I think the main reason that there has been so much controversy about the 1798 Battle of St. George’s Caye in our lifetime is because there were two completely different kinds of black people in the settlement of Belize in 1798.
In the United States of America, one drop of African blood made you a so-called Negro. There is somewhere where the white American elite declared the Negro was only three-fifths of a human being. There was some differentiation in the United States between the slaves who worked in the master’s house and those who worked on his plantation.
But, basically, the brown children the slavemasters fathered with their slaves were treated just like slaves who were 100 percent African in origin. The reason for this was that the wives of the slavemasters were present on the plantations, and essentially prevented the slavemasters from showing leniency, or preference for, their offspring with black women.
In the settlement of Belize, however, there were almost no white women, so that the white Baymen gradually began to become, may we say sentimental, where their mixed children were concerned, and this contributed substantially to the development of the oft-mentioned “free-colored” class.
Until the 1960s, under the leadership of the Rt. Hon. George Price’s People’s United Party (PUP), one brown-skinned family had monopolized the piloting of ships through the break in the Barrier Reef at English Caye and into the channel which led west and south to the Belize City harbor. This extended family made more money than any other family in Belize, and it would seem that a European had controlled the piloting way back when and gifted it to his brown children and their generations.
The following quote is from John L. Stephens’ INCIDENTS OF TRAVEL IN CENTRAL AMERICA, CHIAPAS & YUCATAN. Mr. Stephens was on a “Special Confidential Mission to Central America” in October of 1839 for the President of the United States. Stephens left New York on the “British brig MARY ANN (Hampton, master).”
When he reached Belize, Stephens writes (pg. 4 of the Rutgers University Press edition), “A large brig loaded with mahogany was lying at anchor with a pilot on board waiting for favorable weather to put to sea. The pilot had with him his son, a lad of sixteen, cradled on the water, whom Captain Hampton knew and determined to take on board.
“It was full moonlight when the boy mounted the deck and gave us the pilot’s welcome. I could not distinguish his features, but I could see that he was not white; his voice was soft as a woman’s. He took his place at the wheel, and, loading the brig with canvass, told us of the severe gales on the coast, of his fears entertained for our safety, of disasters and shipwrecks, and of a pilot who, on a night we well remembered, had driven his vessel over a sunken reef.”
Stephens was later stunned by the social interaction between whites and browns in Belize. Such could not have taken place in the United States.
So then, in 1798 in Belize there were people of color, so to speak, who made some common cause with the white settlers. But, the vast majority of the people in the settlement were black, and their history was one of trying to escape to the Yucatan (or the Peten) because the King of Spain had promised freedom to African slaves who escaped from British chains in Belize.
When I was a child, I heard my paternal grandmother refer a couple times to the “royal Creole” and the “able Creole.” For some reason, I understood clearly that a member of the extended pilot family would be considered by her to be “royal Creole,” whereas a working class Creole, those who worked at the sawmill or on the waterfront, for example, would be an “able Creole.”
The late British historian, Peter Ashdown, whom I respected greatly, was skeptical of my thesis and perspective in KNOCKING OUR OWN TING (printed by The Industrial Press in 1969). My thesis and perspective were derived from the fact, as I understand it, that the vast majority of our ancestors were seeking freedom in 1798, and the historical attempt by the power circle here to prove that we had taken the Baymen’s side in September of 1798 was bogus.
According to a British letter, when four Spanish vessels ran aground, “you will be astonished to know that our Negro men (who manned the flats) gave a hearty cheer, and in the midst of a firing of grape, kept up upon them from the Spanish vessel that covered those which were aground, those Negroes in an undaunted manner rowed their boats, and used every exertion to board the enemy, but Capt. Moss, who directed everything, called back the flats (from motives of prudence) first by signal and then by sending a boat.”
Lt. Colonel Barrow, Superintendent of the settlement, writes, however, “Captain Moss, on seeing them retreat, made the signal for our vessels to chase, but night coming on, and rendering a pursuit too dangerous in a narrow channel for difficult navigation, they were soon after recalled.”
Now here is what yours truly wrote in 1969: “Maybe these Negroes, seeing night coming on, decided to desert to the Spanish who had promised to free them. Maybe that’s why Moss had to send the boat. It’s a possibility, but let’s ignore that for now.
”Put me in the boat in 1798. ‘I, brotherman, which is black, see Englishmen and Spanish fighting. They both white. I see English win. I shout, ‘English all the way.’ If Spanish win, I shout, ‘Spain, all the way.’ I am black. I have to live with the Bacra which win. If he see I don’t smile, he will think I am against him, so baby, I smile and I shout, and when he say attack, I attack, skilfully of course, ‘cause I ain’t shedding no blood for the honkie.
“The Negroes had no guns on the Tenth, only sticks. Englishmen had the guns.
“Every boat Negroes paddled in probably had an Englishman with a gun in the stern. Just like the Romans and their galley slaves: the slaves rowed them into war. They had to.
“If you’re black, you think like me. If you’re high brown, you think like the Loyal and Patriotic Order of the Baymen. If you’re white, you couldn’t have read this far. You must be thinking black.”