story / editorial
Island To the East Words
By Mathew Harper Photographs by Thomas Tomczyk
overlooked and ignored, Saint Helene's history and people go back
The natural Saint Helene mangrove canal.
many times have uninitiated visitors to Roatan asked, "What's
up on the East End of the island?" How many people on their
first trip to the island have ventured "up the shore"?
Not many. Most are just content to stick closer to the West End.
Frankly, a trip east to Oakridge, Port Royal and onto Helene, Morat
and Barbareta, although much easier than before, is quite an adventure
for the uninitiated. This relative inaccessibility, for some, like
the expat wanting to retire into obscurity or the Bay Islander wishing
to preserve his culture, has been a blessing in disguise.
Another question that often intrigues visitors and newcomers is
how the island was prior to the development boom that began in the
early 1990's. For an answer, visitors can explore the little-known
jewels of the islands, Helene and Santa Elena.
in the Bight of Saint Helene.
as it is known to its inhabitants, is a two mile by one mile island
separated from Roatan by two miles of mangroves and a 20-foot wide
natural canal. The island is 194 feet high at its highest point.
Populated on the north and south shores by 1,200 of the most welcoming
Creole, English-speaking islanders, Helene boasts some of the most
unspoiled island countryside. In a rapidly changing archipelago,
visitors can still discover the perfectly preserved island culture
and "old Caribbean" charm in Helene. With place names
like Rocky Point, Bentley Bay, Co-Co Plum Cay and Bob Bay, and with
signs saying "no Spanish spoken," Helene is more like
the West Indies than Central America.
An island steeped in history, Helene is dotted with caves, one from
which the fabled British archeologist Arthur Mitchell Hedges took
one of his crystal skulls. Hedges believed that the Bay Islands
were once part of the lost city of Atlantis and that proof of this
existed on Helene.
New caves are still being discovered from time to time. Each Payan
artifacts found inside the caves lends to the premise that the peaceful
Indians used the caves as refuge from marauding Spaniards and Buccaneers.
One cave in particular, discovered in 1989, follows a 100-foot deep
tunnel that goes well below sea level at the end of which lies a
large cavern containing a freshwater pool. Off to the side branch
two vents that continue on for at least 100 feet.
The Bay Islands scuba diving legend Constantino 'Tino' Monterrosso
explored the cave with scuba gear in 1988. In the bottom of the
"water cave," Monterrosso discovered bones belonging to
deer and wild hog which are no longer indigenous to the islands.
Halfway up the cave, a large clay vase was found containing hundreds
of jade and amber ceremonial beads. In the entrance to yet another
cave, a skeleton of a Paya "casique" was found surrounded
on both sides by clay jars full of impressive jade beads.
The Indians were not the only ones to favor Helene for one reason
or another. Many clay pipes can still be found at various spots
around the island, pipes of the type commonly used by British mariners,
woodcutters and pirates in the 17 and 18 centuries. Actually on
Helene Cay, also known as Ross Cay, clay pipe finds are common.
This could lead us to believe that due to its flat nature, Ross
Cay was used by pirates to careen--the practice of running a vessel
on shore at high tide to scrub its undersides.
Fresh water is plentiful, as are many types of fruits such as mango,
mame apple (sapote), soursop (guanabana), bobwood, muginicap (monkey
cap). At one time wild hogs were as plentiful as the watusas (island
rabbits) still are. The waters around the island are teeming with
fish, lobster and conch. Natural hard woods abound in the forests;
in particular Lignin Vitae, used at one time for boat stems. Helene
and Barbareta are the only known places that this wood can be found
on the Bay Islands.
Little documented evidence exists for who inhabitants were and where
exactly they lived on Helene prior to 1851. According to Mitchell
Hedges, the Indians lived on and off of Helene for about a 100 years
between the 1480's through to 1582. The watershed year was 1516,
13 years after Columbus passed through Guanaja. In that year, humiliated
by the constant need to hide from the white men to avoid a beating
or subjection to slavery, most of the Indians left when given the
"option" of going to the mainland or of working the gold
mines of Hispaniola and the Spanish Main.
