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Transformation of Paradise

Re-published from the original Frances Heyward Currin Master Thesis available at Louisiana State University Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Collection
Adapted by AboutUtila.com WebMaster to facilitated on-line navigation and reading.

Table of Contents Chapter 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 References ●  Appendices

Chapter 3

Utila's Cultural History

Pre-Columbian Inhabitants

Christopher Columbus and the Encomenderos

Buccaneering, Early English Inhabitants, and the Garifuna

Antillean Populations

Twentieth Century Utila

Social Stratification

Geographical Boundaries

Top of Page Utila’s Cultural History

The cultural landscape is fashioned from the natural landscape by a cultural group. Culture is the agent, the natural area is the medium, the cultural landscape the result (Sauer 1925:1).

The Bay Islands, including Utila, have a distinctive and diverse cultural heritage. The mélange of ethnicities stemming from its settlement history has created the diverse population seen today. As noted by William Davidson in his 1974 publication of these past and present populations, seven distinct groups have inhabited the islands. Before European contact, Paya Indians probably occupied the islands (Strong 1938; Stone 1941; Davidson: 1974; Dixon 1980). After Contact, Spaniards, buccaneers, Garífuna, English, English-descended Antilleans, African-descended Antilleans, and North Americans have settled for varying time periods on the islands (Davidson 1974: 21).

Utila was inhabited by only six of these groups because the Garífuna only settled on Roatán. In recent years, however, other ethnic groups have found their way to the island, specifically European tourists and Mainland Hondurans. As mentioned in the introduction, in the 1960s Honduras became interested in the sustainable development of its tourist industry. Since this time the ethnic make up of Utila has changed. This chapter will discuss the historical and modern populations that settled on the island.
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Top of Page Pre-Columbian Inhabitants

Just prior to Spanish Contact the north coast of Honduras, including the Bay Islands, appeared to be sparsely inhabited by aboriginal tribes (Davidson 1974; Dixon 1980). In Central America the pre-Colombian populations are designated as “high” and “low” cultural groups (West and Augelli 1989). Geographical boundaries that separate these groups have some relationship to the islands. The high cultural groups included the Maya and Aztec. These people lived primarily in the southern Central Plateau of Mexico and the Yucatán, and the highlands and Pacific lowlands of Central America (ibid).

They could be distinguished from other populations in the area because they lived in agglomerated settlements comparable to modern cities, their agriculture could support the large numbers of people in the settlements and was much more advanced than the low cultural groups, and their economy was controlled by social organizations and theocratic states (ibid 1989). The presence of large temples and ceremonial centers were also characteristic of these “high cultures” (ibid). In contrast, the “low cultures” of Middle America inhabited the West Indies, much of the Central American lowlands, and northern Mexico.

These groups included the Chichimecas of northern Mexico, the Caribs of the West Indies, and the many tribes of the Central American lowlands such as the Paya and Jicaque. Characteristics of these groups included, smaller much less organized, dispersed settlements, simpler agricultural techniques, tubers as the primary food source, and lack of large ceremonial centers. It should be noted that these two groups did have contact with each other. Aztec and Mayan traders probably traveled throughout much of the isthmus and to many of the islands off the coast.

The Paya have been suggested as the first inhabitants of the Bay Islands. The boundaries for this group on the mainland were established as being from Trujillo to Cape Gracias a Dios (Stone 1941; Strong 1938). William Strong and William Davidson, among others, seem to believe that this aboriginal group extended its boundaries to include the Bay Islands (Davidson 1974: 20). Others have suggested that islanders were Maya (Sauer 1966), Lenca (Squier 1855), and Jicaque (Conzemius 1928). For this paper, we will support Davidson and Strong’s notion that the aboriginal population was Paya (Davidson 1974; Strong 1941).

Evidence presented alludes to similarities between the mainland Paya populations and sites found on the Bay Islands. These island sites have been classified in three categories with the addition of a fourth focusing on burials. The first of these three are residential sites. Archeologists pinpoint residential sites when the presence of kitchenware and shards are prevalent (Davidson 1974). Sites containing these items have been found on Roatán, Utila, and Guanaja of the larger islands and Helene of the smaller islands in this region.

