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.