Captured and Freed

The September 15th 1779 Capture of Caio Cosina (St. George's Cay) 
by Rolando Cocom


The settlers of Belize, then known as the Bay of Honduras, endured several attacks by the Spaniards before the infamous Battle of St. George's Cay. There were attacks in 1716, 1724, 1733, 1747, 1751, 1754, 1779 and the aforementioned Battle of 1798 (Shoman 2000, 28; Burdon, 1931, 128-129). 

Caio Cosina 1764
The September 15th 1779 attack, however, is significant for various reasons such as: 
1. The Baymen along with their ‘property’ (boats, enslaved Africans) were captured and imprisoned
2. The Bay (Belize) remained virtually uninhibited from 1779 - 783/1787
3. It impacted the development of the 1783 Treaty of Versailles 
4. It influenced the Settlers decisions and desire to defend or evacuate the Settlement in 1797-98
5. It demonstrated the role of the Bay (Belize) as a marginal colony in Anglo-Spanish policy and 
6. It likely was one of the greatest occasions of runaways in Belizean history  

The 1779 attack was as a result of a recently declared war between Spain and England in May which lasted until 1783 with the signing of Treaty of Versailles (Sorsby 1969, 252). 

The Shoremen (British settlers in the Mosquito Coast) had been informed since August of 1779 via correspondence from Jamaica that the Spaniards were preparing an attack and were requested to inform the Baymen (Ibid, 253).

However, that message did not reach the Baymen in time. Superintendent James Lawrie (from the Mosquito Coast) had failed to notify the Baymen. It is stated that “Lawrie was in the back country, and the inhabitants of Black River withheld the information” from him (Ibid).

An Eyewitness Account

British Settlements in Mex and C.A. shown (Thompson 2004)

Edward Felix Hill who was a Baymen present at St. George’s Cay, at the time, managed to escape the attack and flee the isle. He later, along with other Baymen and enslaved Africans, made their way to the Mosquito Coast. In a letter to the Colonial Office he described the capture:

On Wednesday September 15th, 1779, at half past six in the morning the inhabitants on the Key were alarmed by seeing nineteen Spanish pettiaguas to the Northward. At eight o'clock the vessels came to anchor the Westward. The principal inhabitants boarded the larges pettiagua and were told that war had been declared between great Britain and Spain on May 11th.

At nine o'clock the Commandant of Bacalar arrived in a captured English schooner, and landing on the Key told the Inhabitants they were his prisoners and that their goods and valuables were confiscate. They would be marched to Merida then probably shipped to Havana. He promised that if they went quietly their persons, papers and apparel should be untouched and "great tenderness should be shown to the Ladies as well as the Mustie women and children and a due attention on his part be paid to protect them from violence. . . He likewise told them he had 600 soldiers then with him which the writer of this doubts very much, even by one third, and indeed those he brought with him had but little the appearance of soldiers many of them being Indians and the whole of them very indifferently furnished with Cloaths, Accoutremeants, etc." (About 140-160 landed). 

The Commandant's two sons and three or four more were the only persons that acted as Officers or wore uniforms: the armed Indians being mostly in frocks and trousers and some without the latter.

About 250 of their slaves were taken on board by the Spaniards "mostly house negroes" since those that cut the logwood were then up the River Belize (quoted in Burdon 1931, 128-129).

Another colonial office record cited by Bolland informs us that:
There were 101 White people on the Key, when it was taken & 40 of mixed Colour… about 200 or 250 negroes, men, women, and children mostly House-negroes… the principal part that carry on the Logwood & Mahogany cutting business were then up the River (quoted in Bolland 2003, 31).

Bolland also makes reference to a report which stated that “30 white men and 250 slaves from the Bay arrived at the islands of Ruatan and Bonacca early in October” (quoted in Bolland 2003, 31). These were some of the settlers who were not captured at the Cay or who managed to escape.

It is interesting that the Spaniards and Baymen were able to communicate. Perhaps, they had translators or were bilingual?

The Other Side

Roberto de Rivas Betancourt, the Governor of Yucatan, was ordered by the President Matias de Galves of the auidiencia of Guatemala on 15th August 1779 to eject the English from the Mosquito Coast (Sorsby 1969, 252). However, Rivas forces rather than attacking the Mosquito Coast attacked the Bay of Honduras (Belize) (Ibid).

President M.Galves
This decision to attack the Bay is linked to the fact that it was closer in proximity and was also under the influence of colonial authorities from the Mosquito Coast and thus Britain. Additionally, Spanish authorities generally attacked the Bay when war was declared against England as in the previous years listed.

However, the rationale for the capture given by the Spaniards account is that the Baymen had built forts at the Belize River, Caio Cosina (synonymous with ‘Cayo Cosina’, ‘Cayo Kitchen’, or ‘St. George’s Cay’), and that the British were making threats to Bacalar (Lanz 1905, 132; Asturias 1941, 47).

