Monday, September 12, 2022
It is said that a house divided against itself cannot stand, and the Belizean people continue to be divided on a matter that is an incontestable fact of our nation’s history – the “Battle of St. George’s Caye”. And, while some critical decisions on our nation’s future will soon be decided at the ICJ, there is still time to pull our scattered thoughts and feelings together and clarify the misconceptions that have divided us, so that we can tighten our belts and brace ourselves as one unified people to meet the challenges of that fateful day.
Is there a human being in bondage who does not long with a burning desire to be free? Is there a struggling individual in Port Loyola who does not wish to have a job earning a decent salary? Yet, there are people who believe in promises, and the prettier the picture, the stronger their belief? While others are more cautious, and less gullible.
From the introduction of African slaves to cut mahogany in the early 1700s, slave revolts were an undeniable fact in the Belize settlement, as it was in every slave holding jurisdiction anywhere. Likewise, runaway slaves was an accepted fact during the era when slavery existed in the settlement. But, however wicked and inhumane the institution, weighing the risks and possible consequences, the majority of slaves did not choose to run away at any one time. Large-scale organized rebellion in the Belize settlement was a rare occurrence over the centuries. And there were a few, with slavemasters killed. But more often it was a matter of stealing away to the “maroon” hideout in Gales Point Manatee, or making a dash for the northern territory where reportedly there was a chance at freedom. Travelling dozens of miles without a compass through the bush at night with wild animals all around is not a welcoming prospect to many people, slave or free. And there were consequences for runaways who got caught.
Because there were slavemasters, and there were slaves, and there was an imminent invasion from a foreign force, therefore, in the view of some who call the whole Tenth story a myth, the slaves couldn’t, as one “his-story” has put it, have stood happily shoulder-to-shoulder with their masters in defending the settlement from the invading representatives of the Spanish crown.
Now, that may be a myth, alright; but it does not negate the fact that the slaves did form part of the settlement’s defense force on that fateful occasion. And they played a critical role, for it was their maneuverability and speed in using their pit-pan paddling craft at night to uproot the channel markers placed by the Spaniards to guide their ships’ entry through the small break in the reef that severely hampered the enemy’s plans. This fact has been documented in the “his-story” of both the English and Spanish archives.
While there had been revolts and runaway slaves before, the question is seldom if ever discussed in either Spanish or English records, if the invaders had expected the slaves in the Belize settlement to capitulate to their side, or if the Baymen were worried about that possibility, and what they did or said to try and avoid that occurring. There is where there might be room for speculation, and for a myth maker to try and embellish the story with all kinds of sweetness between “master and slave.” That’s the myth; but that does not deny the significance of the Tenth.
After the 1786 Convention of London between Britain and Spain had resulted in the population of the Belize settlement almost doubling with the arrival of residents, slave and free, from the Mosquito Coast, the population of the settlement was such that it would take a major Spanish force to effectively subdue and eject them from their foothold in the Belize settlement; thus the large fleet of invading Spaniards in early September 1798.
It is an accepted fact that on a number of previous occasions, most recently in 1779, the Baymen had been attacked at their headquarters on St. George’s Caye and all captives, masters and slaves, taken to prison in Cuba after all buildings on the caye were burned to the ground. But it is also a fact that some of the Baymen kept coming back after a few years, though some called it quits and returned to England. And it is a fact also that the Spanish invaders could never catch all the Baymen and their slaves in one place, because they were always scattered in the many different “works” along the six main rivers where they conducted the wood cutting business. So that, when word of the ransacking of St. George’s Caye reached them, they could be prepared to withdraw further inland to avoid confrontation with the enemy.
The division is really one about the perspective on the event, and it merits a lot more thought and imagination by our artists and historians, for many records have been destroyed on various occasions in the settlement in the Bay by fires or hurricanes, and sometimes by the destructive force of soldiers of the Spanish army sent to raze the settlers’ forts and buildings to the ground. And despite a number of scholarly works on the topic, it is hard to find any written perspective from the impoverished, first enslaved, and later freed laborers of African descent, that were the greatest in number of the population around that time.
Another Independence Day celebration approaches for Belizeans, and yet we have not achieved a good “sending off” as a united people from the Tenth onwards to the Twenty-First. Carnival is a good escape valve for a population craving release from the stress of daily living, and there is no political divide among participants. They all hearken back to slavery, and treat Carnival as the breaking out party of the freed slaves being reenacted in revelry and reckless abandon; but there is hardly any nation-building narrative or patriotic inspiration towards individual sacrifice and unity of purpose for Belize’s Glory coming out of the Carnival experience. And that is where revisiting the so-called myth of the Tenth becomes a necessity, if we are to “heal all the wounds” of our nation’s orchestrated divisions.
Spain had declared war against Great Britain in 1796, so a major invasion of the Belize settlement was expected. There was no love for the Spaniards by the Miskita Indians due to a long history of bad treatment, while they had very good relations with the British, and their strong presence in the settlement would likely have influenced the unity of defense against the Spanish invaders.
There is still a lot of “his-story” to work with in trying to “pick sense from nonsense” in the whole Battle of St. George’s Caye affair. Skirmish or battle, what is most important for our Belizean nation and people to appreciate, is that it was a decisive event in the history of this land that we have now inherited; that our slave ancestors played a crucial part in that event; that a decision was made to stay and fight, whatever the consequences; and that decision rested on the strength of the Baymen’s conviction that, whatever were their reasons, the slaves would join in the effort rather than seize the opportunity to rebel or run away. And by joining in that unified effort outside of their wood cutting duties, a seed was likely planted in the minds and hearts of all who participated, that we now have a stake in this land that we have put our lives on the line for.
Yes, there was a return to business as usual after the euphoria of victory wore off, and our slave ancestors reluctantly returned to their station of servitude. Spain never, ever invaded the settlement again. But the records show that by 1820 there was another slave uprising, and runaways continued, until emancipation came in 1838.
In areas where real facts are not available, there is room for speculation and imagination by the descendants of slaves, just like some descendants of the slavemasters have chosen to imagine the myth of one-love between master and slave on that fateful time in our history. Whatever you believe about what was in the hearts and minds of our forebears in those critical times, however different might have been the perspectives of slave and free, in that time of existential crisis for the Belize settlement, it was nevertheless, as our BDF motto says, “shoulder to shoulder” on the Tenth. And that is why today we are this unique “Jewel of Central America in the heart of the Caribbean basin”.