- by Michael Finnegan
History records that the commemoration of the Battle of St. George’s Caye began in September of 1898, a full century after the battle was fought.
Our documentary heritage, of which the Belize Archives and Records Service and the National Institute of Culture and History (NICH) are today custodians, indicates that as early as 1779 the Spanish were launching attacks from Bacalar on the inhabitants on St. George’s Caye. There are accounts of the Spanish taking the settlers and their slaves captive, marching them to Merida and confiscating their property.
The minutes of a Public Meeting held in Belize Town on 1st June 1797, a copy of which is today available at the Belize Archives and Records Service in Belmopan, records that the community, in the face of continued Spanish threats, decided “to carry on defensive operations to keep possession of the settlement” rather than “to determine a general evacuation”.
There were 51 votes in favour of evacuation and 65 votes against. The majority of 14 against general evacuation included the names of a group of persons who arrived late from the village of Flowers Bank on the Belize River, after the meeting was called to order, but who nevertheless were in time for the vote on the question of whether the settlers should stay and fight or should abandon the settlement. The battle cry was “shoulder to shoulder”.
From the texts of reports from Colonel Thomas Barrow, who was commissioned to defend the settlers in the Bay of Honduras, from Royal Navy Captain John R. Moss, the commanding officer aboard H.M.S. Merlin and from D. Francisco de Heredia Vergara, an assistant to General Arturo O’Neil, the Spanish Governor of the Province of Yucatan, who commanded the Spanish armament; we learn that a Spanish fleet of more than thirty vessels was spotted from lookouts at Belize on the 4th of September 1798. On the following day some six of the largest of the Spanish fleet attempted to advance over Montego Caye Shoal with the intent to get possession of St. George’s Caye around noon on the 6th September. The Spaniards, on sighting the British warship with reinforcement by a flotilla consisting of the Towser, Tickler, Mermaid, Swinger, Teazer, and eight flat gun boats, returned to an anchorage between Long Caye and Caye Chapel.
The British commanders believed that the enemy would change their mode of attack and launch an amphibious assault on their post near Haul Over. With support from volunteers it is recorded that the detachments blocked the Spanish attempt to traverse the channel between the mainland and Hick’s Caye and thus obstructed a landing by the Spanish forces.
On the morning of the 10th of September, 14 of the largest vessels of the Spanish fleet, all with heavy guns and towing smaller vessels laden with soldiers, weighed anchor and came to within a mile and a half of the British fleet. At noon, nine of the Spanish vessels began to advance as the Merlin supported by an assortment of sloops and gun boats was drawn up abreast of the channel.
At about 2:30 p.m. Captain Moss gave the order to engage the enemy. The action lasted two and a half hours until the enemy fell into confusion, cut loose their cables and using both sail and oars hastily retreated. Captain Moss gave signal for our vessels to give chase until nightfall made pursuit too dangerous as the narrow channels were difficult to navigate.
The accounts relate that the Spaniards remained under Caye Chapel until the 15th of September on which day some of their vessels made anchor at Caye Caulker. At daylight on the 16th it was discovered that they stole off under the cover of darkness, cleared the shallows and shaped their course northward for Bacalar. The British commanding officer in his dispatch gives credit to the manner in which the Colonial militia comprised of the settlers, some experienced bush men and negroes performed in the defensive operations. It is Colonel Barrow’s belief that the enemy suffered much in the engagement, damage to their ship’s hulls and rigging being evident as well as casualties both those killed and wounded. Captain Moss wrote of the wonderful spirit of the negro slaves who manned their small craft (canoes, dories and pit pans).
Whether they were white, black, called Baymen, slaves, free coloured or Maya they were the settlers, our forbears who were brave enough to stay and defend this territory against the Spanish challenge to British settlement in the Bay of Honduras.
We sing in the patriotic song: “The Baymen who fought and discharged their great trust, whose bodies now mingle in earth’s fertile dust. All died on this land which my glad heart acquire, that gave us the freedom our great hearts inspire.”
