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A Brief History of The Bay Islands

The following is a Brief History of The Bay Islands, Honduras, ©1999 David Evans re-published here with the permission of the author Dr David K Evans, on the condition that it is published as written, typo's and all.


The following is a brief history, the data collected long ago and stored on old time key-sort cards...for you too young to know, these cards were the manually operated "Computers" of my early years. They had numbered holes along all 4 edges and one wrote notes directly on them...then later, after giving a number to the specific topics your notes covered on a specific card, you then "punched" that number hole "open" so that later, when you were looking for your notes with, say, "boat types", which you had assigned number 12, you would put all of your cards into a specially made "keysort box" that was supplied with two long needle or ice-pick looking things with handles...you then stuck one of the two pins through all of the unsorted cards at the location of hole number 12 and the other pin through any other hole... then you simple lifted all of the cards out of the box by the two pins. What happened...the cards with their number 12 holes punched open could not hold the pin and hanging by the other pin, they would swing free and clear of the deck of note cards. If you had coded and punched correctly, then every single card dangling below the deck would have notes related to "boat types" , or to whatever else it was you were looking for at the moment. Of course it doesn't beat a computer, but I used to use this system on Roatán in the little house my wife and I rented out on the sea side at French Harbour, and it made very little difference that the village had no electric power some 38 years ago in the summer of 1961....my little card board computer worked just fine .....and still does after all these years.

I'm telling you all this to explain why I am writing this brief history of the History and Ethnographic background of the Bay Islands in General, and of Roatán in particular. I got to playing with the cards this morning because I am moving across the parking lot here at Wake Forest from my old, spacious office into my much smaller office of the Overseas Research Center, and students found my box of cards and asked me yesterday what they were. I had to explain. They cast knowing glances at each other, and kinda shook their heads sadly, until I pointed out that my old paper computer worked great in the field, and allowed me to collect and analyse my data without the need for computer batteries or electrical power. Both students had been on Roatán with me last summer, and seemed to appreciate what I was trying to explain...but who knows what lurkes in the minds of students...all I know for sure is that I consider it a real privilege to have been able to work with such kids for the past 33 years here at my University, and to have taken them into a lot of remote places on this planet. But now that I am teaching some of the kids of some of these first students, it has become time to move on and make space for my younger replacement, which we are trying to settle on at this time. As part of my so-called "golden parachute", I have a contract with the University to continue as director of the Overseas Research Center that I founded when I came here from Berkeley as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, kid with a knee-jerk drive to "save the planet and every living thing on it"...oh well, so much for plans of long ago....then I wanted to always be the first to win the race...now...well now I just want to be allowed to finish the race with some reasonable amount of dignity....those of you out the over 65 will know what I mean.

Anyway...here is a brief historical and ethnographical account of the Bay Islands. I'll type until I am tired, and then just call it "part one"...if you feel like more, and I find another grey, blustering sunday to spare...who knows?


The Bay Islands were apparently first discovered by Europeanw when Columbus first found them on the morning of the 30th of July, 1502, during his fourth voyage the the "New World"...at least it was "New" to Europeans. Sighting a high island covered with pines (Bonacca or Guanaja), the Admiral named it Isla de Piños, and claimed it, of course, for Spain. Eye-witness accounts of this discovery indicate that the islands in the Bay of Honduras were quite fertile and were densely populated at that time, and that the aborigines enjoyed a much higher developed civilization than those of the Greater Antilles, Cuba and Hispañola, from which Columbus had just sailed.

All that is presently known (at least back in 1995 when I first wrote these notes) concerning the pre-history and aboriginal inhabitants of the Bay Islands has been discussed and summarized by Comzemius (1925:57-68...[ I'll add a bibliography after I'm done, or those of you who own a copy of our bibliography can look it up) and Strong (1935)...[I should add that while still relatively unknown in terms of archaeology, much has been done since 1965, but that the trade in per-columbian artifacts on the islands, and everyone you buy as a tourist, has lessened what we will every know]; however important and interestering the questions may be concerning the origin of the inhabitants met on the Bay Islands by Europeans in 1502, they are peripheral to what I feel like writing about at the moment and will be discussed only in brief.

