Author's Blog

The Honduranization of the Bay Islands


     As Bay Islanders this past 22nd of April , we recently ‘observed’ ( since it would be inaccurate to say ‘celebrated’)the 162nd anniversary of Queen Victorias official ceding of the Colony of the Bay Islands to the Republic of Honduras. The word in Spanish that the Government uses for this anniversary is the devolucion which suggest that the Islands were ‘given back’ as if Honduras had prior ownership. Each year on this date authorities meet in the park and give speeches in Spanish lauding the initiative of General Jose Santos Guardiola (who in fact was just doing as the Americans had told him).  I was saddened to see that no speeches were made in English that alluded to the recognition of the early British settlers from Belize , Jamaica and the Cayman Islands ; but this was no fault of the Central Government in as much as the ever increasing indifference shown by Bay Islanders to their own history , environment and future. An ominous sign of the almost complete Honduranization of the Islands.

     In 1989 I was accompanying a British Historian , Professor Michael Duncan to St. Helene on a fact finding mission while he was working on his paper for the Centre for Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick. A fascinating man who passed away shortly after his paper , The Gentle Art of Cutting the painter was published. In his paper , published in 1990 he ends it with some prophetic and frankly quite alarming thoughts :

       As regards tourism , I was told privately by an Honduran official that they have now discovered the Bay Islands to be a goose that can lay golden eggs but by the time they get visitors , they may have destroyed its customs and much of what made it special. There is also , at the same time , a persistent feeling in some Honduran circles that the Bay Islands should be , at last , assimilated , linguistically , culturally and commercially ( ie: Honduranized ).

If you take this in context it was written before the main road was paved from Oakridge to French Harbour , before the new International airport was built , before RECO , way before cruisehips , before the development boom ( which began around 1995 ) and the only Hotels welcoming international visitors in the Bay Islands were a handful , Bayman Bay            ( Guanaja ) , CoCoview and Anthony’s Key to name a few . The population of the entire Bay Islands was 25,000 ( today it is arguably at 120,000 ). The economy at this time was still based entirely on Commercial Fishing and Remittances from Islanders working as merchant seamen overseas. If someone was to suggest publicly at the time that Bay Islanders would have their culture slowly replaced after it dwindled away and that favourite family recreational areas like the Pigeon Cays , would be destroyed beyond repair , the opinion would be considered dystopian. But in fact , Michael Duncan’s words and the unnamed official’s prediction have eerily become our reality.

     It is true we live in the most prosperous time in Bay Islands History due to development and tourism but we should ask ourselves , is it sustainable ? How long will it take before the hillsides , reefs and water resources collapse without adequate environmental oversight and impartial enforcement of the environmental laws ? How long will it be before Anglo-Caribbean and Creole cultures drift into the past and are forgotten ? Federal environmental laws are in place , however those hired to implement them are mainlanders with no vested interest in long term environmental management and sustainability. The same applies with the police force who are all mainlanders and have no interest nor dedication to solving crimes or keeping the laws because it is not their home and they are rotated regularly.

      The anthropological landscape of the Bay Islands is much changed from the early 19th century when the first English permanent settlers arrived from Belize , Jamaica and the Cayman Islands ( the Garifuna were already established at Punta Gorda since the late 18th century ) . The 1970’s and 80’s with the growth of the commercial fishing industry and more significantly the mid 1990’s with the beginning of the development boom attracted waves of settlers from mainland Honduras to the islands ; the second and third generation of these settlers ( born here )now own property and businesses and speak English. The Bay Islands settlements of Barrio Los Fuertes and Colonia Policarpo Galindo are where the voters are and for the first time in History we have a Governor who was not born on Roatan and whose native language is Spanish. On the city council for the first time the majority of councillors are Hispanic ; but they are Bay Islanders now and have the strongest voice in local government affairs . This ,of course is why the newer communities that are predominantly Spanish speaking are developing at a quicker rate ( roads paved , rural electrification , potable water ) ; this disproportionate rate of development is compounded also by the indifference of the English descendants and the absence of social cohesion within predominantly Creole and English communities.  

       I have read quite extensively about the early English settlers on Roatan in particular and the impression I get is that they were an extremely resourceful and resilient people , working hard at farming and trading and extremely God fearing.  I get the distinct impression that they were very disciplined , respected authority and were prudent about who they put in charge. In 1844 , even prior to becoming a British Colony , Royal Naval officers visiting Roatan were surprised at  how well land regulation among islanders was organized and how the islanders were respectful and considerate of each other. Statistics show us that the Bay Islands produced and exported to the United States 1.8million bunches of plantains in 1855 and up to 3.6million by 1859. By the turn of the century 5% of the total national exports came from  Bay Islands farms . And why did this come to an end ? Much as most good things in the Bay Islands come undone , instigated by Tegucigalpa ( ergo Central Government ).  Lt. Colonel Juan Barahona ( Tegucigalpa appointed Governor 1917-1919 ) put pressure on Bay islanders applying huge levies thereby forcing them to sell to the mainland for much less than what they were selling to the US for and eventually this , compounded by Hurricanes was the end of the era of Agricultural success of the Bay Islanders and the first successful attempt at Honduranizing the Bay Islands.  

      Bay Islanders need to wake up and realize that their culture and habitat are rapidly disappearing behind under their very noses , the environment being stressed to breaking point ( we will soon be an eroded Haitian wasteland with no water resources ) and the central government walking away with millions in tax revenue that we could use here for roads and waste to energy plants. Bay Islanders need to be inspired by those intrepid , brave , resourceful men and woman who came before them like Uwins Elwin , Joseph Cooper , the Haylocks and the Kirkconnells. Independence is a pipe dream ( unconstitutional and would not garner any international support ) let’s be realistic but autonomy is feasible and can be negotiated within the framework of Honduran and international law ; but this requires leadership and the age old Islander ingredients of initiative , grit and resourcefulness. The ZEDES debacle showed us that it was possible to work together towards a common end , Spanish and English Islanders alike. Bay islanders of all ethnicities need to take charge of their birthright once more and right the ship before it capsizes , we still have time.  

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