Friday, 21 September 2012

Yucatan & the (British) Empire

The US-Mexican war of 1846-8 and the Franco-Austrian involvement in Mexico in Maximilian's Adventure (1863-67) are fairly well known, but less so is the involvement of the British Empire in Mexican history. Or more specifically, Mexico´s involvement in the Empire.

It all started in the 1840s when General Santa Anna (he that lost the US-Mexican War) invaded the quasi independent Yucatan region to restore Mexican control. The "Napoleon of the West" was no more successful there than against the Americans, but he managed to start a civil war there that continued off and on until 1901. The population of the Yucatan could be grouped into three main classes, the pure bred Spanish in the top jobs, the Mayan Indians, and the Mestizos of mixed Spanish Indian blood in the middle.

 Northern British Honduras and the Yucatan, after A.B. Ellis

As the war became increasing bloody many Mestizos fled across the border to British Honduras (modern Belize) to escape Mayan attacks. Between 1848 and 1856 more than 10,000 crossed the Rio Hondo, the river that now served as the border, and sought refuge in northern Belize. Many settled in the Corozal District where the local magistrate, James Blake, let them develop sugar plantations, others in the Orange Walk District. Before this the interior of British Honduras was sparsely populated, most of the people there in the Mahogany industry, with timber floated down the New River into Corozal Bay, then to Belize City and shipped abroad. The logging industry was in decline however, so the opening up of the interior to sugar plantations came at an opportune time for the British.

The problem was that Belize's rather meagre defences faced the sea, against the French, Spanish or Americans. The interior was poorly defended, there had never been much of a point. But as the "War of the Castes" spread across the border, this was about to change.

The Icaiche

Just across the border from Corozal and Orange Walk were the Icaiche or Chichenha Maya  , it was they who had driven the Mestizos across the border. The Maya to the north, the Chan Santa Cruz Maya or Cruzob, were "de facto" recognised as a separate nation by the British, and there was considerable trade between them, but the Icaiche under Marcos Canul were a different story. Canul raided the Mexicans, the Cruzobs, and increasingly, against the British. The position of the Imperial Mexican Government was somewhat equivocal about this. In general the Yucatan was one of the more loyal parts of the Franco-Mexican empire, and there was even a back up plan to withdraw to the Yucatan if Mexico proved too hot and start again, annexing the small countries of Central America. An edict was issued claiming Belize for the Imperial crown. In this respect, if Canul drove British settlers out of the area he was worth tolerating, and the French army were probably not too upset to see the British Empire humiliated.

In May 1866 Canul attacked Qualm Hill, killing two people and kidnapping 79 more, who were only returned after a ransom of $3,000 was paid. A small detachment of 140 men of the 4th West Indian Regiment under Major MacKay caught up with him in December but it did not go well, as desecribed in Colburn's United Service Magazine and Naval and Military Journal (Volume 36).

"They proceeded in a fleet of canoes up the tortuous course of the River Belize, a distance of one hundred and fifty miles, and disembarked at a point within sixteen or twenty miles of San Pedro, and yet in a direct line, less than sixty miles from Belize. Here they entered upon what resulted in a terrible and unfortunate march. All night the soldiers toiled manfully through mud and slush, under an almost incessant downpour of rain, and in the morning were met by a force of the enemy and a fight ensued. Volleys were interchanged, resulting in eighteen or twenty casualties on our side, and probably the like on the part of the enemy; for Indians invariably carry off their dead and wounded as they fall. Both sides, however, retreated from the field, leaving the action indecisive, while the unfortunate Commissioner, by some unexplained chance falling into the hands of the enemy, no doubt, added another to the victims of their cold-blooded cruelty."

Next January, Canul raided the village of Indian Church, and left a letter laying claim to the whole of Belize, and demanding 19,000 pesos a year rent. This was too much, a militia was organised and an Expeditionary Force of the 4th West Indians, the militia and a rocket tube were dispatched to the Yucuatan. This made 300 men, but it was the rocket tube that made the most impression on the Maya. Artillery was impossible in the terrain but the rocket tubes were easily portable and could burn villages to the ground from a distance. After raids on the Icaiche capital  at San pedro, and then other centres, it looked like Canul had been taught a lesson. He hadn´t.

