Author's Blog

Bay Islands History ‘thumbnail’……..

    I was recently asked by my chum and fellow scribbler to write him a brief history of the Bay Islands as a foreward to his new book ‘Life On Roatan’ ( ) and he thought it came out quite well . I enjoyed writing it anyway ! Reading about History can be tiresome and end up being a tedious littany of dates and names , I think , if it is not brought alive and given geographical relevance…… Anyway here it is : 

It should come as no surprise really to any Historian , Geologist or Anthropologist that recent Bay Islands history ( 1990’s to the present ) is consistent with its overall story ever since the Caribbean tectonic plates pushed against the North American plate at the long Sierra de Omoa faultline to push the edge of it out of the sea millions of years ago to form the Bonacca Ridge , the Bay Islands as we know it today. This convergence of Latin American , North American , European and Caribbean influences has been a constant throughoutour history here.  

        I jumped at the chance to write about Bay islands History , of course , when Chas asked me to write a forward to his latest book. Besides writing , I derive great pleasure from researching and sharing my findings. There have been many academic papers written about our Anthropology and Geology but much remains unknown or unsolved thus far ; we don’t know exactly when the Bonacca Ridge was formed , we still don’t know if the Paya Indians were indeed the only Indians to have lived here before. Besides being a long time resident here for the past 17 years Chas shares my curiosity of our History among other things and having lived here since the relative beginnings of the development boom has seen much change and has a lot to share from his experiences and local knowledge.

       The original inhabitants prior to the Europeans were most likely the Payan Indians ; a conclusion disputed by many archeologists during the 10 known expeditions to the islands since 1924. There is evidence of the presence of Maya , Lenca and Jicaque aborigines in the Bay Islands however the strongest evidence points to the Payas , specifically a group originating south of Trujillo. Evidence unearthed by Islanders in recent history point to mostly residential sites but also offertory , burial and some ceremonial ( interestingly the largest and most significant being on an 40 acre site on Utila and several acre site in Plan Grande , Guanaja ) . Yaba Ding Dings ( Indian artefacts ) being a common find throughout the Bay Islands drew amateur archeologists as well as looters to the aboriginal sites. Sadly, the first Bay Islander’s idyllic lifestyle of fishing , farming and turtling started its decline with the arrival of the first Europeans , from Spain , with Christopher Columbus’s first voyage in 1504.

      Slowly the Spaniards began to take control of the Indian’s lives and they were subject to the same treatment as other indigenous peoples in accessible locations the world over for around 136years , first being raided and enslaved , Christianized and then exploited as labourers. Their legacy today are the old pieces of pottery jars strewn around the hills of the Islands , a few interesting monoliths in Guanaja and their names which could be where the 3 islands names originated ; Wa-nak-ka ( Guanaja ) modern Payan word for ‘cloud’ , Arroa or Roata ( Roatan ) modern Payan for ‘Pine’ and Uu-tia ( Utila ) meaning ‘sand-water’. It was not until 1638 that another European Imperial power , the English , challenged Spanish control of the region when the Puritan settlement of the Providence Company under William Claiborne and a group of English and Scots emigrants from Virginia and Maryland settled in what is Old Port Royal today. The colony , however , was short-lived ,lasting just 4 years . Besides Claiborne’s cousin , Captain Butler making a nuisance of himself by burning down the four Indian towns in the islands and creating strife with them , England was in the midst of a civil war and as a result there was no protection available in the Caribbean . By the end of 1642 most of the settlers were evicted and the Islands remained sparsely populated with the only inhabitants being the few remaining Paya who had not died , ran away to the continent or been enslaved. A few English settlers who remained turned to darker ways and joined in the wave of Piracy that was sweeping the Caribbean filling the power vacuum left by the Spanish and English .