The largest of these main sites is found at “80 Acre” on Utila and encompasses forty acres of land (ibid). Locations are generally forty to sixty feet above sea level, on sloping land, a few hundred yards from the beach (ibid). Davidson suggested that these aboriginal populations located their villages at these specific elevations and distance from the shore to escape mosquitoes and sand flies (ibid). In addition, it seems reasonable to assume that these people relied heavily on the ocean therefore making site location close to the water important.

Ceremonial sites, being the second in this list of site classifications, are located near the large residential areas of Utila and Guanaja. These sites, however, are in no way comparable to the sites associated with the Maya and Aztec of mainland Mesoamerica. No large ceremonial structures, such as temples, have been located on any of the Bay Islands. However, there are identifiable artifacts associated with this type of site, such as large stone monoliths, earth mounds, stone mounds, and stone causeways (Davidson 1974). Utila had one a site located on Stewart’s Hill (Rose 1904). This site is supposedly the origination point of an aboriginal paved road system on the island (ibid).

The third site classification deals with the deposition of offerings. These offertory sites, lacking the monuments found in ceremonial locations, have objects that have been placed in nature and elicit help from a higher power. Artifacts ranging from shell ornaments to clay figurines can be found in association with these sites (Davidson 1974). The largest in the Bay Islands are on the island of Roatán and the smaller island of Barbaret. Nearly every occurrence of these sites where located on tops of hills. Although a separate category, burial sites on the islands seem to be located close to and hypothetically in conjunction with offertory sites. However, on islands such as Utila, burials were located on sandy beaches (Davidson 1974). There is no archeological evidence that offertory sites were located on Utila.

Eight known burial sites exist on the Bay Islands (Davidson 1974). They have been located in three different physical settings; beach, hilltop, and refuse heaps. Utila has three of these eight sites and all of them were located on the beach (ibid). Characteristics of these beach sites include slate slab coverings, multiple burials, skulls placed in large urns, with bones and other goods nearby (ibid).

The Paya Indians apparently lived in only a few settlements with one residential area on the major islands. Artifacts and residential patterns resemble those of their mainland Paya neighbors, making it possible to hypothesize that the groups were related. Trade seemed to be occurring between these groups as well as with other aboriginal groups from the mainland, showing that the Bay Islanders were not living in cultural seclusion (Davidson 1974). It seems the Paya were the first of many ethnic populations to call the islands home.
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Top of Page Christopher Columbus and the Encomenderos

Christopher Columbus made contact with the aboriginal populations on the Bay Islands on his fourth voyage in 1502 (Rose 1904; Columbus 1959; Columbus 1960; Davidson 1974). Hence, Utila and the rest of the Bay Islands became a part of history on July 30, 1502, when Columbus and his crew anchored off the north shore of Guanaja. Columbus documented the island’s appearance and subsequently called it Isla de Pinos, for the large pine stands located there (Columbus 1960). For nearly 136 years the Spanish crown held virtually uncontested rule over the Bay Islands (Davidson 1974).

The Paya populations on the Bay Islands were inevitably subjected to slaving raids. Queen Isabella of Spain, however, commanded her conquistadores to make slaves of only those aboriginal populations who were unwilling to become Christians or those designated as “cannibals” (Sauer 1966). Even though the populations of the Bay Islands were noted as being relatively peaceful (Valladares 1939) it served the purposes of the conquistadores based in Cuba to inform the Queen that the Bay Islanders were hostile, cannibalistic, and opposed to Christianity (Valladares 1939).

In 1516, Queen Isabella allowed Diego Velasquez to remove the aboriginal populations on the Bay Islands to be used on plantations in Cuba where populations had already been exterminated (Lord 1975). Allegedly only two raids took place in the Bay Islands and according to Sauer, it was during the second in 1525 that the name Utila appeared for the first time (Sauer 1966:). Although some islanders survived slaving seeds had been planted for future Spanish settlement.

