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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 4

Economic History of Utila as a Precursor to Tourism

Pre-Columbian Economy

Encomiendas and Buccaneering

Agricultural Phase and the Cayman Islanders

The Remittance Period

Top of Page Economic History of Utila as a Precursor to Tourism

Utila has a diverse economic history. The islands’ pre-Columbian inhabitants relied primarily on subsistence agriculture and, more importantly, were oriented to the sea (Davidson 1974; Lord 1975; Stonich 2000). This seaward orientation also can be linked to all post-Columbian settlers of the island. This chapter will discuss the economic history of Utila as it relates to the different cultural groups that inhabited the island. These economic escapades can also be related to landscape change on the island. The unique cultural traits associated with Utilian culture that Lord documents in his work in 1975 will be linked to the new tourism economy of the island. Tourism follows in the traditions of the other economic systems as being yet another catalyst for economic, social, and landscape change.

Underlying every culture are interfaces among economy, society, and polity. These relationships shape and direct these cultures into their respective livelihoods. Lord (1975) documented Utila’s preadaptive traits that stimulated the island into a remittance system. He noted such things as, “the traditional importance of the nuclear family as the production and consumption unit, and a heritage of maritime activity in shipping and fishing” on the island (Lord 1975:6).

Other important features included orientations of individualism, commercialism, and non-cooperation (ibid). He also suggested that because of the nature of a remittance system (i.e. men being absent from the island for months at a time) the men enjoyed a level of indulgence and relaxing of laws and social norms when they return from sea. Therefore, an atmosphere of “rest and recreation” developed on the island as the men participate in “heavy partying and drinking” (Lord 1975:7). These pre-adaptive traits formed an easy transition from an economy based in agriculture to one dependent on maritime service (ibid). These traits also helped in the development of the tourism industry on Utila today.
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Top of Page Pre-Columbian Economy

Only scant archeological evidence exists of the indigenous island cultures. However, documentation is available on the locations of settlement sites and the initial contact Columbus had with the indigenous people and their lands. The “80-Acre” site on Utila provides evidence that Indians lived and worked on the island. According to Columbus’s notes on Bay Islands’ vegetation and what is present today, early islanders probably hunted, cultivated local vegetation, and fished. In addition, his brother Bartholomew, who went ashore on the island of Guanaja, briefly described the local peoples and their “white grain [maize or corn] from which they made a fine bread and the most perfect beer” (Columbus 1960).

From the account of Columbus with the indigenous trader it is probable that islanders had contact with their mainland neighbors as well as with the other inhabited islands. According to Diaz del Castillo, while Cortés was visiting Trujillo, twenty years later fish and turkeys were brought to him that were found in abundance on the islands (Diaz del Castillo 1970:485, cited in Davidson 1974: 29).

The archeological records and reports from the Spanish conquistadors suggest that the original Bay Islanders did not live in cultural seclusion. Instead, they traded with the mainland tribes close to Trujillo and possibly farther. These first inhabitants mastered the fine art of beer making as well as bread and possibly metallurgy. After Spanish Contact, for the next 136 years, the Bay Islanders were subjected to, and treated like, many other Caribbean populations (Davidson 1974). Following the initial slave raids religious “crusades” sought laborers to transport to plantations on Cuba and the Central American mainland (Davidson 1974). For the next 400 years the Bay Islands went through many economic transitions.
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Top of Page Encomiendas and Buccaneering

The Bay Islanders, unlike many other unfortunate indigenous Caribbean populations, survived initial contact with the Spanish only to be forced into servitude most likely on the Spanish encomiendas. The original economic components of the aboriginal Bay Islands, such as fishing, farming and trading, were not abandoned. These activities, especially farming, were probably expanded to fit the inclinations of the new Spanish colonial systems. Spanish needs not related to food production, such as craft production, were also begun (Davidson 1974).

