In a radio talk on the Lectern series, Ronald Clarke said: “I would like to refer, at this stage, to a certain fiction which has been spread abroad by the local establishment, acting in concert with the colonial power, that slavery was particularly ‘humane’ in this country. To begin with, I know of no system of human bondage which might go under the label ‘humane.’”
– pg. 4, KNOCKING OUR OWN TING, Evan X Hyde, The Industrial Press, 1969
Belize has been celebrating September 1798, the Battle of St. George’s Caye, for 120 years. The question now is, it appears to this newspaper, how much preparation, with respect to eradicating ethno/social discrimination and bigotry, has Belize been doing to forge the national unity necessary to survive next year’s existential crisis?
Before we proceed, let us declare, and insist, that this essay is not an attack on the Battle of St. George’s Caye and those who are cut from the Loyal and Patriotic Order of the Baymen cloth. Almost forty years before it was discovered and publicized by the young Evan X Hyde in 1969 (KNOCKING OUR OWN TING), information about an epic slave revolt on the Belize Old River in 1773 had been published in Sir John Alder Burdon’s Archives. This essay, however, is not focused on that revolt per se. As it is, we don’t believe anyone here has ever seriously focused on the 1779 Spanish raid on St. George’s Caye, and there is where we now want to go.
Of the three aforementioned historical incidents in the settlement of Belize in the latter part of the eighteenth century, 1798 is the least violent. There was no bloodshed. A conspiracy involving the British colonial authorities, the local merchant and mahogany power structure, the Belize Estate and Produce Company (BEC), and the native upper class in Belize made 1798 into the most memorable year, complete with Baymen heroism and glory. The artistic centerpiece of that canvas showed enslaved Blacks supporting their white British masters in a defensive action against Spanish invaders from the Yucatan.
Twenty years earlier, in September of 1779, one Don Roberto Rivas Betancourt of Yucatan launched a surprise attack on the Belize settlement’s capital of St. George’s Caye, burned down the houses, and forced the Baymen to surrender. Rivas Betancourt came in boats with soldiers, so he had known how to navigate the dangerous waters around St. George’s Caye, the same treacherous waters which supposedly doomed Arturo O’Neil’s Yucatan armada in 1798.
In describing the Rivas Betancourt attack, Assad Shoman notes on page 32 of his 13 Chapters of a History of Belize (Angelus Press, 1994) that: “An account written by one of the inhabitants who escaped states that on the 15th of September 1779 a large number of boats bearing Spanish and ‘Indian’ soldiers arrived at St. George’s Caye and informed the inhabitants ‘that it was war between the Crown of Great Britain and Spain,’ and demanded their surrender. Shoman goes on: “The writer noted that there were ‘about 200 or 250 negroes, men, women and children, mostly ‘House Negroes,’ as the majority of the slaves were up the river at the logwood and mahogany works. There were ‘101 White people on the Key … and 40 of mixed colour.”
Mr. Shoman continues on page 32: “One very significant observation made by the writer is that ‘amongst the Spaniards that landed on the Key, there were several negroes in arms, who had formerly run away from the inhabitants of the Bay; particularly a negro man named Dover, formerly the property of Mr. John Tucker, who had a few days before the Spaniards landed, killed a white man, Lawrence Dawson, in the New River.”
Concluding on page 32, Mr. Shoman writes: “In early October 1779, fifty British men and 250 slaves, who had been upriver at the time of the capture, made good their escape to Roatan and Bonacca, on the Honduran coast. The British did not return to Belize until after the European powers signed a peace treaty in 1783.”
It may be that the 1779 attack originated in Bacalar, because Shoman apparently refers to Rivas Betancourt as the “Commandant of Bacalar,” whereas O’Neil’s 1798 armada supposedly travelled all the way from Merida by sea.
Bacalar was the first significant Yucatan community on the northern side of the Rio Hondo. As such, Bacalar meant freedom for African slaves escaping by land from the settlement of Belize. In 1773, the Spanish in Bacalar were, for all intents and purposes, allies of Africans running away from slavery in Belize. In 1779, to repeat,” …amongst the Spaniards that landed on the Key, there were several negroes in arms, who had formerly run away from the inhabitants of the Bay…”
Just six years before the Spanish attack of 1779, the 1773 African slave revolt had been a very, very big deal in the settlement of Belize. The following two paragraphs are from pages 1, 2, and 3 of KNOCKING OUR OWN TING.
“On June 21st 1773, almost a month after, Captain Davey again writes Admiral Rodney. The black revolutionaries had taken five settlements and executed six slavemasters, their ranks had swollen to fifty, armed with sixteen muskets, cutlasses, etc.”
“… on October 11, 1773, a committee of Baymen write to Admiral Rodney that the ’19 surviving rebels’ tried to reach the Spanish, and a Captain Judd sent a commissioned officer, two non-commissioned officers and twelve marines to cut them off, but eleven of them reached the Spanish Lookout on the Rio Hondo. And baby, the Rio Hondo is quite a ways from the Belize River.”
One more interesting note, this from page 3 of KNOCKING OUR OWN TING. “In a letter dated August 8th 1773 Admiral Rodney writes to Captain W. Judd of the H.M.S. Garland, instructing him to proceed directly to the Bay and find out the particulars of the reported negro rebellion and massacre of several whites. He should demand the return of the three fugitive slaves who murdered McDougal and were immediately received into the Spanish Lookout on the Hondo where the guard also helped to plunder McDougal’s raft.”
There was bad blood, murderous vibes between the African slaves and the British Baymen between 1773 and 1779. Liberated African slaves from Belize assisted the Spanish in their 1779 raid on St. George’s Caye, which culminated with both white and black captives from St. George’s Caye being marched to Merida and shipped to Havana, Cuba.
By 1847, when the Caste War of Yucatan erupted in the area of Tihosuco and Tepich, just 100 miles north of Bacalar, the evidence indicates that African descendants from Belize were involved with the Mayans from the south of Yucatan in their bloody rebellion.
In 2018, where the defence of Belize is concerned, patriotic Belizeans need to remember the history of the period between 1773 and 1779, as well as we need to understand the nature of the Caste War and its implications for Belize, especially for our Northern Districts.
1798 is an event which the British colonialists wanted to be celebrated in the settlement of Belize. The Battle of St. George’s Caye involved the British moving naval reinforcements from Jamaica to support the settlement of Belize. In 1798, the majority African slaves of Belize were caught between two warring European powers, and they were trying to make the best of a bad situation.
In 2018, the landscape in the territory of Belize has changed. The present tension here is between an independent, sovereign Belize with a majority African and Mayan population being threatened by the neo-European rulers of the Guatemalan republic west of us. Guatemala did not play any role in 1779, or 1798. Yucatan, which attacked Belize in 1779 and 1798, is now Belize’s friend.
As we begin this year’s celebration of 1798, Belizeans should study the details of what happened in 1779, particularly as it relates to the 1773 slave rebellion. There are pieces of the puzzle which the colonial British and their native power structure allies deliberately scattered. Those pieces have been slowly coming together since 1969. Make sense out of nonsense.Amandala