The Battle of September 10, 1798 – a first person’s account by Steven Forbes
The only detailed first-person account we have of the Battle of St. George’s Caye is the account given by Steven Forbes. It was edited by E.W. Williams and printed by The Sheldon Press in London.
Belizean novelist Stephen Fairweather, has done exhaustive research on this subject, and in his book “The Baymen of Belize” adheres closely to the information provided by Steven Forbes.
The account of the battle printed here is from the Steven Forbes book, a copy of which we received through the courtesy of Mr. Nick Sutherland, who now lives in Dangriga.
The Forbes Account
The vessels defending the northern approach were under my command, and with me were Jack McDonald and young Sampson, the American from Sittee River.
My father was in command of the northern position and Uncle James and his other two boys were stationed on the Cay.
TheSpanish commander sent six of his largest gun brigs to attack the Montego position, whilst he with three brigs and eighteen schooners ran down next the reef to attack the second position, and the Cay itself.
My orders were to reserve all fire till the signal for action was hoisted.
As I have said, the Spaniards’ weight of metal was much heavier than ours, for all their guns were either eighteen or twenty-four pounders.
The six gun brigs ran down to within long range of our position, then formed line to the southward and opened fire.
But their practice was bad and oittle damage was done as most of their shot fell short.
Meanwhile not a shot came from our little fleet. We grimly bided our time.
Finding that his fire was ineffectual at this long range, the SpanishCommander bore up for the channel behind the Montego shoal, to get to closer quarters with his insignificant looking foes.
In doing this he ran his brig, which was leading, on the Montego, and the next three vessels that followed did likewise, and there, in a few minutes they all four werehard and fast on the sand.
The remaining two brigs steered off, just in time to escape the same fate.
Our chance had come at last! Up ran the signal for action, and in a moment all the twenty-four guns were pounding away at the luckless Spaniards at short range.
All was confusion on their crowded ships and a dreadful panish ensued.
Discipline never good at any time was at an end, for whilst some shouted frantic orders to tow off the shoal, others screamed that all was lost, and that their only hope was to take to their boats.
All this time the guns of the droghers and flats, smartly handled, poured a deadly fire of canister and solid shot into the doomed Spaniards, and wrought awful havoc on their densely packed decks. .
Now I saw the moment had come to finish off our part of the battle. The signal to board ran up and in less time than it takes to tell two pitpans from each drogher and one from each flat with crews of fifteen men in them, were paddlig for their lives to get first on board the enemy.
“Two pitpans to each Spaniard, and board where you can” was the order. .
The boarders besides their muskets, carried a brace of pistol in their belts as well as their machetes, deadly weapon in a strong man’s hand.
Jack, Sampson, Peter and I having a slight start, ranged alongside the Spanish Captain with our two crafts, one on either bow.
Thirty men against more than five times their number was heavy odds against them, but little we recked of odds, for we meant to have those Spaniards if there had been ten times as many of them.
We were met with a wild musketry fire as we ranged alogside, which knocked off three of theboarders. The rest fired a volley with their muskets as the bowmen grappled the Spaniards just to clear the bulwarks, and then, machete in hand led on one side by Sampson and myself and on the other by Jack and Peter, clampered up the chains and were presentlyon deck.
The Spanards, all disordered as they were, fought desperately first and several of our men were badly wounded. . Jack, as he tumbled on deck, received a bayonet thrust through the fleshy part of his shoulder, but Peter, who was at his side, clove the Spaniard’s skull with his machete before he could even withdraw his bayonet….
The deck grew slippery with blood and still the Negroes, their fighting blood well up, and following their Spaniards foot by foot until the pressure grew so great that those in the stern began to leap overboard, whilst others sought refuge down the hatchways.
The Spanish Captain was a brave soldier, and now made a desperate effort to rally his men and save the fortunes of the day.
Sword in hand, he called on them to follow him and sprang forward, fighting like a wildcat to get to me.
His men obeyed and all, still in overwhelming numbers, rushed on the little band of borders.