By 1564 the British had arrived and finished making life miserable
for the last few die-hard Paya who had stayed behind. British woodcutters
and Buccaneers used Helene intermittently for the aforementioned
reasons until 1782. That year several battles and skirmishes took
place about three miles west of Helene in Port Royal between the
Spanish Armada, the English Royal Navy and the pirates (Lowe, Avery,
Teach, Morgan to name a few).
Between 1650 and 1742 a successful British settlement, Augusta,
had been founded in Port Royal with a smaller one in Helene, This
might be where Helene got its name--after the wife of the owner
of the vessel who settled two families on these shores to cut wood.
This settlement, it would seem, was plundered by marauding pirates
around 1780. After the plunderings, Helene, like most of the islands
at that time, remained largely uninhabited. Paya settlements and
burials sites became overgrown and the woodcutters camps were destroyed.
Today just the clay pipes and the odd cannonball that didn't rot
away remind us of those times. It stayed like this until 1855 when
the ancestors of Helene's present inhabitants first arrived courtesy
of the British government who were then outright, albeit it short-lived,
owners of the Bay islands.
After the emancipation of slavery, the British government was faced
with what to do with the freemen, ex slaves and ex slave bosses
of the Cayman Islands and Jamaica. Jamaica was big enough that the
freemen could remain and cultivate on patches of granted land. But
the Caymans were relatively overpopulated with flat land offering
little for farmers.
to a cave system near Bentley Bay where Saint Helenians came
to hide during Hurricanes Greta, Fifi and Mitch. During Hurricane
Mitch as many as 62 people spent the severa
Bay Islands was property of the Crown and vulnerable with few inhabitants,
Her Majesty's government decided to kill two proverbial birds with
one stone-to settle the Bay Islands with freemen, thereby alleviating
overpopulation on the Caymans while creating a stronger British presence
to dissuade any mainland attempt to take over the islands. All freemen
were granted pieces of land to cultivate and dispatched to Roatan.
While most settled around Coxen Hole, some ventured farther east in
search of more fertile lands, water supplies, hardwood and wildlife.
The first settlers on Helene were the Bonner and Warren families from
Jamaica and the Alvanzer (Alphonso), Bowman, Kelly, Ross, Forbes and
Rich from Grand Cayman. Baptist (Batiste) Bowman was the leader of
this first group of settlers and ancestor of many of Helene`s present
day inhabitants, including Santos Guardiola councilman Wally Bodden
These early settlers kept some cattle and hogs, but dedicated themselves
to agriculture on a small subsistence scale, growing crops such as
plantains, yams, cassava, arrowroot and wongla (sesame seeds used
to make candy). During this time and up until the 1950`s American-owned
"banana boats" would stop off in transit between the mainland
and New Orleans to buy or barter coconuts and bananas. It was commonplace
to have a local subsistence farmer exchange sacks of coconuts for
luxuries such as denims and shirts.
abounded in the waters and lobsters were effortlessly caught on the
reef at nighttime with a torch (dried palmetto leaf on fire). Large
snappers and groupers could be speared with a lance when they swam
in the shallows. With the advent of serious commercial fishing in
the 60`s (knowledge imported to the islands by local fishermen who
had worked on commercial fishing boats in the US), many Helenians
dropped farming for work crewing shrimpers and trap boats.
Later in the late 70`s to early 90`s, as the price of lobster rose
and became more scarce Helenians developed the ability to free-dive
to impressive depths to hook lobsters and pick up conchs. It is not
uncommon to see a Helenian free-dive to 90 feet, hook one lobster,
disable it, and then hook and kill two more in the same fashion before
coming to the surface--and repeat this for six hours a day.
Many commercial boats from nearby Oakridge and Guanaja exploited this
physical aptitude by taking Helenians out to the continental shelf
(more commonly known as the fishing banks or banks) and other more
distant reefs (Serrana, Serranilla, Quita Sueno) to dive for conch
and lobster. Some boats even ventured south into Nicaraguan waters
to dive shallower, more plentiful reefs.
