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Blackbeard in the Bay Islands by Colin Woodard

New research reveals the notorious pirate's sojourn

He was the most notorious pirate of piracy's Golden Age, a cunning strategist who terrified his quarry into surrendering without a fight, a fearless outlaw who, for a time, had the Royal Navy on the run.
Blackbeard - his real name was Edward Thatch or Teach - was the most successful pirate to emerge out of the Bahamas in the early 18th century, when Nassau was a fortified pirate base. By the fall of 1717, he had built himself a pirate flotilla capable of threatening not just shipping, but the colonies themselves. From his flagship, Queen Anne's Revenge, he oversaw the burning of Guadeloupe, and terrorized the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
And then, at the peak of his career, he vanished.
For three centuries, historians have wondered where Blackbeard was during the winter of 1717-18. Now new research reveals it was Roatan.
During the summer and fall of 1717, Blackbeard's pirate gang - some 400 to 600 men, half of them of African descent - left a wide documentary trail in their fleet's wake. While researching The Republic of Pirates, a comprehensive account of the real pirates of the Caribbean, I was able to track his movements week-to-week and, often, day-by-day, from the testimony of former captives and the dispatches of the Royal Navy frigates charged with tracking his movements.
He had cultivated a terrifying reputation, going into battle with burning fuses tied into his signature beard, so that he appeared enveloped in hell fire. His men - including the eccentric "gentleman pirate" Stede Bonnet, the scion of a wealthy Barbados plantation family - had caused the HMS Seaford, the warship charged with defending the British Leeward Islands. No surprise: at 250-tons and 22-guns, the Queen Anne's Revenge was as powerful as any frigate posted in the Americas, but with twice the manpower.
Like other members of the Bahamanian pirate gang, Blackbeard was motivated by more than simple banditry. Most of these pirates were former sailors who saw themselves as engaged in a social revolt against the ship owners and captains who'd made their lives miserable. Blackbeard's colleague, Samuel Bellamy, oversaw a crew who referred to themselves as Robin Hood's Men. In an authoritarian age, the pirates elected their captains, and could depose them at any time by a popular vote. They shared their plunder equally and even provided primitive disability benefits. On Blackbeard's vessels, Africans and Native Americans could serve as equal members of the crew.
Surprisingly, popular opinion was often on the pirates' side. Colonial authorities regularly complained to their superiors that ordinary people regarded the pirates not as villains, but as heroes. The people of Virginia, Governor Alexander Spottswood fumed, have "an unaccountable inclination to favor pirates." Books were written about them while many were still active, and became bestsellers on both sides of the Atlantic.
But in late December 1717, en route from Puerto Rico to Cuba, Blackbeard suddenly disappeared from the historical record, only to emerge, three months later, at Turneffe Atoll in modern Belize. The timing was intriguing, as Blackbeard had vanished just days after learning that King George I was offering to pardon pirates who turned themselves in. Historians have speculated that he may have been laying low as he considered his options, perhaps concerned about the two Royal Navy frigates that had been pursuing him across the Caribbean.
But documents recently unearthed in the British National Archives show that's not the case at all. Blackbeard wasn't hiding from British power, he was trying to attack it dead-on. And he was using the Bay Islands as his winter lair.
Freshly discovered captive's accounts indicate that Blackbeard spent the first weeks of 1718 in the Gulf of Mexico, prowling the approaches to the Mexican port of Vera Cruz in the hopes of capturing the Royal Prince, the flagship of the British South Seas Company, and her escort, the HMS Diamond, a xx-gun warship. It was one of the most audacious plans of his career.

Book of "Captain Letters" Volume 1597, contains letters of Royal Navy captains who served during the period Blackbeard was active. (Photo: Colin Woodard)

