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Editorial – Friday September 6th. 2019

Editorial – Friday September 6th. 2019
September 06
14:05 2019

Is the Battle of St. George’s Caye a myth, as some unethical politicians tried to make us believe during the 1960s?
The Battle of St. George’s Caye is well documented in the Belize Archives, with the British Admiralty in London and in Madrid, Spain.

In Belize, the little handbook by Governor John A. Burdon, M.A., called “Brief Sketch of British Honduras”, is the go-to reference source because the account of the battle is buttressed by quotes from dispatches from Jamaica, and from the British Admiralty and the Foreign Office in London.

Burton quotes from a report by Captain John Moss of the HMS Merlin. He also quotes from a dispatch by Lt. Colonel Thomas Barrow, Superintendent of the Settlement. Col. Barrow described how the enemy “came down in a very handsome manner, and with a good countenance, in a line abreast using both sail and oars.”

Burton also quotes from a letter from Whitehall written by the Duke of Portland to the Earl of Balcarres, in charge of the colony in Jamaica, describing “the defeat of the Spanish Flotilla. He reported:
“The able and judicious conduct of Lt. Colonel Barrow and Captain Moss of the Merlin sloop, the bravery of the troops and seamen under their respective commanders, and the spirited exertions of the settlement in general on this occasion have been such as to receive

His Majesty’s approbation, which your Lordship is hereby directed to signify through Lieutenant Colonel Barrow with the just sense His Majesty entertains of their gallant and meritorious conduct”.

Burdon’s Brief Sketch produces a historical record of Spain’s efforts over several decades to dislodge the Baymen from the Settlement, starting in 1718, when a Spanish land fore n orce from Peten penetrated as far as Spanish Lookout before they were driven back.

In 1754 there was another more sinister attempt, also from Peten. This time Spanish Forces penetrated as far as Labouring Creek before they were driven back.
Four years later, in 1770 a Spanish naval force captured St.George’s Caye, looting the island and carrying off prisoners to Havana.

Events leading up to the cataclysmic Battle of St.George’s Caye began on September 3, 1798, when a Spanish flotilla of 31 vessels and 2000 troops commanded by Field Marshall O’Neil, was sighted off Montego Caye.

Field Marshall O.Neil spent the next few days probing for deep water which would allow a frontal attack and a full deployment of his resources. When he finally found an opening large enough for nine of his ships, he opened up with his big guns around 2:30 in the afternoon.

But the Merlin under Captain Moss had anticipated the move and was there to block his approach. The Merlin had eight 18-pound cannon and was manned by 30 fighting men. He was supported by three local sloops, two local schooners, and 17 gun flats, which were no more than large log chained together, each with one nine-pound cannon and 30 native men. The gun rafts were especially effective. Being flat on the water, it was hard for Spanish guns to target them. They were able to do immense damage to the soldiers in the open barges.

Captain Moss also made good use of his 18 pounders and was able to stop the Spanish advance in its track.
The resistance by the Settlers was so spirited that after a few hours of this painful exchange, Field Marshall O’Neil found he was not making any progress.

The evening was coming down and he needed to extricate his forces before nightfall. So the decision was taken to withdraw.
Many Spanish ships of the line did not get a chance to participate in the fight. So it came about on that memorable 10th of September, 1798 that Spain’smost determined effort to dislodge the Baymen settlers ended in frustration.

This resulted partly from poor planning and partly from the Barrier Reef which denied the invaders easy access for a frontal assault using their superior force.

But overwhelmingly it resulted from the fierce resistance of the Settlers who remembered Spanish cruelty in 1770 when they raided St. George’s Caye and took many prisoners. They may have decided that it was pay-back time.

Note: The Brief Sketch of British Honduras is out of print and can no longer be bought in stores. It was first published by the West India Committee in London (14 Trinity Square). The Government of Belize would be doing a good service to Belize if it were to pay for a new edition of this valuable little book and make sure that students all over Belize have a copy.

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