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Money Order Economy: Remittances in the Island of Utila

Re-published from the original David George Lord 1975 doctoral dissertation of the same title and with the permission of the Author
Adapted by AboutUtila.com WebMaster to facilitated on-line navigation and reading.

Copyright by David George Lord 1975


Table of Contents Chapter 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 References ●  Appendices

Preadaptations for a Remittance Economy: Historical Factors

Presettlement

The Agricultural Phase

The Remittance Phase

Analysis

▲Top of Page Chapter 2 - Preadaptations for a Remittance Economy: Historical Factors

A major thesis of this study is that remittance economies are a rational and viable economic alternative for peoples who live in areas with a limited range of economic choices. A remittance economy, however, implies the absence, for varying amounts of time, of some of a society's personnel. Absenteeism and other results of a remittance system must be accommodated in order for social and political functioning to continue smoothly, and some sociocultural systems make such accommodation more easily than others. A corollary of the preceding thesis, then, is that economic, social, and political preadaptations in some sociocultural systems enable a given population to readily implement a remittance economy when that choice appears to be the most rewarding.

This chapter will be a preliminary demonstration of the fact that Utila's traditions of individual economic striving, a commercial orientation toward one another in economic dealings, males being absent on trading or fishing ventures, and community non-cooperation were well suited for its people to develop a remittance system. Utila's historical background is divided into three sections that reflect important developments leading to contemporary times: the presettlement period, the agricultural phase, and the subsequent remittance phase. Comparison and contrast between the latter two phases, discussed much more fully in Chapter I5, allows us to see how older patterns were amplified or otherwise reworked in order to meet demands of the contemporary society and culture.

▲Top of Page Presettlement

Few published materials deal with Utila's history, but recollections of "old heads" and two anecdotal histories (one published, one simply in manuscript form) provide a rough sketch of the island's background (see Table 1).

  Table 1 - Chronology of Events important in Utila's History
July 30, 1502 Columbus' fourth voyage resulted in the discovery of Guanaja, the Isle of Pines
September 15, 1821 Central America proclaimed independence from Spain
1834-1836 Utila was permanently settled
July 4, 1850 The United States ratified the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty with Great Britain; colonization, occupation, fortification, or protectorateship in Central America was forbidden
July 11, 1852 The Superintendent of Belize declared the Bay Islands a colony of Great Britain
1852-1862 Utila's settlers removed from  the Cays to populate and farm the main island
November 28, 1859 The Wyke-Cruz Treaty settled the Bay Island controversy
April 22, 1861 Honduran authorities took possession of the Bay Islands
May 14, 1872 The Department of the Bay Islands was created; Islanders were brought under Honduran law
July 18, 1902 Captain Cooper-Key made final disclaimer of British citizenship assumed by many Bay Islanders
1939-1945 The Second World War brought economic prosperity after Depression years; Utilian males established a tradition of serving in the merchant marine
July 23, 1961 Winds from hurricane Anna destroyed many of the remaining plantations in Utila

Valladares (1939:1) starts his history of the Bay Islands with their "discovery" by Columbus on his fourth voyage. Accordingly, Utila and its companion islands come into history on the 30th of July 1520, when Columbus approached Guanaja's northern shore, possibly at what is today called Pine Rich Bight. The greater navigator was apparently impressed with the thick timber stands and dubbed the island Isla de Pinos. He was also impressed with the friendliness of the "Indian" inhabitants of the island, but no attempt was made to establish any kind of settlement or fortification. After the discovery of Guanaja the conquistadores Juan Diaz Solis and Vicente Yañez Pinzon founded an establishment there, but ". . . sin duda fue enfumero [sic], puesto que no existen vestigos de ellos ni ruinas antiguas. . ." (Cevallos 1919:13).