The Royal Prince was what we would now call "a terrorist target of symbolic importance," the first and only British ship allowed to trade with Spain's American colonies under a peace treaty signed by the two nations a few years before. King George and his court attended her launching ceremony, after which they were feted on board. Her lucrative trade mission was so important to British prestige that the King himself chose to serve as the head of the South Seas Company and the Diamond was ordered to escort her across the Atlantic. Capturing either vessel would have shaken public confidence in the navy's ability to protect the empire's vital interests.
But, as the letters of the Diamond's captain make clear, the ships were delayed in Vera Cruz by disease and other complications. Blackbeard, thinking he had missed her, gave up prowling prematurely and sailed to the Bay Islands for rest, repairs, and recuperation.
The Bay Islands had been a favored pirate hideout for decades, being far from the prying eyes of officialdom, but close to the Belizean coast, where vessels trading in dye-bearing logwood made easy and lucrative targets. Coxen's Hole is named after the buccaneer John Coxon, who is believed to have been based here in the late 17th century, and Henry Morgan's men stopped at Roatan for water during their Panamanian campaigns. Charles Vane, one of Blackbeard's counterparts, set up camp on Guanaja for five weeks in early 1719 after his crew voted him out of office in favor of Calico Jack Rackham.
Blackbeard's arrival at Roatan in early February 1718 was witnessed by William Wade, the captain of the sloop William & Mary, which was anchored in what was probably Coxen's Hole, loaded with valuable logwood. There "came in a ship pf about 40 guns and a sloop of 10 commanded by…Edward Thatch having in all about 250 men (70 or thereabouts being Negroes)," Wade later reported. In addition to the Queen Anne's Revenge and Stede Bonnet's sloop Revenge, the pirates had two other vessels they had captured. They forced Wade to dump his valuable cargo overboard, then beached his sloop to act as a makeshift dock to allow them to clean their vessels. The Revenge and Queen Anne's Revenge - two of the most famous pirate ships in history - underwent refits on the shores of Roatan.

Rendering of Blackbeard with sword.

The pirates stayed at Roatan for several weeks, seizing whatever vessels stumbled into the anchorage. They told Wade "sundry times" that they "doubted not but to take and have…His Majesty's Ship the Adventure," a 36-gun frigate that was at the time the largest British warship in the Americas. When they finally departed in mid-March, they burned the captured vessels they had arrived with, but gave the William & Mary back to Wade, who salvaged much of his cargo and limped back to Jamaica to tell his tale.
The pirates were sailing for the logwood coast of what is now Belize and Guatemala, but off the shores of Utilla a most peculiar thing happened. A small sloop tried to attack them. The Dolphin, a passenger vessel, had sailed from Vera Cruz the month before, but her crew had mutinied and turned pirate. Unfortunately they took Blackbeard and Bonnet to be helpless merchantmen. When they finally closed with one of the sloops that evening and hailed her crew, asking whence they came "their reply was: from the sea," recalled a passenger, Martin Preston. Then Blackbeard's men fired muskets at the upstart pirates and forced them to surrender.
Learning that the Dolphin had been in Vera Cruz, Blackbeard interrogated the crew for information about the Royal Prince and HMS Diamond. He learned that the Diamond's crew had been weakened by tropical diseases. Preston reported the pirates "often threatened" to take the frigate.
Preston reported the pirate then sailed for Belize, where he reentered the historical record. After a spectacular raid of the logwood fleet there, he would sail to North Carolina, ditch Bonnet, his flagship, and a large portion of his crew, and ultimately accept the King's pardon from that colony's corrupt governor, Charles Eden. He lived in Bath, NC for several months, marrying a local girl and overseeing an underground piracy operation with the collusion of colonial authorities.
Blackbeard met his end in November 1718, when the governor of Virginia orchestrated an illegal invasion of North Carolina to capture the mafia don. He was killed in an epic hand-to-hand battle with Royal Navy sailors, and his head was carried to Virginia to be displayed on a pole. His presumably extensive treasure horde was never recovered.
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Match, Document then Release

Bay Islands Second Ever Catch-and-Release Fishing Tournament took place on July 4 and 5

The catching was documented by island volunteers and photographs taken of the fish was to verify the type of fish caught. In the end it was honor system that assured the accuracy of catching the fish. A registration fee of $300 was taken from the five boats that registered at the event.
On July 4th, the weather, strong winds and high waves, prevented three boats from going out. On July 5th the wind subsided and all five vessels went out into waters surrounding the island.
When it was all over, the first place and a prize of $1,500 went to Emilio Ulloa, a La Ceiba captain, who caught the tournament's only fish. Ulloa's Blue Marlin was caught in the morning on July 5, 1-2 miles north-east of Pumpkin Hill. After an hour-and-twenty minute fight the fish was brought in on board to remove an embedded hook. The fish measured 92" from the tip of the beak to the base of the tail. "This is my first marlin ever," said captain Ulloa.
While Honduras has several deep sea fishing tournaments taking place through the year, none of them are catch-release and Marlin and Sailfish killed in these competitions are usually just discarded. In May, Omoa and Tela alternate a tournament each year. Roatan hosts a tournament in September and La Ceiba in October.
International deep fishing tournaments that start each year in Costa Rica, then go to Guatemala, Belize and Mexico, have been bypassing Honduras and the Bay Islands since there are no catch and release tournaments here.
"The fishing is right there, just a hop, skip and a jump from the island," says Patrick Flynn, organizer of the event who is planning on organizing next year's tournament in late September, early October. "When the weather is better and the event doesn't interfere with the West End Fishing Tournament".

