On the first of September 1872, a most determined attack was made by the Ycaiché Indians on the outpost of Orange Walk, British Honduras, which was garrisoned by thirty- eight men of the First West India Regiment, under Lieutenant Joseph Graham Smith.
Orange Walk is situated on a deep and sluggish stream in the northern district, named the New River, at a distance of some thirty- three miles from its mouth, and in 1872, contained a population of about 1,200 souls, the majority of whom were either Indians or Hispano-Indians, and indifferent to British rule. The business portion of the town, and most of the shops or stores, were on hilly ground, considerably above the river-bed, and built here and there, without an attempt at order or regularity.
About midway between the river and this upper portion of the town was the barrack, consisting of one large room, sixty feet by thirty feet, the two ends of which were partitioned off, leaving the central part for the men’s quarters. The partitioned portion at the south end was used as a guard-room. The walls of the building were constructed of pimentos, or round straight sticks, varying from half-an-inch to three inches in diameter, driven firmly into the ground, in an upright position, as close together as possible, and held in their places by pine-wood battens. The roof was composed of palm-leaves, or ” fan-thatch.” The floor was boarded.
Sketch of the 1st British West India Barracks at Orange Walk town as it was when it was attacked by Marcus Canul and the Ycaiché Maya before they were finally ejected from British Honduras. Contrary to some revisionist local “historians”, there was no fort at Orange Walk at the time. The fort, to which a monument has now been erected, was built by the British one year after Marcus Canul was executed.
On the south-eastern side of the barrack, the ground fell towards the river, which was about fifty yards distant. About ten yards from the water’s edge was a large quantity of logwood, packed in piles four feet high, and some little distance from each other. Across the road, on the southern side, were several native houses ; to the east, and about forty yards distant, was a group of four small buildings consisting of commissariat stores and the officers’ quarters while the nearest building on the north was the Roman Catholic Church, about eighty yards off.
How or when the invaders crossed the Rio Hondo, the northern boundary of the colony to attack the inhabitants, has not been ascertained; but it is a significant fact, suggestive of strong suspicions against the loyalty of the Indian and mixed blood Spanish-Indian population, whose small settlements were dotted here and there on the line of march of the invaders, that no information was conveyed. Either to the district magistrate at Orange Walk, or to the officer commanding the small detachment, that an enemy was at hand, prepared, as the settlers must have known, to attack and plunder the town.
The Indians, consisting of about 180 fighting men, and 100 camp followers, led by Marcus Canul, Ycaiché ring leader, approached the town about 8 a.m. on Sunday, the 1st of September. They were divided into three sections, each of 60 men, and they entered the town at three different points; one attacking the upper portion, and pillaging and setting fire to the houses and stores, the other two marching directly upon the barracks, but from opposite sides. Of these latter two, one took up a position behind the stacks of logwood, thus commanding one side and one end of the barrack ; and the other established itself close to the officers’ quarters, under cover of a stone building, which commanded the other side of the barrack and the end already commanded from the stacks of logwood.
So sudden and unexpected was the attack, that Lieutenant Graham Smith and Staff- Assistant- Surgeon Edge, who were both at the time having their morning baths, barely had time to escape to the barracks; Lieutenant Smith, with nothing on but his trousers, and Dr. Edge in a state of nudity ; while the first notice the men in the barrack had of the approach of the enemy, was the shower of lead which rattled on the building.
Lieutenant Graham Smith says : “At about 8 a.m. on September 1st, I was bathing, when I heard the report of a gun and the whizz of a bullet along the road running past the south end of the barrack-room. I looked out of the door of my house facing the barracks, and saw, the corporal of the old guard, which had just been relieved, running towards me. He said, ‘ The Indians have come.’ I repeated this to Dr. Edge, who was living in the same quarters with me, then put on my trousers, ran across to the barrack-room, and got the men under arms as quickly as possible.”
