When Roatan was Part of The Mexican Empire
Two hundred years ago, Roatan was a part of Mexico, and the island’s head of state was Augustin I. The several hundred Garifuna living on the east side of the island enjoyed the freedom to travel as far as California or Tejas if they wished. While the First Mexican Empire lasted only 18 months, it established a precedent for larger geopolitical agreements like NAFTA (The North American Free Trade Agreement) or CAFTA (Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement) on a regional and global scale that continue to have a significant impact to this day. On January 5, 1822, Roatan, along with the rest of Central America, became part of the Mexican Empire as the territory was annexed by Mexico. The period from 1822 to 1823 marked the second of three times when Roatan and the Bay Islands were integrated into a larger geopolitical entity with a king, queen, or emperor serving as its top executive. Prior to this, for 297 years, from 1524 to 1821, the islands were formally a part of the Spanish Empire as part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala. Thirty years after the First Mexican Empire, in 1852, the Bay Islands became a part of another empire, the British Empire, under Queen Victoria. The Bay Islands Colony remained under British rule for a bit longer, lasting nine years until 1861.
Mexico’s Southern Flank
In both 1811 and 1814, there were attempts in Central America to rebel and gain independence from Spain, although not all Central American leaders favored breaking away. Two hundred and two years ago, on September 15, 1821, the Act of Independence of Central America was declared. As a result, September 15 remains a significant national holiday in all Central American states, with the exception of Belize.
When New Spain declared its independence from Spain, the parliament of New Spain initially intended to retain the King of Spain, Ferdinand VII, as its head of state. Although the two nations would operate under distinct laws, they planned to be governed by the same monarch.
In an about face, the Mexican Parliament chose a completely different path, appointing Mexican-born Agustín de Iturbide as the regent and renaming the nation the Mexican Empire. The empire’s territory encompassed the intendancies and provinces of New Spain as well as the Captaincy General of Guatemala.
The five semi-independent Central American nations were governed by a provisional national body known as the Consultative Junta, based in Guatemala City. One driving force behind the pursuit of independence was Agustín de Iturbide’s Plan of the Three Guarantees, which garnered significant support within Central America.
In 1822, provincial governors appointed by the Spanish still held sway in the region. The prospect of Central America being annexed into Mexico created divisions among the cultural and political elites of the five countries.
Central Americans with nationalist and republican leanings opposed annexation, preferring to maintain independence due to their ideological differences with Mexico. On the other hand, the monarchist faction favored annexation by the Mexican Empire. Many believed Central America was too small and under populated to address the challenges of independence and self-sufficiency. Often considered a “forgotten stepchild,” the region’s economy was largely dependent on indigo exports.
Gabino Gaínza, a Spanish military officer, assumed political leadership of both Guatemala and the Consultative Junta under the title of Superior Political Chief. He advocated for the annexation of the region by Mexico.
Provincial governors appointed by the Spanish still held sway in the region.
Honduras’ Place in the Empire
In the 1820s, the elites of Honduras’ then-capital, Comayagua, along with those in Nicaragua’s León, were among the more supportive groups favoring annexation. Of the five Central American countries, Honduras was perhaps the most enthusiastic about becoming part of the Mexican Empire.
In contrast, other provinces in Central America, aside from Chiapas, were less keen on gaining independence from Spain only to relinquish it to a Mexican Empire. The political elites in El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Granada, Nicaragua, were so opposed to the idea that they even considered military resistance.
The political dilemma primarily concerned the political elite of the Central American countries. For the majority of the region’s population, who lived their lives on a local scale, such matters were of little concern. They were not preoccupied with analyzing the nuances, benefits, or opportunities of living in either a republic or an empire governed by a crowned head of state in Mexico or Spain. Most indigenous peoples remained indifferent to the issue of Honduras’ annexation into Mexico.
On November 28, 1821, Agustín de Iturbide formally requested the annexation of Central America into the Mexican Empire in a letter. He argued that stability and security in Central America could only be achieved through union with Mexico. “My object is only to manifest to you that the present interest of Mexico and Guatemala is so identical or indivisible that they cannot constitute themselves in separate or independent nations without risking the security of each,” he wrote.
Agustín de Iturbide sought a peaceful annexation and took decisive steps to ensure its success. He dispatched troops to Central America to maintain civil order and appointed Brigadier General Vicente Filísola to establish and solidify Mexican control over the region.
Honduras was perhaps the most enthusiastic about becoming part of the Mexican Empire.
In response to Agustín’s letter, all 237 municipalities across Central America published its contents and held open municipal council meetings to allow citizens to weigh in on the government’s decisions. After 30 days, a vote on annexation was conducted. The cabildos voted for complete annexation without conditions. On January 5, 1822, the Consultative Junta voted unanimously in favor of annexing Central America to the Mexican Empire.
As a result of the annexation, this included Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, Mexico reached its greatest territorial extent. The people of Central America, as well as Roatán’s Garifuna population, were automatically granted Mexican citizenship.
Roatan’s Place in the Mexican Empire
In 1823, Roatan was part of an empire that stretched from mission settlements in San Francisco, California, to Costa Rica. Unlike its nearby desert islands of Utila and Guanaja, Roatan was inhabited on its eastern end by several hundred Garifuna people.