     There is much commercialization of the fact that the Islands were once frequented by Buccaneers ; the name of the infamous Henry Morgan is used frequently but it is disputed that The Bay Islands were his base of operations , more likely he just passed through to collect water or victuals or careen his vessels on more than one occasion. Two of the most notorious Pirates who were known to have used the Islands ( Guanaja being a favourite because of its deep protected harbour ) were Blackbeard ( Edward Teach or Thatch ) who would careen his vessel Queen Anne’s Revenge at a shallow bar east of the Airport called Thatch Point , named after him ; the other notoriously violent Pirate who made Roatan his sanctuary was Edward ‘Ned’ Lowe whose ghastly cruelty was documented by Philip Ashton who escaped Lowe on a victualing and water supply trip to Port Royal and was subsequently marooned , escaping certain death . The young Ashton spent 2 years in between islands until rescued and his story is included in Edward Leslie’s , Lost Journeys ,Abandoned Souls. Many other Buccaneers were rumoured to have passed through , since the islands were ideally positioned as a refuge after attacking Spanish ships carrying Indian treasure looted by the conquistadors from the Spanish Mainland . Names like John Coxen ( after whom Coxen’s Hole is named ) , Morris , Jackman , Van Horn , Uring and L’Ollonais ( who fixed nets , made rope from Macoa and fished for Turtles when not pillaging and creating havoc ).

       The Bay Islands were a no man’s land at this stage in their history for around 100years , no more than a victualing station and temporary base for Pirates , log-cutters and the odd Paya Indian survivor. At the outbreak of war ( The war of Jenkin’s ear ) in 1739 England was looking at bases in the region and the Bay Islands was one such area . In 1742 , 250 soldiers and slaves landed in Port Royal and started to build fortifications . Later , families of the soldiers were brought in to populate the  area and records show that the population in 1744 was at 1,000. The town of Augusta in Port Royal was part of this ‘Royalization’ with farmland being cultivated and even a cooperage set up operations. Some of the settlers found the red land and oak hills unsuitable for agriculture and with William Pitt’s ( the first civilian superintendent and cousin of the soon to be then Prime Minister of England with the same name) blessing moved to the north west coast of the island to Anthony’s Cay ( today Key ) and started to cultivate 100acres of flatter more fertile land.  This occupation ended in 1748 with the signing of the Aix-la-chapelle peace treaty and the last troops to leave did so in 1749. The island once again remained abandoned with no record of any permanent settlement until 1779 when war once again broke out and a Colonel Dalrymple was ordered by Jamaica to once again occupy Roatan and the Bay Islands as part of a greater English strategy to dominate the region which included attacking Fort San Juan with disastrous results. A young Horatio Nelson participated in this raid and nearly died of Malaria . In actual fact Nelson was stationed in Port Royal for half of 1778 and performed anti-piracy patrols of the Western Caribbean on his first command , HMS Badger. Omoa on the mainland was also attacked and occupied by HM forces for a brief time . English presence in the region was eventually weakened and the last English stronghold at Port Royal was attacked by a combined force from Guatemala , Honduras and Nicaragua under the leadership of Guatemalan president Matias Galvez who attacked on the 16th March , 1782. The English seeing that they were out manned and outgunned scuttled their only ship in the main channel to impede the Spaniard’s access to the harbour. The fighting went on for 48 hours and despite a valiant effort , the Spaniards were victorious. The Spaniards made a few futile attempts to populate the islands after the battle but were mostly unsuccessful.

     The first permanent settlement on Roatan was formed in March of 1797 with the arrival of 5000 Caribe prisoners from Saint Vincent who had proven to be so problematic that they were sent to Roatan to be marooned , so goes the narrative depending on who you ask. The Caribes or Garifuna are of Bantu descent from West Africa mixed with Island Caribe Indians . After this mass arrival the Spanish , immediately suspicious that this ‘marooning’ was a ploy at repopulating the Islands , shipped most of the group to Trujillo where they settled . A smaller group stayed behind in Punta Gorda where they still remain to this day a thriving , dynamic community. Gradually the Garifuna diaspora spread themselves out all over the Central American coast of the western Caribbean from Livingstone in Guatemala to Puerto Limon in Costa Rica. Here on Roatan , Punta Gorda remains a compelling place to visit with unique foods , dancing and their unique language which contains some French and English words . Until recently most houses in PG as it is popularly known were wattle and daub and Palmetto thatched. The Garifuna culture revolves around fishing using handmade dugout canoes with a small amount of subsistence agriculture but with the recent influx of visitors , most of the economy is revolving more around tourism .

