Battle of St. George's Caye Day parade, San Pedro
Key events leading up to the Battle of Saint Georges Caye:
March 28th, 1798 – Colonel Barrow’s request for permission to attack Bacalar is denied. The British who were at war with Spain did not want the Baymen to irritate Spain.
April 10th, 1798 – three companies of the 6th West Indian Regiment arrive in Belize and were placed in the New Town Barracks (210 men).
June 1798 – Captain John Ralph Moss replaces Captain Dundas as captain of the HMS Merlin in the Belize Harbour.
July 18th, 1798 – Spanish Fleet reported sighted at Cozumel by turtle fishermen.
July 22nd, 1798 – Public Meeting agrees to “Out-fit” the gun flats, and not charge the Navy or Army for any services or materials rendered by the private sector.
July 26th, 1798 – Fishermen report great preparations underway at Cozumel for immediate attack on the Baymen settlement. Public Meetings approve Martial Law. The entire settlement mobilized and on “Full Alert”.
August 8th, 1798 –Public Meetings recommends destruction of all houses and water tanks on St. Georges Caye.
August 9th, 1798 – All houses and water tanks in St. Georges Caye Destroyed.
August 13th, 1798 – Spanish fleet sighted by Basil Jones approaching Ambergris Caye.
September 2nd, 1798 – In the morning the Spanish fleet enters through a channel between Caye Caulker and Caye Chapel and comes in behind the reef and anchors behind Caye Chapel. Captain Moss sends the sloop Towser and the Schooners Teaser and Swinger to St. George’s Caye Harbour
September 3rd, 1798 – Five smaller Spanish ships crammed with soldiers tried to come through the channel between Montego Caye and Cayo Sucio. The Channel was narrow and the water shallow. The Spanish came on in spite of the mud flats. The Teaser, Towser and Swinger covered the channel mouth from three directions like a fan. The lead Spanish ship was caught in a deadly cross-fire from three different directions. This deadly cross-fire gave the Spanish problems in the narrow channel; they could not manoeuvre to aim or escape. They were sitting ducks and some of the Spanish ships ran aground. The Baymen kept up a steady fire and by eleven 0’clock the Spaniards were able to have their shops towed back out of the “death trap” of the channel by their long boats. The Baymen had turned back the first Spanish attack. Captain Moss sent the six gun flats to St. Georges Caye to support the three vessels already there.
September 4th, 1798 – Early in the morning the Baymen discovered during the night the Spanish had put up markers for a channel from the opening from the opening between Montego Caye and Frenchman Caye. The Baymen placed the six gun flats as close to the opening as possible, but spread out, of the marked channel. The Towser and the Teaser backed them up from deeper water. The Swinger was sent to the East of Frenchman Caye in cased the Spanish tried to sneak up from that direction. The five Spanish ships began coming through the channel and like on the 3rd were caught in a deadly cross-fire. Three guns flats with one nine pounder with 18 pounder on either side of the opening was bad news for the five Spanish ships which were again hampered by the lack of space to manoeuvre both to avoid being hit and to aim at the faster and smaller vessels of the Baymen which had their heavier fire power. This engagement lasted from about 9:00 a.m. to about 2:00 p.m. The Spanish ships were towed backwards through the channel by their launches. So ended the second attempt by the Spanish forces to capture St. Georges Caye. The Channel markers put in by the Spanish were removed by the Baymen.
September 5th, 1798 – This morning the Spanish caught the Baymen by surprise. They had lightened seven ships and picked an unexpected channel in Cayo Sucio, just north of Montego Caye. The Swinger like on the 4th was patrolling to the east. The flats and the Teaser and Towser were stationed by Montego Caye and Frenchman Caye. They were surprised to see the masts of the seven Spanish ships to the North attempting to come through the Cayo Sucio channel.