Don Diego de Porras, a clerk among the early Spanish explorers, reported (Valladares 1939:24) that Bay Islands residents spoke the same language, were handsome and of martial stature (this comment is not explained), and concluded that they formed a tribe that was related to (unidentified) aboriginals encountered at Punta de Castilla. Other than this foregoing observation, however, there was apparently no attempt to delve into the society and culture of these original island settlers, and it served the purposes of Cuban-based conquistadores to report that the indigenous population was hostile, opposed to Christianity, and were cannibals. There is no evidence whatsoever to support the contention that Bay Islands aboriginals were cannibalistic although it is true that the Spanish had encountered anthropophagy among the Carib Indians (cf. Rouse 1951; Sauer 1966:6, 137, 162, 171, 194-195).

While the ethnicity of the Bay Islanders is still uncertain (Sauer 1966:130 suggests that they may have been Maya, related to the Maya of mainland Honduras but this is not an assertion), there is no hint that they were even remotely akin to the Caribs. More to the point is Sauer's comment (1966:194) that ". . . Isabela's original command that only cannibal Indians (i.e., Caribs) should be enslaved was taken as lightly as her declaration that inoffensive natives were Spanish subjects with the rights of such. It was necessary only to declare an island as Carib to legitimize slave raids." Apparently Isabella might tolerate hostility but not opposition to Christianity, and "the Queen had been indoctrinated by stories of horrid cannibals" who to the soldiers and administrators in the field were any and all who were either hostile, cannibalistic, Carib, or any combination of the three (Sauer 1966:162).

Subsequently, in the year 1516, Queen Isabella gave Diego Velasquez, Governor of Cuba, leave to enslave the Bay Islanders and transport them to Cuba where they could take the place of the already exterminated--or fast dwindling--aboriginals there. Valladares (1939:25) gives an account of the first slaver expedition to the Bay Islands wherein the unsuspecting native people of Guanaja were rewarded for their hospitality by being thrown in chains into a brig's hold and carried to Havana. An almost legendary event then ensued: the skeleton crew of eight men was overpowered by the Indians and the latter proceeded to sail the 250 leagues back to their home. The Spaniards, undaunted, returned to the Bay Islands, captured some 500 islanders, again imprisoned them, and again were overpowered when the Indians broke out of the holds. A bloody hand-to-hand battle followed, and this time the Spaniards not only vanquished the Indians, but successfully captured 400 men, women and children and took them to Cuba. With this second expedition, according to Sauer (1966:213), the name Utila appears for the first time.

The value of the anecdote related by Valladares is that it serves to point up two simple facts: the Bay Islanders were obviously familiar with boating and must have been excellent navigators. This datum is one more evidence that pre-Columbian navigation was far more developed than Europeans had ever acknowledged and is only now coming to be appreciated (cf. Edwards 1969). The other fact is that Indians in the Bay Islands fared no better than any other aboriginals in their encounters with Europeans, despite an image of island fastness, and in fact were altogether liquidated from the islands when De Avila removed the last Indians to Guatemala in 1650 (Strong 1935:15).

From the early seventeenth century until the early nineteenth century, the history of the Bay Islands is a seesaw account of sometimes Spanish, sometimes British control of one or more links in the chain; neither of the parties comported itself with any distinction, militarily or otherwise. The Spanish exercised a weak and ineffectual control of the area, more tied up with their own perpetual internal political problems in centers such as Lima, Guatemala City, and Mexico City. Britain, through the efforts of freebooters, privateers, and buccaneers, did its rapacious best to hold the territory in order to have a sea base from which it would be easy to intercept Spain's homeward bound treasure ships and also to protect any British activities on terra firma (i.e., on mainland Central America).

The first British incursion into the Bay Islands was in 1638 when William Claiborne, a planter from Virginia and Maryland, attempted to found a colony in Roatan under his Providence Company patent. Claiborne brought several hundred colonists from North America and issued grants of land to them under the company's authority (Floyd 1967:18), but the colony was short lived and (according to Evans 1966:13) was abandoned by 1642.

