.
Chaa Creek blog