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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: The Physical Setting and its Limitations

Department of the Bay Islands

Utila's Maritime Setting and Shoreline





Flora and Fauna


▲Top of Page  Chapter 3 - Preadaptions for a Remittance Economy: The Physical Setting and its Limitations

The primary thrust of the preceding chapter was to outline some of the traditional aspects of Utilian society and culture that would enable people to take up a remittance system should that opportunity be available and appear to be the best economic alternative at the time. The following pages demonstrate the shortcomings of the physical setting within which Utilians have had to operate. The purpose of the description is to reinforce the idea that Utilians had little economic opportunity on the local scene at the beginning of World War II. Secondly, through that description it becomes evident that making Utila's economy a dependent one (cf. Brown and Brewster 1974, quoted above) was the best option that islanders could have chosen.

▲Top of Page  Department of the Bay Islands

In the year 1872, the assorted Caribbean maritime possessions of Honduras were organized into the Department of the Bay Islands. Constituting this department are three major islands, three minor islands, sixty-three cays (pronounced "keys"), and two small ancillary cays named the Cayos Cochinos.

The largest of the major islands--both in terms of area and in terms of population--is Roatan, and at Coxen Hole the administrative headquarters of the Department is located. Another major island is Guanaja (also known as Bonacca), which boasts the second largest population in the Bay Islands. Utila is the third of the major islands in the Department and is the smallest: 8.4 miles long and 2.9 miles wide at its extreme limits.

The minor islands--Helene, Barbarat, and Morat--are smaller even than Utila and have few permanent residents; they currently figure, to greater or less degrees, in development schemes that involve both Americans and native-born islanders.

The Cayos Cochinos and most of the other assorted cays are either uninhabited, are only sometime residences of a few individuals (e.g., the Cayos Cochinos are used by some Utilian fishermen as a base of operations during the fishing season that ends with Good Friday), or--again--are the private domains of developers. Throughout the Department, however, several of the cays have figured as important satellites of the major population centers; the two populated Utila Cays--Aldea de los Cayitos--are two such satellites.

▲Top of Page  Utila's Maritime Setting and Shoreline

Thirteen cays lie off the west end of Utila. Informants claim that modern maps do not correctly identify all of these islets (no two maps of this area agree on place names or spellings, in fact), but Castaneda (1939:75) inventories eleven of them as follows:

Table 1.2 Land Area of Individual Utila Cays

Cay Hectares
Little Cay 0.41
Billy Eden's 0.82
Suc Suc 1.22
Sandy 0.83
Ragged 0.46
Dimon 0.82
Morgan 0.41
South West 0.83
Jack O'Neil 0.43
Water 1.24
Howell 0.82

Suc Suc and Howell (also known as Pigeon) cays were the first sites of European habitation in Utila; they are still occupied by approximately three hundred "Cayans." Other cays are or have been used for coconut plantations and other cultivation, as a cemetery for the Aldea, and as a proposed lighthouse site.

In addition to the Utila Cays the other notable features in the island's maritime setting are encircling coral reef and extensive foreshore flats. Off the west end of Utila, particularly around the Cays, coral reef extends as much as two miles into the Caribbean. Reef also abounds in the vicinity of Turtle Harbor, Blackies Point, and Rock Harbor on Utila's "North Side;" and there are remnants of reef on Utila's south side near the population settlement at East Harbor. It teems with various forms of sea life: brain, fan, fungi and finger corals; sea fans; sea urchins; sea anemones; and myriads of small tropical fish. Human intrusion has caused the death or diminution of parts of the reef complex, as at East Harbor, where purposeful destruction of the reef has eliminated an important breakwater for the eastern end of Utila. For its part the coral reef has been a hazard to navigation, wrecking or disabling ships that come too near; sunken ships dating as far back as the period of the Spanish Main have been found nearby.

Those parts of Utila's perimeter that are not bound by coral reef are touched by foreshore flat--sand and mud shallows no more than ten fathoms deep, much of which is a tangled murk of sargasso or sea grass. Foreshore flat is not uniform around the island, however; so called "white holes" punctuate the shallows where there is a total absence of sea grass and the depth may be a bit greater than the adjacent sea floor.

Soundings in the immediate vicinity of Utila, as implied above, are not very deep where reef or flat exist. Beyond the near-shore shallows, however (specifically on the North Side), rapid drops in the sea floor may go to 120+ fathoms. On the south side of Utila, between the island's settlement and the mainland of Honduras, waters never drop as deep as in the north; but soundings of more than forty or fifty fathoms are recorded.