Between 1639 and 1642, the first British-Spanish confrontation in the Bay Islands took place. According to Cevallos (1919:15), British and Dutch pirates burned a Spanish establishment in 1639 whereupon a base of operations was founded by the Spanish in Puerto Real (near the present-day community of Oak Ridge in Roatan) to clean the sea of pirates. Lutchen-Lehn (n.d.:10) claims that in that same year, 1639, the Bay Islands had been investigated per order of Governor Avilay Lugo; and it was reported that Guanaja, Roatan, and Utila, with the Cays, had 400 inhabitants. No source, unfortunately, for this datum is given.

In 1642 pirates invaded Roatan and Guanaja with the objective of setting up a seat of operations in this part of the Spanish Main:

The depredations of the invaders were such that the supreme authority of Guatemala, together with the governors of Havana and the president of the Audiencia of Santo Domingo organized an expedition to expel the English from Roatan where their defenses were already strong. The expedition was composed of four ships of war under the command of Francisco Villalba y Toledo. Having found that the principle ports of the island were well fortified, he quietly withdrew to get reinforcements. He returned with these in March 1650, and after a fierce fight dislodged the pirates and left only ruins and some already enslaved Indians which the Captain General of Guatemala had transported to the mainland to the region between the rivers of Polochic and Motagua (Valladares 1939:26).

After the encounter just noted, the islands remained abandoned and deserted until 1742 when the British intended to take possession of the entire Atlantic coast and therefore built fortifications both at the mouth of the Rio Negro and in Roatan. Edward Trelawney, Governor of the Shoremen at Spanish Town (in the Mosquitia, the southeastern coastal area of Honduras), caused Roatan to be fortified and turned into a military base. William Pitt, a long-time planter in the Mosquitia, was named superintendent of the Bay Islands and was authorized to issue land grants free from quitrents for twenty years (Floyd 1967:69). Pitt was, however, more than a military governor; and Floyd (1967:103) comments that

the temper of the London court was well represented by the statesman, William Pitt, who defined English objectives in the West Indies as commercial supremacy, which must be attained by English industry, not by English military power. He recognized correctly that the main enemy was not Spain, but France, and believed friendliness toward Spain would be rewarded with commercial privileges. He gave substance to this conciliatory policy by ordering the evacuation of the Bay Islands in 1748. . . .

Conciliation with Spain did not sit well with Trelawney, the Baymen, and the Shoremen, but Spain was mollified and relaxed enforcement of contraband laws on the open seas.  Improved Anglo-Spanish relations were reflected in the Treaty of Paris signed in 1763 whereby, according to Article 17 of the treaty, it was agreed that:

His Britannic Majesty shall cause to be demolished all the fortifications which His subjects have erected in the Bay of Honduras, and other places of the Territory of Spain in that part of the world, four months after the ratification of the present Treaty; and His Catholic Majesty shall not permit His Britannic Majesty's subjects, or their workmen, to be disturbed, or molested, under any pretense whatsoever, in the said places, in their occupation of cutting, loading and carrying away logwood; and for this purpose they may build without hindrance, and occupy without interruption, the houses and magazines which are necessary for them, or their families, and for their effects; and His Catholic Majesty assures to them, by this Article, the full enjoyment of those advantages and powers on the Spanish coasts and Territories, as above stipulated, immediately after the ratification of the present Treaty (quoted in Floyd 1967:117).

In 1780, the Spanish, aggravated by continued British presence in Roatan and by insurgency of coastal Indians that was British inspired, again declared war on Great Britain. One of the actions of this war was invasion of the Bay Islands by the Captain General of Guatemala to once again expel any British there present. Treaties in 1783 and 1786 were twice more designed to regularize British-Spanish relations, primarily through cessation of British colonizing along the Spanish Main. The terms of these treaties were again nullified by war, in 1796, and Britain went so far as to establish a penal colony in Roatan. A large number of Black Caribs (Evans 1966:15, says 5,000; Floyd 1967:184, says 2,000) from the island of St. Vincent--collaborators with the French against British activities in the Lesser Antilles--were interned in Roatan, only to have many of their number disperse to the mainland of Honduras, to British Honduras, and Guatemala (cf. Gonazlez 1969).

