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Archeological Investigations in the Bay Islands, Spanish Honduras

Table of Contents Environmental History Explorations Roatan References

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The question as to what white men first ?discovered? the Bay Islands and the adjacent mainland of Honduras is one that an archeologist may justly shy away from. According to Fiske, it was the trio, Vincente Ya?z Pinzon, Juan Diaz de Solis, and Americus Vespucius, in the years 1497-1498.5 This date has been discounted by various other historians, who claim that the evidence of their association and voyage is too tenuous for acceptance. Fortunately, it is a matter of slight importance in the present connection, since neither Pinzon, Solis, nor Vespucis have left any observations that can be referred to the Bay Islands.

One is on safe ground, however, in regard to the fourth and last voyage of Columbus. The great Admiral sighted the island of Bonacca (Guanaja) on July 30, 1502, and it was from this place that he first gazed upon the Central American mainland, searching in vain for the great cities of Asia that, to the day of his death, seemed just beyond his farthest voyaging.

Besides the Admiral?s, there are some five eye-witness accounts of this voyage.6

5 1892, II, chap 7. Fiske believes that these three, inspired by the second voyage of Columbus sailed from Spain to the Bay Islands and the mainland near Cape Gracias ?Dios, and thence north up the coast perhaps as far as Chesapeake Bay. This voyage of Pinzon and Solis is usually given the date of 1506, assigned by Herrera (see Conzemuis, 1928, p. 59, and Navarrete, 1829, p. 46), but Fiske cites Gomara, Oviedo, and other sources indicating that it was prior to 1500.
6 The letter of Columbus to the Spanish Sovereigns, written from Jamaica in 1503, Hakluyt Society, 1847, pp. 169-203; the letter of Diego de Porras, Navarrete, 1829 I, pp. 283-284; the Testament of Diego Mendez, in 1536, Hakluyt Society, 1848, pp. 204-234; the probanzas of Diego Columbus, in 1515, Navarrete, 1825-1829, III, p. 556; the letter written by Bartholomew Columbus, in 1505 or 1506, Harrisse, 1866, p. 473; and the ?Historie del S. D. Fernando Colombo; Nelle quail s? ha particolare, & vera relatione della vita, & de? fatti dell? Ammiraglio D. Christoforo Colombo, suo padre . . . . etc. In Venetia, MDLXXI. Appresso Francesco de? Franceschi Sanese.? The edition here cited is the reprint of London, 1867, Cap. 88, pp. 288-296. See Columbus, Ferdinand.

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In addition, the historians, Las Casas, Peter Martyr, and Herrera give very complete accounts.7 Of these the first two are especially valuable. While Las Casas was writing his great work at Valladolid, between 1552 and 1561, he had access to all the invaluable letters and papers collected by Ferdinand Columbus, and in addition he was intimately acquainted with the family of the great explorer. Peter Martyr was also a personal friend of many of the explorers, and owing to his high position in the Council of the Indies, he had ample opportunity to satisfy his intense personal interest in the new lands of which Europe was then just becoming fully aware. Herrera compiled his material at a later date.

Columbus himself, merely mentions Bonacca, which he called the ?Isle of Pines?. In regard to the mainland to the south and east he mentions that the natives used sails, had elaborate cotton textiles, worked copper with crucibles and forges, and that in Cariay (the Mosquito Coast) he saw an elaborately sculptured sepulcher and heard of others. The people, he says, were fishermen and barbarians speaking many languages and adds that he saw more gold in Veragua (northern Panama) in 2 days than he had seen in the Antilles in 4 years. This letter in its totality is one of the most tragic documents in history.

De Porras says that Bonacca would measure 20 leagues around but that it contained nothing of benefit, presumably gold or treasure. He describes its inhabitants as a warlike people of good stature, who were archers. From Bonacca he states that the adjacent mainland appeared high and near, being only 10 leagues distant. From this island they took an Indian to translate fro them, who gave them the names of some of the mainland provinces. De Porras stresses the savage nature of the peoples to the south, who were so cautious that groups living only 20 leagues apart did not understand each other. The testament of Diego Mendez does not mention the Bay Islands.

In the Probanzas of Diego Columbus is the testimony of Pedro de Ledesma, pilot and Captain of the warship Vizacaino. Ledesma states that "12 leagues before the mainland they found an island that the Indians called Guanaja and the Admiral called 'of Pines' where they leapt ashore and talked with a Se?r who called himself Imbibe, and from here they crossed over toward the mainland which is called the land of Maya in the language of the Indians and from here to the coast ahead as far as a cape which the Admiral called Gracias ?Dios".

