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.