Conflicts between Spain and Great Britain continued intermittently until 15 September 1821 when Central America proclaimed its independence from the mother country. Spain had been in the weaker of the two European contestants for some time; but the independent Central American Federation was weaker still; and Britain, unhindered, expanded its influence all along the Caribbean littoral from British Honduras to the Bay Islands to the Mosquitia. Characteristic of much of its imperial expansion, British advances into the Bay islands took place in leisurely fashion and without official sanction, through efforts of British subjects simply squatting wherever they were inclined to settle.

Utila, from the material above, appears to have led a quiescent existence during the years of Spanish and British hostility, quite unlike the islands of Roatan and Guanaja. Perhaps for this reason, early in the nineteenth century Utila attracted people who were basically farmers interested in good, free land that they could cultivate for subsistence crops. No doubt several motivations were at work to bring the first permanent settlers to Utila, but for whatever reasons the early 1830s found nearly a dozen people located in the Utila Cays.

▲Top of Page The Agricultural Phase

Joseph Cooper, his wife and nine children--two boys and seven girls--came to Utila from the Caymans by way of Belize. He was apparently one of the many land hungry British subjects of peasant or working-class extraction that found the British isles too constricting. The Cooper family and an American named Samuel Warren who had been born in Massachusetts and served with Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie formed the nucleus of Utila's future population. Warren and another American surnamed Joshua (who early dropped out of the historical picture) were already cultivating small plantations in the Cays. Cooper also settled there to avoid the clouds of mosquitoes and sandflies that infested the bush-covered main island.

Within a few years other Cayman families had heard about Utila and established branches in the Cays (i.e., in Howell and Suc Suc Cays): Thompson, Morgan, Bodden, Diamond (or Dimon), Howell, Gabourel. Initially, settlement was made by white families intent on cultivating individually owned plantations in the nonresidential Cays. The fact that they were of lower class British background, influenced by their stay in Cayman, is in part attested to by a linguistic peculiarity still found in Utila. Doran (1954:83) says that

. . . common to all Caymanians is the almost invariable substitution of w for v at the beginning of syllables. . . .John Woodhead, of the University of Leeds, states (personal communication, 1951) that the substitution is characteristic of Elizabethan Cockney and was recorded in vulgar London speech up to about 1870.

Sometime around 1870 the first black Utilians settled in the island; like their white predecessors, they too were primarily from the Cayman Islands--Grand Cayman, Little Cayman, or Cayman Brac--near Jamaica, and were also interested in farming. Some of these immigrating black families bore the same surnames as white Utilian families, testimony either to a slave heritage whereby slaves names had been adopted in Cayman or to having (at least in one known case) been raised in white families and taking the names of foster parents.

Subsequently, settlers from the United States, British Honduras, and places as far afield as Germany and Sweden took up residence in Utila, adding their several influences to Utilian society and culture.

Like the other Bay Islands, Utila very largely took care of its own affairs, appointing its own officials, creating its own ordinances, etc. On occasion the islanders looked to British Honduras, the closest British outpost, for advice or--since no churches existed in Utila until 1852--to make use of the religious establishment for marriage rites.

Toward the end of 1849, the close intercourse between British Honduras and the Bay Islands that had sprung up--primarily commercial in nature though it was--produced a petition by Islands residents that they be included in the British Empire. Evans states (1966:19) that

on September 21, 1849, a letter was forwarded to Belize from the Clerk of Courts and three Justices of the Peace on Roatan, in which they asked to be placed under the protection of the British Government. . . . This letter is the first of a series of pleas from the islanders for British protection and status for the Bay Islands.

He also says that when no help from Belize was forthcoming the islanders turned to Jamaica and subsequently realized their objective of colonial status. In June of 1852

. . . the Governor of Jamaica sent the Superintendent a commission under the 'Great Seal', which appointed the Governor of Jamaica Governor of the Bay Islands, and the Honourable P. E. Wodehouse, Superintendent at Belize, as Lieutenant Governor (Evans 1966:20).