The Roman Catholic Church had little influence on the Bay Islands unlike other places in Latin America. A seemingly more important landscape and cultural change occurred with the institution of the encomienda initiated in Honduras in 1536 (West and Augelli 1989). This system called for Spanish occupation of the islands where the encomenderos would Christianize the Indians (Chamberlain 1951). Utila obtained only one (Simpson 1966). The encomienda brought the islanders into constant contact with the Spanish encomenderos, thus changing the lifestyles of the natives.
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Top of Page Buccaneering, Early English Inhabitants, and the Garífuna

As the Spanish made their presence known in the New World other European explorers began to see the potential of the Caribbean and Central America as a whole. Yet another cultural group saw the opportunity to carve its name in the ethnic history of the Bay Islands. By 1536 the French had appeared in the western Caribbean and the Dutch soon after in 1594. The English, however, were the most successful in disrupting the Spanish shipping routes and appeared sometime in the 1560s (Wright 1964). The English, French, and Dutch realized that the Bay Islands were in a strategic position to loot Spanish vessels. The islands had fresh water and protected natural harbors that the freebooters valued.

Although the pirate settlements had no lasting impressions on the natural landscape, they did create myths that still exist among islanders. Myths of sunken treasures draw amateur relic hunters and tourists to the islands today. Town names found on Roatán (Coxen Hole) and business names on Utila (Captain Morgan’s Dive Shop and the Bucket of Blood Bar) are also reminders of the pirate presence from earlier days. Ironically, Utila was not one of the popular hideouts for the pirates and has not been mentioned in the literature as having any involvement with these scallywags (Davidson 1974; Lord 1975).

By 1639, however, the harassment caused by the pirates towards the Spanish became intolerable (Davidson 1974). Buccaneers had completely disrupted the role the Bay Islands were playing in Spanish shipping. Consequently, the Spanish Crown ordered the Indians removed so they could no longer provide for the pirates. The Spanish hoped that the removal of the natives would deter the pirates from hiding on the islands. However, the opposite occurred, and instead of leaving the Bay of Honduras, the British intensified their efforts to settle the islands.

By the late 1600s however, buccaneering reached its zenith in the Bay of Honduras and Spanish shipping had been significantly disrupted. The English became the most successful in this pirating trade and eventually had the longest lasting impact on the Bay Islands. Among the most famous English pirates who took refuge on the islands were Morgan, Jackson, Coxen, Sharpe and Low. These names are still present on the islands as last names, settlement names, and business names.

The Bay of Honduras was in constant turmoil because of the many conflicts the Spanish were having with other European nations. Between 1638 and 1782 Spanish colonists constantly were hassled at the hands of the English (Davidson 1974). The Spanish and the British, for the next 150 years, struggled for control over the Bay Islands. This struggle left lasting impressions on the islands.

In the late 1630s, the first English colonists attempted to establish permanent settlements on the Islands, specifically on Roatán (Davidson 1974; Lord 1975). A Puritan-based company, Providence Company, laid the foundations for this settlement and assigned a North American colonial, William Claiborne, to Roatán (Floyd 1967; Davidson 1974; Lord 1975). The English renamed the island Rich Island after Lord Henry Rich, Earl of Holland (Davidson 1974; Lord 1975). However the specific settlement location has never been determined. Apparently engaged in agricultural, these colonists set the stage for another ethnic transition (Davidson 1974; Lord 1975).

The first military occupations of the Bay Islands by the English began in 1742 and lasted seven years (Davidson 1974). It was the intentions of the British to take control of the entire Atlantic Coast (Floyd 1967). Fortifications were constructed on the Island of Roatán and at the mouth of the Río Negro (up the coast east of Trujillo). The forts built on Roatán were to provided a base to provoke rebellion on the mainland, so that the English could keep control of the logwood trade and that their cutters from Belize and Mosquitia had a place to go when the Spanish became aggressive (Watt 1973). On numerous occasions Spanish colonists tried unsuccessfully to remove the English. In 1744 negotiations began to rid Roatán of its unwelcome English guests. However, it was not until late 1749 that the English finally evacuated the island in accordance with the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle signed by Britain and Spain in 1748 (Watt 1973; Stonich 2000).