Many articles involved Simon Lamb (1833-1914), who has been described as one of the most patriotic Belizeans of his era, in the establishment of a Centennial Committee to organize the first major celebration of the event in September 1898. Ernest Cain in his manuscript writes that Lamb started the celebrations with the full support of patriotic followers. From the historical analysis available to us there is the sense that there was no division among the people at that time. People realized that they were celebrating the greatest event in the history of the country. It is believed that the aim of the members of the Centennial committee was to foster a spirit of unity and harmony between all groups, descendants of both the masters and slaves whose determined sacrifice made possible the nation we enjoy. In Cain’s account, on the 10th September 1898, Simon Lamb and his followers assembled at the Belize Estate and Produce Company’s (B.E.C.) compound at the corner of North Front Street and Hydes Lane and marched orderly and joyfully to the Government House on Regent Street where Lamb presented an address of loyalty to the British Governor for onward transmission to the Sovereign. From then forward the festivities seemed to generally follow this tradition.
All was going well until the 1949 devaluation of the Belize dollar which sparked the nationalist movement and the formation of the People’s Committee which later evolved into the People’s United Party. The development of party politics in our small Caribbean societies can be so divisive, devious and pernicious.
Prior to the evolution of party politics, the events organized by the Loyal and Patriotic Order of the Baymen included the participation of the Governor, the representative of Her Majesty in the colony. On such occasions, the Governor would be present to receive the pledges of loyalty from the citizens and be invited to deliver remarks at such events celebrating the battle. They continued inviting the Governor to the Loyal and Patrotic Order of the Baymen-sponsored events. The last Governor to attend these events was Governor Colin Hardwick Thornley.
Party politics, however, divided the celebration of the Battle of St. George’s Caye. The nationalist leaders felt in their resistance to British colonization it was necessary to diminish the significance of the Battle of St. George’s Caye as a myth and something which the British foisted on Belizeans, yet still when they celebrated what they renamed as National Day on the Tenth of September, they always invited the representative of the Colonial Government to speak. How contradictory.
The ruling People’s United Party regime in their quest for Independence thought it best to organize separate events themed as National Day celebrations which in their minds upon the eventual attainment of Belize’s Independence would eclipse the celebration of the Battle of St. George’s Caye. Imagine, the ruling party went as far as to strongly discourage or censor air play of the traditional patriotic songs and poems on the then only radio station, the government controlled propaganda machinery Radio Belize.
Good sense or good reasoning prevailed within the ranks of the PUP in that the date for Independence had to be closely choreographed with the date for Belize’s formal admission as a full member of the United Nations General Assembly, which, according to the UN’s rules of procedure, opens in regular session on the Tuesday of the third week in the month of September. The thinking at the time was that because of the threat of external aggression from Guatemala, Belize should move into Independence under the security umbrella of our international diplomatic efforts and therefore the date of Independence had to be set when the UN General Assembly was meeting in regular session. The official Independence proclamation was therefore set for 21st September 1981 and on the 23rd September 1981 we were formally admitted as a state member of the United Nations at a ceremony held at UN Headquarters in New York.
I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the agenda of the PUP was to destroy the history of the Battle of St. George’s Caye by calling it a myth. If the date for Independence was set for the 10th of September that would have destroyed the celebrations marking the Battle of St. George’s Caye. The paragraph above explains why it could not have been done. It would have been so divisive if the date for Independence coincided with the anniversary of the Battle of St. George’s Caye. It would have confused the nation.
The Loyal and Patriotic Order of the Baymen used to start the celebrations with the Queen of the Bay Pageant. The PUP arranged its own Miss Belize Independence Contest to compete. The Loyal and Patriotic Order of the Baymen had to hold its pageants and other activities in an enclosed venue so it could levy an admission charge to help defray the costs. The Queen of the Bay was customarily held at Edwards Park, now known as Rogers Stadium. The PUP, on the other hand, as it was the government in office had at its disposal the considerable resources available at the taxpayer’s expense and hence could have afforded to host Miss Belize Independence at the Memorial Park free of cost.
