Roatan history holds a few surprises, as Columbus arrived at Guanaja of the Bay Islands in 1502, but became aware of the threat of an approaching hurricane, and never set foot on Roatan. A small contingent of French buccaneers (pre-cursors to “pirates”) arrived on Roatan in 1510, and are the first known Europeans to have actually set foot on the island. They spent some time at what is now French Harbour, giving the place its current name.
The History of Roatan
Roatan remained quietly under the dominion of the Spaniards until the year 1642, when they were attacked by an English pirate. No resistance being made by the Indians, Roatan and Guanaja were taken possession of. The occupation of the these spots was of great advantage to the English, consequently of proportionate injury to the Spaniards: for, from being so near to the ports of the main land, the enemy were enabled to make attacks upon them whenever they pleased; or they could, with equal facility, intercept the commerce between this kingdom and Spain.
The governors of Guatemala and the Havannah, and the president of the audiencia of St. Domingo, were all interested, and joined in an expedition to expel the heretics. The governor of the Havannah sent four ships of war, well equipped, under the command of the general Francisco de Villalva y Toledo, who shaped his course to Roatan, without touching at any of the anchorages, in the hopes of surprising the English: in this project he did not succeed; for although he arrived with his squadron in the harbour of Roatan an hour before day-break, he was unable to effect a disembarkation unperceived by the sentinels, who gave an alarm, and the trenches were immediately manned with a respectable force: the Spaniards attacked, and a brisk action was maintained until day-light without any advantage. The general then observing a part of the intrenchment that was not defended, kept his main body in its position, and detached an officer, with 30 men, to attack the weak part, in order to turn the enemy’s flank: the attempt was unsuccessful; for the detachment, in advancing, got into a swamp that was impassable. Villalva still continued his efforts against other parts of the works, without any other advantage than killing a few of the besieged. Nothing decisive was effected, and at sun-set, having expended all his ammunition, he marched his troops to the beach, re-embarked, and sailed for St. Thomas de Castilla to obtain a fresh supply. From that port he sent to the captain-general an account of what had taken place at the island. Antonio de Lara Mogrobejo, then governor, assembled a council of war, and in compliance with its resolutions, dispatched, on the 4th of March, 1650, captain Elias de Bulasia, with 15 barrels of powder, and six quintals of balls, for the supply of the squadron. Captain Martin de Alvarado y Guzman was ordered from Guatemala, with 50 soldiers; and captain Juan Bautista Chavarria, with 50 more from the province of Chiquimula: these, when united to the squadron, increased its force to 450 men.
They immediately sailed for the island; and as the general knew how well the first harbour he had entered was defended, he through it expedient to try his fortune at another part of the island, where there was a smaller one. On landing, he was received by a body of troops who made an obstinate resistance; but having effected a breach of the intrenchment with two pieces of artillery, the Spaniards stormed it, and after a determined contest, the English were defeated. Subsequent to this victory, the assailants suffered a great deal before they could reach the town; for having no guides, they missed their way and wandered about nine days, exposed to the violence of the sun by day, and unhealthy vapours by night: their feet were lacerated by the thorns of the coyols, and they were tormented by innumerable swarms of mosquitoes, ticks, and other venomous insects and reptiles. On reaching the town, or rather the village, the found it abandoned by the English, who had carried all property and provisions on board their ships, and left the island entirely. Villalva collected the natives, and having burned the place, returned to St. Thomas, in the neighbourhood of which the Indians had lands given to them; this expedition terminated in August, 1650.
According to Roatan history, the island was deserted from 1650 until 1742, when the English took possession of it again, and fortified it with materials which they had carried off from the city of Truxillo. They maintained themselves in it until 1780, when they were dislodged by the governor of Guatemala. In 1796, they once more made themselves masters of it, and stationed 2000 negroes for its protection.
As soon as this invasion was known in the capital, the governor ordered the intendant of Comayagua to send Don Jose Rossi y Rubia to the island, in order to ascertain what state these negroes were in, that, from his information, the necessary arrangements might be made for is reconquest. On the beach they saw about 200 men drawn up, armed with muskets and bayonets, apparently intending to resist a landing; on perceiving this, Rossi alone went on shore, and advancing to the commander of the troops, proposed terms of capitulation, which were accepted. [NOTE: May 18, 1797].
Those who accompanied him then landed, the Spanish flag was hoisted, and the island taken possession of with the customary ceremonies. The village on the northern side was occupied by these republican negroes; but the Southern side was defended by Caribs; Rossi and his companions proceeded to the village of these Indians, and quickly getting possession of a battery which they had constructed, offered similar terms of capitulation, which were accepted with as much satisfaction as they had been received by others. Rossi issued some orders, which the Caribs promised to obey, and on the 19th, sailed for Truxillo, where he anchored on the 21st.
Except for these “Black Carib” (now 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 claimed 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 interest 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, presumably 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). 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.
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).
June 1st – An Important Date in Roatan History
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 Isles 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 until1902, 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).
Roatan Historic Publication: An Apology for the Cession of the Bay Islands by Great Britain to Honduras
Roatan History Credits:
- A Statistical and Commercial History of the Kingdom of Guatemala (Written in Spanish by Don Domingo Juarros); Translated by J. Baily, Lieutenant R.M.; Printed for: John Hearne by J.F. Dove 1823.
- David K. Evans, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, Wake Forest University,
Winston-Salem, N.C. 27106 USA