Raiding started again almost immediately, and in 1870 Canl occupid Corozal. The 4,500 population were mostly refugees and put up no resistance, though they put in huge claims for compensation to the British government afterwards. The last raid was on Orange Walk in 1872.

The Orange Walk Raid, September 1st 1872

Orange Walk in 1872, after A.B. Ellis (1885)

Unlike Corozol, Orange Walk had a garrison, although it was woefully unprepared for attack, not least because of a rather suspicious reluctance of the Mestizos to have an official British presence in their midst. As early as 1868 the British commander was complaining that the townsfolk were trying to deny fresh water to the garrison.

The garrison were housed in a small complex in the centre of the town, 36 men of the First West India Regiment.The West Indian regiments were composed mainly of black soldiers and British officers, the troops having a distinctive "Zouave" type uniform of red fez with a white turban, red sleeveless jacket over a white shirt and dark blue breeches. In Orange Walk the troops were in a 60 x 20 ft barracks, Lieutenant Graham Smith and Staff Assistant Surgeon Edge in Offiecrs Quarters nearby. The rest of the town of 1,200 was formed from small thatched houses and stores, with a few of the wealthier residents in fortified houses.

 The 1st West India Regiment at the time, A.B. Ellis

On that quiet Sunday morning there was no warning whatsoever of an attack, until Canul's 150 men erupted into the town, one group separating to loot the stores, another two groups attacking the barracks, one to the south east behind log piles by the river, the other sheltering in houses to the southwest. Such was the surprise that Smith and Edge were taking their morning baths at the time and barely had time to bolt through gunfire to the barracks, Dr Edge apparently  "in a state of nudity". Their situation was not not much better there (though presumably Edge found something to wear). There were two problems, a) the thin wood and plaster walls were not bullet proof, b) apart from a few sentrys all the troops were unarmed, ammunition being stored in the guardroom, the key to which Smith had left in his house! Iron bedsteads were used to fortify the walls and Lt Smith and Staff Sergeant Belizario ran back to get the key, somehow running the gauntlet of fire without getting hit.

Lt. Smith took up position at the door on the western side, but within minutes he fell with a serious wound, and private Lynch fell dead at his side. Command now rested with Sergeant Belizario and Dr. Edge, who kept up such a good fire that the Maya decided to burn the barracks rather than storm it. This seemed easy enough, but all they managed to do was burn down the nearby houses, in fact helping the garrison by clearing the cover around, so the Indians had to withdraw back to the log piles.
The next development was unexpected by both sides. About noon two white men appeared behind the Mayan ranks, shooting left and right and then running for the barracks. These were Mr. J.W. Price and Mr. O.E.Boudreaux, not British at all but two ex-Confederates who had settled in the area and decided to lend a hand. This enraged the Indians but there was nothing they could do except keep firing which they did until about 1-30. By 2pm all seemed quiet, and when Sgt. Belizario went out to check the enemy had gone.

The raid had left three dead in the town, two soldiers and a boy at the fortified house of Don Escalente in the town, 31 were wounded, including 14 soldiers. The Icaiche lost about 50 dead and many wounded, including, crucially, Marcus Canul, who died of his wounds.


Sgt. Belizario was awarded a well deserved Distinguished Conduct Medal , whilst Lt. Smith, Dr. Edge, and Lance Corporals Spencer and Stirling were all promoted and several of the Privates were highly commended.

The new chief of the Icaiche"General" Rafael Chan declared that he had never wanted to raid the British in the first place, and promised peace. Taking this with a pinch of salt, the authorities increased the defences of Orange Walk in 1874, and in 1876 built Fort Cairns, a proper bullet proof fort with a moat and draw bridge. Although further immigration from the Yucatan caused problems over the years the era of the Mayan raids was over.

Further reading

A fuller description of the Orange Walk raid can be found at the History of Orange Walk Town site

Histry of the First West India Regiment by AB Ellis (1885). (Project Gutenberg ebook).

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