Back in 1796, almost two years before the famous battle of St. George’s Caye, Spanish ships from Mexico captured three Belize ships near Lighthouse Reef and took them back to Yucatan. It was then that the Baymen learned that Spain and Britain had gone to war again.
Almost immediately a group of men in Belize Town said the best solution was to evacuate the Settlement and go to the Mosquito Shore. Another group said the best solution was to prepare for war and defend Belize.
The debate came to a head on June 1st 1797 at the largest Public Meeting ever held in the Settlement up to that time.
Did you ever hear of William Flowers, Caesar Flowers, Joseph Toney, Adam Flowers, William Scott, William Pinder, George Grant, James Hercules, William Crofts, David Dawson, John Dawson or Joseph Smith?
Probably not, but you should have heard of them.
These twelve men were the first Black Heroes of Belize to have their names recorded in the Public Records of the Settlement. (See Public Meetings, June 1, 1797 in the Belize Archives, Belmopan.)
On that day, these dozen Black men, together with two White men, George Raybon and Thomas Robertson, voted down a resolution to Evacuate the Settlement before the Spanish Army came to invade. (They cast the last 14 votes at the Public Meeting in Belize Town.)
The vote that day against Evacuation, (65 to 51 with 11 abstentions), set the stage for the Battle of St. George’s Caye the following year. Had the vote gone the other way the Settlement would have abandoned and lost forever to Spain and then Mexico or Guatemala. (They found out, after the Battle, that the Spanish had an Occupation Army waiting in Bacalar, just across the border in Mexico, to march on Belize as soon as the invasion was successful.)
The argument over Evacuation had been going on for almost a year. One group, led by Colonel James Pitt Lawrie and others, wanted to leave Belize and move to the Mosquito Shore, as the Baymen had always done in the past when the Spanish invaded.
A second group, led by Thomas Paslow and Marshall Bennett, was determined to stay and defend Belize.
Background: While most of the territories in the Americas were originally granted to Spain by the Pope in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 (with a portion going to Portugal, Britain had other plans for the wealth coming from Spain’s colonies. By enlisting English and Scottish pirates such as Sir Francis Drake, Britain quickly got a toe hold on the Caribbean from which to plunder Spanish merchant ships.
Eventually, the British pirates made their way to what would one day be British Honduras (modern day Belize), in Central America that was protected from the large and ungainly Spanish warships by the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. The Spanish saw the area as being not worth their effort, as the Maya in the area were staunchly anticolonial. It was safe for pirates such as Captain Henry Morgan and Blackbeard to seek refuge in the reefs of British Honduras before embarking on adventures to pillage and plunder from Charleston to Panama City. The Baymen of British Honduras were descendants of the British and Scottish pirates that made Belize their base.
The Public Meeting And The Vote To Stay And Fight
After months of the most acrimonious debate the question came before the largest Public Meeting ever held in Belize. The issue was decided by the Free Black Men’s vote at the end of the day.
Who were these Black men? According to the Belize Archives some came from up the Belize River. We can guess that the Flowers men, William, Caesar and Adam, lived at Flowers Bank Village. Perhaps others lived there as well or at Convention Town or St. James Boom or Black Creek.
Joseph Toney, together with his partner, Joseph Lascelles, was a turtler and fisherman who probably lived in Belize Town. (A little over a year later, in 1798, Toney and Lascelles reported seeing the Spanish Fleet assembling off Cozumel to load soldiers for the invasion.)
The Dawsons probably lived up the Belize River too. The family name is still well represented in Boom, Crooked Tree and elsewhere along the river.
Of the two White Men who voted with them, Thomas Robertson ran a tavern in Belize Town. George Raybon, an American Loyalist, perhaps lived somewhere around Black Creek or the Crooked Tree Lagoon.
Apparently, the leaders of the Free Black men were the Flowers families. These people had been slaves in the Mosquito Shore and owned by William Flowers from Bristol, England. In 1756 he decided to return to England and he freed his slaves before he left.
Known as the Flowers Negroes throughout the Mosquito Shore, they worked hard and provided for themselves and their children. But, in 1786 William Flowers died in England and his heirs claimed the Flowers Negroes were still slaves and tried to sell them at the Shore.
The Flowers men became alarmed at this turn of events, broke into some homes, took items and food and took their families into the bush determined to fight, if necessary, to keep their freedom.
The Superintendent of the Shore, Colonel James Pitt Lawrie, called a meeting of the Council, declared the Flowers families free, that they had been free for the past thirty years and forgave them for their thefts.
The Flowers families returned, gave back the things stolen and agreed to come to Belize with the Mosquito Shore people in 1787. (See Mosquito Shore Records, Belize Archives, Belmopan.)
It is not surprising that they voted to stay and fight for their freedom in Belize, even if it meant defeating their friend Colonel Lawrie’s desire to evacuate the Settlement.
These twelve are the only names we know, but they were just a few of the hundreds of Black Men and Women, free and slave, who were determined to fight for Belize against the Spaniards and in spite of the cowards and fools who wanted to run away.
These Black Belizeans became the founders of families that today number in the tens of thousands of Belize Creoles.
A monument to the Belizeans who voted to stay and defend Belize was erected at Flowers Bank Village in 2009. The construction of the monument was financed by Dr. Neil Garbutt who passed away that same year.
That vote did not completely quell the movement of Evacuation, but its proponents could not get enough support to bring the question before the Public Meeting a second time, thanks in part to the spirited written objections of Thomas Paslow. In a letter to the Public Meeting he thundered, “A MAN WHO WILL NOT DEFEND HIS COUNTRY IS NOT ENTITLED TO REAP THE BENEFIT THEREOF.”
The sentence should be chiseled in stone over the doors of the National Assembly building in Belmopan, keeping in mind there are many ways for men and women to defend our Country.