A second English occupation of the Bay Islands began thirty years later. During the period between these separate occupations little change was documented on the islands. In 1779, in an attempt to reach Lake Nicaragua, the English used the existing Fort George on Roatán as a military base (Stonich 2000). In 1782 the English were finally disposed of at the Battle of Port Royal Roatán. Fort George was burned, and the Spanish forces captured the remaining inhabitants of the island (Davidson 1974). Once again the Bay Islands were left to nature. Neither the English nor the Spanish formed permanent colonial settlements that have survived until the present.

In 1797 the Bay Islands received its first permanent settlers. Again Roatán was the site for this settlement. These permanent settlers were the Garífuna (Black Caribs). A colonial tribe, the Garífuna, evolved over 300 years ago on the island of St. Vincent in the Lesser Antilles (Davidson 1974; West and Augelli 1989). In the seventeenth century an English slave vessel shipwrecked off the island, and the African born slaves escaped (Lord 1975; Davidson 1982; Dixon 1980; West and Augelli 1989). Carib Indians already inhabited the island, and the cultures began to mix (Davidson 1974).

This new ethnic group proved to be intolerable for the English settlers, and in 1797, over 2,000 Black Caribs were removed from the island and exiled to the Bay of Honduras (Davidson 1982). They were first abandoned on the uninhabited island of Roatán. The Spanish feared this was an attempt by the English to reestablish control and therefore moved the Garífuna to Trujillo. However, some managed to stay on the island and formed the settlement now known as Punta Gorda (Davidson 1974). In 1980, there were fifty-four villages along the Caribbean coast extending from northern Nicaragua to southern Belize (Davidson 1974; Dixon 1980).

The British and the Spanish continued to have sporadic conflicts until September 15, 1821 when the Central American Federation proclaimed its independence from Spain (Lord 1975). Of the two European countries colonizing in this region during this time, Spain was the weaker, thus allowing Britain unhindered expansion along the Caribbean Coast from what is now Belize to Mosquitia.

Utila, led a rather quiet existence during the colonial conflicts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. However, early in the nineteenth century, Utila began attracting “people who were basically farmers interested in good, free land that they could cultivate for subsistence crops” (Lord 1975). It has been suggested that the quiet existence of the island, was one of the attractions that lead these new settlers to relocate on Utila’s Cays, and by the 1830s nearly a dozen people migrate to the island (Davidson 1974; Lord 1975).
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Top of Page Antillean Populations

In the nineteenth century the modern landscape of the Bay Islands began. Black Caribs, a few Spanish soldiers, two Americans, and two French families made permanent residences on the islands (Davidson 1974; Lord 1975). Honduras, including the Bay Islands, became a sovereign state and the official position of the English was to adhere to this sovereignty (Davidson 1974). However, the Bay Islands were still seen as strategic for the domination of the Bay of Honduras (Davidson 1974). The Cayman Islanders became important in the British quest for the Bay Islands.

Established as British colonies, the Cayman Islands had developed an agrarian economy. With this reliance on agriculture slave labor was necessary. By 1830 the Angelo-Antillean settlers of the Cayman’s were outnumbered 5 to 1 by its slave populations (Davidson 1974). The British Crown, in this same decade, began its abolition of slavery. The English on the Cayman Islands, fearing the break down of their society, decided to relocate. They resettled in Belize and the Bay Islands. Suc-Suc Cay, Utila, and Coxen Hole, Roatán where the first settlements made by these people (Davidson 1974). Lord documents the first family of Cayman Islanders to settle on Utila in his 1975 work as follows,

"Joseph Cooper, his wife and nine children— two boys and seven girls— came to Utila from the Caymans by way of Belize. He was apparently one of the many land hungry British subjects of peasant or working class extraction that found the British isles too constricting. The Cooper family and an American named Samuel Warren who had been born in Massachusetts and served with Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie formed the nucleus of Utila’s future populations. Warren and another American surnamed Joshua (who early dropped out of the historical picture) were already cultivating small plantations in the cays. Cooper also settled there to avoid the clouds of mosquitoes and sandflies that infested the bush-covered main island (Lord 1975:28)."