Early attempts at settlement

The first non-Spanish attempt at settling the Bay Islands was apparently under the leadership of William Claibourne of Virginia. Claibourne was granted a formal patent in 1638 by the Providence Company to establish a colony on the island of Roatán. This colony, although very short-lived (the settlement was probably ababdoned in 1642), "marked the beginning of English interest in the Bay Islands of Honduras, which continued for more than two hundred years" (Parsons:1956:11). During this time, however, a number of freebooters of Dutch, English, and French nationality had begun raids on Spanish shipping and settlements in the Bay of Honduras. In 1639 the Dutch buccaneer Van Horne led raids against the Spanish-Indian settlements in the islands. He appears to have overlooked, or perhaps he simply spared, Claibourne's small English settlement which, it is belived, was in the vacinity of Port Royal.

In 1642, Port Royal on Roatán was occupied by English logwood cutters and settlers from what became British Honduras and now is known as Belize. These invaders conducted a number of successful piratical raids against the Spanish, and in 1650 four Spanish war ships, under one Francisco Villalva y Toledo, attempted to drive the buccaneers from Roatán. The latter, however, were so well fortified at Port Royal [ some of these remains still exist today in 1999] that the Spanish invaders were forced to withdraw to the mainland for reinforcements. Outnumbering the defenders by more than 10 to one, the Spanish returned on March 0f 1650, and finally, after days of extremely hard fighting on the island, the Spanish succeeded in taking the heavy fortifications at Port Royal (Squier 1858:615).

After driving out the buccaneers, the Spanish removed the few remaining Indians to the mainland of Guatemala, and settled them in the Alcaldía Mayor de Amatique, in the vicinity of Puerto Santo Tomás de Castilla. Nothing more is known concerning the ultimate fate if the island Indians after the year 1650 (Conzemius 1926:65).

Part TWO: English Settlers in the Bay Islands

The first records indicating permanent English settlements in the Bay Islands (other than the intermittent occupations by the logwood cutters and buccaneers, and the abortive attempt by the Puritan sponsored Providence Company) show that Port Royal, on the island of Roatán, was again occupied in the year 1742. In this year the British made an attempt to gain possession of most of the Caribbean coast of Central America, and in doing so, rebuilt the old fort on Roatán (Squier 1858:615-616).

The archives at Belize record a Major Caulfield in command of Roatán as early as 1745. On August 2nd of that year, the Major wrote a letter to a Mr. Trelawry, Govenor of Jamaica, describing Spanish harassment of English settlements (Archives, vol. I: 15). These settlements appear to have been well established on the island of Roatán by 1775. A map of that year, drawn by Thomas Jefferys, Geographer to His Majesty, Clearly shows essentially all of the present older settlements, bearing their current names, with the exception of Calkett's Hole (now Coxen's Hole) and Falmouth Harbout (now Oak Ridge).

The Spanish, as soon as the early dawn provided enough light, directed a well-coordinated attack against the English at Port Royal on the early morning of March, 2nd 1782. "After a heavy cannonade, detachments of the troops landed and opened regular trenches against the forts, which were so closely invested and hotly pressed that on the 16th of the month they surrendeded at discretion. The lives of the defenders were spared, but all their dwellings, to the number of 500, were destroyed" ( quoted by Squier in 1858: 616-617).

Six years later, in 1788, England completely evacuated all of her settlements in the Bay Islands as well as on the Miskito Shore. The islands then lay deserted of Europeans for almost fifteen years until 1797, when the English removed by force some 5,000 "Black Caribs" (a mixture of African Negro and Carib and Arawak Indians) from the Windward Island of St. Vincent, and marooned them on the then empty beaches of Port Royal on Roatán (Squier 1858:172 and Taylor 1951: 36). Conzemius tells us that these unhappy people were first taken from St. Vincent to the small island of Balliceaux, then to that of Bequia, both in the Grenadines. At Bequia they were loaded aboard H.M.S. EXPERIMENT under the command 0f Captain Barrett, and then shipped to Roatán. They were landed on Roatán on a stormy day of February 25, 1797 (Conzemius 1928: 189). According to the Honduran historian, Durón, the British employed two men-of-war and a brigantine, landing the deportees in April, not February, in 1797 (Durón 1927:99). My own (DKE) personal research both in Belize and in Berkeley indicates that this landing was indeed in the winter months, and most likely February. The History of the Garifuna, as well as the history of their most famous dance, "La Punta", seems to spiral outward from this day, whatever month it was in.

Except for these "Black Carib" no known as the Garifuna, and a few Spanish attempts to settle colonists from Spain and exiles native to the Canary Islands, the Bay Islands remained unoccupied for almost thirty more years (Parsons 1956: 9), until in 1821, the newly-founded Central American Federation claomed the Bay Islands, and declared the independent of Spain. No serious attempts were made to settle them, however, or to protect them from encroachment by other powers.