The last Queen of the Bay Pageant held at the Rogers Stadium was in 1960. Dorothy Lewis was crowned Queen on that occasion. Thereafter the PUP refused to allow the Rogers Stadium or any other enclosed public venue controlled by Government to be used for the Queen of the Bay. Businessman Santiago Castillo generously agreed to the use of his cinemas for the pageant. On some occasions it was the Eden Cinema on North Front Street used. I can’t remember whether if it was then in the possession of the Aguilar or the Castillo family. Thereafter it went to Bird’s Isle but no enclosed forum owned or controlled by Government was allowed to be used by the Loyal and Patriotic Order of the Baymen to host their events leading up to the Tenth of September.
The Loyal and Patriotic Order of the Baymen held a Voice of the Bay Competition; the PUP organized its Voice of Belize. Whatever the Loyal and Patriotic Order of the Baymen organized to make the Battle of St. George’s Caye, the then ruling PUP copied it and called it by another name. Crowds would go to the Memorial Park to witness the events leading up to the so called National Day on the Tenth of September. The Hon. Philip Golsdson’s NIP and the Loyal and Patriotic Order of the Baymen remained at the Court House Wharf to hold their events which culminated in the celebration of the anniversary of the Battle of St. George’s Caye on the Tenth of September.
There would be two parades. Can you imagine how childlike partisan politics can be? The Police Department would have them move off and they were so efficient on that day in controlling public order that there was never any clash of both parades on the 10th September. This went on for years and years. The PUP were then in their heyday. During the decade of the 60s and for the better part of the 70s the PUP continued on their agenda to destroy the memory of the Battle of St. George’s Caye.
The general elections held in 1974 was the first occasion at which the PUP faced a threat from a credible alternative to the ruling party. The UDP came within 17 votes for a dead heat in that election. Recall that Ken Tillett lost in the Collet division by one vote; his brother was 12 votes short of victory in Corozal and Paul Rodriguez came 4 votes shy of success in the Pickstock division. This was the first time that the PUP could lose an election.
Let’s get back to the subject matter. What was happening in that period was that the stalwarts from families such as: Brackett, Fairweather, Young, Pitts, Wallen, Cassasola, Dunn, Laing, Cleland, Waight, Flowers, Staine, Jex, Vernon, Frazer, Cain, Locke, Fuller, Burgess, Eusey, Keating, Lind, Bowman, Pollard, Middleton, Hall and others were all dying out and their replacements in that organization were nonexistent for whatever reason, I don’t know why.
Eventually Henry Young took up a major portion of the responsibility of organizing and promoting these events. From the 1950’s through to the 70s and thereafter I give credit to the Hon. Philip Goldson, who single-handedly fought off the affronts from the people seeking to destroy our heritage. He was ridiculed and caricatured on many occasions. Some years the parade was big and at others participation was inconsequential. In that era no public officer would dare be seen marching in this parade. The Police Department’s Special Branch cameras were always active at these events so as to inform the ruling class who were marching in the L.&P.O.B. and Goldson’s parade.
Let me digress a little. I can remember on one occasion going to Cattouse’s store, which was at that time at the lower end of Queen’s Street to buy a felt hat. I had to go past a barber shop located where the Belize Times Press currently stands. The barber was no other than Antonio Soberanis, who today we hail as a patriot. He had an effigy of the Hon. Philip Goldson hanging above the shop and above the effigy was written “Black Monkey, Philip Goldson”.
I now return to the subject matter. It was the Committee of 40, headed by Henry Young and Edward Dougal Flowers (now deceased), who revived the celebrations surrounding the Tenth of September giving it broad appeal and reinstituting carnival in Belize. I am told that that in the late 50s there was carnival in Belize. The PUP in their effort to sabotage the Tenth celebrations engaged all the bands. It was left to the ladies associated with the Loyal and Patriotic Order of the Baymen and the Hon. Philip Goldson to go out in the streets marching with instruments improvised from pots and pans, graters and forks so they could be some semblance of music. I will mention one lady’s name who stood out in my eyes, Ms. Helen Wade. The Committee of 40 in the mid 70s engaged the services of Calypso Rose, and her talent harnessed with that of Lord Rhaburn electrified the road march on the Tenth and the Carnival parade which was staged on the Saturday preceding the 10th of September.
