Yucatán’s Naval War with Belize
Arturo O’Neill de Tyrone y O’Kelly, the Governor and Captain-General of the Intendencia of Yucatán, moved a substantial fleet of warships against a rabble of British woodcutters. They had been squatters too long in territory that clearly belonged to the King of Spain.
Arturo O’Neill, scion of an ancient and distinguished Irish dynasty, had gone to Spain as a young military cadet. He progressed through the ranks in the royal army, achieved promotions to general and field marshal, demonstrated abilities as an administrator and diplomat, and received important political appointments in America. He became Governor of Yucatán in 1792 while also serving as Governor of West Florida. An Irishman in the service of Spain may seem strange, but it was not unusual — let us mention only Juan de O’Donojú y O’Ryan, the last Viceroy of New Spain; Alejandro O’Reilly, Governor of Spanish Louisiana; and Bernardo O’Higgins, a leader of Chilean independence.
English and Scottish woodcutters, called Baymen, had been active on the coasts of Yucatán since around 1630. They were essentially poachers, little better than the pirates with whom they were often allied, cutting and shipping valuable hardwoods out of the tropical forests. They particularly sought a tree called, rather uninformatively, “logwood” (Haematoxylum campechianum, Spanish palo de tinte), which could be made to yield textile dyes — shades of red, blue, and black, the last color especially valued as it came to dominate European clothing styles. Honduras mahogany also became an increasingly important export.
Spain successfully evicted British woodcutters from Bay of Campeche, on the peninsula’s west coast, in 1717, but their activities from the Bay of Honduras northward continued and increased. Viewing that country as remote and of little value, the Spanish authorities made only sporadic efforts to evict them. In one successful operation, the Spanish captured essentially all the Baymen and imprisoned them in Havana, leaving the area abandoned. But the Spanish never settled there, and the British woodcutters always returned. By the 1770s, their logging camps were becoming permanent settlements.
Treaties signed by Britain and Spain in 1783 and 1786 finally granted the British, in exchange for other concessions, permission to cut hardwoods along the coast of what is now Belize, between the Hondo River (the current boundary with Mexico) and the Sibun River (six miles south of today’s Belize City). Britain agreed that Spain retained sovereignty over the territory and that the Baymen would not erect any defensive fortifications, establish any form of government, develop plantation agriculture, or use the adjacent waters and islands for anything other than subsistence fishing.
His Britannic Majesty signed the treaty without consulting the settlers on any of this. The determinedly independent Baymen ignored the restrictions, greatly increasing their permanent population, electing magistrates, and importing slaves. They established their largest settlement on an island they called St. George’s Caye, eight miles off the mouth of the Belize River. The Spanish called it Cayo Cocina, or Kitchen Key.
In October 1796, Spain declared war against Great Britain. Just the latest of many between these historic rivals, this one was part of the complex and shifting conflicts that swept Europe in the quarter-century following the French Revolution. The Governor of Yucatán received orders to aid the Spanish effort by evicting those pesky British down south of the Río Hondo.
Arturo O’Neill set out from Campeche on May 20, 1798, commanding a force of some thirty vessels. The largest were two heavily armed frigates, La Minerva and La O, obtained from Cuba. The fleet included perhaps ten other warships carrying substantial naval artillery as well as numerous lightly armed transport and supply vessels. He had five hundred sailors and two thousand troops, the largest force ever assembled in the province.
The fleet rendezvoused off Cozumel Island. There the captains of the two frigates essentially mutinied. Claiming the water was too shallow for their vessels, they deserted the fleet and sailed away to Veracruz. O’Neill pressed on and landed his troops at Bacalar to make final preparations. An epidemic of yellow fever struck. The sickened army spent months trying to recover its strength and morale before finally heading south at the end of August.
Meanwhile, the British settlers had plenty of time to prepare themselves, construct fortifications, and obtain reinforcements. The Governor of Jamaica, Alexander Lindsay, 6th Earl of Balcarres, sent muskets, ammunition, and a warship, the sloop-of-war HMS Merlin. More important, Balcarres sent a military leader, Lt. Colonel Thomas Barrow, who took command of the disorganized and panicked settlers, imposed martial law, and brought some order to the unruly Baymen. In a public meeting on June 1, Baymen voted 65 to 51 to defend the settlement instead of evacuating, although support wavered as reports on the size of the Spanish force came in. A dozen free black settlers were among those who voted to stay and fight.
Lord Balcarres recommended enlisting the Baymen’s slaves, on the condition that slave volunteers be freed after the crisis. After first resisting this arrangement, the slave owners finally consented after they were paid £50 for each emancipated slave. The black volunteers provided valuable service during the crisis, although sharpened sticks seem to have been the only weapons provided them.