Sadly, as lobster numbers dwindled with over-fishing and no seasons,
tanks became an option and several Helenians died or became crippled
in diving accidents. Today some Helenians still dive, while others
of the male population look for alternative ways to make a living,
such as working overseas on freight boats or on the oil fields in
different parts of the world . Helenians are excellent seafarers and
boat handlers, somewhat akin to the Louisiana Cajuns who have grown
up around the sea since birth. The older men, known as "the older
heads," of Helene never learned to dive and so kept farming at
Some cattle farming still goes on and limited pig farming. Iguana
hunting is a tradition that takes place around Easter when female
iguanas lay their spongy white eggs. Most iguana hunters try to catch
the females before they lay because the eggs are considered a delicacy.
Iguanas are sold by the pair (a "he" and a "she"
preferably with eggs).
Despite limited employment opportunities and a poor economy, Helenians
live a simple yet very happy life in and around the sea and the hills.
Until recently only a handful of houses had TV sets with VHS players.
Cable service is still unavailable. So in the evenings Helenians use
their own devices to amuse themselves-story telling, clapping games,
bible readings, playing dominoes and cards, and drinking rum and beer!
I was surprised one day in Helene when I heard children singing the
nursery rhyme "London Bridge is falling down," obviously
passed down like Chinese telephones through generations. Holiday times
are when the richness of the West Indian culture of Helene comes to
the fore. The maypole and platpole are popular activities in summer.
The songs sung while platting the pole are old English rhymes also
passed down, unwritten over time. After midnight on Christmas day
carolers will walk through the different settlements on Helene singing
memorized Christmas carols by candlelight.
Helenians also use a curious old Caribbean vernacular that is distinctly
their own on the island. Nautical terms such as "thwart"
( pronounced tort) to describe a bench in a dory or boat; "windward"
(pronounced windad) to describe "toward the east"; or "leeward"
(pronounced lewad) to describe "toward the west"-these are
some examples of the unique Helenian vernacular.
The original Helene settlers brought their own culture from the West
Indies (and indirectly Britain and Africa), a culture which has been
protected and preserved by the very isolation of Helene. Isolation,
which prevented the influx of mainlanders and developers, has been
a benefit particularly enjoyed by Helene, while true Bay Islander
culture in Roatan has not only grown more diluted but is now in jeopardy.
story / editorial
/ local news
Orphanage Scandal By Jenny Roberts with Thomas Tomczyk
of Abuse and Financial impropriety surround an American-run Orphanage
in Sandy Bay
Municipality meeting about the Sandy Bay orphanage situation
between community members, local and central gov
letter describes Warren behavior: "he spanked [children] with
knives and on bare bottoms with wooden, or plastic spoons,
they would be made to sit in their rooms all day as punishment,
sometimes for three or four days in a row." Also, Brian and
Christi Norman of Tampa, Florida, parents of children who spent
two-and-a-half years at the orphanage and were adopted by them,
have made public a list of Warren's questionable and abusive behavior.
Over the last five years Warren created a successful fundraising
and support network for the orphanage. He took on mentally disabled
children, something even the other Roatan orphanage in Flowers Bay
does not do. Even Bengoa acknowledges Warren's positive contributions:
"they [Debbie and Brad Warren] have trained them to be polite,
and well behaved. They have taken them off the streets and given
them food, clothing and shelter. But they have a dark side."
Warren's goals and management style of the orphanage were clearly
not compatible with a more consensus-driven way the two boards wanted
to operate. Warren spent $100 of thousands of orphanage funds for
a baseball field that for three rainy seasons covered nearby reef.
The baseball field and masses of donated equipment have yet to be
put to use.
While Warren's sometime abrasive, even confrontational personality
has gotten him few supporters on the island, some CSI supporters
remain to be convinced of Warren's abusive behavior. "I've
never seen the kids fearful of Brad," said David Taylor, CSI
supporter of five years. "They [orphanage's children] told
me that they were never abused sexually." Taylor lives in California
and for one week a year comes to the island to spend time with two
orphanage children he sends $30 a month to.
