Roatan’s Beauty, Truth & Wisdom
Columbus on Guanaja looks at a canoe of Mayan traders.

A Perspective at Many Centuries of the Changing Roatan Inhabitant

New generations of Roatanians are often not aware of the people that were here before them. They are sometimes confused why and how their own ancestors chose Roatan. The island has been accommodating Homo sapiens for about 1,500 years or so. The ‘Homo roataniens’ however is an indigenous species shaped by nature and history on the Roatan island.

The last 500 years on Roatan have been especially interesting as far as movement of populations. It has been a roller coaster of different people coming and going from Roatan. There were expulsions, migrations and conflicts. There were dreams, plans and schemes. There were booms and busts.

In the XVI century Roatan evolved from being a self-sufficient island, to a place supporting pirates and vagabonds. It was a base for pirates in religious wars that tore Europe apart for over 200 years.

Strategically located, just off the Spanish mainland and wedged in the gulf of Honduras, Roatan has been a pawn in a geopolitical game for centuries. Spain used it as a place to get slaves for its mining operations in Cuba. Pirates acting in the interest of Protestant Europe religious wars used Roatan and its Paya inhabitants to careen and service its boats before raiding the Spanish armada.

The island changed hands several times between the Spanish and English.

The island changed hands several time between the Spanish and English. Neither power having enough interest, motivation, or resources to build up the Bay Islands archipelago into a viable, lasting out post for their culture, military and economy.

For the past 200 years Roatan was a place where families and individuals escaped oppression and fear. They launched themselves with vigor to begin new enterprises, new ventures and new life. They often replicated and tweaked businesses that were already running elsewhere. Roatanians were skillful ship builders, resourceful coconut farmers and intrepid shrimpers.

‘Homo Roataniens’ keep evolving. They are always looking out for what is the new trend and how to survive in the sea of change and interest. They launched businesses that required much red tape and sometime weren’t feasible elsewhere.

While the Bay Islands has seen influxes of populations in its history it has also seen massive expulsions. There were two expulsions of Paya Indians by the Spanish. The first one in 1642 and the final one in 1650. The expulsion of Spanish military by the British in 1779. Finally, the dumping of the rebellious and inconvenient Garifuna by the British in 1797.

The history of the island is filled with government schemes, religious colonization, wars, raids and flights to safety. Some people have come to the island with great plans and disappeared with little trace. Others came without many ambitions and left a path that has paved a way for others. This is the Roatan history for the uninitiated in a nutshell.

AD 600 – 1650

According to Spanish records the original Paya called Roatan island Manaua. While there has been certainly accounts of Payas interacting and fighting with Lenca and Maya, that history is unwritten and forgotten. We can only guess, deduct and assume that these events took place glancing at the scattered relics left behind by the Paya through the Bay Islands, and there are quite a few.

According to José Carlos Cardona, a Honduran historian, the Bay Islands became populated by Paya Indians around 600 AD. Around 50 archeological sites have been located in the Bay Islands. What remains of the Paya today are just buried objects of daily life.

There are refuse heaps full of broken pottery shards, yaba-ding-dings, fish bones and stone tools. There are also less common Paya sites – offertories located on hilltops, and a burial site overlooking French Harbour. There is a major Paya residential site on Pulpit Rock on the east side of the Roatan.
The Bay Islands Paya traded with the Mayas who paddled to the islands in large canoes from what now is Belize. Europeans had the first interaction with a New World civilization, that of Mayas, just off the coast of Guanaja in 1504.

Very robust people who adore idols and live mostly from a certain white grain.

The description of the original Bay Islanders came very early in the history of European discovery of the Americas. “Very robust people who adore idols and live mostly from a certain white grain from which they make fine bread and the most perfect beer,” wrote Bartholomew Columbus, about the Paya. Thus he described inhabitants on “Pine Island” or Guanaja island, were not much different than Roatan inhabitants, in 1504.

1536 – 1741

From 1536 on wards the Protestant French pirates were already raiding Spanish settlements and ships in Western Caribbean. The Bay Islands were located near the sailing route of the Spanish Caribbean fleet carrying valuable goods from Panama and from Santo Domingo. As an additional benefit both Roatan’s Port Royal Bay and Fort Cay offered a good place to careen the pirate boats and restack them with water and provisions.

Roatan offered both shelter and provisions to the pirates and by 1642, the inconvenience to the Spanish became unbearable. The Spanish had to deal with such notorious pirates as Van Horn, Morgan and Tutila.