In addition to Merlin, under the capable Captain John Moss, the defenders assembled a small fleet of lightly armed and improbably named civilian vessels — the sloops Towzer, Tickler, and Mermaid, the schooners Swinger and Teazer — plus eight log rafts carrying small cannons. There were perhaps four hundred sailors, nearly all inexperienced civilian volunteers. Seven hundred men, including detachments from His Majesty’s West India Regiments, stood ready to repel an attempted landing. The forces were divided between Cayo Cocina and the site of a smaller settlement on the mainland called Belize Town, at the entrance to that river.
Despite credible leadership, committed local volunteers, and support by the colonial government, the defending forces were absurdly weak compared to the approaching enemy fleet.
On the Spanish side, O’Neill moved some of his troops by land under Lt. Colonel Cosme Antonio de Urquiola. They burned 240 houses and destroyed plantations around Corozal and on the New River, with little opposition. With his still formidable fleet assembled off the mouth of the Belize River, O’Neill ordered his naval lieutenant, Francisco de Fuentes de Bocanegra to begin an attack. But O’Neill’s bad luck continued — Fuentes refused to obey, apparently because of cowardice. The governor’s second choice, Pedro de Grajales, finally took action on September 3. Attempting to force a passage to the mainland through treacherous, shoal-filled waters, five Spanish ships were repulsed by the British defenders. On the 4th and 5th, after heavy but largely ineffective bombardments, they again attempted to find a passage to the enemy, without success.
On September 6th, they turned their attention to the defended island, repositioning their vessels and probing for a passage through the shoals. Finally, on the morning of Monday, September 10, fourteen of the largest vessels in the Spanish fleet, many towing launches full of troops, confronted the British ships arrayed across the approach to Cayo Cocina. Barrow reported that the enemy “came down in a very handsome Manner, and with a good Countenance, in a Line abreast, using both Sails and Oars.” Captain Moss had brought Merlin over to the island to confront them and, at 1:30, gave the signal to engage. The Spanish concentrated their fire on Merlin, while the smaller British vessels rallied to her assistance. Defenders paddled out in canoes, dories, and rafts, ready to board the enemy’s ships. Both woodcutters and slaves reportedly acquitted themselves well. The battle lasted two and a half hours, “when the Spaniards began to fall into Confusion” and sailed off. Because of the sailing hazards and approaching darkness, Moss did not pursue them.
O’Neill’s fleet remained in the area for several days, making various maneuvers without engaging the British. Then on morning of the 16th, they sailed away, defeated despite their superior numbers and firepower. History offers no convincing reason for their sudden retreat, but it likely comes down to poor leadership. The Spanish forces made their way back to Campeche and Havana with significant losses, doubtless more from disease than bullets.
Although the attack was Spain’s last attempt to evict the British settlers, the Baymen never asked for or received a formal treaty with Spain, and peace treaties ending the wars of the period made no specific mention of the area. The Bay settlers continued operating on their own without permission from either imperial power. The British government gradually achieved partial control and produced a formal constitution establishing its authority in 1854. The Bay Settlements became the Crown Colony of British Honduras in 1862, self-governing in 1964, and independent Belize in 1973.
But conflicting claims to the land persist. The independent republics that succeeded the Spanish Empire claimed they inherited Spain’s sovereign rights. Britain negotiated boundaries with Guatemala in 1859 and with Mexico in 1893, and Mexico was the first nation to recognize Belize as an independent country, but the conflicting claims have never been completely resolved. Guatemala continues to assert legal rights to Belize, and official maps show “Belice” as one of Guatemala’s 23 departments. A small British Army garrison remains in Belize as a deterrent against invasion by its neighbor.
Arturo O’Neill continued to serve as governor of Yucatán for two more years. Despite the ignominious defeat at Cayo Cocina, he was an effective governor, increasing the number of school teachers, fighting smuggling, and defending public health in the face of a serious outbreak of rabies. He returned to Spain, received appointment as Minister of War, and fought against Napoleon. He died in Madrid in 1814 at age 78.
September 10 is a public holiday in Belize — St. George’s Caye Day — and citizens regard the land theirs by right of conquest.
By Robert D. Temple
Arturo O’Neill spent several depressing months in Bacalar dealing with fever and dissent, but visitors come now to the “Pueblo Mágico,” 25miles north of Chetumal, to enjoy its liquid blue rainbow, the Lake of Seven Colors. O’Neill probably had his headquarters in the Fortress of San Felipe, still formidable on its site overlooking the lake.
September 10, St. George’s Caye Day, begins a period of visitor-friendly celebrations in Belize, continuing through the country’s official Independence Day on September 21. The first major celebration took place in 1898, one hundred years after the event. Today the holidays feature parades, a regatta and fishing tournament, a beauty contest, and sporting events including bicycle races and a tug-of-war, in addition to food, drink, music, and official ceremonies.
As to St. George’s Caye itself, Hurricane Hattie washed away its western two thirds in 1961, although it remains a pleasant place to visit. Diving and fishing are popular activities, and there are two small resort hotels. The permanent population today is only about 20 people. The British Army maintains a training and recreation facility on the island.