7Las Casas, 1875, II, chap 20; Herrera, 1726-1730, Dec. I, Lib. V, Cap. V; and Peter Martyr, 1812, 4th chap. of 3rd decade, pp. 481-482

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Bartholomew Colunbus states that "The Island of Banassa which they discovered here has very robust people who worship idols. Their food is mostly a certain bleached grain the height of a cesare which grows just as it grows in the balleare in clumps, from which they make excellent bread. . . . In this place they took a ship of theirs (the natives) loaded with merchandise and wares and were told that it came from a certain province called Maiam or Iuncatam8 with many garments of silk [sic] of diverse colors."

Ferdinand Columbus was a boy of only fourteen when he accompanied his father on his last voyage. Subsequently he gathered together a great library of books and manuscripts pertaining to the discoveries of the period. This magnificent collection, some 20,000 volumes, furnished the source material for most of the early historians, but about four-fifths of the collection has now disappeared. The "Historie" written by Ferdinand Columbus, survives only in the Italian translation of Alfonso Ulloa. It is thought that the latter may have tampered with the text in places.9 Las Casas apparently had access to the same manuscript sources and the concurrence of the two accounts, at least regarding this immediate region, is close. Las Casas will be quoted at some length and only additional facts in the "Historie" need be given here, for some of these seem to have the human touch of an eye witness not found elsewhere.

Ferdinand called the island Guanara, and locates it 12 leagues from the mainland near the point his father called "Casine". Latter, in 1508, he says, this point was designated as the Cape of Honduras on the voyage of Solis. The island contained nothing of worth save pieces of earth called calcide, from which copper is smelted, and some sailors, thinking this was gold, kept pieces for a long time.

8Lothrop 1924, p.13, and 1928, pp. 354, 355, points out that the word "Yucatan", a Spanish corruption of the native phrase, did not come into use until 1517, whereas this letter was written in 1505 or 1506. The original document bears out this contention insomuch as the words "vel Iuncatam" are superscribed over the word "Maiam" and do not belong to the original text. See Brinton, 1882, p.10. Lothrop concludes that this touched-up passage is doubtless the source of later historians (and ethnologists) that the captured canoe came from Yucatan.
9Harrisse, 1871, and elsewhere, has attacked the authenticity and value of the "Historie", but Fiske, 1892, I, p. 340, defends is as "of priceless [historical] value".

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While his half brother, Bartholomew, was ashore, a canoe laden with merchandise arrived for the western parts toward New Spain. Of the flint-edged, wooden swords in the cargo Ferdinand says that they cut naked men like steel, and he remarks on their copper axes which were similar to the stone axes of other Indians. He mentions their maize drink "similar to English beer" and says of the cacao nuts that they were so highly valued that if one fell "everyone bent to seize it, as if it had been their eye". Columbus released all but "one old man called Giumbe, of good authority and prudence" who served faithfully as guide and interpreter" wherever his language was understood". When they reached an area where it was not understood, "which was before we arrived at Cape Gracias ?Dios on the coast of Orecchia", he was given presents and sent back to his own country "very contented".

Columbus, according to Ferdinand, proceeded to Casine from Guanara. Here the people were of the same disposition as those of the other island (Bonacca), who did not have such broad foreheads. There were many languages among them, and the Spaniards had to talk by signs since their interpreter had been with them too short a time to know their language, nor did he know the Indian language of Hispaniola, which many of the sailor had learned.10 The people who lived near Casine wore the same sort of painted shirts and small squares over their loins as those who were in the trading canoe. Some wore shirts like those of the Spaniards, reaching to the navel and without sleeves. They made breastplates of cotton which turned the blows of their own weapons and even those from some of the Spanish arms. Their arms and bodies were decorated with burned or painted designs of lions, deer, turreted castles, and other diverse figures. The more noble wore small squares of white and red cotton instead of caps, and some had tassels of hair hanging on the forehead. The faces of some were dyed black, others red, and some streaked, while others blackened their eyes or wore bird beaks, all of which they believed made them beautiful, but to the Spaniards they appeared as devils. They brought several hundred loads of provisions, including excellent chickens of their country, roasted fish, red and white beans similar to kidney beans, and other things as presents. Having delivered presents they fell back without saying a word.

