Roatan Then & Now
Roatan Then & Now
The Bay Islands – Roatan and its neighboring islands of Utila and Guanaja — were originally inhabited by Paya Indians, a peaceful, nomadic people who subsisted largely on fishing and farming. It was they whom Columbus encountered on his first trip to the islands in 1502. Few even then, their numbers dwindled, and today there is little sign of their culture on the islands or the Honduran mainland.
In the ensuing years, the British and Spanish fought for control of the Bay Islands, with neither seeking to establish permanent colonies for well over a century. The first recorded British presence on the islands was the short-lived attempt by William Claiborne to set up an enclave in 1638. By 1642, however, the settlers were driven off by the Spanish Navy.
With no one laying permanent claim for the next 100 years, the Bay Islands became the ribald hideaway of Dutch, English, and French pirates. At one time, in fact, an estimated 5,000 buccaneers used the islands as a safe haven, including such legendary privateers as Henry Morgan and John Coxen (for whom the capital of Roatan is named) – the real-life, rum-swilling, spine-chilling pirates of the Caribbean. In 1850, the British briefly claimed the islands as its own colony. But, after strong protestations from the U.S. government, the Crown relinquished control to the nation of Honduras, which has owned and administered the islands ever since.
European and American Influence on Roatan
On Roatan Island today, English is the official language. Those who wonder why need only look back to the earliest permanent population on The Island and at those who subsequently arrived to conduct The Island’s daily business. The majority of the first permanent population of Roatán originated from the British Cayman Islands. Of both European and distant African descent, they arrived shortly after the British abolished slavery in the 1830s and brought with them the British customs, traditions, and language. In short order, the British Caymanians became the largest cultural group on Roatan Island.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Roatan’s population grew steadily as immigrants from throughout Europe and North America arrived to establish settlements and exert their influence. By the 1870s, the small fruit-growing companies on The Island and the mainland were purchased by American interests, most notably the New Orleans and Bay Islands Fruit Company. Later the Standard and United Fruit Companies broadened the American presence, sending in their own overseers and management. And the famous short story author O. Henry, writing from Roatan’s neighboring island of Utila, gave Honduras the sobriquet “Banana Republic.” More recently, a growing influx of American, Canadian, and European settlers and entrepreneurs have settled in Roatan providing the foundation for The Island’s burgeoning tourist trade.
Roatan: History in the Making
The history of Roatan Island is far more than what was. It’s what it is. And even more than that, what it’s about to become. It’s a story still being told, an unfolding saga … with every proud native and new arrival adding his and her imaginative twist to the evolving narrative.
Walk the well-worn byways of Coxen Hole, and you’re retracing the steps of legendary pirate John Coxen and his swarthy band of merry marauders who made this island hideaway their home. You can almost hear the swashbucklers’ lusty shouts as they haul ashore their forbidden booty seized from the Spanish Main.
But, incline your ear closer to home, and you’ll also hear the seafaring sounds of world-class luxury liners; bells clanging, whistles bellowing, as they offload thousands of eager passengers each week at Coxen Hole’s Port of Roatan or nearby Mahogany Bay. That’s right, where John Coxen’s rugged sloop once dropped anchor, the Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Oceana, Princess, and other prestige cruise lines now pull proudly into port.
Journey out to Las Palmas and Pirate’s Cove, just a short drive from Coxen Hole, and you’ll find yourself immersed not only in the turquoise sea, but in privateer lore as well. The Henry Morgan Museum features one of the Caribbean’s largest collections of genuine pirate artifacts and an authentic galleon is moored at the dock.
But, again, the past melds with the present and future, as nearby Roatan International Airport reminds you anew that while The Island embraces its heritage, it also proclaims its commitment to the future. Major airlines – including American, United, Delta, and TACA – now fly into Roatan Airport from throughout the United States and Canada. And regular charter flights arrive from as far away as Milan, Italy. They bring with them not only hundreds of thousands of tourists, but expats as well, eager to find a new life on a vibrant island where the old and new merge into one.
“When my wife and I came to Roatan Island nearly a decade ago,” says Dan Taylor, owner/developer of the Keyhole Bay residential resort community, “we had done our homework. So, we knew that The Island combined the best of both worlds; that while it would preserve the past and its pristine beauty, it would also increasingly offer all of the modern amenities that most of us now consider absolutely essential to an enjoyable life.
“I have a dear friend who likes to refer to The Island as ‘the United States of Roatan.’ And in a way he’s right – except that on Roatan Island you get to leave all of the hassles, hurry, and worry behind, while contemplating the carefree joys of the sand, sea, and swaying palms.”
In short, on beautiful Roatan Island, you write your own history. It can blend in elements of pirate ships, Spanish conquistadors, British hegemony, and much, much more. But, in the final analysis, it’s your own, personal narrative. It’s what you choose to share, or alternately shun. It’s what you decide leave behind, or bring to the table. It’s island life. And the true beauty is: in the final analysis, it’s all about you!