   The second most important permanent settlements were of slaves and slave bosses who originated mostly from Cayman and Belize beginning in the 1830’s , mainly after 1834 when slavery officially ended in the Cayman Islands with population rising exponentially every year and peaking in 1844 . In 1838 with the overwhelming influx of English speaking settlers , the Spanish authorities declared that all settlers should apply for residence with the authorities in Trujillo.  This created some dissatisfaction at which the settlers appealed to the Superintendent of British Honduras ( Belize ) , Colonel Alexander McDonald , claiming harassment by the Spaniards. McDonald , a fervent patriot who was itching for a chance to mix it up with the Spaniards , proceeded to Roatan , where at Port Royal he landed and proceeded to lower the Central American flag and raise the Union Jack. No longer had he sailed away than the Spanish Commandant , Juan Bautista Loustrelet , lowered the Union Flag and hoisted the Central American flag again which so infuriated McDonald who returned , clapped the Spaniards in irons and sailed them to Trujillo where he abandoned them on the beach and warned them never to return. The Settlers enjoyed this protection from here onwards helped in part by the fact that the newly independent Honduras had its own problems nation building on the mainland. The islands flourished during this time and even had their own local government set up by the English authorities from Belize. Settlements were formed coastwise around the islands in Utila and Guanaja and on Roatan in Flowers Bay , West End and Jobs Bight with the main centre of population gradually becoming Coxen’s Hole while Port Royal became less popular and eventually abandoned until the 1960’s with the arrival of the first group of expatriate American and English.

      In 1852 the Bay Islands were recognized as a crown colony and the population under British Protection thrived with communities popping up everywhere by 1858 with numbers reaching nearly 2,000. The Bay Islands were a center for agriculture in the western Caribbean and the mainland , boatbuilding began as a Bay Island industry. Sadly ( tragically if you ask a modern day Bay Islander ) pressure was mounting from the US congress who claimed that Britain’s incorporation of the Bay Islands as a crown colony was in direct infringement of the Monroe doctrine and by default the Clayton Bulwer non colonization treaty.  Britain was forced to cede the Islands back to the Republic of Honduras. An island whose languages and culture were English and Garifuna and not Spanish. Although disappointing , this didn’t really impact the Bay Islanders who kept flourishing with little interference from an indifferent incapable central government . The economy diversified from agriculture to ship building and commercial fishing. Growing up around the sea , Islanders are excellent seafarers and beginning in the 1930’s many ‘shipped out’ taking well paying jobs on merchant ships , later oil field supply vessels and river going tugs around the US and the rest of the world . Some of these adventurous seamen stayed off on the Gulf Coast and learned about shrimping and came back in the 1960’s to start up what was to be the largest fishing fleet in the Caribbean. This initiative and tenacity eventually led to the beginning of the dive industry in the Bay Islands , later the first cruiseship terminals which became the catalyst for the development boom in the late 1990’s bringing with it new found opportunities , industries and prosperity. Many of the descendants of those English and Scottish immigrants or freed slaves with names like McNab , Elwin or Bodden are building your houses or checking you in for your flight back ; maybe a smiling young Garifuna lady is taking your order at a seafood restaurant , this is where they have come from. And what of the old nemesis , the mainland Spaniard who was once the foe of the English ? Well they are here now to stay , completely integrated into our melting pot of a community! With the beginning of development in the 1990s and a demand for skilled labour , mainlanders came to the islands in droves and planted roots and much like the 1830’s settlers , they have thrived . The second generation of these settlers are now born islanders who speak English and make up around 60% of the population.      

          And here you are reading Chas’s guide to living in the Bay Islands ! Enjoy all that this book will show you. The author is a curious and meticulous investigator while remaining respectful of his fellow Islander’s culture and heritage . While you visit or eventually settle here , appreciate the islanders and ask them about their lives after reading this thumbnail history to get a sense of where they came from and encourage them to keep their culture alive and to take a pride in their family’s past

A Spanish map copying Royal Geographer , Thomas Jeffrey’s map of 1743 of Rattan using the same ( mispelled ) place names . The map description gloats over the victory of Field Marshall Matias Galvez’s ( Governor of Guatemala ) victory over Colonel Dalrymple’s meager force during the Battle of Port Royal on the 16th March , 1782

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