10This is a somewhat obscure passage:
"Il prefetto allor comand?che fossero lor donati sonagli, e Ave Marie, e alter cosette: e dimand?loro per segni delle cose della regione per lo interprete sopraddetto: ancorch? per esser poco tempo, che era con noi, non intendeva i cristiani, per la distanza, come che poca, della sua terra della Spagnuola, ove molti de'navigli aveano appreso il parlare indiano: n?meno intendeva gl'istessi Indiani; . . ."

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Of the people to the east, as far as Cape Gracias ?Dios, he says that they were black, of ugly appearance, and very savage. They had nothing of copper and, according to nearby Indians, they ate human flesh and fish raw as they killed them. Their ears were pierced with so large a hole that one could easily pass a hen's egg through, hence Columbus called that region Orecchia (the coast of ears).

The account of Las Casas is as follows:

"Finally, with great difficulties, dangers and indescribable labor, they arrived and discovered a small island that the Indians called Guanaja, and it had for neighbors three or four other islands, smaller than this one, that the Spanish afterwards called Guanajas, all were well populated. At this island the Admiral commanded his brother Do?Bartolom?Col?, Governor of this island, that he go ashore as captain of a boat and get news; he went, taking two boats full of people, found the natives very peaceful and of the type of those of the other islands [i.e., the Antilles], except that they did not have broad foreheads, and, because there were many pines there, the Admiral named it Isle of Pines. This island is a matter of 12 leagues distant from the cape that they now call Cape of Honduras, where there is or was the Spanish city that they called Trujillo, and which now has five or six residents; . . . As soon as the Governor had gone ashore at this island of Guanajes or Guanaja, a canoe full of Indians arrived, as long as a galley and 8 feet broad; it came loaded with goods from the west, and must be certainly from the land of Yucat?, because it is near here, a matter of 30 leagues or so [sic]; in the middle of the canoe they had an awning of matting made of palm which they call petates in New Spain, inside and under which were their women, children and property and goods, so that neither the water of the sea or of the sky could wet anything. The goods and things that they brought were, many cotton blankets, very gay with many colors and designs, and sleeveless shirts, also colored and designed, and some of the sashes with which the men covered their private parts, of the same colors and designs. Item, wooden swords with some grooves in the blades and there were attached with pitch and fibers certain flint knives, small copper hatchets to cut wood, and bells (cascabeles) and some medals, crucibles to melt the cooper; many cacao nuts which they use for money in New Spain, and in Yucatan, and in other parts. Their supply of provisions was corn bread and some edible roots, which must have been those which in this Espa?la we call ajes and batates (sweet potatoes), and in New Spain camotes (sweet potatoes). Up to 25 men came in the canoe and they did not dare defend themselves nor flee seeing the ships of the Christians, and so they took them in their canoe to the Admiral's ship; and those from the canoe climbing onto the ship, if it happened that their underclothing was caught, then they put their hands in front of them, and the women covered their faces and bodies with shawls as the Moors of Granada used to do with their scarves."

The account of Herrera is practically identical, except that he mentions that the sleeveless shirts were without collars and reached to the knee;

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that the cotton blankets were not only colored but were also decorated with needlework; that the men's sashes were of the type called in New Spain mastil (i.e., breeches), and that the Indian boat crew had a wine or beer made of maize. He continues, that the Admiral was impressed with their honesty and modesty, "and treated them very well, and taking from them some of the showy things to take back for a sign he ordered given them things of Spain in recompense, and he permitted all of them to go in their canoe except an old man who seemed a judicious person so that he could give them word of what was in this land; because the first thing of which the Admiral inquired signs, was showing them the gold that they give him news of the land where it was : and because that old man pointed out, that they had it towards the parts of the East, they retained him, and took him until they did not understand his language [just west of Cape Gracias ?Dios] before they let him return to his country". Las Casas' and Herrera's description of the people on the adjacent mainland agrees with that of Ferdinand Columbus.