Before Lieutenant Graham Smith had reached the barracks, the two divisions of the enemy had taken up their respective positions, and were pouring in unceasing discharges of ball, which penetrated the pimento sticks and raked the building from end to end. The guard, the only men who had ammunition in their possession, returned the fire, and at this moment Lieutenant Smith arrived with Dr. Edge.
Sergeant Edward Belizario, coming forward and asking for ammunition to serve out reminded Lieutenant Smith that he had left the key of the portable magazine, in which the ammunition was kept, in his quarters. The open space between his quarters and the barrack-room was swept with an unceasing shower of lead; but there was no help for it, and the key had to be fetched. Accompanied by Sergeant Belizario, Lieutenant Smith ran over to his house, seized the key, and ran back. Most marvellously both escaped injury, though the ground all around them was cut up by bullets. The portable magazine was kept in the partitioned end that served as a guard-room, and there was no door of communication between the central portion, where the men lived, and this room.
Sergeant Belizario therefore ran out of the barrack-room, along the side of the building, into the guard-room and endeavoured to drag the portable magazine back with him. He succeeded in moving it outside the guard-room and a little way along the wall, but further he could not drag it. All this time he was exposed to a heavy fire, and every musket-barrel from the stone building on the eastern side of the barrack was pointed at his body. Finding that all his efforts to move the magazine were fruitless. Sergeant Belizario unlocked it, and, taking out the ammunition, passed packet after packet to the men inside, through the opening under the eaves left for ventilation, between the thatched roof and the top of the pimento wall, till the magazine was emptied. This done, he returned to the barrack-room. He seemed to have borne a charmed life, for he was untouched, while the portable magazine was starred with the white splashes of leaden bullets.
The First British West Indian Regiment was drawn from Britain’s possessions in the Caribbean and Africa.
A hot fire was now opened by the soldiers, and Lieutenant Graham Smith, taking a rifle, placed himself at the west door of the barracks to try and pick off some of the most daring of the Maya Indians. Whilst there he was struck in the left side, and, at the same instant. Private Robert Lynch, who was standing next him, fell dead, pierced by two shots.
Notwithstanding his wound, which was very severe, the ball penetrating the left breast a little above the heart, and passing nearly through him, finally lodging under the left shoulder-blade. Lieutenant Smith continued directing and encouraging his men; and finding that the whole interior was swept by the missiles of the enemy, against which the frail pimento-sticks were no protection, he ordered the men to turn down their cots, and, lying on their beds, to fire over the iron heads of the cots. In this position they were tolerably well sheltered, though the Maya Indians were so close that several of the iron heads were shot through.
In this place it will be proper to refer to a soldier who, all this time, was outside the barrack. This was Private Bidwell, who, when the Maya arrived, had just been posted sentry on a commissariat store close to the officers’ quarters. The occupation of one of this group of buildings cut him off from the barrack-room so, after bayoneting one indian, he ran over to an enclosure belonging to Don Escalante, situated to the north of the store. From the shelter of the fence of this enclosure he fired into the Maya in the stone building till his ten rounds of ammunition were exhausted. He then said to Don Escalante, ” I am going over to the barracks for more cartridges,” and, before he could be dissuaded, ran out from the shelter and endeavoured to cross the open space to the barrack. On the way he received a mortal wound, but succeeded in joining his comrades.
The Maya, impatient at the delay caused by the resolute resistance of the soldiers, now vacated the houses on the further side of the road, opposite the southern end of the barracks, and set fire to the thatched roofs, hoping to involve the barracks in a general conflagration. The houses burned fiercely, and the flames spreading across the road, caught a small kitchen situated not ten yards from the barracks. The Indians raised yells of triumph, for they considered it certain that their foes would now be driven from their shelter and then easily overpowered by force of numbers. Indeed, it is difficult to understand how the dry palm-thatch of the barracks did fail to ignite, but it did so fail, and the kitchen, after blazing up violently for a few minutes, fell in and burned itself out harmlessly.
By the destruction of these buildings the position of the soldiers was improved, the Indians now having no cover immediately opposite the south end of the barrack, and being compelled consequently to concentrate behind the stacks of logwood. A party, however, of them made a circuit and appeared on the north-west corner of the barrack, from whence they commanded the road bounding the north side of the building.