CSI Board members began arriving on the island September 1 to meet
with officials and stabilize the situation. 14 children returned
to the orphanage premises under the supervision of volunteers Travis
and Kelly Bevers. The Board is currently interviewing for permanent
house parents. "We'll be asking for the kids' input on who
we bring in permanently," says board member Dale Petersen.
"This island needs that orphanage," says Nurse Peggy of
In better times: Brad Warren in front of the Orphanage in 2004.
After four years of controversy and accusations, the Sandy Bay's
Child Sponsorship International (CSI) Orphanage crisis came to
a head: On August 28, police, acting on complaints of child abuse,
removed 14 children from the premises and Brad Warren, director
of CSI, has left Roatan for the US. IHNFA (Honduras Institute
for Families) has sent a team to investigate alleged abuses.
According to Detective Alex Ordonias of the DGIC, family of one
of orphanage's children reported to IHNFA incidents of sexual
abuse. Former orphanage volunteers, Pedro and Tana Bengoa, also
filed a complaint with the municipality. Police relocated the
children to the property of Son Rise, a missionary organization
based in Sandy Bay. "Some of the kids started coming to me
as their pastor
the children felt they weren't safe,"
said Son Rise's pastor Chuck Laird.
CSI board of directors is demanding that Warren, who in 2000 with
a philanthropist Mark Whittaker began CSI, step down as director.
The outcome is far from certain however, as in 2005 when Warren
had been dismissed before but managed to get rid of the previous
board, none of whose members live on the island. "Our visions
and directions for this ministry have become far separated and
irreconcilable," Warren explained.
In a meeting at the Roatan municipality on August 30, IHNFA representatives,
local authorities and concerned citizens discussed accusations
of dealings at the orphanage. "Brad [Warren] has tarnished
the name of every North American organization here," said
Valerie Nelson of Familias Saludables NGO. According to Detective
Ordonias the police are awaiting reports from a psychologist and
Allegations presented by the board against Warren are three-fold
in nature: his financial dealings, his morals and physical/sexual
abuse of the children. According to board member Dale Petersen,
financial documents were turned over to IRS for investigation.
Brad Warren did not respond to emails sent to him by Bay Islands
Voice before going to print.
in The Night
End fire destroys homes and a restaurant
could feel the heat on my face from 150 meters away," said Kristofer
Goldman, who stood on a dock in West End looking at the burning houses.
The orange glaze of the burning wood homes were visible from a mile
According to Ramon Ebanks, who also lost a home in the fire, the fire
truck arrived within 20-30 minutes of the call and did a good job.
The firemen had long enough hoses to reach the area and used pumps
to pump seawater to the seaside structures.
19 people lost a home during the fire and are currently staying with
family and friends. As the properties were not insured, a community
fundraiser was organized on September 2 for the victims of the fire
members cleaning up the site of the burned homes.
End's Lighthouse Restaurant, five wooden homes and two storage shacks
went down in flames on the evening of August 29. The fire began around
11pm, shortly after RECO turned the electricity in the community back
"We are suspecting it could be RECO," said Tulio Ebanks,
who lost his home and everything in it. At Coconut Tree sparks were
seen coming from a transformer just as the lights came back on at
10:30pm. The on-and-off policy of RECO has placed an additional strain
on the already stretched web of electrical wires crisscrossing the
Felix hits Mosquitia, spares Bay Islands
September 3, with Hurricane Felix at Category 5 and 165 mile winds,
Congressman Hynds called for evacuation of tourists and residents
able to leave. Honduras Air Force shuttled a DC-10 between Roatan
and La Ceiba. Free tickets for the poor were given out and foreign
tourists were evacuated on a TACA chartered plane to Guatemala City
paid by Ministry of Tourism.
Roatan Municipal paid for tickets of over 1,000 people to evacuate
via Galaxy Wave catamaran to La Ceiba. Atlantic gave out three flights
for cost of fuel.
