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#21626 - 09/08/06 02:12 PM 1798: An event of visceral importance
Marty Offline
1798: An event of visceral importance Print E-mail

By Harry Lawrence - Publisher, The Reporter

There is enough historical evidence to convince even the most sceptical among us, of the validity and importance of the Battle of St. George’s Caye.

But for political reasons there are some among us who are not open to the truth. And there’s the rub.

Eight years ago, to celebrate the 200th annivesary of that Battle, British High Commissioner Tim David obtained from the British Admiralty an actual drawing the HMS Merlin, the British sloop of war that played such a pivotal role in the Battle of St. George’s Caye. The drawing was published in the newspapers for all to see that such a ship did exist and did take part in the battle.

In his valuable little book Brief Sketch of British Honduras the late Governor John Burdon, M.A., quotes actual extracts of diplomatic dispatches between Belize, Jamaica and England which give stunning details about the battle of 1798.

Major Burdon was appointed Governor to succeed Sir Eyre Hutson, who served in Belize from March 1921 to September 1924. In 1927 Governor Burdon published his famous Brief Sketch through the scholarly West India Committee in London.

Governor Burdon was the man who conceived and built the Burdon Canal to provide an inland waterway for fresh farm produce from the fertile Sibun River Valley to Belize City. He was also responsible for the wooden Camel-back Bridge ( so called because of its steep hump) which spanned the canal.

In his book Burdon pointed out “the safe shelter afforded by the cayes and difficult navigation is believed to have been the principal reason for attracting buccaneers to these shores.”

These were the same reasons that caused the Spanish task force of 31 vessels with some 2,000 troops on board under the command of Field-Marshal O’Neil to fail in its attempt on September 10, 1798 - that plus the fact that the Merlin carried eight 18 pound cannons on each side, and the Spanish invading force, though more in number, was more lightly armed.

The British ship could put down a withering barrage from both broadsides, and with Spanish ground troops tightly packed in the belly of their ships, the carnage from the heavy guns would have been great.

The task force’s objective was a tiny island perched near the edge of the reef known as St. George’s Caye.This caye was the capital of the Settlement at the time, and the key to capturing and holding this profitable settlement for Spain.

The Spaniards had done it before. On September 15, 1779 a Spanish naval force descended without warning on a defenceless St. George’s Caye. The Spaniards plundered everything they could find and burned all the buildings. They shackled the men and marched them overland to Merida. History does not record what they did to the women.

The mistake the Spaniards made in 1779 was not to occupy the island. Within a year the Baymen were back in business, cutting logwood and becoming rich from this trade which paid them ?100 per ton.

This time the Spaniards intended stay. They planned to occupy St. George’s Caye and the mainland. They brought with them 2,000 ground troops and sufficient supplies to set up a formidable bridgehead.

They were so confident in their numbers, they didn’t expect any real resistance from the motley crew of settlers and their slaves. They expected the settlers to run, as they had run before.

The Settlers knew what they were in for, and at a public meeting held in Belize City on June 1, 1797 they voted by a majority of 14 not to run but to stand and fight.

All this has been record-ed in our archives and form part of Belize’s history.

The decision to stand and fight changed everything.

It strengthened the resolve of the Settlers who had bitter memories of what the Spaniards had done to them and their families in 1779, 19 years earlier.

It puts pressure on Jamaica, the guardian colony, to lend all the asistance it could muster to help the settlers defend themselves But more strategically, it caught the invading forces, who were expecting a cake-walk with their 2,000 troops and their 31 vessels, completely by surprise.

The Belize defence was led by the Merlin with its 18-pound guns, and three local sloops. Two of these had a pair of 18-pound guns while the third had only one cannon capable of hurling a 9 - pound cannonball. There were in addition two local schooners with four-pounders and seven gun-flats, each armed with one nine-pound cannon. The gun-flats were a stroke of pure genius. They were low in the water, and when they got in close and deadly the Spanish guns couldn’t touch them because the angle of trajectory was too high.

Only 9 of the largest Spanish ships engaged the Belize defenders, and these could not pass through the reef opening all at once. The bombardment started at 2:30 in the afternoon and by five in the evening it was over. The invading Spaniards could not force an entry through the reef opening or “boca” to outflank the Merlin.

They suffered heavy casualties. The carnage was such that Captain Boca Negra gave the order for his ships to withdraw.