It is in the waters beyond reef and flat proper that the bulk of useful marine life is found. Fishing banks two to sixteen miles distant are important in providing fish for market and local consumption alike.  More than a dozen banks were identified by informants, some only a few yards in area, others as large as two and a half miles long by a mile wide and ranging in depth from nine to 180 fathoms.  On the periphery of the North Side reef line, for example, is the Pumpkin Hill Bank where many food fish are found, among which are Porgies (Sparidae), Old Wife (Balistes vetula), Black Fin (Lutjanus buccanella), Wahoo (Acanthocybium solanderi), Red Snapper (Lutjanus blackfordi), Dogteeth Snapper (Lutjanus jocu ?), and Hogfish (Lachnolaimuus maxumus).  Conchs and occasional crayfish (Panulirus argus) can also be found in the vicinity of the Cays or along the reef line.  Turtles, notably Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and Green (Chelonia mydas), are becoming rare.

Numerous bays, bights, and harbors interrupt the shoreline of Utila: Spotted Bay, Carey Bay, Turtle Harbor, Rock Harbor, Jack's Bight, Swan Neck's Bay, Big Bight, East Harbor, Little Bight. All of these locations can provide anchorage to shallow draft vessels such as dories or skiffs, but East Harbor is the only place in Utila where larger craft--such as shrimpers, goletas (passenger/cargo boats), et cetera--can safely find a berth. East Harbor has the virtues of relatively deep water (up to ten fathoms) and protection from prevailing north and east winds. Other anchorages are both shallower (three to six fathoms) and, more importantly, are exposed to winds that can easily drive a boat aground or onto unyielding reef.

The Utila shoreline is also broken by entrances to the island's two lagoons: the Upper Lagoon and the Lower Lagoon. The larger of the two, the Lower Lagoon, is about a mile west of East Harbor. It abounds in oyster beds that go unused by islanders but is nevertheless important to Utilians as the entrance to a man-made canal that curves its way through mangrove swamp to the North Side. At high tide the canal can be navigated by dories to cut through the island to Rock Harbor; during rainy weather, when surrounding swamp is impassable on foot, it is the only practical route to cocals (coconut plantations) and the like that rim the island from Jack's Bight to Turtle Harbor.

The Upper Lagoon lies near the eastern tip of East Harbor's deep crescent at the virtual extremity of population settlement. Unlike its lower counterpart, the mouth of the Upper Lagoon is spanned by a narrow wooden bridge that gives access to the community's airstrip and, incidentally, impedes entrance to the lagoon by any boat larger than a dory. A natural canal leads off from this lagoon, extending nearly a quarter of a mile to a private landing that served as the loading terminus for island produce during the heyday of plantain and coconut production.

▲Top of Page  Geology

According to Strong (1935:3) the Bay Islands chain is

. . . formed by the tops of a great submerged east-to-west mountain range around which coral reefs have formed and rich soil has accumulated. . . . The formations are for the most part limestone. . . . . In the interior valleys a rich alluvial soil occurs, the product of decaying vegetation, and the hills are covered with red clay, which usually supports a dense vegetation. There are no rivers on any of the islands. . . .

Quite probably the Bay Islands are an extension of the Barrier Reef that runs from Yucatan all the way to South America, the Reef itself being part of the immense limestone shelf that supports three Mexican states (Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo), British Honduras (or Belize), and other portions of eastern Central America (Bradford Duncan: personal communication). In virtue of the essentially limestone base, three quarters of Utila is little more than a swampy basin for catching rain water; soluble limestone has eroded to near-sea-level elevations leaving slightly harder materials to confine precipitation that may fall on the island.

Volcanic materials constitute another important part of Utila's geology. Near the eastern end of the island is Pumpkin Hill (also known as Conical Hill, elevation 290 feet), the greatest prominence in Utila. Judged by its size, shape and surrounding lava flows, it would seem that Pumpkin Hill is the site of ancient volcanic activity. From this supposed cone, lava spewed in all directions leaving jagged terrain in locations throughout the eastern part of the island. Volcanic activity was also responsible for the "iron rocks" (i.e., the lava flows) that jut at random into the sea from Rocky Point near East Harbor all the way to the Iron Bound on the North Side. It cannot be confirmed that volcanic activity resulted in forming Byron Cave and Brandon Hill Cave--the only caves in Utila, both natural reservoirs for rainwater--but doubtless it is due to the build-up of volcanic material along with decaying organic matter that Utila gets its gentle west-east incline. The gentle grade just referred to has resulted in the colloquialism "going up" (i.e., east toward Pumpkin Hill) or "going down" (i.e., west toward lower elevations) when walking about the island.