On 11 July 1852, Superintendent Wodehouse declared that "Her Britannic Majesty has deigned to constitute as a colony Roatan, Bonnacco, Utila, Barbareta, Elena and Morat, designated by the name 'Colony of the Bay Islands'" (Valladares 1939:29). A magistrate for Utila was duly appointed by the governor of Roatan and British jurisdiction in Utila was thereby officially established.

British governance rested lightly on Utilians, and islanders enjoyed the benefit of receiving actual British land grants to the properties that they claimed; likewise, as a British island Utila escaped duties and the like that were imposed at nearby Honduran ports.

The official British aegis over the Bay Islands was, however, of short duration. The United States had entered into the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty with Great Britain on 19 April 1850, and dignitaries of the Republic of Honduras pressed both parties to that treaty to abide by its conditions; i.e., they wanted an end to illegal British intrusion in the Bay Islands through application of U.S. pressure on the latter. Regarding the violation of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, Scroggs (1916:382-383) says that

... in the United States this action evoked much resentment, and the Senate passed a resolution declaring it a violation of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. The Dallas-Clarendon Treaty of 1856 was ammended in the Senate by the insertion of a clause restoring the Bay Islands to Honduras. The British government rejected this and suggested in turn that the disposition of the colony should be fixed by a treaty between Great Britain and Honduras. The American government would not concede that Honduras should dispose of any of her territory by treaty with a European power.

Nevertheless, negotiations, which dragged on for seven years, went forward between Great Britain and Honduras; and finally on 28 November 1859, the Wyke-Cruz Treaty brought international controversy over the Bay Islands to an end (see Appendix A).

For their part, Utilians and the other Bay Islanders were little affected by this last shift in official governance. By the terms of the treaty Islanders were allowed to retain all rights inland and chattels that they had claimed as British citizens. They were assured religious freedom. Local people were still appointed to municipal posts. In fact, life for the Bay Islanders went on virtually unchanged since none of the (disdained) Spanish authority was truly exercised in these maritime possessions; disaffected Islanders had the additional option of accepting free Crown land grants in British Honduras and free transport there if they should so desire. Scroggs does point out, however (Ibid.), that a large portion of the British subjects in Roatan were not happy about losing their citizenship, and "early in the spring of 1860 one of the discontented Bay Islanders visited New Orleans and sought to invite (the filibuster [soldier of fortune] William) Walker to Ruatan to aid them in resisting the Hondurans." Through fast political maneuvering by British and Honduran authorities, Walker--who was interested in Roatan as a base for launching an attack on Nicaragua where he had been the sometime "elected" president--was foiled and ultimately captured and executed at Truxillo on the mainland. No retaliation was taken against the Islanders, and political conditions in the islands remained little changed for the next half-century.

In Utila, the major development of the next few years was the birth of the fruit trade with U.S. cities. According to a diarist's information, this trade was inaugurated in 1868 when two schooners from Portland, Maine, came to Utila to buy bananas and coconuts that would be carried to New Orleans.

Rose (1904:56) claims that there were some 177 persons living in Utila the preceding year (i.e., 1867), and most of these were then resident at East Harbor on the island proper. A growing trade between Utila and Belize (as well as coastal towns and villages) had apparently stimulated the bulk of the population to quit the Utila Cays and settle on the larger island where land for plantations was plentiful. Thus, Utilian farm production and U.S. fruit buying interests coincided nicely.

Utila enjoyed a veritable boom time during the next quarter century. Thousands of bananas, coconuts, limes, etc., were exported to Boston, New York, Tampa, and New Orleans. Rose (1904:110) claims that ". . . Utilla reached the zenith of its prosperity, as a fruit port, in 1876" and provides the following table:

Table 1.1 Utila Exports 1876
Bunches of Bananas Plantains Cocanuts Limes Mangoes Oranges Pineapples Shaddocks
52,926[*] 753,600 1,073,100 86 Bbls. 15 Bbls 13,700 56 dozen 2 Bbls

[ [*] Webmaster note: Rose (1904:110) also notes "This number seems small. In our most fruitful years we frequently exported four thousand bunches of bananas in one week, sometimes more. I have, however, obtained these figures from the highest official records."]