Many of the initial reports concerning the physical geography of the islands characterized them as being fertile (Davidson 1974). The Spanish, who were based in Trujillo less than twenty-five years after contact, viewed the islands as a potential source for food (Cortés 1970; cited in Davidson 1974:37). In addition, European livestock such as chickens and hogs were introduced to the islands, further diversifying the economy. This increase in diversity and eventual productivity gave the islanders prominence as the lone agricultural supporters of the port of Trujillo (Pedraza 1544; Guerra y Avala 1608; cited in Davidson 1974:37).

Some suggest that this increase in production was related to the introduction of encomienda system. This economic institution was initiated in Honduras in 1536 by Pedro de Alvarado and was documented in Trujillo in 1539 (Alvarado 1536; Konetzken 1953; cited in Davidson 1974:37). Early encomiendas were associated with significant landscape and cultural change on the islands as well as elsewhere in the New World. This system regulated all aspects of the indigenous persons’ life from dwelling size and land standardization to religion and language (West and Augelli 1989).

Another change that took place because of this economic system dealt with the ways in which the islands were used and seen by the Spanish. Before the institution of the encomienda, the Bay Islands were treated as a single unit and the islanders were closely tied to each other in terms of production of goods and services to the mainland.

However, this system broke the cohesion between the islands, and Utila was no longer attached to Trujillo. Instead, probably because of its geographical location, Utila was first attached to Puerto Caballos and then to Munguiche, coastal towns located farther to the west (Anonymous 1539; Arguijo 1527; cited in Davidson 1974:38). At this time, Trujillo and Puerto Caballos were the major ports in this region and by 1582 the Bay Islands were producing sufficient foodstuffs to support the Spanish ports and ships returning to the Spanish homeland (Davidson 1974).

While the Spanish were successfully exploiting their new territories other European countries began to understand the value of the New World possessions. Spain’s rivals thought that the best way to reap quick benefits would be to intercept Spanish ships of New World goods as they left their Central American ports. In 1643 the Bay Islands became a strategic point of interception because of their location in the Bay of Honduras (Galvin 1991).

As the Spanish encomienda system was thriving, the freebooters from France, Netherlands and mainly England found refuge in the islands. Because of the pirating activities, which began in the 1600s, the Spanish eventually called for the complete removal of the Bay Islands’ population as well as any significant economic activity on the islands. For Utila, it was nearly one hundred years before any real economic activity resurfaced.
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Top of Page Agricultural Phase and the Cayman Islanders

Unlike the other nearby islands, Utila had a relatively quiet existence during the Spanish and Buccaneering period. Although Lord (1975) found evidence of an encomienda present on the island there was not much in the way of pirate activity because of the island’s physical geography.

Utila had fewer places for the pirates to hide and it was much more difficult for them to penetrate the surrounding reef. It has been suggested that, as England considered the abolition of slavery, plantation owners of the Caymen Islands began to look elsewhere to settle (Davidson 1974; Lord 1975). Utila and its cays were an inviting possibility. The early 1830s brought a new culture and subsequently a new economic agenda to the island (Davidson 1974; Lord 1975).

The Cayman Islanders were one of the first groups to settle permanently on the Bay Islands. The first wave of islanders chose the Utila Cays as their final destination. It has been documented that nearly a dozen people migrated here (Lord 1975). These farmers were looking for a place to go that had free land so they could cultivate subsistence crops (Lord 1975). Because these new residents were of British origin they began to create ties, mostly commercial in nature, with the closest British outpost in British Honduras (Belize). However, Utila was fairly autonomous during its first years after permanent settlement.

Not until 1849 did the Bay Islands petition the Crown to be included in the British Empire (Evans 1966). Their first attempts were directed unsuccessfully towards Belize but three years later the islanders were successful. The political compact did little to improve Utila’s economy. Development began only in 1868 when the small island gained a relationship with the United States, one that lasts until the present.

About 1854 the islanders began to cultivate coconuts and bananas, among other things, to sell to a few ports around the Bay of Honduras. This growing trade relationship spurred the original Cayman settlers to relocate to Utila (now East Harbor) where land was more plentiful for plantation agriculture (Rose 1904). This new Utilian economy based on export farm production coincided with the United States agricultural import interests, especially fruit that took Utila’s economy to a new level.