▲Top of Page  Topography

Like many Caribbean islands and cays, Utila is an insignificant speck viewed from a few miles distant: a thin green line in the ocean that barely breaks the boundary between water and sky. As noted above, however, Utila does have several distinguishing features when viewed closer on: the protuberance of Pumpkin Hill and the two lagoons. Several other slight elevations also exist in Utila, such as Stuart's Hill (elevation approximately 150 feet) but fully three quarters of the land surface is covered by lowland swamp.

Several attempts have been made to alter island topography, one already referred to being the construction of the canal at the Lower Lagoon. Another exception is the landing strip east of the Upper Lagoon which was bulldozed out of a twenty-foot-high cliff area, a zone approximately two hundred yards long that can accommodate aircraft as large as DC-3s. Destruction of the reef breakwater has also been noted as a human alteration in the physical environs and in connection with that is the most ambitious and extensive modification that humans have effected in Utila: making land. Islanders have actively tailored their shoreline around East Harbor to meet demands for seaside residential property.

For more than a century, islanders have continuously augmented their beach front by "making land. The original shoreline of Utila, only a few yards deep from the high water mark, has been extended in many places an additional thirty to forty yards or more by filling in fenced rectangles of water with refuse and broken coral. Houses that were poised on pilings over eight feet of water some sixty or seventy years ago now sit on terra firma and the process goes on--giving portions of the harbor a Venetian effect--even though the cost is high in money and labor. Land making in the swamp areas has been pursued in like manner, one barrio in the community being named Holland to commemorate its origin through reclamation.

▲Top of Page  Hydrography

As a result of the largely limestone foundation, combined with very low elevations throughout most of Utila, there is no surface water on the island. Hand-dug wells dotting the eastern part of Utila intercept a water table between ten and twenty feet below the earth's surface. Contrary to local lore, this water table and the feeding of local wells is not due to the existence of springs but to percolation of swamp water through sand and pebbles (Bradford Duncan: personal communication). (As mentioned above, water is also found in the two caves.) The water supply of the island is, therefore, provided by rainwater being caught in the limestone basins, i.e., the swamps, and then tapped off by the several wells that exist. Attempts to dig seaside wells have generally proved unsatisfactory due to infiltration by sea water; the well water has been too brackish to be used by humans and is useful, perhaps, only for irrigation, etc.

Water for human consumption is in short supply during dry seasons--rainwater does not re-supply the swamp--and can be a problem when tides are low. According to informants, the presence or absence of high tides is directly correlated with higher or lower water levels in the wells: tides produce drive on swamp water which is thereby forced through sand and gravel seams to the wells. During the months of Spring Tides (July, August and September), water levels in the wells are higher and more regular, easily siphoned off by the community water system. So too during February, March and April--when another set of high tides reportedly beset Utila--well water is abundant. The balance of the year, and especially from June until the end of July or middle of August, potable water can become critically short.

▲Top of Page  Climate

Climatically Utila is the tropical island fabled both in adventure tales and travelers' diaries. Although no scientific measure of temperature, winds, or rainfall exist for the island, informants and field observations have provided rough approximations of these aspects of the natural environment. (Comparative figures for Guanaja appear in Table 2.)

Rainfall in Utila runs to approximately one hundred inches per year. During the traditional "winter"--October through January or February--the bulk of the precipitation is received; occasional squalls throughout the remainder of the year account for the balance.

Temperatures normally range between high 70s F and the low 90s F for "summer" months--March through September--but during the winter months the thermometer may drop as low as the high 50s F.

Traditionally, the winds prevailing on Utila have distributed themselves through the year with great regularity and, of course, have been closely tied to the other climatic factors of rainfall and temperature.

The months of October through February--winter--have characteristically been marked by nor'westers which bring the largest part of the year's rainfall. March, in contrast, has generally been a hot, still month with overcast and low visibility due to fog or haze. Toward Easter time this weather is referred to as "Good Friday Weather" and does not break until the easterly (trade) winds begin to blow. From late March or early April through August--the bulk of the dry summer months--strong easterlies sweep Utila only to give way in September to another hot, calm period that lasts until winter's nor'westers begin again.

