In spite of almost 50 identified archaeological sites, little is known of the early inhabitants of the Bay Islands. Most archaeologists now agree, after years of dispute, that pre-Columbian islanders were related to the mainland Pech, who, prior to conquest, lived close to the coast near Trujillo. These island Amerindians are sometimes referred to as “Paya,” but that is a term that has been rejected by the Pech, as it was a demeaning word used by the Spanish conquerors to mean wild or savage.
The first full-time residents are thought to have arrived no earlier than A.D. 600. After A.D. 1000, several major residential areas sprang up, such as Plan Grande in eastern Guanaja and the “80-Acre” site in eastern Utila. Because all the sites are located inland 10–20 meters above sea level, one theory has it that the first islanders hated sand flies even more than the current residents and fled the shoreline to escape the pests.
The island Pech grew manioc (cassava) and corn, hunted for deer and other game, fished from dugout canoes for reef fish and shark, and carried on a lively trade with the mainland Maya and Pech, as evidenced by discoveries of obsidian, flint, and ceramics with mainland designs.
Most pre-Columbian sites have long since been thoroughly sacked by fortune hunters both foreign and local. The best place to see examples of pottery and jade is in the museum at Anthony’s Key Resort in Sandy Bay, Roatán. Locals may still try to sell visitors “yaba-ding-dings,” as they call the artifacts, but after years of looting there aren’t many pieces left to sell.
Conquest and Colonization
Believed to be the first European to visit the Bay Islands, Columbus landed near Soldado Beach on Guanaja in late July 1502 on his fourth voyage. After anchoring and sending his brother Bartholomew ashore for a look around, the admiral named the island “Isla de los Pinos” (Island of the Pines) in honor of the impressive forests. He then commandeered a passing merchant canoe laden with goods from the mainland and forced its owner to accompany him to the Mosquitia coast to serve as an interpreter. He remarked in his journal on a “very robust people who adore idols and live mostly from a certain white grain with which they make fine bread and the most perfect beer.”
When the Spaniards returned on a slaving expedition in 1516, they made off with 300 Indians after a brief skirmish, only to have the would-be slaves take over the ship near Cuba and promptly set sail back to their home. But other ships looking for slaves soon followed, and not long after that, in 1530, the first encomienda was awarded on the Bay Islands. Encomiendas granted a conquistador rights to demand labor and tribute from the local inhabitants, theoretically in return for good governance and religious education.
This new economy had barely been established when European freebooters began appearing on the horizon, drooling at the thought of all the gold mined in the interior of Honduras passing through relatively isolated and unprotected Trujillo. French raiding boats appeared in 1536, followed by the English, who used the Bay Islands as a hideout for the first confirmed time in 1564, after capturing four Spanish frigates.
By the early 17th century, the persistent use of the Bay Islands as a base for pirate assaults and, briefly, as a settlement area for the British Providence Company had become a serious threat to the Spanish, so colonial authorities decided to depopulate the islands. By 1650 all the native islanders had been removed, most with the sorry fate of ending up in the malarial lowlands on Guatemala’s Caribbean coast. The now-uninhabited islands were even more appealing to the pirates, who pursued their ventures unabated.
The many pirates who found shelter on the islands before the British military occupation in 1742—including Henry Morgan, John Coxen, John Morris, Edward Mansfield, and a host of others—spent most of their time hunting, fishing, or fixing up their boats, never bothering to set up any buildings beyond temporary camps. Smaller groups preferred to anchor in the bay on the south side of Guanaja, with at least seven escape routes through the cays and reef, while larger fleets stayed at Port Royal, Roatán, with just one narrow, easily defensible entrance.
Following the declaration of war between England and Spain in 1739, British troops occupied Port Royal for several years, building two small forts and granting homesteads in Port Royal and Sandy Bay. The Spanish were awarded the islands as part of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, and the last settlers were finally removed in 1751. The British returned in 1779 following another outbreak of war. In 1782 Spaniards attacked Port Royal with 12 ships and took the forts after two days of fierce fighting. The forts and surrounding town were destroyed, and Roatán was left uninhabited.
Development of the Modern Bay Islands
The earliest immigrant settlement in the Bay Islands that has survived to the present day is the Garífuna village at Punta Gorda, Roatán. Some 4,000 Garífuna were unceremoniously dumped on the deserted island on April 12, 1797, by the British near Port Royal. Most of the Garífuna moved on to the mainland shortly thereafter, settling first at Trujillo and then elsewhere up and down the coast, but one group decided they liked the looks of Roatán and settled at Punta Gorda.
The Garífuna were followed in the 1830s by a wave of immigrants, both white and black, leaving the Cayman Islands in the wake of the abolition of slavery there. Although some isolated settlers lived on the islands when the Cayman Islanders arrived, the newcomers laid the foundations for the present-day towns. They moved first to Suc-Suc (Pigeon) Cay off Utila in 1831, and shortly thereafter to Coxen Hole, Flowers Bay, and West End in Roatán and Sheen and Hog Cays off Guanaja, which would eventually become Bonacca Town.
The British government, seeing the Bay Islands as a useful geopolitical tool in its struggle with the United States for control over Central America, initially claimed ownership of the islands. In 1859, the British were forced to recognize Honduran sovereignty over the Bay Islands, but many islanders continued to think they were part of the British empire until the early 20th century, when the Honduran government first began asserting its authority over the islands.
The economy of the Bay Islands has long relied almost entirely on the ocean, despite brief forays into the banana and pineapple exportation business in the late 19th century. Fishing has always been and continues to be the mainstay of the economy, with a fleet of some 400 commercial boats on all three islands, fishing mainly for shrimp, lobster, and conch. Overfishing has led to bans (vedas) during certain months of the year, but with only two inspectors, the several plants on Roatán pretty much buy whatever comes their way, whatever time of year it is. A modest boat-building industry, based particularly in Oak Ridge, has declined in recent years. Islander men frequently join on with the merchant marine or work on international cruise ships for several months of the year.
This low-key existence began to change starting in the late 1960s, when tourists discovered the islands’ reefs, beaches, and funky culture. Since the late 1980s, the pace has picked up dramatically. In 1990, an estimated 15,000 tourists came to the islands; by 1996 it was 60,000. The accelerating development of Bay Island tourism took a blow from Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and the ensuing bad publicity. But as memories of the hurricane have faded (at least outside Honduras), tourists are returning to the islands in skyrocketing numbers, and further growth and development is underway. The cruise ship trade is also accelerating, with anywhere from one to eight ships a week docking at Roatán, depending on the season, unloading 250,000–300,000 cruise shippers a year. (That’s roughly one-third of all tourists to Honduras.) Carnival Cruise Lines is building a second ship terminal to accommodate the dramatic growth, scheduled to open in the fall of 2009.
The changes wrought by tourism have benefited many islanders immensely, and most now live off the trade in one way or another. Even before the tourist boom, islanders had always maintained a better standard of living than their mainland countrymen. Consequently, a steadily growing number of Latino immigrants have come over to get a piece of the good life, and foreigners (particularly Canadians and Americans) continue to come in increasing numbers to run a business or to retire—trends some islanders are not too happy about. The last census put the population of all three islands at about 38,000, with an annual growth rate of 9 percent (compared to just under 3 percent for the country as a whole).
© Chris Humphrey and Amy E. Robertson from Moon Honduras, 5th Edition