Interestingly, it was the British who sowed the seeds of colonization, initially aligning the island with the Spanish Empire, then the Mexican Empire, and eventually Honduras. The Garifuna, brought by the British military, landed on Roatan on the stormy day of February 25, 1797. These Roatan Garifuna were part of a larger group of 5,000 who were forcibly removed by the British from the island of St. Vincent. Known as the Black Caribs, they were transported from St. Vincent via Jamaica to Roatan aboard the HMS Experiment.
By 1822, Roatan was a distant Mexican possession, much like Tejas, California, and New Mexico. However, Roatan was far from a deserted island; it had a vibrant population of a few hundred Garifuna who had experienced two wars with Great Britain. While Roatan and Trujillo were the original points of Garifuna settlement, the Black Caribs were also establishing communities along the Honduran coast, reaching as far as Tela and the Mosquito Coast.
The Garifuna of Roatan received support from the Catholic Church and the Diocese of Trujillo. A common approach for aiding a remote Catholic community like Roatan’s was to periodically send a Catholic priest to the island to celebrate Mass and administer sacraments such as baptisms and marriages.
Roatan’s Garifuna population, were automatically granted Mexican citizenship.
Tragedy of Agustin I
On May 18, 1822, the military in Mexico City proclaimed Iturbide as Emperor Agustín I. A day later, a majority in the Mexican Congress ratified the decision and recommended that the Mexican monarchy be hereditary.
Developments unfolded rapidly, and on July 21, Iturbide was consecrated as Emperor in Mexico City’s cathedral in a grand ceremony. His wife, Ana María Huarte, was crowned
Empress of Mexico. The event bore similarities to the 1804 crowning of Napoleon Bonaparte in Reims Cathedral.
Agustín’s prestige began to wane rapidly, and a rift developed between the army supporting him and the civilian Congress. Just three months after his coronation, on October 31, 1822, Agustín dissolved Congress and began ruling through an appointed 45-member junta. This act served as a pretext for the subsequent revolt against him.
On March 19, 1823, in the wake of a plot against him, Agustín abdicated the Mexican throne and went into exile, bringing an end to the history of the first Mexican Empire. In its stead, three Mexican military officers – Nicolás Bravo, Guadalupe Victoria, and Pedro Negrete – established the Supreme Executive Power.
The abdication of Emperor Agustín marked the end of Central America and Honduras being part of Mexico. On March 29, 1823, after news of Agustín’s abdication reached the region, plans were made to form a Central American congress to determine its future. On April 1, 1823, the Mexican Constituent Congress instructed the Mexican military in Central America to cease hostilities with anti-annexation forces.
Central American Congress
On June 18, 1823, the Mexican congress instructed Filísola to attend the upcoming session of the Central American congress. He received instructions to respect the Central American congress’s decision on whether to remain in union with Mexico or become an independent state.
The final chapter of Bay Islands being part of Mexico unfolded on June 29, 1823. Out of the 41 representatives in Congress, 37 voted to appoint Delgado as the president of the National Constituent Assembly of Central America. On July 1, 1823, this assembly declared independence from Mexico and reaffirmed their independence from Spain. This historic declaration marked the birth of the United Provinces of Central America, with all states except Chiapas choosing to be independent.
I die with honor, not as a traitor.
Why the Empire didn’t last
The short-lived Mexican Empire faced numerous adversaries and conspirators who were opposed to the idea of a powerful, Catholic nation spanning from the Pacific to the Atlantic across such a vast territory. During the reign of Augustin I, U.S. envoys were already engaged in efforts to persuade Mexican officials to sell their northern territory. This precedent had been established two decades earlier, in 1803, with the questionable acquisition of 530 million acres of French Louisiana from Emperor Napoleon.
The French Revolution of 1789 and the American Revolution both had a dominant, albeit not frequently discussed, presence of Freemasonry within the ranks of the revolutionaries. The Freemasonic influences and their agendas, which included anti-monarchism and opposition to the Church, played a prevailing role in these revolutions. Freemasonry was also pivotal in the overthrow of Spanish rule and the Spanish monarchy in the Americas.
Following the departure of the Spanish and a weakened Catholic Church, Mexico turned into a tumultuous battleground marked by the presence of three secret societies: York Rite Masonry, Continental Masonry, and National Mexican Rite Masonry. The situation escalated to such an extent that just five years after the dissolution of the Mexican Empire, in 1827, the Montaño rebellion called for the prohibition of secret societies throughout the country. The scheming York Rite Freemason and U.S. diplomat, Joel Roberts Poinsett, was expelled from Mexico during this turbulent period.
After his abdication, Iturbide chose to seek refuge first in Italy and later in England. In England, he earned income by writing memoirs. Unbeknownst to him, the Mexican Congress, fearful of his return, had issued a decree condemning him to death as a traitor in case he set foot in Mexico again.
Iturbide arrived in Mexico in July 1824. Just four days later, on July 19, in Padilla, Tamaulipas, Iturbide, often referred to as the Iron Dragon, received his last rites and was executed by firing squad. His final words were: “Mexicans! In the very moment of my death, I implore you to love your homeland and to uphold our religion, for it will lead you to glory. I die having come here to assist you, and I face death with courage, for I die among you. I die with honor, not as a traitor. I leave no stain on my children or my legacy. I am not a traitor. No.”