The Blue Marlin on the deck of the USS Ulloa. (Photo: Andres Viara)

Utila found itself leading the way in the bay Islands archipelago yet again, this time in organizing and conducting a environmentally correct fishing tournament.
"We're winging it, but its all about having fun," says Patrick Flynn, a Utila businessman who organized the Utila tournament. "Utila has something else that can be offered other that just diving- sports fishing."
While Jim Engels, now deceased owner of Utila Lodge, had organized a catch-and-release tournament back in the 1990's, the practice didn't stay on. Over a decade later Utila Lodge was hosting the tournament again and on the July 3rd captains meeting there was an excitement and anticipation of history-in-the-making in the air. The participants were excited about trying something different. "It's selfish to just kill the fish like that. On the last tournament we had to kill a [juvenile] 80 pound marlin," said Carlos Martinez, a businessman from La Ceiba who has been fishing for 20 years. "This [catch-and-release tournament] feels better."

Roatan Cargo Boats Missing at Sea

Silver Trader, a 85' long- 115 tone cargo boat, disappeared while bringing building supplies from Puerto Cortez to Roatan. The boat departed Puerto Cortez at 7am, July 24, on what is typically under 24 hour passage. At 2pm, Silver Trader's captain Reyniero Zavala, made a last contact with via cell phone with his sister on Roatan and told her about worsening weather conditions.
On July 25, after Silver Trader failed to arrive at her Los Fuertes dock and failed to answer radio and cell contact, a plane and several boats were dispatched to look for the missing vessel. "We are making all kinds of efforts to find out what happened. We will get to the bottom of this," said Erwin Dixon, owner of the disappeared vessel.
Built in 1992, Silver Trader was converted this year from a Lobster boat and was on her ninth trip from Puerto Cortez. Four crew and possibly passengers were on board the disappeared vessel which is presumed sunk.
Cases of boats disappearing without a trace have happened around the Bay Islands before. In December 1971, French Harbour based boat 'Nighthawk' with Captain Darwin Jackson and 11 crew and passengers disappeared between Roatan and Belize. Despite expensive searches no trace of the boat, cargo or passengers were ever found.

Utila's Water Issues
Spanish Government Builds a Water Desalination Plant

Utila's new potable water system will not come cheap. A continual expense of paying staff of four to be responsible for maintenance of machines, changing purifying filters and supplying electricity to lift the salty water 56 meters to the surface, could make one liter of Utila's water cost, bitter not sweet.
Also the long term environmental impact of continually and increasingly dumping salinated water and impurities close to the Utila reef have to be studied more. In the long term, risks to Utila's marine environment and the potential impact on the tourist industry could far outweigh the benefits.
A less high-tech and less expensive option of reducing Utila's water demand could be building rain water collection systems, water cisterns and artificial retention ponds. This is a more viable, certainly more cost effective, less energy consumption, and less knowledge dependent solution to stabilizing the deteriorating aquifer
Utila's mayor is optimistic about the outlook. "Even though this is a project that needs a great initial investment, it is a sustainable solution for Utila," said Mayor Alton Cooper. The 15 liters a second maximum output of the desalination plant can provide adequate water to up to 10,000 people, a number that Utila's population is expected to reach in 2032. According to the SETA engineers, Utila's potable water problems could be solved for the next 25 years.
Utila's plant is one of 18 water treatment facilities that the Spanish government is funding in Honduras - total costs, Euros 20 million. It is the second, after Municipality of Amapala, location to receive a desalinization plant. Coxen Hole on Roatan is planed to be the next location to receive the water treatment plant with work beginning this fall and Trujillo and Tela stand in line to fallow.
Spanish Embassy Officials, land donors, president Mel Zelaya, and Mayor Alton Cooper.
The public wells that have been supplying potable water to Utila's East Harbour have become more and more salinated to the point where they fail international standards for salt content in potable water. According to Mayor Alton Cooper salt water intrusion has deteriorated the water in the municipal wells to the point where it is unfit for drinking or washing.
In 2003 UPCO bought desalination equipment, but failed to deliver on a promise of a desalinated water plant. Utila turned to the Spanish government and its offer to construct a desalination plant with its SETA engineering group. The plant cost around Lps. 60 million and was constructed on Western Path land donated by Lester James.
The Utila desalination plant is far from simple. Two 56 meter deep wells pump salt water to the plant, run it through filter membranes then submit the water to a reverse osmosis treatment. The pure drinking water is placed in a cistern while the unusable, contaminated water is pumped out to sea.
Who's to Blame?
Utila's Energy Company Hikes Prices to Record Levels. Utilans Cry 'Foul'

