History Association added new grist to the dispute when it revealed the preliminary findings of a research project between academics in Belize and Mexico. They pored over the Spanish Archival Records on the Battle of St. George's Caye, to find out what the Spanish thought of the event. They presented their findings to students today at the Bliss centre and at the University of Belize. Here's what we learned at the Bliss Centre:
Dr. Herman Byrd - BARS, Belize
"I think we've accomplished a gigantic task and that is we've completed the transcription of these 1,200 pages and as you'll see in a moment we have been able to kind of reconstruct a timeline of the battle from the point of view of the Spanish officials who were involved in it."
Dr. Angel Cal - UB
"What we presenting this morning is preliminary. There is no new major finding unknown to us in Belize from British or archival sources."
Dr. Herman Byrd - BARS, Belize
"One of the most fascinating aspects about the history of Belize is that you can understand it without looking at the histories of the region and that puts you into looking at sources other than English sources. Yes you have to work in English archives, in British archives but as you've heard today an event like the Battle of St. Georges Caye to really understand it you have to look at it through the eyes of the Spanish."
Dr. Angel Cal - UB
"The reefs, the shallows and the currents close to the coast all along the Yucatan coast very dangerous. In any case of the fleet that left Campeche 7 of the larger vessels could not get through. The plan called for the capture or destruction of St. George's Caye; all the marine defences at St. George's Caye and from that point as a base they expected to attack the mainland and to overrun the British."
"It is very likely that O'Neill expected to oversee the occupation of Belize. 10th of September O'Neill after trying going through Montego shoal and failing, after trying to manuever the channel so they can attack St. George's Caye and retreating; on the 10th he decided to push his way through the narrow channel and force the entire convoy towards the mainland where he expected to land his troops."
"At this critical point on the 10th of September Buckanegra that was the commander of the convoy, the convoy itself refused to lead the charge and therefore at the last minute Pedro Grajales, not Gonzales, Grajales took over; the battle started around 3:30 PM. According to the Spaniards, British artillery was much more superior. When Grajales got word that another British schooner and more sloops were on their way from the mainland he decided; no this is not going to work for us and he gave the signal to retreat and then went back to Caye Chapel."
"O'Neill and Grajales were ineffective war strategists. Except for the Spaniards reference to 3 white skilled and 4 drowned from the British sloop Sapit both sides claimed no casualties of their own. O'Neill even hinted at coming back on another day with more marine resources. The Spaniards were determined to remove the British from Belize and to take over from them to occupy Belize. Had those troops been landed it could have been a far different outcome."
Dr. Martin Ramos - UQROO, Mexico
"When it came time to disembark their soldiers for battle they were relying on very inaccurate information that had been provided to the convoy before expeditions launched."
"The battle which is so important to us does not seem to be so important in the historical records because they historical records do not devote many pages to this incident."
"So then we call it a battle but for them it was misadventure, a foot note in history."
Dr. Martin Ramos - UQROO, Mexico
"Yes but these minor incidents then subsequently define the new future. Minor details change history."
"If they had adequate information and intelligence might the history of this region be a different history?"
Dr. Martin Ramos - UQROO, Mexico
"Historians don't need to speculate about what might have been. Their task is now to examine what the details and historical facts of what actually occurred."
The lecture was named, "what did the Spanish See at St. George's Caye."
The Battle of St. George’s Caye from the Spanish perspective
Dr. Angel Cal
A slightly different perspective on the Battle of St. George’s Caye was the subject of today’s annual National History Lecture in Belize City at the Bliss Center for the Performing Arts. A group of researchers discussed a large number of documents obtained from the Spanish archives in Seville, Spain, which by and large confirm the organization and plans of the Battle. It also shows the ugly retreat by the Spanish-Mexican fleet after being routed by a combination of British Baymen and black slaves. We hear more about the findings from History lecturer at the University of Belize, Doctor Angel Cal.
Dr. Angel Cal, History Lecturer, University of Belize
“It was very clear that the reefs played a major role – but that’s only geography and they knew that even before they came. They also know that the British would have put up a stout defence; what they did not know, was that even with their enslaved men, the British were able to get the support of many of these ex-slaves, many of these freed slaves, many of these slaves themselves, and others, who came on to man the gun flats that were sent out to St. George’s Caye, and played a major role in blocking the Spaniards from landing their troops, because if the Spaniards had landed their troops, more than likely they had enough metal power and enough man power to have probably taken over Belize.”
