Guanaja…
where it all begun…..

October 1st, 2008
by Alfonso Ebanks

[private]

Boats running between the Bonacca Cay and the main island. Open cockpit dories and boats are the preferred and sometimes only way of getting around the island.

Boats running between the Bonacca Cay and the main island. Open cockpit dories and boats are the preferred and sometimes only way of getting around the island.

The wind was from the east, the sky was clear and the pilot of the lead vessel went about checking the course when someone yelled, “Land ahead.” The pilot entered the captain quarters to inform him that the lookout had sighted land.

This was the fourth voyage of its kind to this part of the world for the Great Captain and, though he was ill, he made an effort to come out on the deck to see yet another island. When they had approached to within a half mile of the island the pilot spotted a reef and signaled a halt to their forward motion. The ships turned into the wind and the crews began dropping their anchors in the crystal clear water just as the sun came up over the verdant hills. The reef appeared to extend the full length of the island, but dead ahead a break in the reef appeared with a blue inlet that turned and curved inward to the beach. A few hundred yards behind the reef the observers could see the opening in the white sands of the beach, which meant the outlet of a river. The crews began launching small boats in which they would negotiate the channel, traverse the short distance to the beach and be able to refill their water barrels with drinking water.

As they loaded their small boats with the barrels, they spotted another vessel coming up from the west. The pilot and the captain recognized it as a native canoe. But something was different about this canoe: it was not only huge but also decorated and adorned in a manner not seen before by any of the officers or the crew. The canoe came straight away to the lead vessel, which had anchored a little closer to the reef than the others. The Great Captain was impressed with this canoe and commented that it was as large as a galley. These canoes did not make use of sails; all the propulsion was by paddles and this one had 40 paddlers and room for plenty of trade goods.

With the help of a few natives from other islands who accompanied the great captain on his ship, some sort of communications was possible with the natives in the large canoe, who were from the mainland. They had come up from the south and west to trade with the inhabitants of this island. The Great Captain was invited to go ashore in the native canoe instead of one of the small boats loaded with water barrels. The Great Captain was joined by his young son and they came ashore a little east of the outlet of the small river. Here they disembarked and, as the Great Captain questioned the captain of the large canoe, his men went about filling the water barrel with sweet water. While the Great Captain found out about the lands to the south and west his young son frolicked in the blue green water of the beach with some young islanders who had come out of the bushes. Though initially approaching him with some trepidation, the islanders and the captain’s son soon became quite friendly.

The native captain complimented the Great Captain on the huge size of his vessel and inquired about how it was built and from what material the sails were made. During the difficult discourse the Great Captain was offered an earthenware vessel filled with an aromatic concoction. Feeling it would be unfriendly to refuse, he tasted the brew and found, to his great amazement, the exotic flavor of the brown liquid to be captivating. He was told that the brew was called cacahuatl, a common drink among the natives.

After the crew of the ships had filled all their water barrels and finished some trading, they bid farewell to their gracious host and departed the island. After the Great Captain’s vessels cleared the island and headed southward, the Great Captain commented that the island should be called the Isle of Pines because it was covered with huge pine trees both on the northern and the southern sides.

The year was 1502 and Christopher Columbus had discovered Bonacco, from which he had first sighted the mainland of the American continent. The large canoe was a Mayan trading vessel coming to trade with the Pica Indians who lived on the island. They mostly traded earthenware, animal skins, horns and antlers in exchange for shells and pearls.
These early inhabitants of Bonacco did not know it, but this first encounter with Europeans would spell doom for them and their ways of life. Within a few years the Europeans were coming more often, sometimes stopping for water but always taking whatever they wanted. Because of their increasingly trying life in the years that followed, the Picas moved away from the island. The last aborigines to populate the island were the Payas. The Mayans still visited and on some special occasions, such as a ceremony held on the island at a cave the Mayans deemed a “cave of creation,” brought dignitaries in their large canoes from the mainland. This could only mean that when the cave was discovered by the Mayans they found artifact that predated their culture.

From 1502 until somewhere around 1611, the Bay Islands were in the possession of Spain. In 1611 or 1612 English pirates discovered the many harbors, the plentiful timber available and the numerous springs of clear sweet water. Naturally, they decided that this was the place to rendezvous and outfit their ships, and so took full possession of all the Bay Islands. After many failures, in 1650 the Spaniards succeeded in driving the pirates off the Islands. This was the same year that the Spaniards removed the last remaining natives from the island. Those who did no go back to La Mosquitia were carried by the Spaniards to Amatique in Guatemala. The islands were populated by Europeans off and on for the next hundred years or so. By 1762 the English had returned, had taken formal possession and had fortified some of the islands.

Sandy Bay on Guanaja's south shore. The beaches of the big island are still mostly undeveloped.

Sandy Bay on Guanaja's south shore. The beaches of the big island are still mostly undeveloped.

Though the English were driven out again in 1780, they returned in 1797 with two thousand Black Caribs from Saint Vincent to the island of Roatan. For the next 50 years the island was sparsely populated by the English, so that by the year 1860 at least one hundred persons were living on the south side of Bonacco. A thriving farming community was established on the fertile soil of the island, and vessels came from far in search of agricultural products. Among these vessels were always several turtle boats from the Cayman Islands. The crew of the turtle boats carried back such glowing accounts of this island that several dozen families immigrated to Bonacco, both freed slaves as well as their former masters. The island maintained many ties with the islands of the Caymans. Trade was mostly in agricultural products for dry goods and medication from England, but also included Grand Cayman’s only products–thatch rope and straw baskets. The traffic in goods and people between the Islands of Cayman and Bonacco continued for many years without any visas or permits required, based on the fact that the people were of common ancestry and more than likely cousins to some degree.