As a symbol of UPCO's wasteful and unrealistic spending and lack of planning a galvanized water storage tank is now used to store brooms and building materials. Desalination equipment, worth tens of thousand of dollars, stands unused, rusting away. The UPCO's idea of bringing in wind power has blown away and wind turbines never arrived.
While a few Expats invested in solar energy, escalating energy prices have failed to attract entrepreneurs offering to lower energy consumption and generate options for individual energy consumers. No government program supports the import, purchase or installation of solar panels, solar water heaters, etc. Several Utila residents have invested in alternate power despite these difficulties.
Jan Masella, an American Expat living by the old airport, has invested $10,000 in setting up her own solar system to become less dependent on UPCO. Masella has nine 180 amp solar panels and a dozen deep cycle batteries, a system set up by Chris Howard, owner of Utila's cinema.
In 2005 UPCO was bought out and the new owners have been struggling to keep the company going and on track. The original two .750 Megawatt generators purchased by UPCC have now all disintegrated. A 1.5 Megawatt and in February 1.25 Megawatt machines were brought in by Commercial Laize.
According to Turner, after 30 years of UPCO operation, in 2032, the Utila Municipality will have an option to purchase UPCO and take over its management. Whether UPCO will manage to make it to 2032 is a matter of speculation. "If the UPCO management can't provide electricity at better prices, let someone else manage it- that is what people tell me," says Julia Keller, member of the Citizen Help Committee, owner of Jade Seahorse restaurant and liberal party internal candidate for mayor. Keller believes that a UPCO collapse is unavoidable.
A ten member Citizen Help Committee organized by Keller asked the Commicion Nacional de Energia, a controlling and regulating body of energy producers in Honduras, to come to Utila for an audit and inspection of the UPCO books and accounts. On July 2 thru 4, the five members of the commission toured UPCO facilities and looked at the company's accounts.
In general energy generation situation in Honduras is complicated and getting worse. In a country with ample and fast running rivers has the best potential for hydro power in Central America. According to Turner, who constructed and operates a hydro power plant in La Esperanza, Intibuca, there are 70 renewable energy plants permits waiting for approval at the ministry of the environment. Only six are operating, four of them bio-mass, and not a single renewable plant license has been granted in six years. While ENEE pays 6.7 US cents per kilowatt to his Hydro Electric plant, a fossil fuel plant in San Pedro Sula will get 33 US cents. "It takes three months to set up a bunker fuel plant and three-and-a-half years to set up a hydro electric plant," says Turner.
Rusting desalinization machinery at UPCO power plant.