After the firing had continued for an hour and a half, Mr. John Wallace Price, and another American gentleman from Tower Hill Rancho, members of the self-defence Flying Cavalry force, about four miles from the barracks, having heard what was taking place, mounted and rode towards the scene of the conflict. Approaching up the river bank unperceived through the cover of thick woods, they suddenly rode into and fired upon the Maya indians who were in rear of the stacks of logwood. The latter taken by surprise, and not knowing by what unexpected force they were attacked left their cover for a moment and appeared on the side nearest to the barracks. The soldiers perceiving this movement, and thinking that the Maya were going to attempt to rush the building, fixed bayonets, and some ran to the doors to defend the entrances. Mr. Price and his companion, taking advantage of this and the momentary surprise of the Indians, rushed forward and threw themselves into the barracks.
The enemy’s fire redoubled after this, and it was hotly kept up until about half-past 1 o’clock; it then began to slacken, and by 2 o’clock had ceased altogether. For some time no one stirred, it being suspected that the cessation of the attack was only an Indian ruse ; but after a quarter of an hour had elapsed, Sergeant Belizario was sent out with a party to reconnoitre. He reported that the enemy was in full retreat, and was sent to follow them up and watch their movements. No pursuit could be attempted. Lieutenant Graham Smith was, by this time, incapable of further action, and out of the detachment of thirty-eight men, two had been killed and fourteen severely wounded.
The attack lasted altogether six hours. The Maya loss was about fifty killed ; the number of their wounded could not, of course, be ascertained, but amongst them was the ring leader Marcus Canul himself, who was mortally wounded, and died before recrossing the Rio Hondo. Of the civilians, the son of Don Escalante, a boy fourteen years of age, was killed, and seventeen were wounded. While the Indians had been occupied in their attack on the barracks, the European women and children had escaped from the scene of the outrage and crossed the river in boats. Thence they had made their way through the dense forest to the village of San Estevan, about seven miles below Orange Walk. Over 300 bullet holes were counted in the walls of the barrack-room, and in many places the palmettos were shot away in patches.
On the morning following the attack, a rumour reached the barracks that the Maya were again in force near the town, and preparing to renew the attack. Every preparation for giving them a warm reception was made ; but Sergeant Belizario and a small party, who went out to reconnoitre, found that the rumour was false, although several Maya marauders were seen in the bush and fired upon.
In the meantime the news of the invasion had reached Corozal and Belize, and Captain F. B. P. White, with Lieutenant Bulger and twenty men, arrived at Orange Walk at midnight on the 4th, being followed next day by a further reinforcement of fifty-three officers and men, under Major W. W. W. Johnston, but the Maya had already retired beyond the frontier.
A colonist, in a letter to The Times on this affair, says :
” Concerning the conduct and proceedings of the military during and subsequent to the late invasion and attack, I have nothing to say but what redounds to their credit and high character as British soldiers; and if medals and crosses were distributed among the dusky warriors of Her Majesty’s land forces in this part of her dominions as freely as among other branches of the service, all I can say is that every one of the brave fellows, who held with such determined valour and tenacity the barracks at Orange Walk on that memorable Sunday morning against such fearful odds, would be entitled to a medal at least.”
The following general order was issued : ” The Colonel commanding the forces in the West Indies has received with much satisfaction an account of the successful defence of the post of Orange Walk, British Honduras, by a detachment of the 1st West India Regiment, under the command of Lieutenant J. Graham Smith, against an assault of a large force of Indians.
“He has much pleasure in recording his high approbation of the gallant conduct of Lieutenant Smith, who, severely wounded at the outset of the attack, maintained the defence of his post, and retained command as long as his strength enabled him to do so; it was then successfully maintained under the direction of Staff-Assistant-Surgeon Edge, and Sergeant Belizario, First British West India Regiment, to whom also great praise is due for their conduct and exertions; the gallant conduct of Lance-Corporals Spencer and Stirling, Privates Hoffer, Maxwell, Osborne, Murray, and W. Morris, has also been favourably mentioned.