All that time the Hon. Philip Goldson remained involved, we are eternally grateful to the Hon. Philip Goldson’s efforts at preserving our cultural and historic heritage for current and future generations. The younger generation takes for granted what has been retained only through the large personal sacrifices of many like the Hon. Philip Goldson.
The partisan division in the celebration of the 10th of September continued until Belize achieved its Independence from Great Britain on 21st September 1981. Thereafter, I noted that the celebrations committee became more representative and the organizers agreed on a unified approach to the now almost month-long calendar of festivities which lead up to the commemoration of the anniversary of the Battle of St. George’ Caye and then later culminate in the more formal events marking the anniversary of our attainment of Political Independence.
With their major achievement, Independence from the United Kingdom, the PUP had fulfilled their vision, they had proven themselves and hence there was less need for “giveaways.” However, I cannot fail to mention that in the lead up to Independence their failure to adequately consult on the choice of our national symbols reflects a major shortcoming in their attempt to forge national unity. Imagine there was no popular consultation on the proposed national flag. In a hastily arranged competition only weeks before the event a proposal to add the red margins was offered as a balm, representative of the two-party system of our government and in proportions indicating the current balance of power in the House of Representatives at the time. One erudite commentator has written that the choice of having the country’s coat of arms, which on its own is not representative of our current economic and social situation, has made it so difficult and costly to reproduce. He has also questioned why in our motto we in fact admit a reluctance to toil in the sunshine.
In similar manner there was no consensus sought on the national anthem. One small concession was made to change the lyrics “Land of the Gods” to “Land of the Free”. Today a prayer for our nation is still a matter of controversy. We are informed that the verses we would recite in schools, and which were set to a stirring rendition of Jean Sibelius’ composition “Finlandia” to open and close Radio Belize’s transmission, were adapted and abridged from a longer prayer penned in the 18th century by the then senior Roman Catholic cleric in the United States and founder of Georgetown University, Archbishop John Carroll. The decision on the choice on something on the scale of a national prayer should have never been left to only a few individuals in Mr. Price’s inner circle of Jesuit-educated advisers and confidants. A check of the records of the National Assembly show that to date there has been no resolution passed to designate a national prayer.
To many of us the prominence given to the events commemorating the 10th September 1798 Battle of St. George’s Caye is deserved. It underscores the true significance of this event in our history which was Spain’s last attempt to evict the settlers from the Bay of Honduras. It in fact defined the road to nationhood. It was from this seminal event which displayed the indomitable spirit of our forefathers to defend the settlement and should be highlighted in its proper perspective as the birth of our nation. Developments since 1798 though to the formal establishment of the colony in 1862 and on to the devaluation of the British Honduras dollar in 1949 have been described by one notable Belizean scholar as simply expanding and consolidating British authority. The attainment of political Independence on the 21st September 1981 ushered in a new era and signaled our necessary political maturity to ably and confidently define our future.
Our forefathers way back then fought to preserve this heritage for us. Simon Lamb created the celebrations of the Battle of St. George’s Caye in their honor. The Hon. Philip Goldson and the Loyal and Patriotic Order of the Baymen fought those that had their own political agenda to preserve and enhance the rich history of the Battle that was fought at St. George’s Caye in 1798.
Authentic documents, some with eyewitness accounts, in UK, Spanish and Belizean archives and archaeological evidence from the area show ample proof of the 18th century Spanish attacks on the British settlement in the Bay of Honduras which culminated in the 1798 Battle at St. George’s Caye. It was no myth. This part of our history must be told so people can understand that we have reached here not by smooth sailing but we have had our bumps and turns in the murky political waters of Belize.
And, on that note, from the history of the Battle of St. George’s Caye we will return to our series on Belizeans athletes and next reintroduce to you Raymond Granville Lashley.
(Ed. NOTE: The above is a partly historical, partly political article by Housing Minister, Hon. Michael Finnegan, the UDP’s Mesopotamia area representative who has been presenting various sports articles to you in this newspaper over the past few months. These are unsolicited articles. When it comes to history and politics, Mr. Finnegan’s opinions are not the opinions of this newspaper. We have published the above out of respect to Mr. Finnegan’s previous contributions to Belize’s sports history. )Amandala