It is recorded that in 1797 the people who owned mahogany works in Belize, having gotten word of an imminent attack from Mexico, decided at a public meeting to stay and defend their settlement, and that in the early days of September 1798, until September 10th, military forces in Belize set out to engage invading forces when they approached the reef, north of St. George’s Caye. Some say it was a skirmish, but it has been described by the historians of the day as the Battle of St. George’s Caye.
Annually, the 10th September is celebrated in Belize as St. George’s Caye Day, and for much of the last century the day was as much revered on the calendar as the Christian holidays, Easter and Christmas. For the first six decades of the last century, the 10th brought us together. As the story went, the men who owned the mahogany works, their sons from relationships with our enslaved female ancestors, and some of our enslaved male ancestors, fought shoulder to shoulder to repel the invaders.
Emancipation from slavery would come between 1833 and 1838 in the Caribbean, and thus began the march of the enslaved to full citizenship, rights in Belize. In the first half of the 1900s, the Battle story resonated with the majority, both the children of the enslavers and those of the enslaved, and in the capital and the major towns the 10th was a day of pride and unity. But it was a fragile unity in Belize, which is not surprising when the racial structure is considered. The slave owners were gone, replaced by white colonial rulers who controlled the untold wealth of Belize much as their predecessors had.
The 1919 riots, sparked by the failure of the colonial rulers to deliver on promises made to Belizeans who enlisted for battle in Europe and Mesopotamia in WW I, tore at the fragile unity in Belize, which was then called British Honduras. There was major economic hardship during the years of the Great Depression, which began in 1929, and the colonial rulers and white elite, as capitalists will, secured their position, while the masses suffered.
The Father of labor unions in Belize, Antonio Soberanis, used the 10th September to extract benefits for workers. Historian, Peter Ashdown reported that in 1934 Soberanis set his organization, the Labour and Unemployed Association (LUA), to raise funds so the “unemployed could be well fed on the day.” Soberanis organized boycotts of those rich “white” owners of major stores who didn’t donate to the cause, and on the 10th hundreds of LUA members, in the official red and green colors of the group, marched behind Tony, who was on a horse.
The first open rupture in the fabric of the 10th might have occurred after World War II, another time of great deprivation in the world and in Belize. Historian, Assad Shoman, in the first edition of Thirteen Chapters of a History of Belize, reported that in 1948, the 150th anniversary of the Battle, a gentleman named Lloyd Griffith declared that by “perpetuating this little incident in our history, we are fostering and keeping alive enmity between the negro and Spanish elements in the community and are actually celebrating an English victory over ourselves.” George Price, who emerged as the leader of the nationalist movement, PUP, would latch onto the Griffith description of the 10th as a tool of division between the Mestizos and the majority Kriols.
Shoman reported that in 1949 Soberanis and L. D. Kemp “co-authored a pamphlet which denounced the ‘objectionable concept’ of master-slave unity celebrated by the battle myth.” In 1969, Amandala publisher, Evan X Hyde, in his booklet Knocking Our Own Ting, sided with the Soberanis and Kemp opinion of the Battle. X Hyde posited that it was not a free decision by our enslaved ancestors to fight in the Battle, and that had the invaders won, our enslaved ancestors most likely would have shifted their “loyalties.”
The 10th celebrations were vibrant until the mid-1960s, when the Price-led PUP struck a massive blow. The PUP declared September 10 as our National Day, abandoned the Queen of the Bay for the Miss Belize pageant, and organized a separate parade. Since then the glory of the 10th has been fading. The present ruling party, PUP, still shuns the 10th celebration. The present main opposition party, UDP, maintains an interest, but even when the UDP is in power the 10th parade is a pilinki thing, a smattering of Belizeans in red shirts bolstered by nostalgic Belizean Americans who come home in September to rekindle memories of a time when we all marched and proudly sang about this noble spot that makes [us] rejoice.
Our noble spot extends from the Hondo to the Sarstoon. In 1859, the territory of Belize was set with the signing of the Anglo-Guatemalan Treaty. Some Guatemalans would challenge this treaty, and beginning in the 1930s their dissent would become open rejection. On two occasions Guatemalans have actually come over to flex their muscles on Belizean land. Guatemalan president, Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes entered Benque Viejo Del Carmen with a small delegation in 1958, and Francisco Sagastume led a little band that entered the Toledo District in 1962. Ydigoras Fuentes wasn’t allowed to proceed beyond the police station in Benque (the present House of Culture in that town), and Sagastume and one of his men were jailed, and later returned to Guatemala. Of recent, Guatemala has become belligerent in the Sarstoon River.
The 10th has been eclipsed by September 21, 1981. On that date, to the overwhelming applause of nations around the world, all the peoples in our country came together, in unity, as an independent nation. Our rights as a people, from the Hondo to the Sarstoon and from Benque Viejo Del Carmen to Halfmoon Caye, have been affirmed at the United Nations over and over again; and sometime in the near future we pray, and fully expect that any and all claims to Belize by Guatemala will be put to rest at the International Court of Justice.
It’s possible that with time some of the 10th’s luster will be restored. There is a strong foundation to build on. No event in Belize has inspired more beautiful patriotic songs than the Battle of St. George’s Caye. The 10th is integral, essential to Belize’s uniqueness. It is the reason why English is the national language here, why we have a strong Caribbean flavor in the Central American Isthmus, why the rights of the children of the original inhabitants have been protected, why there has been peace here while wars raged all around us, why so many peoples from afar came to help make a cultural fabric unlike any other on this planet. September 10th, 1798, is foundational to Belize extending from the Hondo to the mid-channel of the Sarstoon. Many hands, tribes, joined to make the Belize we know, this noble spot…this blesséd choice…Belize by the sea. On the 10th we celebrate. Happy Battle of St. George’s Caye Day to all Belizeans!