A few years later, other families such as the Thompsons, Morgans, Boddens, Diamonds (or Dimon), Howells, and Gabourels had settled on Utila’s Cays (Lord 1975).

Subsequently, within a few years of the white landholding Cayman Islanders immigrating to Utila, many of the former Cayman slaves also moved to the Bay Islands. Likewise, settlers from the United States, British Honduras, Germany and Sweden took up residence on Utila (Lord 1975). As 1858 came to a close so did the British colonial era on the Bay Islands. The islands legally became a part of greater Honduras. Many of the islanders left when this change took place but their culture has lasted until today.
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Top of Page Twentieth Century Utila

As Utila rounded the corner of the nineteenth century and entered into a new millennium, the ethnic and cultural melting pot that the island had become with the Anglo and Afro Cayman populations, Americans and Europeans, particular social stratifications were becoming evident. In 1975 when Lord was conducting his research on the remittance system on Utila he also paid particular attention to this developing phenomenon. He pointed out two key factors in understanding the social organizations that had arisen on the island. The first was that there were, and still are, three locally recognized strata based on ethnicity and the second dealt more with gradations of prestige, that were present in these strata, based on income and lifestyle (Lord 1975).
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Top of Page Social Stratification

In Utilian society, social distinctions are not simply a matter of socioeconomic differences between societal sectors. Rather, these strata lie in skin pigmentations that have created ethnic prejudices and stereotyping that are basic to the ordering of Utilians social existence (Lord 1975). Lord compared these strata to the caste system of India, where a person is born into a certain caste and carries this distinction for life (ibid). However, marriage into the highest strata is allowed, but those who married in are still second class to those who were born into that class. Utila’s social hierarchy, according to Lord (1975), developed in much the same way focusing on three color based classes.

At the top of the social hierarchy are the “whites” of Utila. This position is based primarily on skin color and with it comes social prestige, important local leadership roles, wealth, and occupation of prime real estate (Lord 1975). Most of this segment of society came from the British West Indies colonies and made up the original founders of the modern settlement on Utila and its related cays. In 1975 nearly three-fifths of Utila’s population was considered part of this class (ibid).

The second tier of the social stratification system noted by Lord was made up of those Utilians with Afro-Antillean ancestry. In 1975, this group was collectively called “colored” (ibid). However, during my research on the island I did not hear this term used, rather the general term “black” was used to refer to this group, perhaps reflecting modern contacts with the United States.In 1975, as Lord documented, the “white” Utilians did not feel that the “black” Utilians were “mentally or morally inferior,” however, he did note that, “there was a qualitative difference between themselves [whites] and coloreds that would forever separate the two groups even though they lived side by side” (Lord 1975:109). This attitude or these first two ethnic strata still exist on Utila maybe problematic, however there still is a geographic component related to these ethnic groups.

The third stratum, the more recent migrants from the mainland, is still very much present on the island. Since the mid 1960s Spanish Hondurans have become another part of the cultural mélange present on the Utila. Although native-born islanders see themselves as having no relation to these “Spaniards,” this group is nevertheless carving its niche.

This group makes up the third rung of the social ladder on Utila. The term “Spaniard” denotes both an ethnic group and a derogatory epithet on the island. In the 1970s Spaniards were, “individuals of Spanish heritage (usually from mainland Honduras) who bear Spanish surnames, speak little or no English, and are common laborers recently arrived on Utila” (Lord 1975:109). This group is generally poorer than native Utilians, thus they live in the worst housing on the island and subsequently exist in some of the most extreme conditions. Locals see them as, “immoral…uncouth and uncivilized” (ibid 1975:109). Often times the term “Indian” is used interchangeably with Spaniard, not to denote differing physical characteristics but to further emphasize their perceived “uncivilized” behavior (ibid).

