Roatán is the largest island of an archipelago named the Bay Islands, located 50 miles north of Honduras
in Central America. It floats amidst the Caribbean Sea. There are six main islands comprising this archipelago as well as hundreds of small cays. Moving from the western end of the spectrum is Utila, a large flat body of land with a large lagoon on the southern end, Roatán the largest and most developed of all, has a mountainous ridge running along its center, Morat, a deserted island that protects the habitat of the salt water alligator, Barbareta, a thickly forested island and Guanaja on the eastern tip. A minor archipelago called Hog Cays is located south of Roatán and very close to the mainland coastline. The Bay Islands and in particular Roatán, throughout history, has a colorful history that weaves in stories of Indians, invaders, pirates, buried gold, and a blend of races and languages.

The first island to be discovered by Christopher Columbus on his fourth voyage in 1502 was Guanaja.
When he landed on Soldado Beach he was greeted by Paya Indians. One can still find the artifacts and caves left by these early inhabitants. After this initial discovery, other Spanish explorers followed to the mainland where large mines of gold and silver were discovered. The riches from these mines were  shipped to Spain from the port of Trujillo located on a deep harbor bay on the northern coast of the mainland. On a clear day, from Roatán, one can see Trujillo looming in the distance.

English settlers also followed to Roatán. William Claibourne of Virginia was given a patent by the Providence Company authorizing him to establish a colony on the island in 1638. The Bay Islands were on the route of the Spanish shipments that left Mexico, then called New Spain, on its way to Havana to then proceed to Spain.  Pirates attacked the ships and raided the settlements. The lure of gold made these waters a pirate and buccaneer playground.

In 1639, Van Horne, a Dutchman, raided Spanish-Indian settlements established in the Bay Islands. English and French pirates also terrorized the area.  In 1642, English raiders from modern day Belize had
occupied old Port Royal in Roatán, which is east of modern Port Royal, both deep water bays protected
by the coralline reef. Fort Cay, now renamed Fort Morgan Cay by the present owners, is a strategically
placed cay guarding the entrance of Port Royal Bay. To this day, the remnants of the English fort and
powder keg still stand, as the well used by the pirates in their heyday. 

The Spanish, desiring to rid the area of pirates so they could safely transport the New World gold to Spain, attacked Port Royal with four war ships under the command of Francisco Villalva Toledo in 1650.
The pirates successfully defended the bay, forcing the Spaniards to return to the mainland
for reinforcement. With the pirates greatly outnumbered and with fierce fighting, the pirates were finally conquered.

In 1742, the English once again settled on Roatán. Major Caulfield was in control of the island. His
letter to Mr. Trelawry, Governor of Jamaica, documents Spanish attempts to regain Roatán. To fray these  attempts, more English settlements were drawn by the Geographer to His Majesty, Thomas Jeffreys. They included settlements that still bear the same names today. Calkett’s Hole was shown, now called Coxen Hole. Coxen Hole is the largest town on Roatán.  Falmouth Harbour on the southern side is now called Oak Ridge.

The English lost Roatán in March of 1782. The Spanish positioned troops and cannons against the forts and defeated the English. The Spanish destroyed about 500 homes and with this the English left the island completely in 1788. 

In another part of the Caribbean, on the Windward Island of St. Vincent, events unfolded that resulted in another migration to Roatán. In 1797, the English forced about 5000 Black Caribs,  people of African descent, Carib and Arawak Indians, to sea, in  punishment for their support to the French attempted takeover. Moving them from island to island, they finally arrived on Fort Morgan Cay, Roatán. These  people now called Garifuna then resettled on the north side of Roatán founding the still standing village of Punta Gorda.

Europeans began settling on Roatán once again with the return of English between 1827 and 1834. With slavery being outlawed in English colonies in 1833 and with the soil in the Grand Cayman Island being depleted by cotton farming, some English families left the Grand Cayman and settled on Roatán and neighboring Utila. Many of descendants of Joseph Cooper, one of the settlers of Utila, still live on this island. The Jackson family, an influential family on Roatán today, came from the southern United States in the 1800's, descending from a confederate soldier who refused to surrender to the Union.  A southern accent is still discernable in their speech. Approximately 200 people lived in “Coxen’s old kay” in 1840. Ten years later, the population of the island had risen to five or six thousand.

In 1852, the British leadership appealed to Her Majesty, Queen Victoria to establish Roatán along with other islands to become a British colony, but a treaty signed by the United States that established their control of Panama canal, forbade Britain from establishing new colonies in the Western Hemisphere. In 1859, England relinquished control of the Bay Islands. The Republic of Honduras accepted the Bay Islands as the “Departamento de las Islas de la Bahia”, officially making the islands a part of Honduras. For many years after coming under Honduran rule, islanders of English descent continued to claim English citizenship, although those born in Honduras after 1861 are legally Hondurans.

Although Spanish is the national language and is spoken on Roatán, the English language also lives on. Today, tourism is the primary industry on Roatán.  Cruise ships and planes bring thousands of tourists each year and the island is known for its world-class scuba diving.
 
About The Bay Islands: Roatán

Discovered in 1502 by Christopher Columbus, The Bay Islands of Honduras still keeps its primitive essence with great resorts that assure yourself and your group and unforgettable vacation in the Caribbean. Roatán is a true tropical island with steeply sloping jungle covered hills, long stretches of sandy beaches and beautiful fringing coral reefs. The island is 35 miles (58 Kms) long and an average of three miles wide, it lies 40 miles (66 Kms) off the north coast of Honduras. Studded with deep water inlets called 'Bights' it has been a safe haven for sailors for centuries. Home originally to the Paya Indians the island has passed from country to country during the conquest of the Americas in the 16th century and fought over by the British and Spanish crowns for possession of the hard woods both on the island and mainland. Eventually forsaken for more lucrative islands, Roatán was taken over by the infamous pirates of the Caribbean, This island became the mighty stronghold of Henry Morgan who ravaged
and plundered the Spanish Main. 

It was from Roatán, that raiding expeditions were planned and organized, with whole flotillas of pirate vessels from many nations taking part, sacking cities such as Granada in Nicaragua, Porto Bello and Panama city in their wake. There were an estimated 5,000 pirates on Roatán during its heyday. Contrary to modern depictions the pirates were well disciplined and organized, able to build sophisticated fortifications for the defense of the island, so much so that it was not until the 1740's that a combined Spanish army and naval offensive could rid the island of the scourge of the Caribbean.

Occupied by the British for a large part of the time Roatán, (called Rattan on old maps), carries a legacy in the language and culture. Many family names are linked to the old pirate days and their Scottish, Irish and British ancestry. You will find McNab, Jackson, Foster, Ebank, Burke and many more on the Bay Islands and as far as the Cayman islands as well. The abolition of slavery made the production of sugar uneconomical, thus many families searched for better horizons on the Bay Islands. Along with them, came their former slaves to oversee the newly planted fields. Hence, the presence today of tall, slim blacks whose native language is English.

In the African slaves trade, Roatán had the dubious pleasure of being the dumping ground for the most rebellious and troublesome slaves the British could not control. The Garifuna people were one such group left to fend for themselves on Roatán, after they sided with the French against the ruling English in St. Vincent. Punished, a group of nearly 5,000 Caribs were sent to sea to perish, miraculously surviving when they landed on a small cay on the southeastern coast of Roatán, (Fort Morgan Cay). Today their descendants comprise a distinct ethnic group called Garifuna, physically distinguishable by being of heavier stock, and have an established village on the northeastern end of the island called Punta Gorda. Their wonderful culture of song and dance linked back to their West African heritage.