The account of Peter Maryr contains a few variants. The explorers came to an island,

"which the inhabitantes call Guanassa, so florishing and fruitefull, that it might seem an earthly Paradyse. Coasting along by the shores of this Ilande, hee [Columbus] mette two of the Canoas, or boats of those provinces, whiche were drawne with two naked slaves against the streame. In these boates was caryed a ruler of the Ilande, with his wife and children, all naked. The slaves seeing our men alande, made signes to them with proud countenance in their maisters name, to stand out of the way, and threatned them, if they would not give place. Their simpleness is such, that they neyther feared the multitude, or power of our men, or the greatnesse and straungenesse of our shyppes. They thought that our men would have honoured their maister with like reverence as they did. Our menne had intelligence at the length, that this ruler was a great marchant, which came to the marte from other coastes of the Iland: for they exercise buying and selling by exchaunge within their confines. He also had with him a good store of such ware as they stande in neede of, or take pleasure in; as laton belles, rasers, knives, and hatchettes made of a certayne sharpe yellowe bright stone, with handles of a strong kinde of wood: also many other necessarie instruments with kytchen stuffe, and vesselles for all necessary uses: likewise sheetes of Gossampine cotton, wrought of sundry colours."

Columbus then proceeded to a large land "ten myles distant" which the inhabitants called Quiriquetana but he named Ciamba. When he landed, the inhabitants flocked around without fear and brought the Spaniards gifts of food. In this great land there were two regions, one called Tuia and the other Maia. The country was pleasant and well wooded. Beside "Gossampine" and "date trees", from which textiles and long, broad swords and darts are made respectively, maize, yucca, potatoes, and various medicinal plants were abundant.

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The inhabitants "are of hyh and goodly stature, well lymmed and portioned, both men and women covering their privie partes with fyne breeches of gossampine cotton, wrought with divers colours". The natives, to make themselves beautiful in their own eyes, painted their bodies red and black with "the iuyce of certayne apples which they plant in their gardens for the same purpose". Plant, flower, and knot designs were employed for such paintings, according to the fancy of the individual. Peter Martyr concludes with the statement that: "Their language differeth utterly from theirs of the Ilandes neere about them [the Greater Antilles?]."

The death of Isabella in 1504 was a sad blow to the Indians of the Caribbean, for she had been much interested in her new subjects and had ordered that they be well treated. The bars having been let down by Ferdinand, enslavement of the natives went on apace and both the Greater and Lesser Antilles were soon depleted of their native population. Since importation of negro slaves into Spanish Dominions was forbidden, expeditions were soon sent far afield in search of captives to work the mines. The peaceful inhabitants of the Bay Islands did not escape, and from 1516 to 1526 suffered several raids by Spaniards from Cuba and Jamaica. Since the enslavement of Indians who took up arms against the Spanish or were cannibals was permitted, it was simple enough to justify these expeditions at home. One of the first of these raids occurred in 1516, when two vessels from Cuba rounded up a great number of Indian slaves on the Bay Islands. They were battened below hatches, and the larger vessel sailed to Cuba, leaving the men with the smaller vessel to round up the survivors. Arriving at Santiago, the Spaniards left only a few of their number on guard while the others went ashore. Apprised of their departure by ensuing silence, the Indians broke out, killed the guards, and hoisting the sails, made their way without compass or chart across more than 650 miles of open sea to their island homes. On their arrival they fell upon the remaining Spaniards and soon drove them away. Unfortunately, this act of poetic justice was soon upset by the arrival of more Spaniards from Cuba, who, after a desperate fight, broke down the Indian resistance and sailed away with some 400 slaves.11 It is not remarkable that after such happenings as these, Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba with two other leaders, returning from Yucatan in 1517, received such a hot reception from the Bay Islanders that they "lost the major part [of the attacking force] by the impetus and destruction of their slings and arrows." (Alcedo y Herrera, 1883, pp. VIII-IX)

11For more details see Herrera, 1601, Dec. II, Lib. II Cap. VII; also Squier 1858, pp. 605-606; and Conzemius, 1928, pp. 59-62

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It was Hernando Cortez, the iron-handed conqueror of Mexico, who brought to an end the enslavement of the surviving Bay Islanders. During his brief stay at Trujillo (1525-1526) he despatched one or two armed expeditions to drive off slave hunters from the islands. He states that the Indians were peaceably disposed and that he desired by mild treatment to reduce them to the service of the crown. In a letter to Charles V, dated September 3, 1526, he states that owing to these slave-hunting expeditions, some of the Bay Islands had become entirely depopulated.12 From this time until 1530, when the enslavement of Indians was prohibited throughout the Spanish Dominions, the Bay Islands were not further molested.