This justification for the attack is based upon the 1763 Treaty of Paris which allowed the Baymen to extract logwood but prohibited the establishment of governance and forts and declared Spanish sovereignty (Thompson 2004, 23).

However, P.A.B. Thompson makes the observation from a colonial correspondence from the Mosquito Shore had stated that the demolition of Belize River fort was carried out in 1764 (Ibid, 24). Furthermore, another colonial record stated that St. George’s Cay was “defenceless” in 1779 (Bolland 2003, 30). Perhaps, the Spaniards as would any hegemonic power, both in the past and present, developed this as a justification for war.

Governor Rivas had set sailed to Bacalar with 800 men before making a successful attack on the British camps on the Rio Hondo (Asturias1941, 48). Unable to make his travel with the 800 men on canoes, he then used the Baymen vessels to attack St. George’s Cay (Ibid). These facts are consistent to the account by Edward Hill quoted above (Burdon 1931, 128-129). However, one significant addition is the 50 more enslaved persons said to be captured on the Cay, placing them at a total of 300 (Asturias 1941, 48; Lanz1905, 133).

Bolland hypothesis that the Spaniards had likely made attacks on the mainland river holds true with Spanish historical sources (Bolland 2003, 31; Lanz 1905, 132). Besides taking the captives and their property at the Cay, Rivas and his men burned more than forty “rancherias” or logwood/mahogany works along the New River (Asturias 1941, 48; Lanz 1905, 133).

The Spaniards (Yucatecans?) were unable to take all the prisoners given the limited space and due to fear of approaching vessels believed to have been sent by the Governor of Jamaica (Lanz1905, 133).

Fort Omoa, Honduras 
This was likely September 16th when the Lt. Col. John Dalrymple set sailed to Belize from the Mosquito Coast (Sorsby 1969, 254). In the Bay they met three English frigates commanded by Captain John Luttrell (Ibid). Perhaps, upon seeing the approaching vessels the Spaniards decided to retreat without taking more captives. The Shoremen never reached the mainland but instead were joined by some Baymen and proceeded to attack Fort Omoa (Ibid).

Slave Auction in Merida 

Superintendent  Despard, 1784-89
It is generally believed that all the Baymen and the enslaved Africans who were captured in 1779 were all sent to the Merida and then Cuba (Shoman 2000, 30).

However, Bolland points out that they were “marched [from Bacalar] to Merida and some [were] sent to Cuba” (Bolland 2003, 31). The latter are believed to have returned after the signing of the 1783 Treaty of Versailles (Thompson 2004, 28). In a dispatch of 1786 by Superintendent Despard, the number of woodcutters in the Bay is put at fifty five (Ibid, 29). Therefore, there is a vast gap between the number of persons taken captive and those who returned (especially in regards to the enslaved population).

Mathew Restall informs us that many of the captives were auctioned in Merida. He states:

Church of Jesus -  Baptism in Merida 
During Christmas week of that year fifteen Africans were branded "YR" (for Yucatan and Rey, the king), and then auctioned off in the courtyard of the Palacio de Gobierno in the heart of Merida. The governor ordered that the new owners rename the slaves, as they were recorded at an auction with their English and African names. There was another auction in Feburary (1780) and further sales in April. Whole families, seized from logging settlements and ranches along the Sibun river, were sold to new owners in Merida (Restall 2009, 23).

Palacio de Gobierno, Merida
Restall work has significant implications towards the historiography in Belize. His work allow us to better understand the experience of runaways to Yuctan (treatment and adaptation) and towards piecing the “other side of the story” in the various Anglo-Spanish conflicts in the Bay. 

Masta Geh Ketch - Wi Free

The capture of prisoners at St. George’s Cay did not constitute the majority of population in the Bay at the time. St. George’s Cay was where the ‘principal inhabitants’ such as the “English settlers with their Wives Children and Domestics” lived (quoted in Bolland 2003, 30).

In 1779, a dispatch sent from the Bay before the attack estimated the population to be comprised of about 500 English and with an enslaved population of three thousand, of whom “there may be 500 to be depended on” (Ibid).

Maya World (Thompson 2004)
Throughout the period of slavery in Belize, the Baymen were always concerned about the loyalty of the enslaved. The enslaved consistently “demonstrated their hatred of slavery and, by their actions frequently threatened the very existence of the Bay settlement” (Bolland 2003, 29). As early as 1745, a letter described to the colonial office speaks of the Baymen's inability to identify the amount of enslaved who “may prove true in the time of engagement” (quoted in Iyo, 2000, 8).

Records exist of the enslaved population seeking asylum in the Yucatan as early as 1768 when twenty three of them escaped from a logwood work on New River (Bolland 2003, 26). They also sought freedom in the Petén area (Iyo, Tzalam, and Humphreys 2007, 202). It is not surprising then that in the 1779 capture, it was observed that “that there were several negro in arms, who had formerly run away from the inhabitants of the Bay” (quoted in Bolland 2003, 28).