All of the "old heads" in Utila swear, in fact, that it was Utila and the Bay Islands that gave start to the gigantic United Fruit Company and Standard Fruit Company operations on the mainland of Honduras. This assertion is not, however, supported by historical evidence provided by such sources as Wilson (1968) or May and Plaza (1958). The actual situation appears to have been that the newly born tropical fruit trade of the mid-nineteenth century relied on a system of "pickups" which involved many places like the Bay Islands. Wilson, talking about this system as it operated even into the 1920s says (1968:197-198): "typical of the 'pickup' system was the run from Livingston Harbor in British Honduras to the Indian farms along the Golfete Estuary and Lake Izabal." In the early years of the trade all fruit was supplied by "pickup" until companies like United and Standard had planted their own farms; in the interim the independent producers attempted to supply any buyer whenever one appeared. By the early 1900s, the "pickup" system had all but ended insofar as the Bay Islands were concerned; Standard Fruit had planted large farms in back of La Ceiba and United Fruit was entrenched at Tela. The fruit companies no longer had to engage in the time consuming practice of running from port to port having no control whatsoever over the quantity or quality of the fruit available at any given time.

The result of decreasing purchases by the large companies, plus the outright competition they gave to Utila and the other Bay Islands, led to economic recession in these latter. The Bay Islands were ripe, so to speak, for setbacks on another count. On 14 May 1872, the Bay Islands had been formed into a Department of the Republic of Honduras.

Various governments . . . in vain decreed laws and regulations to harmonise [sic] the rights and interests of the islanders with those of the Republic. They continued to govern themselves more or less according to their customs and earlier statutes, whose documentation, in greater part, is conserved in the National Archives, until the energetic hand and intelligence of the government, the 14th of May 1872 made the Bay Islands a true Department of the Republic, subject to its laws and particularly of all the betterments that have established modern legislation. . . (Valladares 1939:32).

By organizing the islands into a department, the Government of Honduras was attempting to enforce the letter of the Wyke-Cruz Treaty. Most islanders had previously honored the stipulations of the treaty in the breach (and in most respects managed to perpetuate a status quo ante for thirty more years, i.e., until 1902!). Mistakenly, many islanders assumed that they could continue to live under English Common Law, and were bona fide British subjects still. Islander reaction to what may have been a practiced ignorance of their actual status is reflected in Rose's comments (1904:35-36):

. . . the (ensuing) change of laws gave a crippling blow, for some time, to the industries in the islands and to the hopes of the people. There was general discontent chiefly on account of the high import duties imposed under the new laws. And this discontent was perhaps excusable, because the people had always been accustomed to a very low tariff. Many of the people began to think seriously of leaving the islands, and some did so; but the majority loved too well the land which had been their home for many years, so they remained.

De facto independence of the Bay Islands during the years 1872 to 1902, a function of Honduran disinterest and Islander hauteur (they were, or had been, British, after all), ended with the visit of H.M.S. Psyche during July 1902. Captain Cooper-Key was commissioned to disabuse Bay Islanders of their uniform pretenses to British citizenship.

Rose (1904:167) quotes the Captain as saying

All British subjects that were living in the islands in 1861 when the latter were delivered to Honduras, are subjects of Honduras, they and their children, while they remain in this country; but beyond the limits of Republic they are British subjects. All British subjects, who settled in the islands after the latter were ceded to Honduras, are British subjects still; and as such are entitled to the privileges of British protection in or out of the country.

The creation of the Department and the effect of the Psyche's visit were connected with the economic slump starting circa 1900: the Islands were not to enjoy the boom (referred to above) brought about by the fruit trade; incursions made by United and Standard Fruit saw to that, but in addition they were not to be able to import commodities, own land, et cetera, exempt from "outside" taxes and duties.