Cortez had undoubtedly brought blood and iron to the peoples of the valley of Mexico, but to the harried Bay Islanders he brought peace and comparative safety. Their chiefs sent in their allegiance and received letters of protection and, in return for their abundant fish, Cortez gave them some sows and a boar, whose wild progeny soon overran the islands. From this time on, the Bay Islands were governed from Trujillo, the newly founded capital of Honduras, and the Indians supplied the town with fish, cassava, and maize. They were employed in public works and, besides fishing, transported passengers and freight by sea. The Spaniards regarded them as very ingenious, stating that they made excellent cordage and cables as well as providing pitch, tar, and lime.13

Close as the contact between the Islanders and the Spaniards appears to have been during this brief halcyon period, there seems to be little on record concerning the customs of the Indians. When L?ez de Salcedo was appointed Governor of Honduras in 1527, he attempted to learn what he could concerning the religion and customs of the Indians of that province. Herrera's summary of the results of this inquiry are tantalizingly brief. He states that there were three principal idols near Trujillo which were worshipped in temples. One of these was located on an island about 15 Spanish leagues from Trujillo. Possibly this was at Plan Grande on Bonacca, but at any rate it would seem to have been on the Bay Islands. The idols were all of female shape and of a green marble-like stone. They were attended by a priest with long hair, who was forbidden to marry and who, through the power of the idol, had great influence in the community.

12See Conzemius, 1928, pp. 61-61, for references to the original sources. 13Conzemius, 1928, pp. 62-63, and D. Francisco de Avila y Lugo, cited by Squier, 1858, p. 610.

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In addition, the Indians had other idols and adoratios to which they made sacrifices. The idols served to ward off bad luck and bring good fortune to the farms and towns. The priest was called Papa and taught the sons of the upper classes (caballeros) at the temple. To challenge the power of the idols, Hernando de Saavedra burned the one nearest to Trujillo, and the priest, who has said that the idol would destroy any who profaned it, thereupon cut off his hair and became a Christian. (Herrera, 1726-30, Dec. IV, Lib. I, Cap. VI.)

The century of quiet, during which Spanish effort had been concentrated in the richer fields of Mexico and Peru, was brought to a close by the rise of the buccaneers in the Caribbean. These marauders found the Bay Islands a favorable and strategic haven, and the Spanish soon began to look askance at the Indian plantations there which offered food and shelter to their enemies. The raid of Van Horne in 1639 brought matters to a crisis, and in that year De Avila, Governor of Honduras, was requested by the President of the Audiencia of Guatenala to investigate conditions on the Bay Islands and to define a policy towards them.14 De Avila reports that there were then about 400 Indians on the islands living in four towns, Guanaja, Masa, Roata, and Utila. The people of Guanaja, especially the grandson of the cacique, were conspiring with and aiding the buccaneers, but the Indians of the other islands seemed to be loyal to Spain. The town of Guanaja (Bonacca) had 84 tributaries (i.e., adult men); Masa and Roata had barely 14 tributaries, of whom about 9 were encomienda to one Gonzalez. Masa was evidently located on Helena Island and Roata about 2 leagues from Barreros (a port on the southern shore of Roatan marked by red barrancas visible for the sea). The people of these two towns, it is said, suffered much from mosquitoes, whereby the population had been reduced. Utila had as many as 22 tributaries who were encomienda to another Spaniard. The main port seems to have been East Harbor, and the Indians had their cornfields inland. All four towns had been burned by the Dutch in that year.

Although De Avila makes no written recommendation for the removal of the aborigines, this was then being seriously considered. It actually took place in 1650 after the recapture of the islands from the English logwood cutters and illicit traders, who had seized and fortified Port Royal. This affair will be mentioned in another place.

14This report is published in translation by Squier, 1858, pp. 608-614.

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It is not known how many Indians remained after this fighting and turmoil subsided, but all that did were removed to Guatemala, where they either died out or rapidly disappeared as a distinct people. (Conzemuis, 1928, pp. 65-66). So ends the Indian history of the Bay Islands.

With the ensuing history of the Bay Islands we are less directly concerned. Certain phases of the buccaneer and the following period are mentioned in connection with Port Royal. The last British claim to the islands was formally established in 1850. This was considered by the United States as being in direct opposition to the Monroe Doctrine and the Clayton-Bulwer treaty of 1850, and a tense diplomatic situation developed. The matter was peacefully settled in 1859 when Great Britain negotiated a treaty by which the islands were returned to Honduras. Since that time they have formed the Department of the Bay Islands under the Republic of Honduras. Although Spanish became the official language in 1872, English is still spoken by the bulk of the somewhat heterogeneous population. Indeed, it was not until 1902 that the majority of the English population realized that their assumed British nationality and claims to British protection were without any basis in fact. (Rose, 1904, chap. 15.)