While some residents boarded up homes and businesses to prevent
major wind damage, others focused on storm surge and flooding. Barefoot
Cay, a south shore resort, not only evacuated all their guests to
the mainland and other hotels but also moved documents and valuables
off the cay. "We can get an 18-foot surge here," said
John Kennedy, owner of the resort.
Areas even more vulnerable to the hurricane were unprotected, such
as bare, almost vertical cliffs which are susceptible to land slides
On Roatan most businesses remained closed September 3 and 4. On
September 4, as Felix impacted Mosquitia it slowed and weakened.
Nicaraguan authorities reported 28 deaths related to Hurricane Felix.
of poor residents of Roatan, who were given a free flight off the
island on Honduran Air Force planes.
Felix wrote itself into history on September 2, when it recorded
the second fastest 12-hour pressure fall on record, to 929 millibars.
With its rapid move eastward of 21 miles per hour, the storm strengthened
from a tropical depression to a Category 5 hurricane in just two
The residents of Roatan prepared for the worst as for three days
the storm's track was projected to go directly through Guanaja and
just north of Roatan. On September 3, Felix's projected path angled
just slightly south to land on Mosquitia coast.
story / editorial
While Cruise Terminal in Coxen Hole bogs down in
delays, the island is looking at a 10-fold cruise traffic increase
over the next 6-10 years.
existence of coral on the fill-in site caused a halt to the fill-in
process. The only way to proceed was to make changes to Honduras'
environmental laws. These changes are still in progress as the president
had to approve them and congress had to pass and ratify the law
before publishing it in La Gazeta. Finally SERNA has to OK it. "We
are in a holding pattern," said Ernan Bartez, General Manager
of the Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship Terminal, who believes that the
good will on the side of the government will make things happen
in the end.
The transplant of the 4,000 sq meters of coral will cost between
$300 and $500 thousand. 4,300 metric tons of rock and coral is expected
to be moved during the two-month work schedule. NOVA Southeastern
University will supervise the replanting and monitoring of coral.
Only then the work on the refilling of the cruise ship terminal's
west side can begin.
Already the Coxen Hole cruise ship terminal project is facing a
three-and-a-half month delay, with the project's Phase I termination
date moved from March 2008 to June 2008. It is likely to be delayed
The stakes are high. According to Bartez, Roatan should prepare
for an increase of cruise ship passengers from what is today 800
passengers a day to 6,000 and eventually 10,000, in as few as six
Responsible for Coxen Hole terminal construction is Coastal Systems
International (CSI), a general contractor based in the Dominican
Republic with experience with similar projects in Florida, US Virgin
Islands and Guatemala. Julio Bonnelly, CSI's Roatan Project Manager,
has experience at both US Virgin Islands and Guatemala cruise ship
HTH Architects from USA are designing the Phase I of three buildings
that will house stores and offices. Phase II will include four other
buildings with restaurants, condominiums and more retail space.
Phase I of the Coxen Hole Cruise Ship Terminal. (Images curtesy
of HTH Architects and Roatan Cruise Ship Terminal)
Roatan due to turn into a major cruise ship destination, two cruise
ship terminals with three to five docks are in preparation to begin
construction. While Carnival is doing depth studies for two dock locations
in Dixon Cove, Royal Caribbean's dock concession in Coxen Hole has
hit some major delays. Royal Caribbean was promised a 30-year terminal
contract with all necessary environmental permits, but what they have
gotten is a headache of fighting with government regulations.
After breaking ground in December 2006, the work hit a couple of major
speed bumps. First, between February 26 and March 9, Ministry of Mining
held up work on the dock when Diamond Rock, Roatan's only rock, boulder
supplier and subcontractor on the dock project, was shut down because
the company never had a proper mining permit. In the meantime, no
filling in could be done on the site. While mining permits were eventually
issued, another even longer delay began in July when Ministry of the
Environment (SERNA) permit for filling in the terminal's western portion,
around 40% of the site, didn't materialize.