A case of displaced anger has hit the 2,870 permanent Utila inhabitants. Customers of Utila Power Company (UPCO), the islands sole energy generator, are unable to figure out whom to blame for their skyrocketing energy prices. Utilans in July paid 9.55 Lps. per Kilowatt-hour. While in 2002 UPCO's energy price to customers was 19 US cents per Kilowatt-hour, July's price approaches 50.3 US cents, and at the moment Utila has the highest energy prices of any island in the Caribbean. Even Guanaja's BELCO, for several years the most expensive energy producer in the Bay Islands, was left in the dust.
Amongst all the finger pointing few people realize that high energy prices are a consequence of high world fuel prices and basic mistakes made while UPCO was setting up its operations on the island in 2001. Utilans and UPCO investors have no-one-but-themselves to blame for failure to scrutinize the decisions about the UPCO's financing structure, UPCO power plant's location, fuel supply inefficiencies, unrealistic plans for wind generation and desalination, pre-paid meters and inefficient energy grid.
In its 2001 business plan UPCO estimated its capital project at $4.1 with 75% of that sum coming from Honduran banks. According to Jack Yeh, a Yale University graduate student conducting research on Utila's energy habits, one gallon of fuel is used for every 12 kilowatts of electricity produced. According to Ron Turner, UPCO's GM, the company looses around 20% on their distribution lines. Another disadvantage Utilans face is that UPCO never managed to secure a government subsidy for consumers using less than 300kw a month. Roatan's RECO and Guanaja's BELCO both pass this government subsidy to its customers.
While Robert Blenker, the original UPCO GM, who with Tennesse Valley Authority presented UPCO as a company looking in to the future yet failed to resolve some basic, but critical to the company's operation fundamentals.
The prepaid meter and an additional 1.5% commission at the bank were never fully accepted by the consumers. "The problem with pre-paid meters [in quickly escalating fuel prices] is that if you pre-paid at the beginning of the month and price increases in the middle of the month, the customer looses money," said Richard Warren, President of RECO.
Around 1,500 gallons of diesel a day are needed to keep the plant operating and every month UPCO customers spend around $200,000 paying for their electricity. One of the beneficiaries of the pre-paid system is the HSBC bank that picks up a 1.5% fee. HSBC who also holds around $1.3 million UPCO debt, is not ready to give up its monthly commission estimated at around $3,000.
This inefficient shipping method made energy on Utila even more expensive than on the more remote Guanaja. UPCO fuel is brought in from Cortez on a truck, then shipped via boat to Utila, then trucked to UPCO's generating facility's small fuel storage tank some four kilometers away.

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Looking Long Term

RECO expects to not subsidize fuel to customers within several months, become profitable in five years

This investment in new machines and overhauling of old generators wasn't cheap. According to Richard Warren, Kelcy Warren- RECO's CO and owner, and Richard Warren's cousin, has spent $11-12 million in purchasing and maintaining RECO until now and another $5 million will be spent by September. "He's [Kelcy Warren] got the resources and he's willing to spend them," said Richard Warren.
RECO is in the process of looking at finding alternatives and long range plans for power generation on the island. The estimates obtained by RECO for an underwater cable from the mainland range between $35 and $85 million. "That still doesn't solve our dilemma where to get energy from the mainland," said RECO GM.
A year-long study has begun on and offshore on the east part of the island to determine feasibility of installing wind turbines. Still, with wind power not being constant, RECO's GM estimates that only 30% of installed power can be counted on all the time.
RECO has currently four co-generating partners: Coral Cay (200 Kw), Anthony's Kay (300 Kw), Osgood Cay (50 Kw) and Henry Morgan (300 Kw), all producing as much as 850 Kilowatts. While RECO's current peak demand is currently around 10.5 Megawatt, the company believes it could rise overnight to 15-16 Megawatts if all requests for power were fulfilled. Energy generation is critical for RECO and Richard Warren promised to buy back excess power from all, even small local generators. "We are in no position to refuse any source of energy," said RECO's GM.
RECO's general assembly and new board election is planned for August 9.

One of the "problem parcels" on the north shore of SGM

RECO is not the old RECO, UPCO is not the old UPCO, BELCO is pretty much the same. Some things change and others remain the same, and nothing changes more quickly than the world crude prices.
According to Roatan Electric Company (RECO) officials, if HonduPetrol fuel prices will remain unchanged and the RECO fuel surcharge will increase from the current Lps. 0.88 to Lps. 3.84 a Kilowatt-hour by September. Still entire RECO's customer costs (currently 4.22 Lps.) will still be lower than current energy costs on Guanaja (Lps. 8.39 a Kilowatt-hour) and Utila (Lps. 9.55 a Kilowatt-Hour).
Richard Warren, RECO's president predicts RECO will not be making a profit for another four, five years. "We are looking at 20 years into the future and we want to say then that it was a good investment," says RECO president.
According to RECO projections peak energy demand on the island is expected to double in 11 months starting in November. The present demand of 10.5 Megawatt will grow to 19.5 Megawatt as six new shopping centers and resorts will come on line. To prepare for this increase demand a brand new Wartsilla 4.5 generator was brought to the island on July 12 and is expected to be placed online by end of October. With RECO's own 7.3 Megawatt unit available and another 6 Megawatt rental units from Grupo Laeisz.

Click for the latest Roatan weather forecast.

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