More than three thousand troops, both active and in reserve played a part in the nine-day battle which actually started on September first. The 1798 Battle was the last major confrontation between Britain and Spain over the Belizean settlement, and its significance was first observed one hundred years later.
Spanish archives corroborate Battle of St. Georges Caye
Spanish military records and other documents in Spain’s historical archives have corroborated and shed new light on the events leading up to the Battle of S. George’s Caye and the Spanish forces’ subsequent retreat, which were presented to Belizean schoolchildren, university students and other researchers at a lecture hosted by the Belize History Association (BHA), in collaboration with the Institute for Social and Cultural Research (I.S.C.R.) and the National Institute of Culture and History (N.I.C.H.) at the Bliss Institute in Belize City on Wednesday morning, September 7.
The lecture celebrated this year’s theme “Sovereign and strong – together as One” and the findings presented was the result of a two-year project from an initial call by the ISCR that resulted in the formation of the Belize History Association (BHA) at the George Price Center on January 25, 2014. As BHA Chairperson Abigail Mckay PhD explained, the objective was to create a modern record of the tapestry of events that shaped the birth of the nation of Belize.
The findings presented in the lecture came from 1,115 pages of 218-year-old documents as recorded by the Spaniards of 1798; documents which the researchers had tracked down and translated into modern Spanish, and subsequently into English, explained Herman Byrd Ph.D of the Belize Archives and Records Service (BARS). He said their findings resulted from two years of volunteer labor in a project, which was a joint collaboration with Angel Cal Ph.D of the University of Belize, Giovanni Pinelo of ISCR, professor Martin Ramos Ph.D of the University of Quintana Roo and prof. Juan Castillo Ph.D and maestro Eduardo Pool, both of the Maya Intercultural University of Quintana Roo.
The principal protagonist in the Spanish records was the Captain General of Yucatan province, Arturo O’Neill Tirone, but the Spanish records did not differ substantially from similar records in British archives, except that they also detailed the journey from Bacalar to Caio Cosina (St. Georges Caye). They also report Spanish forces landing on the New River to destroy plantations and 240 “houses’ in that area in October 1798, which Dr. Cal explained may have been done as an afterthought after the failure of the September 10 invasion. Spain had declared war on England in August 1796, but it was not until June of 1797 that O’Neill got royal approval from Spain for an expedition to dislodge the British at St. George’s Caye.
O’Neill was the commander assembling this expeditionary force, but he had to get the support of key people in Bacalar and Campeche to gather the land forces – the militia, and the Commander in Chief of the Royal Spanish Navy in Havana, Cuba for the warships, as well as key politicians, merchants and military officers in Merida. He also had to enlist the support and approval of his immediate boss, the Viceroy of New Spain (Mexico).
O’Neill assembled a flotilla of 31 vessels, including five from Havana: two frigates – the “Minerva” and “Nuestra Senora de la O”, a schooner and two armed merchant vessels: “Santa Ana” and “San Pedro”. He also got another 17 vessels from Campeche which included two armed schooners, seven l armed private vessels, and nine more from Bacalar, which included another two armed schooners, two sloops and an armed pontoon.
By comparison, the British forces were heavily outnumbered, since aside from a corvette, the “Merlin”; the English in Belize had only three armed sloops, two schooners and seven gun flats – flat-bottomed pontoon rafts that could mount a cannon. What the English forces did have was the resolve to stand and fight; which O’Neill did not have very good intel about.
O’Neill had gathered a lot of information on the English settlers’ military strength from slaves who had escaped from the Belize settlement, from Cuban deserters who had served with the British West India regiment in Belize and from “spies” sent to infiltrate the settlement to assess their strength. A large part of the Spanish failure to dislodge or defeat the English resulted from poor military intelligence, as O’Neill’s information was very inaccurate. The documents show that O’Neill believed he would be fighting 300 Englishmen and about 200 slaves, while in fact the Belize forces numbered 700 more men than O’Neill knew about.
The Spanish expedition took so long to assemble that the Belize settlers got ample early warning of the impending attack, time enough to call a public meeting where the famous 13 free coloreds from Flowers Bank helped carry the vote to stand and fight, rather than to abandon the settlement as they had in the past. The warships that sailed from Campeche in May did not reach Bacalar until August 15, and seven of the larger vessels did not arrive until September 6. This also gave the English ample time to prepare their defences.