We next hear of British interst in 1825, when a Mr. Marshall Bennett, on a visit from Honduras to England, wrote a letter to the Colonial Office. He stressed the great strategic importance of possible British settlements on Roatán, at that time being claimed by Guatemala. Bennett felt the latter, not being a maritime nation, presumedly did not regard the islands of any great importance. No immediate action followed this letter, and we know the Bay Islands were still unoccupied by Europeans when visited by Roberts in 1827 (Roberts 1827: 276).

At some time between 1827 and 1834, English settlers began arriving on the island of Roatán. A memorandum, drafted in Belize, dated November 24th, 1834, noted that at this time the islands of Roatán and Bonacca (Guanaja) were inhabited by 50 people only, mostly English (Archivesm, Vol. II: 361).

The Cayman Island Settlers:

The earliest record I can find of the arrival of white families from the Cayman Islands goes back to 1836. The British had totally outlawed slavery in all of their colonys in 1833, and without it many of the white planters in the British possessions in the Caribbean found it next to impossible to compete with the American South for many of their products. Certain crops, for example cotton, had reportedly depleted the soil in the Cayman islands, and many of the white families sought life elsewhere. In 1836 an English family arrived from the island of Grand Cayman and became established in the cays of Utila. Others came to Roatán at about this same time or a little later. The family which arrived at Utila consisted of Joseph Cooper, his wife and six children. They came by way of Belize, and were given permission to establish themselves permanently in the Bay Islands, and of the families living in Utila today, many are descended from these early settlers (Zaldívar 1943: 139). [Note - In his book Utilla Past and Present - Richard Rose writes that when the Joseph Cooper family arrived in the Utila Cays, they found two Americans living on Suc-Suc Cay - a Mr Samuel Warren and a Mr Joshua. Mr Warren subsequently married Joseph Cooper's daughter, Elizabeth, and they had 7 children. Mr Joshua never married. - WebMaster ]

On September 10th, 1838, Colonel Alexander McDonald, Superintendent of Belize, wrote a letter to Mr. Hugh Ganson (some say Garret), presumably the British Consul to Honduras. McDonald informed the latter that he had recently protested to the Commandante of Trujillo against "English settlers on Rattan (one of several spellings of the island at that time) being prevented from comminicating with Belize," and stated that.." ..the Sovereignity of Rattan has not yet been determined" (Archives vol. II: 402).

Five months later, on February 23rd, 1839, Superintendent McDonald wrote a note to the Commandant of Trujillo, referring to the distressing anoyance from threats held out by the latter towards British settlers on the island of Roatán, adding that he trusts these threats will not be put into force as they will lead to "unfavorable results" (Archives vol. II 405).

On April 11th, 1839, H.M.S. Rover arrived in Belize with instructions from Lord Palmerston (English Foreign Minister, 1830-1841) to proceed to Roatán and haul down any foreign flag which might be hoisted on the island (Archives vol II: 407). Thomas Young, in his narrative of 1842, gives a lively description of the arrival of this ship at Port Royal. He wrote:

" Much jealousy is excited amongst the Central Americans, by the English taking possession of the island of Roatán, and nothing is more galling to them than the success of this place and Black River [on the Miskito Coast], and they would gladly throw every obstacle in the way, especially the Truxillians [directly adjacent, about 40 miles south of Roatán], who appear exasperated at the insult which they say was shown to their flag. According to their statement, some few years back, when they had possession of Roatán, they had a small fort at Port Royal, a place which was formerly settled by the English. A frenchman was made Captain, and he had a few soldiers under his command. A British Sloop-of war appeared off the port, a boat full of men was despatched on shore, and the Central American flag was hauled down and the Standard of Old England was planted in its place. Shorthly after the man-of-war set sail, and when she had got some distance, the Frenchman pulled down the English colours and re-hoisted his own, which was no sooner observed on board the British vessel, then she put back, landed a party of marines and seamen; the Central American flag was then lowered, and two or three middies amused themselves by dancing on it. The poor Frenchman, notwithstanding his vociferous protestations, and his gallant soldiers, were put on board the man-of war, and had the mortification of seeing on their departure, the meteor flag of Old England waving in the breeze. They were landed on the beach of Truxillo, with a few gentle hints as to their future behaviour" (Young 1842: 147).