From the turn of the century until the Second World War, Utilians strove to reverse blows received to their economy and morale. Life styles assumed during more affluent days were modified: less trade and contact with the United States resulted; consumer products (e.g., luxury goods in household furnishings, and the very lumber from which houses were built) were no longer purchased; varied emphases on plantation crops were tried in order to fit available markets (e.g., a shift from bananas and plantains to coconuts), and the like.

Despite attempts to "regroup," Utilians had become too enmeshed in social, political, and economic systems that directed their course. The World Depression effectively killed the possibilities of continuing the comfortable plantation life; produce, at times, could not even be given away.

The years from 1929 to 1939 are referred to locally as "the Coconut Oil Years." With no market for agricultural commodities, no wage labor available since job specializations had never developed (and with too small a population to support specialists in any event), and with shipping defunct, householders were reduced to rendering out coconut oil in order to survive. This was an arduous way of making a living. Two hundred select coconuts (four inches in diameter or larger) were husked at a time, shells chipped off, the meat grated and mixed with water. After standing overnight the coconut "milk" would be skimmed off (oil that had risen to the top) and this would then be boiled down to the final coconut oil: five gallons in all. The tin of oil was then taken to a local merchant who paid for it by giving the maker fifty cents (U.S.) worth of goods from his store!

▲Top of Page The Remittance Phase

Events in particular at the beginning of this period color the sociocultural system in Utila today. Initially, the market in coconuts improved, and planters who had maintained their cocals in good condition reaped the rewards which ultimately affected the entire island. Companies such as Peter Paul demanded large quantities of coconut for its candy manufactures, and according to informants, throughout the 1940s as many as 350,000 coconuts at a time were exported to Company factories in Tampa. The bleak, dreary Depression years were apparently quickly supplanted by the anticipation of prolonged prosperity: aspirations to travel, foreign education (in the U.S.), and the like rose concomitantly. By the 1950s, however, another bubble had burst and coconuts were worth only five cents apiece; it was time for the second important event of the decade to take effect.

According to Wilson (1968:288), "during 1940 the United States government had begun to lease some of the larger and better equipped banana ships for emergency defense duty." In 1941 United Fruit Company sent representatives to Utila to sign up would-be seamen for its steamship line. The score or so of local men to join the company, having become experienced in one or the other of its two training ships, rapidly found themselves working in U.S. merchant shipping. Whether United Fruit was involved in the emergency leasing in this instance or was simply training a reserve of sailors for its own use is not known, but what is significant is that male Utilians were being given marketable skills as merchant mariners at a time when the coconut bubble was expanding to its bursting point and the need to avoid return to the "Coconut Oil Years" was paramount.

Utila's heritage of men going to sea in order to fish or carry things to market, coupled with islander attachment to Anglo-American ancestors and culture, made it logical for Utilian males to find their way quickly into maritime service. Nor did the close of the war bring a return of men to island agriculture and fishing, for subsistence or otherwise. Laboring in tick-infested bush under broiling sun or on sun-reflecting brine would, perhaps, have had a more favored alternate in merchant mariner service in any event, but post bellum market conditions worsened and neither agriculture nor fishing would return more than a pittance for labor expended. Likewise, disease and hurricanes laid waste to many coconut and banana plantations. Utila, rounding the corner of the Second World War, became a remittance economy.

Since the Second World War a custom, born of necessity, has taken hold: the adult males between ages 18 and 55 regularly and repeatedly leave their home island to wander the globe. For nine months, ten months, or a year at a time, men work for various shipping lines and send home a monthly allotment to their families. The dependability of income from the ships--salary, fringe benefits, free room and board while at sea--has continued to induce men to turn away from Utila as the source of support for their dependents. The orientation of Utilians has consequently, once again, shifted toward the United States as the figurative pot of gold and font of all that is culturally good. Children, for example, are sent to high school in New Orleans; relatives head north to "Big America" for visits with emigrant Utilians; increasing numbers of native islanders stay in the U.S.--or seek to--as permanent residents. Few islanders pin their hopes on carving out a living in Utila or restricting their lives totally to the island, and as far as former circumstances go they are realistic.

