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Archeological Investigations in the Bay Islands, Spanish Honduras

Table of Contents Environmental History Explorations Roatan References

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Roatan, the largest island of the group, appears to have been the least exploited archeologically. The Mitchell-Hedges collection from Roatan is small and seems to have been acquired mainly by gift or purchase. The Boekelman Shell Heap Expedition worked one site in Jonesville Bight, visited Port Royal, and purchased a small collection from the vicinity of Coxen Hole. We visited the same places and, in addition, excavated a hitherto untouched offertory site near French Harbor. In the present discussion these sites will be described, commencing with Port Royal near the eastern end of the island, and proceeding west to the vicinity of Coxen Hole.

Port Royal

If the buccaneer period in the Caribbean ever becomes the subject of direct archeological investigation, Port Royal will not be neglected. Once the most important harbor in the islands, Port Royal in 1933 had a population of one American and a scant handful of native Hondurans. Here is a setting that for beauty and romance rivals Stevenson's "Treasure Island". Backed by steep, jungle-covered hills, the great empty harbor is defended by encircling coral reefs, through which only two narrow deep-water entrances penetrate. Old stone forts guard the channels, the ruins of a buccaneer town are hidden in the dense bush on the mainland, and, as a final touch, there is even a "pirate's cave" located on a small creek, whose bed is full of old broken rum bottles (see map, fig. 8). Since no aboriginal remains could be found at Port Royal we spent only one day here. However, with adequate times for exploration, native sites could probably be located, and the colonial remains in themselves merit a much more extensive examination than we were able to give them.

With the beginning of the seventeenth century, Spanish domination of the Bay Islands began to be disputed by a horde of freebooters of English, French, and Dutch nationality, and in the ensuing struggle Port Royal, as the most easily defended harbor, became the scene of repeated violent struggles. The first important raid on the islands came in 1639, when a party of Dutch buccaneers under Van Horne ravaged Utila and Bonacca. It was at this time that the Spanish began seriously considering the removal of the Indian population from the Bay Islands, which was finally effected in 1650. (Conzemius, 1928, pp. 64, 65.) Meanwhile, in 1642, Port Royal was occupied by a considerable number of English logwood cutters and illicit traders from the region that is now British Honduras, and the harbor was strongly fortified.

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Piratical raids from here so annoyed the Spanish that they sent Francisco Villalva y Toledo with four men-of-war to drive out the invaders, but so forbidding were the defenses that he returned to the mainland for reinforcements. In March 1650 he returned and, after some hard fighting, drove the freebooters from the island. The struggle and the subsequent removal of the few remaining natives depleted the islands, and for some years they lay waste, only feebly occupied by Spain. (Conzemius, 1928, p. 65, and Squier, 1858, p. 615.)

FIG 8. - Map of Port Royal harbor showing buccaneer remains, Roatan
FIG 8. - Map of Port Royal harbor showing buccaneer remains, Roatan.

In 1742 the British made an attempt to obtain possession of most of the Atlantic Coast of Central America. As part of this plan they occupied Roatan and fortified Port Royal with materials brought from the mainland. (Squier, 1858, pp. 615, 616.) Several English visitors at a somewhat later date mention this and give some interesting details. Strangeways states that there is a "Careening Kay" (for beaching and scraping vessels) at the northeast end of Port Royal Harbor, and quotes the following passage from the Columbian Navigator: "In Port Royal Harbor British ships formerly obtained wood; and they procured water from a rivulet in the NW. part of the harbor. The harbor is capacious enough to contain 20 or 25 sail of the line. Formerly there were two batteries here; one on the west end of George's Isle, and the other on a high point of land on the SW. part of the harbor.

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The heights of Roatan command such an extensive prospect, that no vessel can pass to the Bay of Honduras without being seen from them." He adds that the English took possession of Roatan in 1742 and built a fort in which they put 250 men commanded by Pitts, a logwood cutter. (Strangeways, 1822, pp. 40-42.) About 1827 Roberts visited the islands. In regard to Port Royal he says: "This beautiful island has an excellent harbor, easily defended; it was once in the possession of the English, who erected batteries completely commanding this harbor, and marked out a space at its end for the erection of a town." At the time of Roberts' visit none of the islands were occupied, owing, he states, to danger of Indian attacks. (Roberts, 1827, p. 276) Although England specifically gave up her claims to this region in the treaty of 1763, she nevertheless retained her hold on Roatan, the piratical inhabitants of which caused so much trouble to Spain that, in 1780, she once more declared war.