For the moment things looked desparate for us and it seemed as though we would be swept overboard by the very weight of numbers.
Desperate was the fighting and in the midst of it I went down, felled by the butt end of a musket.
A yell of triumph followed and a rush was made to finish me. But the giant Peter was at my side and standing astride my body, cut down all who dared to come within reach of his machete.
Presently I was on my feet again but dazed and staggering from the blow, and still the Saiards, led by their captain , pressed on to what seemed certain victory.
Now when the crisis of the day had come and our fortunes looked black indeed, young Sampson did a deed that changed the whole aspect of affairs.
Despite his efforts the Spanish captain had as yet not reached the foe he sought.The confusion of the melee had kept us apart, but now the way was clearer and he pushed through to were I stood.
Sampson saw my peril, and machee in hand cut his way into the group round the captain, followed by a couple of negroes.
With a glancing bullet wound in his ribs and a machete cut on the side of his head, he reached his man, closed with him and down they fell together on the slippery deck.
Over and over theyrolled for a moment or two.Then Sampson sprang to his feet; but the Spanish captain lay dead on the deck.
Then Sampson, in a ded faint from loss of blood, fell back into the arms of the one black men who survived that gallant exploit and was hurried into safety.
It was now the turn of the boarders to rally and with a fierce shout of triumph we hurled ourselves at the foe.
Discomfitted by the death of their commander, they gave way before the onslaught. The fight was nearly done formany of the Spaniards threw down their arms and cried for quarter, and the rest, all but about a dozen, lept overboard.
As I led my men in the final rush to clear the deck the last shot fired broke my left arm above the elbow, and down I went.
The men swept on.The last surviving armed Spaniard was cut down, the Spanish flag lay on the deck, and the San Estevan was won. .
Of the gallant men, thirty all told who boarded the San Estevan, five were killed and eighwounded severely, including three white men.
The Spanish loss was seventy seven killed and thirdy five wounded. So desperate was the attack and so stubborn the defence on the crowded deck during the brief half hour the contest lasted.
The the other stranded Spaniards fared no better than the San Estevan for in less than an hour they all hauled down their flags… ….
As soon as the deck was cleared, I who was still in command, brought all the prisoers on board the San Estevan: thenburnt the other three vessels where they lay.
Whilst this engagement, so disastrous to part of his flotilla, was going on Captain Boco Negra led his main fleet down the narrow channel next the reef to attack the Cay, and in doing so had to run the gauntlet of fire from the three droughers and six flats defending the second position. .
The range was close and here again the Spaniards suffered severely before they came into action with the Merlin and the shore battery.
As ususl, the enemyfire was wild and did scarcely any exeution.
The narrowness of the channel compelled them to adopt the formation of double column ahead and before they could bring their broadsides to bear, Captain Moss poured into them from his port and starboard batteries in quick succession a most destructive fire – at the same time the 18 pounder battery on the Cay hammered away at each vessel as it came into range.
The raking fire of case shot from the Merlin swept them like hail from bow to stern and as each ship came under this storm of death the decks were strewn with the dead and the dying.
As the Spanish flagship, the Madre de Dios, went about, unable to face the Merlin’s fire, a lucky shot fron the shore battery, which was well served by the Jamaica gunners, struck her stern post; another brought the foremast down upon the deck a tangled ruin, and she became an unmanagable wreck.
Now the rest of the Spaniards, stormed at and pounded by the floting batteries and the 18 pounders of the cay, swept and torn by the Merlin’s fire, could not endure the punishment and one by one hauled their wind and ran back to Long Caye.
They left behind them the Madre de Dios and two disabled schooners which were quickly captured by the Merlin’s crew without further resistance.
As soon as darnkess fell, I set all my crews and many of the prisoners to lighten the San Estevan, then hauled her off the shoal, ran her down to the cay and handed the prize and prisoners over to the keeping of Captain Moss.
So ended the first day’s fight of St. George’s Caye, in triumph of the settlers, and in sore discomfiture for their enemies.