On July 23, 1961, hurricane Anna struck, perhaps, the death knell to hopes of any islanders who wanted to remain locally self-sufficient through agriculture, to provide at least subsistence for himself and his household. Although Anna did not strike Utila head on, accompanying winds from the storm blew down an estimated 75,000 coconut trees alone, approximately a third of the island's cocal. It was reported that for fully two years afterward, not a single locally grown plantain could be had. Few men were inclined to repair the damage. Today Utila can boast perhaps two farmers, a dozen fishermen, a handful of merchants. All other male bread-winners look to the United States, the merchant marine, and the remittance in order to perpetuate life in Utila.

▲Top of Page  Analysis

In this brief overview of Utila's historical background, several points crucial to this study are introduced. First of all is the fact that the original settlers of Utila found abundant land for farming. Secondly, farming of tropical fruits was done on an individual basis (a single man or his immediate family worked a given plantation), and for commercial purposes. Utilian planters were oriented toward production for a market--often as far away as the United States--to the end that they and their families could prosper from cash sales of their goods. Thirdly, the experience of islanders during their agricultural phase entailed fairly extensive seafaring in order to market agricultural goods and engage in subsistence fishing.

The disappearance of market outlets for their bananas, coconuts, etc., destroyed a local prosperity geared to commercial agriculture. Whatever investment in capital goods there may have been previously (specifically in land or boats) was no longer economically sound and a society oriented basically toward consumerism was totally frustrated in attempts to achieve--or maintain--the good life. Shipping suffered concomitantly with the decline of commercial farming. Overall, Utilians were reduced to a subsistence level economy wherein few people were emotionally or otherwise prepared to labor for so little reward. Nor, in the midst of economic disaster, did individualistic Utilians appear to have become more cooperative with one another. The commercialism connected with agricultural production was an indicator not only of motivations behind economic activity, but reflected the fundamental non-cooperative orientation of islanders. As Utilians conducted their economic affairs, so too they conducted social and political ones. Thus, while there was strong identification with the island and one's loved ones therein, there was not a tightly knit social and political organization.

Opportunities in Utila during the first four decades of the twentieth century were, empirically, few; many Utilians--as will be discussed in Chapter 4--appraised the local situation, found it untenable, and permanently migrated to the United States. Those individuals who stayed were given another economic option when the merchant marine began recruiting at the start of World War II. Utilians who reappraised their own position at this time found the option attractive: going to sea is an individual endeavor, and individualism was typical of islanders.

The very fact that many Utilian males had spent long periods of time on boats, in connection with shipping and fishing, meant that wives and families had already come to terms with this aspect of a potential remittance economy. Organizational features, then, enhanced Utilian entrance into remittance economics since community functioning would not be hampered by requisite absenteeism.

In terms of production factors, men had only to provide their labor; no investment in land, trees, and so forth would be necessary to enter the service which meant that anyone of age and having passage money to catch a ship in the United States could obtain gainful employment. The fact that men would catch their ships in the United States provided further opportunities to contact an area that had long held important cultural associations. The additional contact with the United States bolstered islander self-image as Anglo-American, rather than Latin American, and reinforced islander separateness from the mainland of Honduras. Utila had already experienced considerable autonomy, even as a British colony, and this plus a sense of superiority to mainland Hondurans (as amicably as this superiority was usually expressed) precluded very close ties with non-island society or culture. The possibility also exists that the very trait of consumerism, which would be reinforced by more frequent contacts with the United States, had become as pronounced as it was due partly to its function in demonstrating island autonomy and uniqueness within the Honduran state.

In sum, there were both organizational and emotional preadaptations in Utila for emergence of the remittance economy. It is necessary, however, to understand the genuine limitations of the locale in order to appreciate the wisdom of the Utilian decision. In the following chapter describing the physical setting, further support is given to the argument that a remittance economy was the rational choice for islanders to make in order to again achieve the good life.

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