In a little more than three weeks, Belize will celebrate the 217th. anniversary of the historic Battle of St. George’s Caye. .The aggressor in this conflict was Spain, bent on rooting out an enclave of British and Scottish squatters who had occupied the land just south of the Rio Hondo and were harvesting logwood for profit.
As the country which discoverd America, Spain laid claim to all the islands of the Caribbean and all the lands bordering the Atlantic, including Central America and Mexico. .
Other European countries, like Britain and France, who wanted to have colonies in the New World had to fight for a foothold. In the warlike spirit of that era, Britain took possession of islands like Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad, and on the mainland, Canada and the original 13 colonies which later formed the core group of the United States. Spain held on to Cuba, Mexico, and lands of Central and South America.
Belize as an independent outpost was not one of Britain’s original colonies. We became a crown colony in 1862 – 64 years after the Battle of St. George’s Caye, at the request of the settlers who wanted the protection and security of the British.
Belize has had a long and distinguished history of independence and resourcefulness, stemming from our decision at the Public Meeting of June 1, 1797, to stand and fight against overwhelming odds. A lot of water has passed under the bridge during the intervening two centuries, but next month we pause to honour our ancestors and the valiant decision they took to defy a Spanish flotilla of 32 sloops and schooners and 2,000 troops under the command of General O’Neil.
The Spanish soldiers never got a chance to land. The British sloop HMS Merlin stood in the breach and prevented any of the Spanish sloops from crossing the reef to get within striking distance of St. George’s Caye, which was the primary target.
Seven gunflats, made of strenghthened logwoood rafts, each armed with an 8-pounder cannon, got in close and wreaked havoc among Spanish ships that had little room to manouver.
After more than three hours of this withering firestorm, the Spaniards became frustrated.They could not move forward, and with the darkness of evening approaching, they decided to break off the engagement.The defendenders wanted to pursue, but Captain Moss called them back because such an operation at night was too risky.
The Spaniards later claimed that this was an inconsequential withdrawal, but to the Baymen defenders, this was a great victory, one which we celebrate with gusto because the Spaniards after this humiliating withdrawal, never came back to bother us.
In a sense, Belize can claim this land by right of conquest, even though the Treaty of Madrid (1814) conceded that Spain still had titular rights to the land.
Guatemala would later use this treaty to renew her claim to Belize as the successor to Spain, but this claim is pathetic and weak, when measured alongside Belize’s century-long history of uninterrupted occupation and development.
As far as treaties go, the Battle of St. George’s Caye may not weigh heavily in the balance, but as far as occupation goes, it means everything for us Belizeans.
Belize exists because we fought for our homeland and prevailed against overwhelming odds.
That is something we can all be proud of.
References: Brief Sketch of Br. Honduras
Official Handbook of Br. Honduras