Battle of St. George's Caye

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Battle of St. George's Caye
Part of the French Revolutionary Wars
Date 3–10 September 1798
Location Saint George's Caye, off the coast of Belize
Result British victory
Spain Spain  Great Britain
Commanders and leaders
Spain Don Arturo O'Neill Tirone Kingdom of Great Britain Captain John Moss
Superintendent Thomas Barrow
35 vessels,
2,500 soldiers & sailors.
4 Sloops
2 schooners,
7 gunboats,
700 troops.
Casualties and losses
None known None known

The Battle of St. George's Caye was a short military engagement that lasted from 3 to 10 September 1798, off the coast of what is now Belize. However, the name is typically reserved for the final battle that occurred on 10 September. The Spaniards had previously attempted to expel the Settlers in the years 1716, 1724, 1733, 1747, 1751, and 1779.[1] Thus, the 10 September 1798, marked the final attempt to take over the area. Today, the Battle of St. George's Cay is a national public and bank holiday. However, the symbolic meaning and significance of celebrating the 10th varies upon gender, class, and ethnic backgrounds through time and space.

Battle of St. George's Caye

Combatants and overview[edit]

The battle took place between an invading force from Mexico, attempting to assert Spanish claims to present-day Belize, 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. Although Spain never occupied Belize, she 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 recognised this trade in the Treaty of Paris (signed in 1763[2]) 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 abandoned, its settlers, known as the Baymen, and their African slaves having been deported to Havana, Cuba following a Spanish attack.

Map St. George's Caye in 1764

The Treaty of Versailles and the Superintendency[edit]

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 recognised as belonging to Spain; Superintendent Col. Edward 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.

Escalation and preparations[edit]

Humphreys relates that in a 1796 visit to the area, Visitador Juan O'Sullivan claimed the British were encroaching on Spanish territory in Mexico by cutting near the Hondo. Upon his return to Spain, hostilities broke out between Great Britain and Spain as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. The Spanish viewed the situation seriously and determined to remove the British.

Colonists appealed to Jamaican Lieutenant Governor Alexander Lindsay, 6th 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 Commander Thomas Dundas' ship HMS Merlin in December 1796. But upon his arrival, Dundas noted panic in the settlement and the subsequent dispatching of slaves to cut logwood instead of preparing to defend the settlement.

Balcarres then named Major (promoted to Lt. Colonel) Thomas Barrow Superintendent of the settlement. Barrow, a seasoned veteran of war according to Humphreys, immediately began whipping the unruly Baymen into shape, and martial law, stopping all activities in the settlement, was declared on 11 February 1797. On 18 March, magistrates Thomas Potts, Thomas Graham and Marshall Bennett all asked Barrow whether there were any incoming messages from Jamaica. Barrow admitted that more help would be on the way soon, to alleviate the fears of the Baymen, but Humphreys calls the actions of Potts and company "cowardly" and says that even after that reassurance morale was low.

The June evacuation meeting[edit]

Impatient with the plans to defend the settlement, the Baymen called a public meeting for 1 June 1797. At this meeting, the Baymen voted 65 to 51 to defend the settlement and cooperate with Barrow. This initial support wavered considerably between then and September 1798, as reports came in of the size of the Spanish fleet. Don Arturo O'Neill Tirone, Yucatán Governor and Commander of the expedition, had secured:

...two very large frigates, an armed brig, and two sloops carrying two 100 pounders, and four gunboats carrying each a 24 pounder in bow; with several other armed vessels, arrived... at Campeachy, and taking aboard about 300 troops, then sailed and (made a rendezvous) at the island of Cozumel;...the two frigates and the brig left the fleet there and as the deserters understood, returned to La Vera Cruz... A schooner of 22 guns, to which they (the deserters) belonged, then became commodore...All the small vessels of the fleet were to be sent to Bacalar to assist in embarking the troops at that place, said to consist of 12 companies of 100 men each...

This estimate was severely reduced due to outbreaks of yellow fever and dissent in the Spanish army. Nevertheless, it was enough to frighten the Baymen into posting lookouts near the boundaries of the territory.

Baymen's preparations[edit]

The Merlin's captain in 1798 was John Moss, a strategist on the order of Barrow. By 18 July 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 26 July. The Settlement lineup consisted of the following:

Merlin, two sloops, Towzer and Tickler, with one 18-pounder gun and 25 men each, and under the command of two merchant captains, Mr. Gelston and Mr. Hosmer, who brought with them some of their crew; Mermaid, with one short 9 pounder and 25 men; the schooners, Swinger and Teazer, with six guns and 25 men each, Swinger having four 6-pounder guns and two 4-pounders, and Teazer six 4-pounders; and eight gun-flats, each with one 9-pounder and 16 men. Except for the crews of Towser and Tickler, the rest of the crews consisted of 354 volunteers from the "Colonial Troops".[3] In addition there were 700 troops ready to deter attack by land.

The battle[edit]

From 3 to 5 September, 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 10 September.

10 September[edit]

At 1:00 p.m. 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 Baymen 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 13 September, and Barrow agreed to send vessels to further push the Spaniards back.


Conditions in Belize did not improve much after the battle, though the threat of Spanish attacks decreased significantly.


On the 100th anniversary of the battle the government of Belize declared 10 September a national holiday; the event is celebrated as St. George's Caye Day or National Day. Then in 1998 Belize issued three coins to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the battle. These consisted of a cupro-nickel $2, a 0.925 silver $10 and a 0.917 gold $100. The obverse features a three-masted sailing vessel from the national coat-of-arms. The reverse features HMS Merlin and two of the oar-powered flat boats.

Retracing the Celebrations[edit]

There are many Belizeans, (from a large cross section of the society, including professors, teachers, government workers, organization leaders, etc.), who do not have an evidence-based understanding of the Battle of St. George's Cay and the development of the traditional celebration.[4] Some people today are still questioning whether there was ever such a battle. The anniversary of the battle is a national holiday in Belize and is celebrated by some Belizeans to commemorate the "first Belizeans" and their defence of the territory.[5] This accounting of history is undermined by the Maya's status as the first peoples to establish a thriving civilization in what is now Belize. Also important is that the accounts of the battle make no mention of the involvement of indigenous peoples -the actual first Belizeans with ancestral claims to the area. Instead, the battle over territorial rights is said to have been fought between two European groups, the Spanish and the British Baymen, who fought to colonize the area and to control and exploit its people and natural resources.

Nevertheless, the historicity of the Battle of St. George’s Caye by and large is not the issue that seems to be of real concern. It is the socially applied meanings infused in its celebration which are the core of the issue. The symbolic meaning and significance of celebrating the 10th varies upon gender, class, and ethnic backgrounds through time and space. Shoman and Macpherson have written works that analyse the development of celebrating the Battle.[6] The pattern that emerged was that the Battle was used to harmonize the master-slave relations that existed in the colony with the development of the “shoulder to shoulder” myth/concept.[7]

As early as 1823, the Battle was being used to project the idea of the “family affair of slavery in Belize”.[8] The first major celebration of the event occurred in 1898 - one hundred years after, through the efforts of the Centenary Committee. Many of its members of the Committee were referred to as “middle class”.[9] The members had the same goal: to use the Battle as a symbol of inclusion into the upper class (colonial society) and as a means of claiming “native rights”.[10]

The logic behind this, put simply, is that some Creole segments of the society who were descendants of the enslaved population had fought for this territory and were therefore entitled to greater resources and status. In fact, for many years the celebration included the “social ritual” of stopping the marching at the Government House (House of Culture) to give allegiance to “Great Britain”.[11]

There were changes to this tradition from about the 1930s, peaking in the 1950s, when the movement towards independence began gaining momentum.[12] Some argued that it was counter-productive to continue on such a tradition while at the same time rallying for independence.

During the 1950s the "Battle of St. George’s Cay" became “National Day” (through the efforts of nationalist leaders as Rt. Hon. George Price).[13] National Day was seen as an event that could unite the people. After Independence, the 21st has been given greater recognition. It is uncertain as to the period where the "National Day" title was again reverted to "Battle of St. George's Cay Day". One can deduce that it was some time after Independence.

There are many articles that base themselves on the idea that Lamb initiated the Centennial Celebrations. At this juncture, it not clear as to the direct involvement or extent of participation that Simon Lamb had in celebrating the Battle.[14]

It is important to note that early members of Centennial Celebrations were in opposition to the Emancipation Jubilee organized by S. Lamb. The Colonial Guardian had “for a few days earlier [he had] warned the organizers not to allow memories of slavery to provoke unrest. A feature in the newspaper argued that ‘the slavery of British Honduras . . . was unlike that of the other British colonies in the New World, as slavery but in name’”.[15]

St. George's Cay Day Official Holiday

Notwithstanding, Lamb’s committee did display loyalty to the British for having freed the enslaved but also requested the Governor’s support for an educational institution.[16] Indeed, at the time, there were not many people even across the Caribbean who would oppose the colonial power in a very direct manner.