The events which followed are described by the Bishop Pelaez (quoted by Squier, 1858, pp. 616, 617):

"On the 24th of September, 1781, advices reached Truxillo, which were immediately communicated to the government at Comayagua, that certain negroes and others, to the number of about 300 men, had constructed three forts at the entrance of the principal port [Port Royal] of the island of Roatan, armed with 50 guns, and that three armed vessels cruised in the neighborhood, the object of the whole being to intercept the ships plying between the kingdom of Guatemala and Cuba. It was reported that these freebooters had 3,000 barrels of provisions for their support, and that their support, and that their object in holding the port was tio make it a refuge for their vessels, which were no longer allowed to go to Jamaica.

When this information reached Guatemala, the President Galvez made arrangements to expel the intruders. He called out the militia of Amatitlan, Zacatapeque, Chiquimulu, Santa Ana, San Salvador, Nueva Segovia, Leon, Olancho, Tegucigalpa, and Comayagua. The company from Leon numbered 200 men under the command of Colonel Don Josef de Navas; San Salvador sent 300 men, and Santa Ana 200; and Don Miguel Machado, of Gracias, headed 200 men, equipped at his own cost.

In the meantime, two Spanish vessels of war, the Santa Matilda and Santa Cecilia, of the royal navy, with sufficient number of piraguas from Bacalar, arrived at Omua, and the forces above mentioned, under the command of Galvez himself and his Lieutenant Estacheria, embarked on the 2nd of March, 1782. They steered direct for Roatan, and at once attacked the forts erected to command the principal harbor [Port Royal]. After a heavy cannonade, detachments of the troops landed and opened regular trenches against the forts, which were so closely invested and hotly pressed that on the 16th of the month they surrendered at discretion. The lives of the defenders were spared, but all their dwellings, to the number of 500, were destroyed."

The British also had settlements on the islands of Bonacca and Morat, all of which were captured by Galvez. The prisoners were exchanged at Havana and only a few Negroes who fled to the swamps of Roatan escaped.

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Things were evidently quiet around Port Royal for almost 15 years; then in 1796 the British forcibly deported some 5,000 Black Caribs (a mixture of Carib Indian and African Negro) from St. Vincent on the Windward Islands to Roatan. (Squier, 1858, pp. 618, 619, and Conzemius, 1928, p. 58.) These people, who had been attached to French interests, were giving the British much trouble, hence they were deported en masse and landed at Port Royal. It is not clear whether the British intended to reserve their dominion over the Caribs or were simply getting rid of them. In any event, the Captain General of Guatemala justly regarded it in the light of an invasion and sent armed forces to Roatan where the Caribs gladly surrendered without resistance. Most of them quickly accepted the invitation of the Honduras Government to come to the mainland, though a small number preferred to stay on the then deserted island of Roatan.  For the remainder of the eighteenth century the Bay Islands were undisputedly held by Spain, and a small garrison was maintained on Roatan (Henderson, 1811, p. 204), probably at Port Royal.

Not until the middle of the nineteenth century did Great Britain again assert her claims to the Bay Islands, and again it was Port Royal that was the scene of action. (Squier, 1858, p. 620; Young, 1842, p. 147.) In 1838 a group of liberated slaves came to Roatan from Grand Cayman Islands, desiring to settle. The commandant at Port Royal informed them that they must first obtain permission from the Honduras Government. Certain of the immigrants did so, but others appealed to the British Superintendent at Belize. This officer shortly appeared off Port Royal in the sloop of war Rover, landed forcibly and, running down the flag of Central America, hoisted the British flag. Young thus describes the affair: "A British sloop of war appeared off the port; a boat full of men was dispatched to the shore, the Central American flag hauled down, and that of Old England planted in its place. Shortly after the vessel set sail the commandant pulled down the English colors and hoisted his own, which was no sooner observed than the vessel was put back, and landed a party of seamen and marines. The Central American flag was lowered, and two or three of the middies amused themselves by dancing on it. The commandant and his soldiers, notwithstanding his vociferous protestations, were put on board of the vessel, and had the mortification of seeing, on their departure, the meteor flag of Old England waving in the breeze. They were landed on the beach at Truxillo with a few gentle hints as to their future behavior." Since the ensuing British occupation and later relinquishment of the Bay Islands have been mentioned elsewhere, we may conclude this brief historical sketch of Port Royal with the above somewhat anti-climactic affair.

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