Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

St George's Cay: Genesis of the British Settlement of Belize -- Anglo-Spanish Rivalry

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

St George's Cay: Genesis of the British Settlement of Belize -- Anglo-Spanish Rivalry

Article excerpt

Introduction

The country called Belize today had a number of other names, such as the "Bay of Honduras" or "Honduras", "British Yucatan", then "British Honduras" until 1973 when it was officially named Belize. Situated to the south of Mexico, with Guatemala to the west and south, Belize faces the Caribbean Sea to the east, with a succession of cays, atolls and reefs enclosing its coastal waters, forming a kind of sheltered inland sea, or barrier reef second in length only to that of Australia. Belize was not a colony in the usual sense of the term until 1862, although the British began to appear in the area from the Elizabethan period when Spain referred to them as "Lutheran Corsairs", and then later the buccaneers succeeded them. It was the buccaneers, therefore, who were to begin regular British settlement in Belize. This was facilitated by the difficult Belizean coastline, with its rows of cays that gave shelter to the buccaneers when the Spaniards sought to dislodge them from their privateering activities. Nevertheless, it was only when Britain's attitude to the buccaneers changed and hostile laws were passed against them that their plundering eventually ceased; then they had the choice of either leaving the area or settling down to work. Some remained and became logwood cutters in Belize.

The logwood, or polo de tinta to the Spaniards, is a dyewood that yielded durable colours of the type aggressively sought then by Europeans but particularly by Britain with her burgeoning textile industry. It was thus to become the raison d'être of Belize's existence so far as Britain was concerned, as it was to create the most bitter rivalry between Britain and Spain right up to the end of the eighteenth century. And this was how the Belize buccaneers became reconstituted into logwood cutters among the cays, with the small island of St George's Cay as their principal settlement right up to the 178Os when Belize City was to evolve as the capital of the mainland including the cays. Thus, this small island with its agreeable and healthy climate, about eight or ten miles north-east of Belize City, was the original population heart of the British, the commercial centre with its commodious harbour, the centre of government, indeed the "metropolis", with all the amenities that circumstances allowed. Yet most works on Belize have hardly mentioned St George's Cay, and when this is done it is usually in connection with the famous Battle of St George's Cay, where this article ends. There is therefore no systematic account of this island that played such a pivotal role in the textured history of Belize. Without this, there cannot be a comprehensive understanding of the history of this former outpost of the British empire of which, to date, there is only one comprehensive history (Narda Dobson's History of Belize, 1973).

Genesis of the British Settlement of Belize: Anglo-Spanish Rivalry

Every year, since its independence in 1981, Belize has celebrated 10 September as a national holiday but that of 1998 was a special affair, representing as it did the bicentenary of the famous "Battle of St George's Cay" in 1798. This tiny island played a critical role in the complicated history of Belize. In many respects this role bears a close correspondence to what the island of Tortuga was to the original French settlement of St Domingue (Haiti today].1

St George's Cay was originally called "IsIa de Casina" or "Cayo Casina" and even "Las Casinas" by the Spaniards. Exactly when they first named it is unclear but it certainly could not have been by Columbus as some2 have claimed, since he had not traversed that part of the Caribbean coast. For their part, the British treated the word phonetically and soon gave it different spellings. On the very first official British map of the region, for instance, that of Thomas Jefferys of 1775,3 it is rendered "Key Cosina", and because this map was so influential in the English-speaking world, Jefferys's misspelling soon became further transmuted until the tendency was for most English-speaking writers up to the present to render the name "Cocina". …

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