Battle of St. George's Caye


The Battle of St. George's Caye was a short military engagement that lasted from 3rd September to 10th, 1798, fought off the coast of what is now Belize.

However, the name is typically reserved for the final battle that occurred on September 10th.


The battle took place between an invading force from Mexico, attempting to claim Belize for Spain, and a small force of resident woodcutters called Baymen, who fought for their livelihood assisted by black slaves. After the final two and a half hour battle, ravaged by sickness, the Spaniards withdrew and the British declared themselves winners.

 

The territory that is now Belize was under dispute from as early as the mid 1750s by Great Britain and Spain. While Spain never occupied Belize, she apparently considered it part of her Central American territories, such as Mexico and Guatemala. The British had entered the territory as of 1638 to harvest logwood and later mahogany. Spain recognized this trade in the Treaty of Paris (signed in 1763[1]) but did not undertake to draw boundaries (which would have suggested that Spain was giving up claims of sovereignty to the area), leading to further disputes. Indeed, from 1779 to 1782 the settlement was practically non-existent, its settlers having been deported to Havana, Cuba.


The Treaty of Versailles and the Superintendency

 

In 1783, hostilities were brought to an end by the signing of the treaty of Versailles, which allowed the Baymen rights between the Belize and Hondo rivers; this was extended with the 1786 Convention of London to the Sibun River. Cutting rights were granted to the settlers on the condition that the settlement be recognized as belonging to Spain; Superintendent Col. Marcus Despard was to administer the terms of the treaty. Due to conflicts with the inhabitants Despard resigned, but by 1796 it was clear the issue would have to be settled.


Baymen's preparations

 

The Merlin's command in 1798 was Captain John Moss, a strategist on the order of Barrow. By July 18, 1798 the fleet had reached Cozumel, leading the settlers to agree to arm their slaves, an act that affected the outcome of the battle due to the slaves' knowledge of warfare. There were still some who were cautious and demanded evacuation, including Potts, but Balcarres ignored them and imposed martial law on July 26. The Settlement lineup consisted of the following:



Merlin, HM's sloop of war; two sloops, Towser and Tickler, with one 18 pounder and 25 men each; one sloop, Mermaid, with one short 9 pounder and 25 men; the schooners, Swinger and Teazer, with six four pounders and 25 men each; seven gun-flats, one 9 pounder and 16 men each.



In addition there were 700 troops ready to deter attack by land.


The Battle

 

From September 3 to 5, the Spaniards tried to force their way through Montego Caye shoal, blocked by the defenders. The military commanders, Moss and Barrow, differed on where to put their resources for the next phase of the fight: Barrow thought they would go to the land phase, while Moss decided on defending St. George's Caye. Moss arrived in time to stop the Spaniards, setting the stage for September 10.


September 10

 

At 1:00 pm that afternoon, the Spaniards and British lined up off St. George's Caye. The Spaniards stormed through the channel, and at 1:30 engaged the British in a two-hour fight which ended in defeat for the confused Spaniards. Moss reported no one killed and the side in good spirits. Barrow was dispatched and arrived in time to see the end of the battle and prevent the slave men from boarding the enemy. The Spaniards were in full retreat by September 13, and Barrow agreed to send vessels to further push the Spaniards back.


Aftermath

 

Conditions in Belize did not improve much after the battle, though the threat of Spanish attacks decreased significantly. The event is celebrated every September 10 in Belize as St. George's Caye Day or National Day.


Source: L VF History 6b @ NHL