Colonel Thomas Barrow arrived in Belize on January 1, 1797 to assume the office of Superintendent of the Settlemen.To him fell the task to get the place ready to resist an attack. After the fight he sent a dispatch to Lord Balcarres, the Governor of Jamaica which reported: “The enemy came down in a very handsome manner, and with a good countenance, in a line abreast, using both sails and oars. About half after two o’clock Captain Moss made the signal to engage, which was obeyed with a cool and determined firmnes that would have done credit to veterans.

“The action lasted about two and a half, when the Spaniards began to fall into confusion, and soon afterwards cut their cables and sailed and rowed off, assisted by a great number of launches which took them in tow. “Captan Moss, on seeing their retreat, made the signal for our vessels to chase, but night coming on and rendering pursuit too dangerous in the narrow channel and difficult navigation, they were soon after recalled”. The Battle of St. George’s Caye does not rank with any of the great naval engagements of history.

It is a mere footnote to the chain of cataclismic events taking place in Europe and America around that time.

In 1798 Britain, recently emerged from it disastrous war with the American colonies, (1775 to 1783 ) was fully engaged against Napoleon, who invaded Egypt that same year and threatened to overrun all of Europe The engagement fought in the shadow of the Belize Barrier Reef was not important to world history. But it was of immense relevance and importance to the Settlers and to the Belizeans who followed them.

After 1798, the Spaniards, who had attacked Belize four times between 1718 and 1798, never again tangled with the Settlers, and Belize was able to embark on a period of peace and growth which continues into the 21st century.

Belizeans today recognize the visceral importance of September 10, 1798 to the psyche and stature of our nation and celebrate with good reason. Not for race or politics, but because this Battle is a vital part of our history.

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#21627 - 09/08/06 02:13 PM Re: 1798: An event of visceral importance
Marty Offline
ditorial (10.09.06)

Friday, 08 September 2006

By Harry Lawrence - Publisher, The Reporter

For any one of our generation to deny the historical importance of the Battle of St. George’s Caye is for them to regard many generations of distinguished people - among them scholars and historians, past governors and upstanding citizens of this country as people who cannot be trusted.

The documentary evidence exists with the British Admiralty and with the records of dispatches which were exchanged immediately prior to and after September 1798.

Historical evidence can he found at the Yarborough Cemetery where Thomas Paslow, a Belizean who actually fought in the battle, has been buried...Various old cannon recovered from St. George’s Caye and elsewhere say clearly that some serious fighting took place.

The Belize Archives Department in Belmopan has many documents which help tell the story of how the Baymen, the early Settlers, stood up to a formidable Spanish invading force and turned it back.

The Handbook of British Honduras, by Monrad Metzgen and H.E.C. Cain, the Brief Sketch of British Honduras, by John Burdon, former governor and the Book Shoulder to Shoulder by Monrad Metzgen, all talk about the wonderful exploits of the Baymen. These are all out of print and have been officially suppressed in favour of new revisionist history-making.

For more than 150 years no one questioned the veracity and scope of the Battle, but in the 1950s there arose a politician who wanted to advance his political cause and who felt the patriotic September Celebrations, which included a pledge of loyalty to the British Sovereign, were a distraction to the nationalism which he espoused. He wanted a forward-looking approach instead of a backward, nostalgic glance.

So he encouraged others to believe and said himself publicly that the 10th of September was “a myth”.

It is to be doubted whether this politician believed himself when he called the battle a myth, but we know he strove mightily to dissuade people from celebrating the historical event and even organised rival parades on the day of the 10th to focus people’s attention away from the 10th and on the political work ahead.

But that was an era which is gone. Belizeans no longer pledge allegiance to the British Sovereign on September 10, so it falls to this generation to bind up the wounds and move on - but not at the expense of denying our history or deprecating our past achievements.

This year marks the 208th. anniversary of the Battle of St. George’s Caye. We can keep our nationalism and we can keep our patriotism. The two events are homogeneous.They go well together. They are both part of our culture and heritage.

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#21628 - 09/08/06 02:14 PM Re: 1798: An event of visceral importance
Marty Offline
Thomas Paslow, Belizean Hero

Friday, 08 September 2006, The Reporter

The history books say that Thomas Paslow was one of those whom distinguished himself in the Battle of St.George’s Caye, and his tombstone at the Yarborough Cemetery in Belize City confirms this.

The message on his tombstone says Lt. Col.Thomas Paslow commanded the H.R.H. 2nd. Artillery. He was an Irishmen who came to Belize at the age of 26 and died at the age of 66, having spent 40 years in the service of the Settlement.

The tombstone recalls he fought gallantly and successfully against the Spaniards who invaded on the 10th September in 1798.

Thomas died on February 11, 1825, followed 12 years later by his beloved Clarisse, who reports say, was a black woman.

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