According to Lord (1975), economic expansion occurred in 1868 when two schooners from Portland, Maine arrived on Utila to buy bananas and coconuts for sale in New Orleans. Limes, bananas, coconuts, and other tropical fruits were also exported to New York, Tampa, and Boston (Lord 1975). As shown in table 4.1 as late as 1881 Utila was shipping goods to the United States. However by the end of the nineteenth century, the much larger United States fruit companies such as Standard Fruit and United Fruit overwhelmed the small operations from Utila.

Coconut Banana Plantain Mango Lime Pineapple
950 1880 bunches 5000 5 lbs 1 lb 16 dozen

Table 4.1: Utilian Goods exported to New Orleans, 1881
(US Customhouse Records 1881)

The initial fruit operation on Utila was much different than that which developed later. The system that was prominent in the mid 1800s relied on “pickups” (Lord 1975: 33). The Bay Islands were just one of many tropical ports that these companies visited to support their business (Wilson 1968). However these “pickups” were time consuming and gave the companies little control over the quality of product they received (Lord 1975). Therefore, by the early 1900s the precursors of the United Fruit in Tela and Standard Fruit in La Ceiba had clearly made themselves the new fruit ports and the “pickup” ports, like Utila and the rest of the Bay Islands, had become obsolete.

In 1872, Utila’s economy suffered another blow when the Bay Islands became a department of Honduras (Rose 1904; Valladares 1939; Lord 1975). Although the islands continued to govern themselves, Honduras wanted to enforce the Wyke-Cruz Treaty. In doing this, the Honduran government was essentially curtailing the islands’ relationship with the United States. Rose commented on the situation as follows:

"…the (ensuing) change of laws gave a crippling blow, for some time, to the industries in the islands and to the hopes of the people. There was general discontent chiefly on account of the high import duties imposed under the new laws. And this discontent was perhaps excusable, because the people had always been accustomed to very low tariffs (Rose 1904:35-36)."

The islanders honored the stipulations of the treaty to a certain extent, but many believed that they could continue living under English common law. This was a mistake on their part, and in 1902 the islands were visited by the H.M.S. Psyche, a vessel sent to inform the Bay Islanders that they were no longer British citizens (Lord 1975). The islands did not prosper from the fruit business that was booming on the mainland, instead, the islanders, for the next 40 years, struggled to reverse the slump they had entered into at the turn of the century.

On Utila islanders were forced to begin making concessions, both socially and economically, while trying to regain their former lifestyles (Rose 1904). American imported luxury items, which the islanders had become accustomed to purchasing, were no longer economically possible. Specialized plantation crops that were sold during the “pickup” period were diversified to fit the available markets (Lord 1975).

From 1929 to 1939, these agricultural markets declined; wage labor was scarce because little craft specialization had taken place on the island, and the shipping industry was defunct (ibid). Thus, in 1929 the “Coconut Oil” years began on Utila (ibid). Coconuts were one of the crops that had become more important after the brief fruit trade business ended and became the island’s primary income producer. The process of making coconut oil was time consuming, labor intensive, and rather arduous (ibid). The population of Utila became very resourceful during this time of economic depression and certain social and cultural traits began to form. In fact, the beginning of the next decade was a turning point for Utilian society.

In the words of Lord (1975:36), “the decade of the 1940s marked a dramatic turning point in Utila’s history, and two events in particular at the beginning of this period colored the socio-cultural systems in Utila today.” More importantly, for the purposes of this work, this new economic system and the cultural adaptations which developed out of it have been influential in the development of the tourism industry that dominates the island’s economy today.
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Top of Page The Remittance Period

Although the coconut industry on Utila did see a veritable boom period and islanders began aspiring to travel and become educated in the United States, reality struck as the price of coconut dropped to only 5 US cents each in the 1950s. Yet another economic slump ensued on the island.

However, large scale merchant shipping had reached the Bay of Honduras by the 1940s, and the versatile islanders, who were already competent and experienced sailors, took advantage of the opportunity. The heritage of Utila’s men going to sea to fish and to carry products to market coupled with their attachment to Anglo-America, made the transition from farming and fishing to maritime service a logical and easy step.