Table 2[2]
(Guanaja, Departamento Islas De La Bahia)

Temperature in the shade in degrees centigrade

Average for the year 26.7 (80.06 F)
Average yearly high 30.0 (86.00 F)
Average yearly low 24.6 (76.28 F)
Average monthly high--October 31.1 (87.98 F)
Average monthly low--February 22.5 (72.50 F)
Extreme yearly high--September 2 33.2 (91.76 F)
Extreme yearly low--February 5 18.3 (64.94 F)
Relative Humidity in percentage
Average monthly - high 85.2%
Average monthly - low 79.9%
Average for the year 82.1%
Prevailing direction East
Average annual velocity 15.9KPH (9.69mph)
Maximum recorded velocity 7/25,27 55.6KPH (34.53mph)
Rainfall in millimeters
Total annual 2205.2 (86.82 inches)
Maximum rainfall in one day (24 hrs.) - November 9 133.4 ( 5.25 inches)
Number of days with precipitation 177
Monthly distribution of rainfall in millimeters
January 167.4 (6.59") July 226.3 ( 8.91")
February 152.2 (5.99") August 68.6 ( 2.70")
March 38.4 (1.51") September 112.5 ( 4.43")
April 28.5 (1.12") October 167.9 ( 6.61")
May 200.9 (7.91") November 666.8 (26.25")
June 222.3 (8.75") December 153.7 ( 6.05")

[2]From Anuario Estadistico 1970, pp. 4ff.

In addition to their effect on agriculture, creating obvious problems for would-be cultivators with dry or wet periods out of season, winds can have other profound implications for Utila. Strong easterlies and nor'westers easily blockade the island; men do not dare to venture out in their dories which result in hardship for the several households of fishermen. More important to the community at large, however, is the weathering in of cargo boats upon which the island depends for the transport of necessary supplies from the mainland. Interruption of the weekly run to La Ceiba--Utila's closest mainland port and victualer for the island--invariably means critical shortages in basic comestibles such as flour, rice, beans, sugar, meat, coffee and like.

In the past forty years, according to informants, the traditional pattern of seasons has undergone change, some of it marked. Many "old heads" claim that all the predictability has gone out of the weather and now "Utila has no seasons at all." Winds and tides, from first hand inspection, seem to abide by traditional schedules; rainfall, however, is indeed unpredictable. Fortunately for the island, Utila has through the years remained outside of the regular Caribbean hurricane path that winds its way among the numerous islands from June to October; only occasionally does Utila receive peripheral winds and rain from bypassing storms. Even then, however, great damage to plantations has occurred and many farmers have had to retire in recent years due to the destruction of their coconut, plantain, banana and other plantations.

▲Top of Page  Flora and Fauna

None of the informants involved in this study could provide specific data on pre-settlement flora and fauna, but it appears certain that most of the useful food plants and animals of Utila were imported to the island from the 1830s onward. (One informant claimed, however, that Utila--like the other Bay Islands--had been stocked with goats and pigs by pirate visitors who might have occasion to use the island. No reference to wild hogs, etc., being found by early settlers has come to light, however.)

At least a dozen different varieties of mango, pawpaw (Carica papaya), breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), plantain (Musa paradisiaea), two or three varieties of banana[*] (Musa spp.), citrus (grapefruit, lime, orange), canop (unidentified), mamey (Mammea americana), mamea (unidentified), almond, guava (Psidium gujava), tomato, melon (watermelon and cantaloupe), cucurbits (collectively called "pumpkins"), casava (Manihot dulce?), cocoyam (Colocasia esculenta), and star apple (Chrysophyllum caimito), to name the preeminent cultivars, have been brought in from the Cayman Islands, the coast of Honduras, the United States, and so on.

[[*] Webmaster note:

(a) Rose (1904:111) states; "In Utilla there are about four varieties of banana. These are the red, the parrot, the apple, and the French. Of course plantains are not included in this list.

The red grows very rank and yields heavy bunches. It has been said that this variety exhausts the land much quicker than do others.

The "parrot" is not used. It grows too small to receive attention. Of the apple variety there are a few plants only in the island. These have not been cultivated for exportation. It is said that when quite ripe and baked in syrup they taste like apples, hence the name. The variety known as the French banana forms the staple produce - the banana of commerce."

(b) The apple banana is the main banana grow on the Island in the year 2005. It grows wild and people grow them in their yards.]

Cattle, horses, pigs, chickens and ducks have also been brought to Utila and represent the total non-indigenous fauna.

The three-quarter portion of Utila that is swampland--manglar--sports three varieties of mangrove that antedate settlement: white (Laguncularia), red (Rhizophora) and black (Avicennia). The red mangrove bark was once used to produce dye for staining tanned leather. Aside from this latter use, however, mangrove has primarily been useful for firewood, making charcoal and fenceposts.