“The Colonel commanding will have great pleasure in bringing the conduct of these officers and soldiers to the favourable notice of His Royal Highness the Field-Marshal Commanding-in-Chief, and also the judicious and energetic measures taken by Major W. W. W. Johnston, First West India Regiment, commanding the troops in British Honduras, who proceeded in person to the post which had been assailed, and followed up the retreating enemy.”
Victoria Distinguished Service Medal Sgt. Edward Belizario Belize.
In reply to the report made by Colonel Cox, C.B. commanding the troops, the following letter was received, and ordered to be embodied in the records of the regiment :
“Horse Guards, War Office, S.W.
” 1 Kith November, 1872.
“Having had the honour to receive and submit to the Field-Marshal Commanding-in-Chief, your letter of the 23rd September last, with its several enclosures, containing a detailed account of the exemplary and gallant conduct of a detachment of the 1st West India Regiment,in repelling an attack of Indians on the Orange Walk outpost of the Colony of British Honduras, together with a letter on the same subject addressed to this department by the officer commanding the 1st West India Regiment:
“I have it in command to acquaint you that His Royal Highness, after consultation with the Secretary of State for War on the subject, has decided that the following recognition shall be at once made of the services of the officers and men employed on that occasion, viz.:
“That Lieutenant Smith, late 1st West India Regiment,who was gazetted to the 57th Regiment in August last, shall be immediately promoted to a Company in the 97th Foot.
“That Staff-Assistant-Surgeon Edge shall be promoted to the rank of Surgeon, as soon as he has qualified fort he higher position, and a notification to this effect will be published in the London Gazette, hereafter.
“That Sergeant Edward Belizario shall receive the Distinguished Conduct Medal, with an annuity of £10, to be given at once, in excess of the vote, until absorbed on the occurrence of a vacancy.
“That Lance-Corporals Spencer and Stirling shall be granted the Distinguished Conduct Medal without annuity, and promoted to the rank of Corporal, to be borne supernumerary till absorbed.
“I am also to request that the men of the detachments specially named in the margin may be commended for their good conduct, and the commanding officer of the regiment requested to record their claims, and give such recognition of them regimentally as may be possible from time to time.
“That you will publish these, His Royal Highness’s decisions, in your general orders.
“And that a copy of this letter may be furnished to the officer commanding the 1st West India Regiment, for the purpose of being entered in the Regimental Records.
“I have, etc.,
(Signed) J.W. Armstrong, D.A.G.”
In consequence of the attack on Orange Walk, and on the application of the Governor of Honduras, Captain Gardner, Lieutenant Bale, and fifty men of the regiment,embarked at Jamaica, on the 25th of September, in H.M.S.Fly, as a reinforcement for Honduras.
Addendum 23 May 2017.
My search as to Sergeant Edward Belizario’s country of origin led me to the parish records of Jamaica:
“Born in the parish of St George, Tortola; enlisted into the 3rd WI Regt on 26 Jan 1858, occupation labourer, description given as hair, eyes and complexion black, 5′ 10 1/2” tall, and at the time of leaving the army on 11 Sept 1879 he was described as being 38 10/12 years old – residence to be Belize.” At that time men’s ages were expressed as years / months, so working back his age at discharge was 39 years old. That Sargent Edward Belizario was from Jamaica is ascertained as the record also indicates he was the recipient of the DCM as well as the Long Service Good Conduct Medal.
With extracts from History of the First West India Regiment by AB Ellis (1885), interviews with Hon. Jesus Ken Senator and former Clerk of the National Assembly of Belize, William Schofield Esq. Corozal Town, District Commissioner & Magistrate Ramon Ramirez Corozal Town, and Dr. John Morris Belize Archaeological Commissioner. Article by M.A. Romero Chief Information Officer to the Government of Belize. This article and curated research Copyright 2017 M.A. Romero and Belize.com Ltd.