While the Pirate settlements on Roatan’s Port Royal were ephemeral and non-lasting, they left a legacy of their presence that lingers on today.

One pirate adventure that became a book was written by Philip Ashton. He was a Massachusetts fisherman, Ashton escaped from capture by the pirate Edward Low when he went looking for water in Port Royal. After spending 16 months on then deserted Roatan in 1723 he was rescued and ended up publishing a book about his island adventures.

1638 – 1642

After centuries of pillaging and atrocious pirates Roatan had its encounter with a stricter group of people – the Puritanical colonists. In Old Port Royal a settlement of Puritans from Providence Company broke ground in 1638.

Entrepreneur William Claiborne brought Scottish and English settlers form Maryland and Virginia to Roatan and renamed its Rich Island in a marketing effort. The goal of the settlers was “to subvert Spanish tyranny and plant the Gospel” and the settlers planted vegetables and traded with Paya Indians nearby.

The settler relationship with Paya didn’t go off with a good start. In 1639 the Dutch pirates burned the four Paya island towns on the Bay Islands, churches first. The Puritan settlement lasted four years and the settlers were pushed out by the Spanish.

The Paya however were caught between a rock and a hard place. They had to relate to the Spanish who had few resources to defend the islands or develop its economy. On top of that the Paya had to deal with Dutch, French and English pirates who exploited them during their careening sojourns. By 1650 all the Bay Islands Paya were shipped out by the Spanish to Río Dulce in Guatemala rendering the islands desolate.

To subvert Spanish tyranny and plant the Gospel.

Roatan became a bone of discontent between British and American foreign interests.

1742 – 1749

In early 1700s, the British authorities in the Caribbean identified Roatan to have the best harbor in the Bay of Honduras and good potential for agriculture. The geopolitical interest of the British crown in the islands was the extension of the war of Jenkins’ Ear. Their presence in the Bay Islands checked the expansion of Spanish logging undertakings in the Miskito coast.

The British sent a mixture of British military, loggers, slaves and Miskito settlers to form a settlement on Roatan. Their settlement at New Port Royal was named Augusta and eventually consisted of around 30 buildings spread across 30 acres. The population of the settlement reached as many as 800 to 1,000 people.

More towns were planned in the Bay Islands and even in the Hog Islands. The seven-year adventure ended with a political check mate when the Britain and Spain signed an agreement that also included relinquishing of Roatan. Treaty of Aix-La-Chapelle of 1748 forced the Brits to abandon Roatan. Only stone foundations of the buildings and wine bottle glass can be found today as testimony to this enterprise.

1650 – 1742
1749 – 1797

While the British left, the Spanish failed to move in or even resettle the Bay Islands. Thus the saga of governments treating Roatan with carelessness and semi competence added another chapter.

Englishman Thomas Jeffrerys (1762) described the Spanish inability to settle or develop the islands in a following fashion: “the Spaniards issued several placards, inviting people to come and settle on the island, yet it is uninhabited; and the reason given by the Spaniard of great sense and very large property on the continent… (…) That they would never expect any assistance or protection from the unwieldy government.”

While the British left, the Spanish failed to move in or even resettle the Bay Islands.

1797 – Present

The odyssey of Garifuna begun in Saint Vincent where a slave ship from We st Africa run onto a reef and the crew released the slaves who swam to shore and freedom. The Africans received help and soon made alliance with Carib Indians living on Saint Vincent and married their women.

In 1797, British decided to dispose of the Garifuna that were considered troublemakers and on top of that were baptized Catholic by French priests active on the island. Garifuna were not a slave material for the British who waged two wars against them on the island of Saint Vincent.

Eventually a peace treaty was signed between the British and the Black Caribs. More than 5,000 Garifuna were deported from Saint Vincent, but only 2,500 survived the crossing to Roatan.

The island wasn’t considered big enough or fertile enough to support such a large population so most of the Garifuna asked the Spanish to be transferred to the mainland. The commonality between the Garifuna and Spanish wasn’t common race, or language, but the fact that the two were Catholic and their enemy were the British. While most of the Garifuna were given passage to Trujillo a few stayed behind and established a community of Punta Gorda.

1830 – 1859

When the British Government ended slavery in Cayman Islands on August 1, 1834 the White employers could hold their ex-slaves in a four year apprentice ship preventing them from leaving the islands.