Indeed, there is a need to create a listing of the large number of dispatches at the archives which supports this thesis (See Public Meeting records at the Belize Archives or Burdon’s Archives).

Forest Scene (Eric King/NICH)
In addition, based on the 1779 dispatch prior to September 15th, about 2,400 of the enslaved population are unaccounted for after the capture (Bolland 2003, 31; Lanz 1905, 133). It is highly probable that they took the opportunity to escape the settlement during the various attacks on the rivers and after capture of the Cay (Ibid). Besides escaping the settlement, some may have decided to establish maroon communities.

This hypothesis is reinforced by the fact that the amount of woodcutters and enslaved population after the 1783 Treaty was exceedingly low (Bolland 2003, 31; Thompson 2004, 28).

Moreover, Restall analysis supports this, he informs us that “Cay Kitchen [the Bay/Belize settlement] slaves continued to appear in the city's baptism records to 1784, creating the last spike in slave imports into the colony and one of the biggest spikes in its history” (Restall 2009, 23).


After the 1783 Treaty of Versailles and 1786 Treaty of Paris, the settlement became more established peeking with the evacuation of over 2,000 people, (including Shoremen, American loyalist, and enslaved Africans). The Settlers were permitted to extract both logwood and mahogany, boundaries were defined, and the first superintendent was assigned to the Bay. However, the enslaved population continued to resist the inhumane practice of slavery.

It is important to highlight that the rationale for expanding the boundaries of timber extraction in the 1786 Treaty was not heavily dependent on the Baymen requests (as stated in a wide array of works). It was rather profoundly based on British diplomacy. The British were not in a position to enter another war with the Spaniards for the Mosquito Shore. The idea of expansion of territory in the Bay for the evacuation of the Mosquito Coast was used as a scape goat for the British to “save face”. In reality, the Mosquito Coast was the area of most interest to the British with the end goal of controlling trade by linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, a plan which was never exploited (for more information, please see reference to Sorsby 1969).

This article has shown the complexity of the 1779 capture. The 1779 capture generally been cited simply as another attempt of Spanish expulsion of the Baymen allows us to better understand the position of the Bay in Algo-Spanish policy, and better understand the early development of the Bay and enslavement. We are further challenged to reinterpret our view of slavery in Belize not by the accounts of the oppressors but by the actions of the enslaved themselves (Iyo 2000, 8-9). 

The subsequent attack that occurred against the Baymen was in 1798. The Baymen were informed of the pending attack since March of 1796 (Encalada 2010, 4). The Baymen remained largely divided as whether to to defend or evacuate the settlement in the June 1st 1797 Public Meeting (Ibid). This was certainly influenced by the fact that some of the Baymen were captives in the 1779 attack (Ibid). Interestingly, one year after the vote to defend the settlement, there were about 53 Baymen who were still requesting assistance to evacuate in August of 1798 (Humphrey 2010, 16). (This perhaps helps us to understand why the 98 Battle did not develop as a grandeur celebration as it did until one hundred years after).

It is an interesting coincidence that 19 years after the 1779 capture of St. George’s Cay, it were the Spaniards who would surrender on a September 15th at the Battle of St. George's Cay. (See my post on the development of St. George’s Cay Day Celebrations). 


Asturias, Francisco. (1941). Belice. Guatemala: Tipografia Nacional de Guatemala. Available at:

Bolland, Nigel. (2003). Colonialism and resistance in Belize: essays in historical sociology. Mexico: Cubola. [First Ed. 1988]

Burdon, Sir John Alder (1931). Archives of British Honduras, Vol.1. London: Sifton Praed and Co.

Encalada, Nigel and Awe, Jaime (Ed.). (2010). St. George's Caye, the Birthplace of a Nation. Belize: ISCR/NICH

Humphreys,  Howard. (2010). "The Battle of St. George's Caye". In "St. George's Caye, the Birthplace of a Nation", edited by Nigel Encalada and Jaime Awe. Belize: ISCR/NICH

Lanz, Manuel A. (1905). Compendio de historia de Campeche. Campeche: El Fenix. Available at: and

Iyo, J. E. Aondofe. (2000). Towards understanding Belize’s multi-cultural history and identity. Belize: Ministry of Education and the University of Belize  

Iyo, Aondofe, Tzalam, Froyla, and Humphreys, Francis. (2007). Belize New Vision: African and Maya Civilizations, heritage of a new nation. Belize: Factory Books

Thomson, P. A. B. (2004). Belize: a concise history. Malaysia: MacMillan Caribbean

Restall, Matthew. (2009). The Black Middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in Colonial Yucatan. California: Standford University. Excerpt available at:'s%20cay%22%201779&f=false

Sorsby, William S. (1969). The British Superintendency Of The Mosquito Shore 1749 - 1787. University College, London. Unpublished Thesis. Available at:

Shoman, Assad (2000). Thirteen chapters of a history of Belize. Belize City: The Angelus Press Limited. [First Ed. 1994]


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