Considering the early and close contact between the Spanish and the original Bay Islanders, which extended from 1503 until 1650, it is surprising that not enough of the native language survives to place them linguistically. Neither early sources nor recent linguistic research give much direct aid in this regard. The former are obscure, but they do suggest that both the culture and language of the Bay Islands was very close to that of certain major groups on the adjacent mainland.

There has been much discussion concerning the language spoken by the interpreter whom Columbus acquired from the trading canoe at Bonacca. Lothrop denies that there is any evidence of this canoe having come from Yucatan and cites the early writers to prove that the province of Maia, here referred to, was actually on the Honduras mainland.15 More recently, Blom has stated positively that the traders were Maya, presumably from Yucatan. He bases this conclusion on the term Maiam, and the word zuyen, which he says Bartholomew Columbus gives as the native name for the square cloaks found in the canoe. In the Motul dictionary the Maya word zuyem is given for similar cloaks.16

15Lothrop, 1924, 1927. In the latter he suggests that the canoe may have been en route to Yucatan with chipped stone, etc., but there seems to be no direct evidence for this.
16See Blom, 1932, pp. 533-534, 546, and 548. Dr Blom (letter of August 24, 1934) calls my attention to an error in this paper in regard to footnote 2, which should occur after the fourth instead of third paragraph. In a letter (October 1, 1934) Dr Blom points out that the word zuyen is used by Cogolludo (vol. I, p. 8, 1867 edition). Cogolludo, however, cannot be regarded as a primary source in this regard.

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The latter bit of evidence would go far toward settling this controversial point, since it would indicate that the traders spoke Maya, or at least used a Maya term for such articles of clothing. However, I have been unable to find the word zuyen in the Bartholomew Columbus letter as given by Harrisse (1866), or in Las Casas, Oviedo, or other primary sources. If it does occur in an eye-witness account it strengthens the case for the traders being Maya, but I cannot vouch for this.

Two citations from early historians, given by Blom, offer evidence that canoes from Yucatan commonly traded in this region. Oviedo states: "Because along said coast there is an extensive trade in said fruit cacao, which is used as money among the Indians, and which is very useful and precious, and richest and most highly estimated merchandise which they have, canoes go from Yucat? loaded with clothing and other goods, to Ulua, and from there they return loaded with cacao." (Oviedo, III, 1853, p.253.) Landa writes that "the occupation to which they are most inclined is trading, carrying salt, clothing and slaves to the lands of Ulua and Tabasco, exchanging it for cacao and beads of stone which both were like money and with this money they could buy slaves and other beads, granting that they were fine and good, which the chiefs wore as jewelry during the feasts, and they had other beads made out of certain red shells which were valued as money and personal jewelry, and they bought them in their network bags." (Landa, as cited by Blom, 1932, p. 546.)

It is evident, therefore, that the region around the mouth of the Uloa was an important trade center where much cacao was obtained, and that canoes such as the one encountered by Columbus were common carriers along this coast. This, however, does not mean that only the Maya indulged in the carrying trade. Bartholomew Columbus, speaking of a people south of Cape Gracias ?Dios, says; "Following farther as far as a land called Cariai in which live people of good strength who live by industry and trading as they do in the province which is called Maia" (Harrisse, 1866, p. 472.) Hence, there seems good reason to believe that not only Yucatecan Maya, but also Chol or Chorti Maya and Jicaque from the Uloa region, the Bay Islanders themselves, and certain peoples on the Nicaraguan coast, all induldged in coastal trading.

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Concerning the location of the province of Maia, Lothrop believes it was on the Honduras mainland but that the term was only accidentally, not linguistically, cognate with Maya proper. Blom believes that it refers to the Maya regions of Yucatan. The eye witness, Ledesma, and the historian Peter Martyr, are specific in locating the province of Maia on the Honduras mainland. Bartholomew Columbus makes Maia equivalent to Yucatan but, as already pointed out, this equivalence may well have been a later and alien addition to his text. Las Casas, and after him Herrera, assign the canoe to Yucatan, but this may have been based on the touched-up letter, as Lothrop believes.

