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10 September 2008

On this day in history: Battle of St George`s Caye, 1798

Starting in the early seventeenth century, Spanish colonists made repeated incursions into the British logging settlement in what is now Belize. During the 1770s, the Spanish deported the British woodcutters, known as Baymen, to Cuba. The 1786 Convention of London granted Baymen, the right to cut and export timber but forbade them to build fortifications, set up a colonial government or establish agricultural plantations as, according to the agreement, the settlement was officially recognised as belonging to Spain.

The Convention did not settle the issue. By the mid-1790s, Baymen suspicions of an immanent Spanish attack resulted in them requesting aid from the Lieutenant Governor in Jamaica, who sent them muskets and ammunition, and the declaration of martial law in February 1797 by the Superintendant of the settlement, Thomas Barrow. In June of that year, at a public meeting the Baymen voted 65 to 51 against evacuation. Over the next year the Baymen received reports of the recruitment of an invasion force in Mexico and in July 1798 on receiving word that the Spanish fleet had reached Cozumel, they took the extraordinary step of arming their slaves.

After a few minor engagements, on 10th September 1798, the Spanish and British fleets lined up near St. George's Caye where the prominent Baymen lived. Nine large Spanish ships approached the Baymen's motley assortment of six craft which opened fire. After about two and a half hours the battle was over, with the Spanish forces fleeing in confusion, never to return.

In Belize the victory is celebrated on 10th September every year as a national holiday.