The Baymen fleet raced north and was able to position themselves on both sides of the channel mouth as they did on the 4th; the day before. This time the Spanish ships began firing first but were too far away to do any damage. The Baymen opened fire at 300 yds. away. The Baymen carried bigger guns than the Spanish which carried two twenty four pounder in the bow but could only shoot straight ahead. The Baymen fleet began to land a few shots on some of the Spanish ships. After about an hour the Spanish began to be towed backward and ceased firing. The Third attempt to capture St. Georges Caye did not succeed. The seven Spanish vessels joined their fleet by Caye Chapel. Captain Moss and the HMS Merlin left the Belize Harbour at 5:00 p.m. enroute to St. Georges Caye by the English Caye Channel.
September 6th, 1798 – H.M.S. Merlin leaves English Caye in the morning sailing to St. Georges Caye which she hoped to arrive around 1:00 p.m. The Towser, Teaser, and the Swinger and the six gun flats took up position to await the next move by the Spanish. The Tickler, the Mermaid and Thomas Paslow’s gun flat left Belize Harbour in the morning to take up positions at St. George’s Caye. The Pit-Pans were sent out to scout the enemy. The Spanish now decided to attack from the east of Long Caye behind the reef. They prepared twelve ships this time. They sailed towards Frenchman’s Caye opening. Facing the Spanish fleet of 12 vessels was the Teaser, the Towser, and Swinger and the six gun flats. The time was about noon. Just about this time Mermaid, and the Tickler and Paslow’s gun flat came into sight. The brought the Baymen fleet to twelve vessel. The odds became better. A short time later the H.M. S. Merlin sails appeared beyond the reef coming towards St. Georges Caye. The appearance of the reinforcement caused the Spanish fleet to turn back and return to their anchorage behind Caye Chapel.
September 7th, 1798 – Colonel Barrow felt sure that the Spanish would attack the two forts at the Haulover. He at once decided to get all his troops except a few, to man the forts at Belize Town, to the Haulover forts. He had Major Murray send about 50 of the Baymen sharpshooters to act as snipers to harass the Spanish If they landed at the Haulover. He ordered as many boats, dories and pit-pans as possible to move his forces immediately to the forts at the Haulover.
September 8th, 1798 – Colonel Barrow spent the whole day organizing and overseeing the preparations of the defence at the Haulover. Making sure all the supplies and rations necessary for his troops arrived. He also sent out vessels to scout for the enemy especially in the Hick’s Caye area. Most of the time it was raining heavily. Captain Moss went to inspect the pit-pan crews on St. Georges Caye. The heavy rains forced him to cut his visit short.
These pictures will give you an example of how the pitpans might have looked like in 1798. As a boy living along the river I had the privilege of seeing the pitpan races in the 70's. I can still see them in my mind. As part of the Baron Bliss Celebrations they would race from Belcan Bridge all the way to the Swing Bridge. The boats were painted in white and were about 20 to 30 feet long with about 30 to 40 people or more. They all were dressed in colorful uniforms. They all paddled in unison.
September 9th, 1798 – Two armed schooners the Juba and the Columbia arrived in Belize harbour in the afternoon, Colonel Barrow immediately ordered then to St. Georges Caye to join the Navy there. The Captains decided to discharge the cargo first, then report to St. Georges Caye. They missed the battle on the 10th. They still went on the 11th.
September 10th, 1798 – The Spanish fleet began to show activity by about 9:00 a.m. Fourteen Spanish ships full of soldiers and sailors each ship towing a launch sailing towards the windward passage between Long Caye and the reef. About one and a half miles away from the H.M.S Merlin they dropped anchor. The Baymen fleet took up their battle position. The Spanish fleet decided to attack. When Captain Moss saw them moving forward using weeps and sails he sent a message by pit-pan to Colonel Barrow to bring all of the troops to defend St. George’s Caye as quick as possible. The HMS Merlin opened the battle with a “broadside” at the Spanish fleet. All the Baymen vessels opened fire on the Spaniards.
By 2:30 pm all the Spanish ships had been hit but not fatally. All were in some state good damage: at least six of the towed launches were hit and caused death and injury to the soldiers in them. Around 3:00 p.m. or a little later the pit-pans from the Houlover, full of men were seen approaching the Baymen and the Spanish. On seeing the large amount of reinforcements arriving on the scene the Spanish fleet ceased firing and returned to their base. The Battle of Saint George’s Caye was over.
10th of September Song
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 .
Photograph by San Pedro Scoop
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