Bay Islands and especially Roatan became an option to start anew in a post slavery economy for both White and later Black Cayman Islanders. The Cooper family was the first one to settle in Bay Islands and they chose Suc-suc cay off Utila. Later Coxen Hole attracted many of the families. The first twenty-four White Cayman Island families came to Bay Islands and had the pick at the best land.

The White Caymanians not only came to Bay Islands seeking new opportunities, but also fled the potential upheaval after the abolition of slavery and potential revenge of their ex slaves. They had fresh on their minds the 1804 complete and systematic genocide of White French colonists in Haiti after France emancipated their slaves in 1794.

Just a couple years later the Black Caymanians followed their former masters to the Bay Islands. They usually settled in less desirable, less accessible areas like Flowers Bay, Sandy Bay and the Roatan’s north shore.

Roatan island was divided on racial lines and on religious lines. The White arrived first and claimed the better, more accessible land. Their ex-slaves that fallowed were able to get second best land. The Garifuna who were Catholic preceded the Protestant arrival were pretty much ignored by the British Crown on the east side of Roatan.

Land disputes began to take place and in 1844 and a general meeting took place to resolve those disagreements. The emigration culminated in creation of the Bay Islands colony that lasted for seven years: from 1852 to 1859.

A photograph of Governor Hill in Coxen Hole and the town’s wooden clocktower on the left.

1960 – 2010

As Roatan became a Department in Honduras the Bay Islands attracted an intermittent trickle of eccentrics, vagabonds and entrepreneurs off all sorts. As fishing, seafood packing and eventually tourist industries grew on Roatan in the 1960s, a steady flow of foreigners found their way to the island. Some bought land, others started dive shops, or built their retirement homes.

By the early XXI century the island became an amalgam of eclectic, cosmopolitan mix of Honduran, American, Canadian, British, German and Czech business owners. There were Americans with money, the awkward but hardworking Germans and the melancholic Brits. There were both men and women looking for adventure, second chances and recovering from addictions and starting anew.

In early 1990s several US and Canadian developers came to Roatan via Ambergris Cay in Belize. While they were no longer welcome in Belize they saw opportunities on Roatan. The island still had cheap land, a beautiful reef and an international airport. They created the first gated communities on the island: Parrot Tree Plantation and Lawson Rock. Others bought tracks of land that were still affordable and resold it. The number of Real Estate companies in 2003 went from three to 13 in 10 years.

While they were no longer welcome in Belize they saw opportunities on Roatan.

1980 – present

With tourism, seafood packing and construction industries needing skilled and unskilled cheap labor many mainland Hondurans made their way to Roatan. Land remained scarce and several land invasions like Los Fuertes in 1980s and Las Colonias in Sandy Bay in 1990s became their home. The shortage of affordable land or inexpensive housing is still producing new land invasion in Colonia Aldin, Spanish Town and Oak Ridge.

While Roatan has attracted Hondurans from all over the country they also attracted numerous arrivals from the Miskitos from Gracias a Dios department. Also numerous were migrants from Olanchito, Yoro. There were there are many from Balfate and professionals from Tegucigalpa, and San Pedro Sula.

The mainland migrants provide skills, cheap labor and vitality the island needs. The mainland migration was so great that by around 2010 there were more mainland born island residents than native born islanders. The mainland culture overwhelmed the traditional island culture. Baseball gave way to soccer, maypole dancing gave way to Spanish folkloric dances. The Methodist and Baptist Church buildings became outnumbered by Evangelical and Catholic prayer halls and churches.

Mainland migrants provide skills, cheap labor and vitality the island needs.

2010 – present

The baby boomer retirees from US and Canada have been building their dream homes on Roatan in large numbers since the mid-2010s. Oftentimes they worked their entire life to afford to finally retire so he could build a dream house on Roatan.

They move considerable resources here and build houses an average Honduran, or islander could never afford. Their physical and economic impact on the island is considerable. They also bring skills and sometime a will to contribute some of their know how, or ideals to the island.

Since 2018 the infrastructure of Roatan has improved tremendously making the option of living on the island more appealing to much larger portion of retired Americans not willing to give up their creature comforts. The roads, healthcare, power grid and the internet reliability improved dramatically. The private security companies also multiplied in number.

While Honduran have been immigrating to US by the hundreds of thousands, there is a reverse trend as well and Roatan has become an example of just that. American digital nomads are increasingly embracing Roatan as a place to work remotely. They are employed by US businesses while doing their work remotely from Honduras. Some even work remotely without telling their US companies that they are now living in another country.