Bush, or woodland, intersperses plantation and pasture lands over the quarter of the island not in swamp. The origin of plants constituting bush is largely unknown and a great number of the floral repertoire are not even given common names. Of those plants that are named, however, there are many that Utilians have employed for medicinal purposes or to other utilitarian ends. The mahoe tree (Paritum elatum), for example, provides "poor man's rope" in the form of its fibrous bark; a piece of mahoe bark one inch wide and two or three feet long can easily support the weight of a man. The bark of the gumbo-limbo (or Indio Desnudo) tree (Bursera simaruba?) can be used to force-ripen green bananas or plantains by alternating layers of bark with layers of fruit in a drum or barrel. Heat (of unidentified chemical origin) generated from the bark turns bananas or plantains ripe within a day or two.

Sempervire, a spike-like cactus, is used internally for inflammation of the kidneys and externally to heal boils and open wounds. Scotchineal, another cactus, is used to cure external inflammation. Circe, worrywine, ramgoat (Vinca rosea) and stinking toe are all used as blood builders. In addition to the foregoing, such plants or vines as "licorice" (Abrus precatorius), worm bush, red scallop leaf, forbidden fruit, tamarind, pepper leaf, madre cacao and bay leaf are used for maladies ranging from coughs to amoebas to eczema.

Although the roar of alligators was common in Utila at the time of settlement, few of these indigenous reptiles still exist in the swamps. Most alligators were exterminated years ago for their valuable skins. Land crabs--the Blue Crab especially--can be found throughout the length and breadth of Utila and number "in the millions." Islanders eat the larger of this breed and sometimes use smaller ones for bait to catch such fish as the White Pompas. Crab holes undermine many portions of the island and in residential areas are a hazard to building foundations and pedestrian traffic: the ignominy of falling in a crab hole is exceeded only by the pain of a sprained ankle.

Two varieties of lizard--called wishiwillies (unidentified)--and iguanas are also abundant in Utila. Wishiwillies are either "high-landers," living on dry ground, or "swampers," for their habit of living in the wetter portions of the island. Both varieties grow to between one and two feet in length and four to five pounds weight. Iguanas, distinguishable from their black- or gray-skinned cousins by their green epidermis, may grow to more than six feet in length and a proportionate weight. Wishiwillies and iguanas alike are considered delicacies, especially when fried in coconut milk and served with "bread kind" (cassava, plantains, sweet potatoes and the like). The other notable feature concerning iguanas and wishiwillies, especially the latter, is their destructiveness to agricultural plants; considerable ruin is done by these lizards eating off the leaves and young shoots of cultivars[3].

[3]Although Utilians distinguish between wishiwillies and iguanas, Evans reports (1966:10) that residents of Roatan apparently use these names interchangeably for the same creature which he identifies as Ctenosaura similis.

No inventory of insect or bird life has been taken in Utila, but prolific numbers of sand flies, mosquitoes, ticks and common house flies are noisome to humans and domesticated animals alike. Scorpions, tarantulas, wee wees (leafcutter ants), small insect-eating snakes and waulas (boa constrictors) are denizens of bush land. Pelicans, seagulls, pigeons, ground doves and John Crows (vultures), hummingbirds and numerous small, colorful bush birds are in evidence.

▲Top of Page  Conclusions

Size is obviously a limiting aspect of Utila's physical setting. Of the maximum 24.36 square miles of area representing the main island, only six square miles are usable for agriculture or habitation due to the mangrove swamps. Volcanic and limestone composition of the usable land area inhibits mechanized agriculture, should anyone be inclined to pursue any form of agriculture at all, and problems of precipitation and irrigation also hamper any prospective agricultural activity. At best, Utilians could hope, perhaps, to cultivate their island in traditional slash-and-burn style in order to provide subsistence crops.

Although there are abundant varieties of fish and other marine life in surrounding waters, it is questionable whether they are available in commercially profitable quantities or whether Utilians could--with their available capital and technology--gain access to them. Shipping itself is inhibited through a lack of good port facilities (shallow waters and coral reefs abound), but there is nothing produced locally that would be marketable in any event. Access to the island by air is not sufficiently well coordinated from the mainland or the United States--let alone other Caribbean or Central American countries--to make a tourist industry likely and support facilities such as restaurants and hotels are extremely limited.

In sum, the physical attributes of Utila are, and have been, limiting in terms of the viable economic alternatives. To the extent that certain options were open to Utilians, considering also such factors as capital and available technology, they coupled with historical conditions to preadapt islanders for the remittance economy. The concept of preadaptation is further illustrated in Chapter 4 where the economic component of Utila's remittance system is investigated.

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