As the evidence now stands, there is no positive proof regarding either the language spoken by the traders at Bonacca or the location of the region Maia. Regarding the first, it is clear that "Giumbe" could make himself understood among certain groups on the mainland adjacent to the Bay Islands, but it is equally certain that several different languages were spoken even in the immediate vicinity of the Cape of Honduras. My own interpretation of the evidence is that "Giumbe" and his fellow merchants had come from the western part of Honduras, probably from near the mouth of the Uloa, and that their native tongue, which may have be Chol or Chorti Maya, Jicaque, or even Lenca, was understandable to numerous mainland groups to the west of Cape Gracias ?Dios. As to the provenience of the land of "Maia", I incline towards the testimony of Ledesma and Peter Martyr, that it was on the Honduras mainland. If it were one of the provinces of the culturally advanced Uloa region occupied by Maya, all the bites of evidence concerning these much-discussed traders fall into line. However, there may be difficulties, linguistic or otherwise, of which I am unaware, standing in the way of such a solution. In any case we are no nearer an answer to the original problem concerning the linguistic affiliations of the Bay Islanders.

A compilation of modern linguistic classification leads to no more definite results. Squier states that there are good reasons to belive that the people of the Bay Islands and those of the adjacent mainland pertained to the same stock. He classified both as Lenca, a group in which he also included Jicaque and Paya. (Squier, 1859, pp. 252, 604) In 1910 Lehmann grouped the Sumu and Miskito as close linguistic affiliates of the Talamancan subdivision of the Chibchan stock, with the Paya, Lenca, and Jicaque as more remote members.17

In his later work he indicates that the people of the Bay Islands were Paya in speech, on the grounds that in 1622 Spanish missionaries took Bay Island Indians to the Paya to serve as interpreters.

17Lehmann, 1910, pp. 711, 723. This classification is not universally accepted; see Lothrop, I, 1926, pp. 13, 18.

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His map shows Paya on the mainland to the south and east of Trujillo and on the Bay Islands. (Lehmann, 1920, II, pp. 629, 631, and map.) The Jicaque are indicated on the mainland opposite the islands. A small Nahuatl colony inland from Trujillo, which Cortes mentioned, is also shown on the map.

Map - Languages of the Northern Honduras Coast
Map - Languages of the Northern Honduras Coast
[this map added by webmaster for clarity - not in original document]

According to Thomas and Swanton the available sources indicated that the Jicaque occupied the Honduras coast from Puerto Cortez to just beyond Trujillo, taking up a considerable part of the modern province of Yoro. They place the Paya to the east of the Jicaque. Although the Bay Islands are not specifically designated as to speech affiliations, they are directly opposite the bulk of the Jicaque. (Thomas and Swanton, 1911, pp. 73-76, 78-81, and map.) Conzemius favors the last classification inasmuch as he argues that, since the Jicaque occupied the opposite mainland, the Bay Islanders were also of Jicaque speech. He denies Lehmann's assertion that they were Paya on the basis that Columbus acquired a Maya (sic) interpreter at Bonacca who could converse with mainland peoples as far east as Cape Gracias ?Dios. Hence he argues that the Maya tongue served as a lingua franca along the entire coast and that the Bay Island interpreters taken to the Paya spoke Maya and not their native tongue. (Conzenius, 1928, p.68.) This last argument seems somewhat tenuous. However, the argument of Lehmann that because the Bay Islanders could communicate with the Paya, therefore the Bay Islanders were Paya, seems to me equally unconvincing. Adjacent peoples, even of totally different linguistic stocks, that have been long on contact are often bilingual. I have used an Eskimo interpreter to make contacts with Algonkian Indians, and when we went up the Patuca River in 1933, we had a Miskito interpreter to talk to the Sumu, and there we found Sumu who could speak Paya.

All of which involved discussion merely demonstrates that we do not know what language was spoken by the aborigines of the Bay Islands. The language is undoubtedly extinct today, but the archives may yet yield a Bay Island vocabulary to solve the difficulty. In the more remote portions of the Department of Yoro several groups of Jicaque still live in isolation, up the Patuca and in Nicaragua are the remnants of the Sumu, while in the interior of Honduras the Paya are still numerous. When their languages and surviving cultures have been analyzed by linguist and ethnologist, more light will be thrown on these problems than is now available.

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