The attitudes of the Caymans people have changed towards the Bonacco people, however, and I attribute this to the fact that they have forgotten our past history. The nickname “Bonacco pirates” actually came about when a group of freed Negroes plundered a British ship which had gone aground on one of Bonacco’s reefs. At the time the incident was called the raid of the Caymans Pirates, but Bonacco got the name and has kept it. Even today, the older heads from the other islands call us “Bonacco Pirates.” By this time Clark Cay had replaced North East Bight as the Capital of Bonacco and was the main spot for social events and religious gatherings. The main island was populated by a black blood-sucking insect whose bite is the most painful and its sting last longer than any other blood sucking insect on the island. The bottle (blotch) flies were the reason that the early settlers decided to move their dwelling houses to the nearby cays.

At first the settlers only went to the cays to sleep but eventually they moved bag and baggage to the little cays. The two lower cays were small but were separated by shallow water and this was ideal for building houses on pilings. The former masters lived on Hog Cay and the rest lived on Shin Cay. What is ironic about this separation is that Hog Cay was purchase from persons living on Shin Cay. Eventually the two cays were joined together as the space between them was filled in with millions of reef rocks and thousands of tons of bar mud.

In the 1880’s the United States became a trading partner of this island. In 1883 this island sold fruit valued at 87 thousand dollars. It was during this period that the Adventist religion came to the island and from here to the rest of Latin America. After the Second World War prices improved and during any one month at least eight ships could be seen making port-o-calls for any kind of produce including coconuts, pineapples, bananas, plantains and the like.
Bonacco was an active and progressive place. Of the three mayor islands Bonacco was first to have many modern commodities and devices. The first ice plant in the Bay Islands was erected in the early nineteen fifties. The first juke box came in 1953. The first meteorological station in 1955. By 1956 the first landing strip was in operation and Bonacco became the first destination for fly-in tourists coming primarily from El Salvador and Guatemala.

About the same time shrimp were discovered in commercially viable amounts off the eastern coast of Honduras. And it was Bonacco that became a pioneer in the seafood packing business in Honduras.

Lobster fishing came next, and at one time four packing houses on the island were packing and exporting seafood bought from locals and from other fishermen throughout the Bay Islands. While the fishing industry brought prosperity to Bonacco, it also brought lots of laborers and the attention of the Honduran government, which declared that the official name of the island was Guanaja. With the exception of few, these new immigrant laborers were poor, uneducated people looking for a living who took more than they gave to the island. Their immigration started in the early nineteen sixties and continues until this day, even though the availability of jobs that once existed has long ago dried up. This influx of people has reached such proportions that the local native-born, English descent population is now a minority.

Guanaja remains a beautiful island. Of all the Bay Islands it is the only one with an abundance of year-round fresh water springs, small rivers, creeks and even waterfalls. The encompassing coral reefs are unequalled and even Roatan advertises their scuba diving beauty by using photos taken on the reefs of Guanaja. The island is the dive destination of many dive operations from other islands. But the coral reefs are not the only resource the island has: At least three archeological sites bear looking into, each appraised by their discoverers as being of huge importance to deciphering the pre-Columbian cultural history of these islands and maybe of all Central America. The importance of these sites has been forgotten, however, and they have been robbed of thousands of artifacts over the last few decades.

Many have attempted to make Guanaja a bona fide tourist destination. As yet, though, all their attempts have failed. Some of these ventures operated well for a while before eventually going bankrupt. In at least two of these ventures the investors came with just enough money to purchase some land and then proceeded to borrow money from local banks using the land as collateral. This is not a completely unheard-of procedure, but at least two of these operators tried to maintain their operations (kitchen, salaries, bank payments etc.) with the monies from the sales of alcoholic beverages in their bars. The monies collected for the vacation packages sold to guest remained in the USA. Here the old adage, “you can’t have your cake and eat it too,” applies.

Fossey Bush, 27, is responsible for keeping Bonacca canals free of debris. "The Municipality only pays me Lps. 300 for this," says Bush, "It is not enough."

Fossey Bush, 27, is responsible for keeping Bonacca canals free of debris. "The Municipality only pays me Lps. 300 for this," says Bush, "It is not enough."

Guanaja is in trouble, we have long since been left behind by the other islands in this archipelago. From three airlines we are down to one; from three banks we now have one; and from four packing houses we now have one that is 100% operational. The fishing industry is struggling to survive, but the end is in sight. And when that day arrives there will be nothing left for us at all. This island is ripe for tourism, but for some reason we have not been able to break in to the modern tourist trade. Some people think it’s the difficulty we must experience to travel between the mainland and the island which hampers our desperately needed tourism business from getting going. I believe the reason lies with the local gentry, who are having a hard time breaking with tradition and are still borrowing monies to purchase fishing boats.

This island came into the twenty-first century with less than what we had in the nineteen sixties. The pride of being a Bonackian is lost on the new people who populate this island and the people who placed this island in the forefront in past decades are no more. The future of Bonacco/Guanaja looks bleak. [/private]

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