10 September, 2008

Happy St. George's Caye Day

It started at midnight - BOOM! A loud and very sharp explosion rent the air...

Almost sounds like the beginning of an Aubrey-Maturin seafaring tale by Patrick O'Brien, doesn't it? It wasn't. It was this night, about three hours and change ago. It was Corozalenos celebrating the Battle of St. George's Caye with some massive and very pretty fireworks. The show only lasted about 20 minutes, but by then, I was up and wide awake.

"So," I imagine, you might ask, "What is St. Georges Caye Day"? Well, I'm glad you might have asked that, because I've gathered a little information on just that very thing.

The Battle of St. George's Caye

European settlement in Belize began in the early 1500's with the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Bay of Honduras. In 1511, the Spaniards were focused on conquering and subduing the Yucatan coast, including the area of Belize. All that gold, you know. The first recorded European settlement in Belize was in 1638 by shipwrecked British sailors. These British settlers, became known as the Baymen, cut logwood in Belize for export to Europe.

The territory that is now Belize was under dispute from as early as the mid 1750s by England and Spain. While Spain considered Belize to be 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) but did not undertake to draw boundaries, which led to further disputes.

In 1783, hostilities were ended with the signing of the treaty of Versailles, which allowed the Baymen rights between the Belize and Hondo rivers. This was eventually 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. However, Despard resigned shortly afterwards due to conflicts with the Baymen. By 1796, it was clear the issue would have to be settled.

Spanish representatives, after visiting the area, claimed that the British were encroaching on Spanish territory in Mexico by cutting near the Rio Hondo. Hostilities broke out between England and Spain as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. The Spanish viewed the situation seriously and determined to take out the English.

The Baymen appealed to Jamaica Lieutenant Governor Alexander Lindsay, Sixth Earl of Balcarres, for assistance. Even though he was in the midst of the Maroon Wars, Balcarres nonetheless sent muskets and ammunition to the settlement and a further shipment arrived on Lt. Thomas Dundas' ship HMS Merlin in December 1796.

Several years later, news of Spanish preparations for a new invasion of the Caye caused much concern among the Baymen. This led to a public meeting to decide whether to evacuate the settlement or stand and fight. By a narrow margin, the decision was made to stand and fight. The settlement moved rapidly to ensure preparations for its defense were in place.

The Battle of St. George's Caye was a naval engagement from September 3 to 10, 1798. However, the name is typically reserved for the final battle that occurred on September 10.

The ensuing battles, involved an invading Spanish fleet from Mexico, which consisted of 32 vessels with 500 seamen and about 2000 soldiers intent on claiming Belize for Spain.

To meet this threat, the Baymen had put together a defensive force of 700 troops of all colors and descriptions, including black slaves. They also had two sloops of war, Towser and Tickler, with one eighteen-pounder gun with 25 men on each vessel; another sloop, the Mermaid with one short nine-pounder gun; two schooners, Swinger and Teaser, with six four-pounder guns and 25 men; seven gun-flats with one nine-pounder gun and 16 men, together with HMS Merlin, a sloop of war under the command of Captain John Moss.

Action started on September 3rd, 1798 at 1:00 PM, when the Spanish tried to force a passage over the shoals, but were repelled. The battle culminated on September 10th, 1798 when 14 of the largest vessels of the Spanish fleet came to about a mile and a half away from the Baymen's flotilla. Nine of the Spanish vessels moved to attack and the engagement started about 2:30 p.m. as the Baymen's flotilla opened fire. The battle lasted about two and a half hours, when the Spanish started to fall into confusion and soon after cut their cables and made off, pursued by the Baymen's flotilla. The pursuit was called off as darkness approached because of the navigational hazards.

After the final two-and-a-half hour battle on the 10th and ravaged by sickness, the Spaniards withdrew, leaving the British to declare themselves victorious.

Over subsequent days the Spanish retreated to Yucatan and never again was the settlement of Belize to suffer military invasions by the Spanish. The Baymen later acknowledged that the outcome showed the settlement could not have successfully been defended without the aid of 1200 or so adult male slaves. In 1898, the 10th of September was declared a public holiday, in honor of the Baymen, to celebrate the Battle of St. George's Caye.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (
the San Pedro Sun
Belize Today; It's History, Culture, and Ecosystems, Belize Tourism Training Unit, 2004
Belize, 1798--The Road to Glory, By Emory King
So now you probably know more than you ever wanted to about why this is a big deal holiday down here.

Have a good holiday.

BTW, our pool guys will be working today. Holidays be damned. There's work to be done!

No comments: