Battle of St. George's Caye

Battle of St. George's Caye

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of St. George's Caye

caption= Current national flags of the participants in the battle
date= 3-10 September, 1798
place=Off the coast of Belize
casus=Defense of settlement of Belize (later colony of British Honduras) against Spanish invasion
result=British Victory
combatant2=Baymen (settlers of Belize)
Black slaves (servants to Baymen)
combatant1=Large fleet of Spanish settlers attacking via Mexico
commander2=Captain John Moss
Superintendent Thomas Barrow
commander1=Don Arturo O'Neill Tirone
strength2= see article
strength1= see article
casualties2=None known
casualties1=None known

The Battle of St. George's Caye was a short military engagement that lasted from September 3 to 10, 1798, fought off the coast of what is now Belize. However, the name is typically reserved for the final battle that occurred on September 10.

Combatants and overview

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 [Humphreys, Gallant Spirits, pg. 63] ) 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.

Escalation and preparations

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 Rio 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 take out the British.

Colonists 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. 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 February 11, 1797. On March 18, 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

Impatient with the plans to defend the settlement, the Baymen called a public meeting for June 1, 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:

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

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:

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.


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.

ee also

*Knocking Our Own Ting


* Humphreys, H.F. "Gallant Spirits: The Battle of St. George's Caye." In Readings in Belizean History III.
* "Monrad Sigfried Metzgen": Shoulder to Shoulder or the Battle of St George's Caye, 1798.
* Shoman, Assad. 13 Chapters of A History of Belize, "British Pirates and Woodcutters."

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