In November of 1841, McDonald despatched a magistrate to Roatán and Bonacca, with authority to appoint local magistrates and to hoist the Union Jack. By the following May, however, due to complaints from both Honduras and the United States, the Bristish Secretary of State write the Governor of Jamaica that the formation of a British settlement on Roatán was not to be encouraged and that protection to British subjects there could no longer be guaranteed. He also noted that any magistrates appointed by Superintendent McDonald were not to be formally authorized by him, the Governor. He then expressed the opinion that the Captain of a Man-of-War is a "fitter Agent of Protection than Civil functionaries sent from Belize" (Archives vol. III: 57).

McDonald's relief, Colonel Charles St.John Fancourt, wrote on May 30th, 1844, to the British Consul of Guatemala, mentioning that numbers of English were then settling at Roatán and at Bonacca (Archives vol. III:74). Although Fancourt does not mention the origin of these new settlers, private records at French Harbour (Roatán, 1961-65) clearly indicate that it was about this same time (1844) that numbers of families began coming into the Bay Islands from Grand Cayman Island as well as from Black River. Earlier, in 1842, Young mentions that the ship "Rose" had brought typhus fever into the Black River settlement. This is said to have caused some inhabitants to flee "...panic stricken, some via Truxillo to England, some to Roatán..." (p.68-69).

Young also mentions that at this time (between 1839-1841)there were several white families from the Grand Caymans residing on "Coxen's old kay" [this would be George Osgood's Key today, 1999], and he estimated them to be about 200 people altogether. He added, "Many more are expected to leave the impoverished soil of the Grand Cayman Islands, to settle there [Roatán]; so that there is reason to suppose it will soon be in a flourishing condition (p.150). His prediction appears to have come about. A few years later, in 1850, Commodore R.C. Mitchell of the Royal Navy reported the population of Roatán Island to be.."five to six thousand" (Mitchell, quoted in Squier 1858:62).

After 1844, it was five years before the Archives at Belize show correspondence concerning the islands. On September 21st, 1849, a letter was forwarded to Belize from the Clerk of Courts and three Justices of the Peace on Roatán, in which they asked to be placed under the protection of the British Gevernment (Archives vol. III:123). This letter is the first of a series of pleas from the islanders for British protection and status for the Bay Islands.

Receiving no assistance from Belize, the islanders next turned to the Crown Colony of Jamaica. The Belize archives contain a "Memorial from Inhabitants of Ruatan [ another spelling used at that time], Bonacca, Helen, Barbarate, and Morat" [ note Utila is often omitted from these dispatches ], dated January 7th, 1850, addressed to the Governor of Jamaica, in which the islanders raised the following points: "As to whether the Inhabitants are British Subjects; whether they are recognized as a Colony under the British flag; [and] That they desire that the Superintendent of Belize should be the Authority to which they may appeal" (Archives vol. III: 128).

Part Four

The Colony of The Bay Islands:

On August 15th of the following year (1851) the Superintendent of Belize wrote a long letter to the Govenor of Jamaica in which he described his recent visit to Roatán, and his intentions to establish a more regular form of Government in the islands. The following June (1852 the Governor of Jamaica sent the Superintendent a commission under the "GREAT SEAL" which appointed the Governor of Jamaica also the Governor of the Bay Islands, and the Honourable P.E. Wodehouse, Superintendent of Belize, as Lieutenant Governor (Archives vol. III:156). Ten days later, on June 15th, 1852, Mr. Wodehouse forwarded a copy of this letter and commission by schooner, addressed to the Magistrates at Roatán, informing them that Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, had acceded to the wish of the inhabitants for the establishment of a regular form of government, and had issued the commission under the "GREAT SEAL OF THE UNITED KINGDOM, erecting the Islands of Roatán, Bonacca, Utila, Helena, Barbarrat [note spelling], and Morat into the "Colony of the Bay Islands", and further informing them that Mr. Wodehouse at Belize would be the authority to which they, as "a new British Colony", might now directly appeal (Archives vol. III: 157).

This news quickly reached, and greatly disturbed, officials in the United States. They considered it a direct violation of the Treaty signed at Washington on April 19th, 1850, relative to the construction of a ship canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. This document, which later became known as the CLAYTON-BULWER TREATY, stipulated that neither England nor the United States would seek colonies or possessions (other than those already owned) in the Western Hemisphere. For years a battle of words raged across the Atlantic between Washington and London, during which the United States, backed by the MONROE DOCTRINE as well as the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, demanded that Britian relinguish not only the Bay Islands, but her claims to the Miskito Shore of Honduras and other possessions in the Western Caribbean as well.