Additionally, the labor intensive cash crop farming in the insect-infested bush and the poor market conditions of the “post bellum” economy ensured that fishing and agriculture would never again be more than a part time income source for most Utilians (Lord 1975). Many of Utila’s banana and coconut plantations by 1950 had been destroyed by disease and hurricanes (ibid). Therefore, the maritime service industry, which began during the 1940s, became the primary economic institution on the island.

In Charles Wilson’s 1968 work, he discusses the beginnings of the merchant marine service in the Bay Islands (Wilson 1968). He traced its origins to World War II, when the United States, in 1940, leased some of the larger and better equipped banana ships for emergency defense duty (ibid).

By 1941, the United Fruit Company began sending representatives to Utila and the other islands to sign up men to work on their steamship lines. Shortly, some of the men found themselves working in the United States merchant shipping service (Lord 1975). Neither Lord nor Wilson were clear on whether United Fruit was involved in the emergency leasing program or if they were simply training a reserve of sailors for their own use, nevertheless scores of Utilian men were acquiring marketable skills as the coconut industry dwindled (Wilson 1968; Lord 1975).

The remittance period in Utila’s economic history was born out of necessity both for the Utilians and the United States. After World War II adult males ranging in age from 18 to 55, on regular basis left their island home to sail the open ocean (Lord 1975). For periods of nine to twelve months, men would work for various shipping lines, sending their wages home (ibid). These jobs were a dependable source of income for the men and their families. Additionally, the fringe benefits while on the ships secured this occupation as a lasting economic industry for Utila. During this time, Utila again oriented itself to the United States.

The USA became the land of opportunity for many Utilians. Children were sent to New Orleans for schooling and many families subsequently moved to the United States. New York and New Orleans have large Utilian communities today. As the merchant business of the 1940s took off, many locals realized that trying to make a living solely on agriculture and reclaiming the lifestyle before the introduction of the remittance system was unrealistic. This fact was reinforced in 1961 when Hurricane Anna struck the Bay of Honduras.

Although the hurricane did not strike Utila directly, according to Lord, some 75,000 coconut palms were destroyed approximately one-third of the islands’ total (ibid). He also reported, for nearly two years following the event not a single plantain could be found growing on the island (ibid). Subsequently, few men were inclined to repair the damage and hopes of reestablishing an agricultural market on the island were dashed. Utila settled into the remittance system that still exists in some form, but tourism has become of increasing importance.

Many traditional elements of Utila’s society pre-adapted it for the remittance system and more importantly for this discussion, for the developing tourism industry today. These traditions include an emphasis on individualism, commercialism, and consumerism or non-cooperation (Lord 1975). Lord suggested that these pre-adaptations are intimately interrelated and share equal importance in motivating the islanders into economic situations (ibid).

Since the Cayman Islanders first began farming on the island a shared attitude of independent economic, social, and political action has created the basis for the cultural trait of individualism (ibid). The first farmers were generally independent of their neighbors. The lack of inter-family dependency allowed men to leave the islands to take part in the remittance system because families were so independent.

As tourism began to develop as a viable industry on the island very little cooperative effort was seen and businesses started, and continue to run, as family operations. Commercialism and consumerism follow along these same lines in that it is rare to see any sort of cooperative work ventures. This attitude is still present today, and is evident in the constant price wars between dive shops and hotel owners and the general skepticism that has occurred when ideas of creating regulations on prices are introduced by foreign owners.

Additionally social and political actions tend to be more self-serving. Since the time of the original settlers, one’s prestige and other accomplishments have been considered a function of individual effort, thus preserving the ideas of non-cooperation (ibid). These traits can still be seen as islanders only get “up-in-arms” if their personal businesses are being effect by another’s actions.

More importantly for this discussion were the adaptations islanders made during the remittance period concerning attitudes of “rest and relaxation” for the men who returned home from sea. This point will be discussed further in the next chapter as I describe the development of the tourism industry on Utila. In total the economic history of Utila has had many peaks and valleys, from subsistence agriculture to commercial agriculture to the remittance period and now tourism. However, these endeavors have fostered certain traits that have helped the islanders to survive.
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