The month after the Emancipation Jubilee members of what would become the Centennial Committee “reacted to the August Emancipation Jubilee by marking the battle anniversary a month later with a private evening entertainment”, that same year, 1888.[17]

A review of articles available on the internet shows that most people agree that the “Spirit of Simon Lamb” was behind the Celebrations. Such ideas appear to be influence by a source available at the National Library (and replicated in many others, as is the case with manuscript of Ernest Cain cited). However, the biographic document contains no reference sources. Typically those documents are drafted by Librarians to provide the public with a quick reference but are not peer reviewed research. It is important to note, however, that public memory of Lamb's involvement with the Celebrations long pre-dates the existence of the National Library's biography.

However, one would believe that Simon Lamb did become involve in the celebrations for his name to have persisted up to today. The biography points to the fact that “celebrations went well for about 10 years; and the interest began to dwindle… It was then that the love for country stirred up in the soul of this humble Belizean Simon Lamb". This would have been around 1914. (The Centennial Celebrations started in 1898). This is further conflicted by the fact that Lamb died in either 1913/1914, leaving only a few years open as to when he championed the celebrations. Vernon states that he died in 1913 (1994).[18] In contrast, an Amandala article states that he died in 1914 (“Founder of the 10th").[19] The Belize Archives confirms the year of his death as 1914.

In any regards, Lamb became active in its celebration at some point possibly realizing that the “Emancipation” celebration was not very well supported by the colonial authorities.

Another thing that goes unmentioned when discussing the 10th Celebrations was the fact the 1894 Riot had recently occurred. The riot had racial elements to it – rioters were attacking middle class merchants many of whom later formed the Centennial Committee.

Nonetheless, today, both 10 and 21 September are used as symbols of nationalism. However, a more critical analysis is necessary to trace the details of its development and to critical assess works so far on this subject.

This is based on on-going research at Belizean Minds - The Battle of St. George’s Cay Celebrations: Retracing Its Development -

(Other important factors are: Mestizo-Maya-Creole ethnic relations, party politics (some people believe the UDP supports the 10th celebrations more so than the PUP), and the nature of the confrontation/battle.)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Shoman (2000). Thirteen Chapters. 
  2. ^ Humphreys, Gallant Spirits, pg. 63
  3. ^ The London Gazette: no. 15100. p. 69. 19 January 1799.
  4. ^ Belize Times. "REID BETWEEN THE LINES". Belize Times. 
  5. ^ Swift, Keith. "St. George's Caye Declared A Historic Site". News 7 Belize. 
  6. ^ Shoman 2000; Macpherson 2003, 2007
  7. ^ Shoman 2000
  8. ^ Defense of the settlers
  9. ^ Shoman 2000; Macpherson 2003, 2007
  10. ^ Shoman 2000; Macpherson 2003, 2007
  11. ^ Shoman 2000; Macpherson 2003, 2007
  12. ^ Shoman 2000; Macpherson 2003, 2007
  13. ^ Ibid
  14. ^ Cain, Ernest. "The life story of Simon Lamb". Unpublished. 
  15. ^ Macpherson 2003, 115
  16. ^ Ibid, 114
  17. ^ Ibid, 116
  18. ^ "How We Came to Celebrate the Tenth of September". Retrieved 11 September 2012. 
  19. ^
  • Cain, Ernest. “The life story of Simon Lamb”. Excerpt from an unpublished manuscript. Retrieved from: [1]
  • Defence of the Settlers of Honduras Against the Unjust and Unfounded Representations of Col. George Arthur, Late Superintendent of the Settlement (London: A. J. Valpy,1823). Retrieved from: [2]
  • Humphreys, H.F. "Gallant Spirits: The Battle of St. George's Caye." In Readings in Belizean History III.
  • Lamb, Simon. Biography by National Heritage Library: [3] and [4]
  • “Imagining the Colonial Nation: Race, Gender, and Middle-Class Politics in Belize, 1888–1898.” In Race and Nation in Modern Latin America, edited by Nancy Appelbaum, Anne S. Macpherson, and Karin Alejandra Rosemblatt, 108–31. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003
  • Judd, Karen. (1989). "White Man, Black Man, Baymen, Creole Racial Harmony and Ethnic Identity in Belize". Paper presented at the 15th International Congress, Latin American Studies Association, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Retrieved from: [5]
  • Ramos, Adele. “Founder of the 10th celebrations, Simon lamb, remembered”. In Amandala: [6]
  • Shoman, Assad. (1994, Revised 2000). Thirteen chapters of a history of Belize. Belize: Angelus Press.
  • Vernon, L. (1994) I Love to Tell The Story. Heritage Printers, Belize City. Available online: [7]