Part Five

Cession of the Colony of the Bay Islands to Honduras:

At a convention held in Guatemala on April 30th, 1859, England, under a great deal of pressure from the United States, agreed to surrender the Bay Islands and the Miskito Coast of both Honduras and Nicaragua, if allowed complete freedom of action in the territory known at that time and until recently as British Honduras, now independent since 1974 and known as Belize. On July 9, 1860, in a message to the Superintendent at Belize, the British Consul at Comayagua (Honduras), acknowledged receipt of a dispatch informing him that the Colony of the Bay Islands were to be ceded to the Republic of Honduras. In this same letter, however, he asks that this be delayed on the request of the Honduran government, because General William Walker, the American Filibuster, intended to take possession of the islands and use them for operations against the mainland. [ The islanders were alarmed about this, and one can read a copy of the letter they themselves wrote to Queen Victoria at the Museum at Anthoney's Key in the IMS building, Roatán. Many of the names of families still on the island were attatched to this letter. Its worth your while to drop into the museum and read it] On July 14th, 1860, the Government Gazette of Belize ran a notice that the Colony of the Bay Islands had been ceded to the Republic of Honduras, and noted that an offer was included to island inhabitants of free grants of Crown Land, as well as transport of any movable property to any of Her Majesty's Colonies in the British West Indies. There is no evidence that any Bay Islanders took up the Queen's offer.

The Government of the Republic of Honduras took little notice, however, being heavily embroiled in troubles on the mainland, and had little interest in her newly won possessions some 10 to 50 miles off her northern shore. Honduras took no action at all until April 12th, 1861, when her Minister of Foreign Affairs sent a brief note to a Mr. Hall, then British Consul to Honduras. This note informed Hall that Honduras was not yet prepared to take possession of the Bay Islands, and requested that England remain patient a little longer (Archives vol. III: 239).

On May 23rd of 1861, however, British patience ran out. Belize demanded that the Commandant of Trujillo visit Roatán in the near future to take over the sovereignty of the colony, and on June 1st, 1861, after having been a British Colony for less than nine short years, the Bay Islands became the "Departemente de las Islas de la Bahía", under the struggling Republic of Honduras.

As most visitors to the islands know, English is still spoken by the majority of the old islanders over thirty years of age, and is at least a second language for the majority of the somewhat heterogeneous population, even though Spanish became the official language in the year 1872. It was not until 1902, a year after the death of their beloved Queen Victoria, that many of the islands' English population realized that their assumed British nationality and claims to British protection were no longer valid (Strong 1935:16, from Rose 1904 : 15). Jane Houlson wrote in 1934 that many islanders were still denying Honduranian nationality (p.68); and Peter Keenagh, an Englishman visiting the islands in 1938, wrote:

"Since the ratification of the Treaty of Comayagua there has been a continual struggle between Islanders and Main- landers. The island families, for many reasons, consider that their British stock is superior to the confusion of Spanish, Indian, and Negro blood which populates the main- land, and there has never been the slightest feeling of subjection" (1938: 57).

Adams briefly visited the island of Utila in 1957, and noted that there were some residents there who still claimed British nationality, even though both Honduras and England agree that any person born in the islands subsequent to the treaty of 1861 are Honduran citizens (Adams 1957: 640). And as late as 1961, when my wife and I first set foot on Roatán off the heaving deck of the little freight boat "Edith Mc", there was a sign hanging in the tiny post office in French Harbour. It was hand-printed in red ink, the work of the local postmaster of that day. It read:

" COUNT YOUR MONEY IN LEMPIRA - [ in lieu of U.S. currency, then called by all islanders "gold"]- REMEMBER, WE LIVE IN HONDURAS ".

When I asked why the sign didn't read ..."Remember, we are Honduran"..., the postmaster only smiled at me, shook his head, and said as he handed me my change...."You'll find out, when ya stays here awhile."

( ---- ends ---- )

About the Author

Dr David EvansDr David K. Evans is professor emeritus of anthropology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he founded the Overseas Research Center in 1967. In his retirement he continues to take students annually to the island of Roatán off the north coast of Honduras in the western Caribbean. For forty-three years Dr. Evans has conducted research on Roatán and now divides his time between Winston-Salem and La Casa Promesa, his family's island home.

David Evans is also author of The Judas Bird an historical novel set in Roatán, a larger neighboring island to the south-east of Utila, with delightful characters and an insightful view of the culture of the people of Roatán Island. Well-researched accounts of pirates, buried treasure and intrigue are smoothly blended with ancient legends, mystery, and romance.