In 1975 Lord noted little interaction between the Spaniard and other Utilians. However, in recent years many young Utilian men have married mainland women. One such marriage occurred during the summer of 2001. Additionally, Lord did extensive research focused on marriages since 1881, and noted that only two “white”/“black” marriages had been documented (ibid). He further remarked that the white men were not Utilians and had come with the merchant fleets because there seemed to be a standing consensus among islanders that “blacks” and “whites” did not marry. Similarly, the recent “black”/“white” marriages on the island had young black Utilian men marrying young white European women. As tourism continues to grow, these isolated incidences might be expected to become more common.
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Top of Page Geographical Boundaries

The social stratifications of Utila also manifest themselves geographically. Lord noted this phenomenon in 1975 and it was still present in 2001. There were six ethnically derived barrios or neighborhoods in East Harbor and one on the combined two populated cays (Pigeon and Suc-Suc). Today, East Harbor has three more. Barrios on Utila were initially established for identification in official documents such as birth and death certificates and maps (Lord 1975). However, islanders began using them as geographical identifications for what kind of Utilian one was, based on the strata discussed above.

In 1975 the barrios in order by size were, Punta Calienta, (the Point), Aldea de los Cayitos (the Cays), Cola de Mico (Monkey’s Tail), La Loma (the Hill), Main Street, Sandy Bay and Holland. In the preliminary figures for the 2000 Honduran Census, the barrios listed in order of size were; Sandy Bay, La Punta (The Point), Cola Mico (Monkey Tail), Los Cayos (the Cays), El Centro (Main Street or the Center of Town), Mamey Lane, La Loma (the Hill), Lozano, Camponado, and Holland (Figure 3.1). The number of houses in a given barrio determines size.

However, as Lord (1975) noted, size was not the important factor for these neighborhoods. Instead the ethnic composition became the dominant factor when islanders would discuss the barrios. In 1975, Sandy Bay was almost exclusively “black,” as it is today. A section of Cola de Mico was also “black.” Main Street was completely “white” with the exception of one Spanish household (ibid). The Point was made up of transplanted Cayans (a term used to distinguish those who live on the Cays from those who live on Utila) with a few scattered Spaniards and “blacks” (ibid). The Cays consisted of only “whites” as did La Loma because this was the first area settled when the original Cayman Islanders moved from the Cays to the main island of Utila (ibid 1975).

Lord also noted other landscape features that came into play in areas of mixed ethnicity such as Cola de Mico (ibid 1975). In this neighborhood the Bucket of Blood Bar (which is still in operation) was a reference point in the landscape. Those that lived below the bar were either white or upper class “blacks,” in contrast to those that lived above the bar who were manly lower class “blacks” (ibid 1975). Today many of these same general ethnic distinctions exist on Utila, with the inclusion of one predominantly Spanish neighborhood, Camponado.

However, because of the general increase in population and the new economic dependence on tourism, the 1990s the predominantly “white” and “black” areas of Utila became more diverse. For example, the Cays are no longer totally “white” but have a few Spanish and “black” families. Additionally, economics do not seem to play a major role in the original neighborhoods, rather families seem to stay in place generation upon generation with little heed to their economic situations. The biggest changes that are taking place in relation to neighborhoods have little to do with the islanders and more to do with developers who have followed the tourism industry.

Utila, and the other Bay Islands, have established themselves as a cultural hearth culminating into a distinct landscape apparent to modern visitors. From the Paya to the various European invaders an imposition of cultural identities has influenced this development. It seems that the geographic location of the islands made them more vulnerable to these landscape changes.

Figure 3.1: Neighborhood Locations on Utila

Figure 3.1: Neighborhood Locations on Utila
(adapted from 1:50,000 series Instituto Geografica Honduras)

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