In comparison to today’s transportation timetables where a Mexican ADO bus can travel from Belize City to Merida in eight hours, the Spanish advance may seem positively glacial, but as recently as the 1920’s when there were no roads, it took an entire day to reach Corozal by sailboat from Belize City.
The naval charts of 1798 also were very inaccurate, the Spanish had no accurate knowledge of the shallow waters as they approached Belize; many ran aground and the larger vessels were unable to approach to where they could bring their guns to bear on the British. Sancho de Luna, who commanded the two largest frigates from Havana ignored O’Neill’s orders and abandoned the expedition at Bersellion choosing to sail on to Vera Cruz, when O’Neil had wanted him to at least block off any British naval reinforcements which might arrive from Jamaica. The smaller vessels which were able to navigate the shoals encountered such stiff resistance from the British that they were forced to abandon their mission.
The initial plan was to land 1,300 troops on St. George’s Caye, enough to capture and destroy the settlement; and then to mount a second attack on the mainland with an additional 1,800 troops left at Bacalar to completely take over the Belize settlement. This never happened because the Spaniards were never able to get close enough to land any troops. When one Spanish commander Bocanegra refused to lead the charge and stay with the convoy, Pedro Grajalez took command of the invasion flotilla, and opened fire around 3:30 in the afternoon but the British cannon proved superior to the firepower the Spanish could bring to bear from their smaller vessels and they were forced to retreat to Caye Chapel when they heard of other schooners coming from the mainland to reinforce the British forces on St. George’s Caye.
In the 20/20 vision of hindsight, O’Neill in his report on the failed expedition wrote of possibly returning with better naval support to try again another day, but the logistical obstacles to assembling such an expedition meant this never happened!
Professor Martin Ramos Ph.D of the University of Quintana Roo and maestro Eduardo Pool of the Maya Intercultural University of Quintana Roo thanked ISCR for inviting them to participate in this research and the hospitality shown them in Belize, saying that this research had paved the way for many other university students of history to do further research and to present theses on their findings .
Findings from Spanish archives on the Battle of St. George’s Caye
With the 218th anniversary of the Battle of St. George’s Caye days away, historians from Mexico and Belize have collaborated to present findings transcribed from Spanish archives on the historic battle.
On Wednesday morning, the Bliss Centre was packed with students and historians who attended to hear a national lecture entitled: “Spanish Reports on the Battle of 1798: Preliminary Findings,” which was hosted by the Belize History Association (BHA).
According to panelists, a 1,200 page record of the battle had to be painstakingly translated from 18th century Spanish to modern Spanish. Also, the panelists had to reconstruct the timeline of the battle.
However, while there were no new major findings in the Spanish version of events when compared to accounts from the Baymen, there were minor differences in the details surrounding the planning and execution of the invasion and the justification for the Spanish retreat.
According to Dr. Angel Cal, of the University of Belize (UB), who was also a panelist, the Spanish wanted to wrench what is now known as Belize from the British, but their attempts failed because they proved to be ineffective war strategists.
The delay caused them to move their convoy from Campeche to St. George’s Caye and gave the British, their enemies, more time to prepare for the battle against them. Already faced with logistical issues, several of the Spanish soldiers had suffered from yellow fever.
Furthermore, their war vessels were not equipped to maneuver along the reef, shoals and currents, especially between Long Caye and St. George’s Caye, when compared to British war vessels and gun flats in strategic positions.
In essence, the Spaniards could not pass their large fleets through to St. George’s Caye, which they would have used as a base to attack the British on the mainland because they had gathered poor intelligence on the coastline.
However, they managed to force their way through a channel and led their convoy towards the mainland in an effort to dispatch 3,000 Spanish troops, which was critical to conquer the British.
The commander of the convoy refused to lead the attack against the British and so another commander took control of the battle, which began at about 3:30 p.m.
However, the Spaniards were at a disadvantage due to the British artillery, which in their accounts they conceded was superior.
Upon hearing that more British recruits would be sent to fight his men, the Spanish commander felt that he was doomed and gave the signal for his men to retreat and head back to Caye Chapel.
Despite hinting that they would return to fight the British, the Spaniards never returned. If they were able to dispatch their troops, history would have been framed differently, according to panelists.