A Brief History of the Bay Islands

The Bay Islands are currently owned by Honduras, but that hasn't always been the case. To better understand the culture of the area today, it's important that you at least know a brief history of the Bay Islands over the last several centuries as various groups settled in the region.

Original Inhabitants of the Bay Islands

From what we know today, the earliest inhabitants of the Bay Islands were the Pech, or Paya. They had established communities and extensive trade routes in the region, with some historians thinking they traded as far as Mexico and Jamaica. The relics of their time in the Bay Islands are known as Yaba Ding Dings, which you can see today at various locations around the islands.

As Europeans started spreading westward in the late 1500s, the Bay Islands were another stop along the way before they reached the mainland of Central America. Indeed, in 1502, during his fourth and final trip westward, Christopher Columbus and his crew sighted the stunning island of Guanaja. He claimed it for Spain, and it was from here that they launched toward the mainland, finally realizing that an entire continent lay beyond the myriad islands they had previously stumbled upon.

Arrival of the Europeans

Shortly after the arrival of Europeans, nearly the entire community of Paya was decimated through the slave trade and disease. Their communities ravaged, the Bay Islands went through a period of very little human settlement.

Over the next few centuries of European involvement in the region, both the English and Spanish claimed the Bay Islands as their own, jockeying for this prime position as an outpost close to the mainland where ships could layover for supplies and safety.

Through centuries of fighting over the prime location of the Bay Islands, both the English and Spanish left their mark on Guanaja, Roatan, and Utila. Settlements occasionally popped up around the islands, including Port Royal in Roatan, where the English attempts at a permanent colony were fairly unsuccessful.

Between the Spanish, the English, and regular visits by pirates, the Bay Islands experienced a cultural variety show between the 1500s and the 1800s.

Arrival of the Garifuna

In 1796, a group of approximately 5,000 Black Caribs were deported from the islands of St. Vincent after an unsuccessful war against their European colonists. They landed on the island of Roatan in April 1797, and a contingent of the group decided to stay, while the remainder continued on toward the mainland. These Black Caribs are the group we now call the Garifuna. Their settlements in Roatan and along the northern coast of Honduras remain cultural centers where the Garifuna continue the use of their own language and traditions. In Roatan, they celebrate their arrival to the island each year on April 12th.

In 1852, the English formally claimed the Bay Islands a British colony, making that declaration on the island of Roatan. This formal claim was short-lived, however, as the British instead opted to claim British Honduras (what is today called Belize) and concede the Bay Islands to Honduras. Thus, in 1861, the Bay Islands officially became a department of Honduras.

For nearly a century after the Bay Islands became part of Honduras, most islanders still claimed to be British. With countless common British surnames among island families, it's easy to see why. But, today, with the influence of mainland Hondurans moving to the islands, plus a plethora of international expats, the Bay Islands culture continues to evolve and change as quickly as the changing tradewinds.

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