Nine Years of Empire
148 Years after returning to Honduras – What are the Bay Islanders Really Celebrating?

May 1st, 2009
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private] The nine-year period (26 March, 1852 – 22 April, 1861) in which the Bay Islands were officially a British colony has created a never ending longing in some islanders for the Englishness they left behind. While every April 22 some Bay Islanders celebrate the ‘Return to Honduras’ day, other islanders don’t celebrate at all and don’t hesitate to tell about their displeasure of the ‘return.’ “The celebrations are a fraction of what they used to be,” said Joe Solomon, chief of Roatan Municipal police. “Some people don’t know whether to celebrate, or to mourn.”

While some Bay Islands feel they were sold out by the British Crown, others feel nostalgic for the British path the Bay Islands didn’t take. “Queen Victoria’s name was cursed for many years after this. We stopped only after her death [1901] as we don’t speak badly about dead people,” said George Crimmins, a West End resident.

Few islanders actually blame US pressure on the Great Britain to relinquish the islands, and even fewer understand the context of how the islands became an English Colony, and what took place afterwards.

A portrait of Queen Victoria and a Union Jack flag.

A portrait of Queen Victoria and a Union Jack flag.

In the early 19th century the Bay Islands were practically uninhabited, a backwater for both the Central American Republics and Britain. In a report by Orlando Roberts, an English trader doing business in the Bay of Honduras, in the early 1820s the islands had just a few people living there permanently. There was a Garifuna settlement in Punta Gorda and “five or six Spaniards” posted by the government in Port Royal on an intermittent basis.

Until 1831, it is estimated that fewer then 100 people lived in the Bay Islands. But the young Honduran Republic, created less then ten years prior, didn’t abandon the archipelago and kept a four-five man army post in Port Royal flying the Honduran flag. Several Spanish installed themselves on Roatan and Guanaja and used the islands as a fishing base. By the 1830s, the Bay Islands had become an administrative pain in the neck for a young Honduran republic that had no navy and much bigger problems on the mainland.

Following the Spanish American revolution and the creation of Honduras in 1821, Honduras had acquired the rights to the Bay Islands though ‘Uti Possidetis,’ and Great Britain had recognized Honduran sovereignty to the islands, with the acknowledgment that they had some English settlers there and a strategic position in the Bay of Honduras.

The situation was all about to change with the expected abolition of slavery in the British Empire. In the Cayman Islands of the early 1830s, the White population was outnumbered by five to one, and with abolition of slavery on the horizon, many White Cayman Islanders looked at places to migrate to. Caymanian turtle hunters often visited the Bay Islands and some Englishmen who had been expelled from the Mosquito Coast by the Spanish in 1790s and settled in Caymans had knowledge of the Bay Islands from that period.

The migration from the Caymans to Belize and Bay Islands had begun by 1831 and by1855 approximately 700 Cayman Islanders had settled in the Bay Islands. At first they were all White, but soon Black Cayman Islanders followed and settled close by. An estimated 24 White Cayman families arrived in the Bay Islands between 1831 and 1843.

When on August 1, 1834 slavery officially ended in the Cayman Islands,
ex-slaves took advantage of the one-acre land allotment from the British Crown and moved to Roatan. White settlers were eligible for a three acre land grant.

Accounts tell of over 200 ex-slave families arriving on Roatan: “the slaves who obtained their freedom, but could not procure labor in a small island, like the Grand Cayman, hearing of the success of their former masters, followed in their footsteps [to Roatan].”

Soon the Bay Islanders began an effort to clarify their legal status and gain official British protection. Several colonists skillfully played the British government authorities in Belize, the closest British outpost, getting attention and sympathy. They wrote letters, signed petitions, and reported on abuses by the Spanish.

In 1838 several Bay Islanders sent a letter to Belize claiming that the Spanish commander in Trujillo made threats against the Caymanians who settled on Roatan. British authorities in Belize sent Colonel McDonald to Roatan’s Port Royal. Colonel McDonald removed Spanish soldiers present there and hoisted the Union Jack.

While the British eventually backtracked on their actions to the Honduran government, the gesture instilled hope for Great Britain’s plans for the archipelago in the English speaking settlers. For a while, in recognition of these actions, Coxen Hole, the island’s capital, was renamed Port McDonald.

Through the 1840s the Bay Islands’ economy grew, their contacts with Belize improved, and with land grants being issued the islanders found themselves settling Utila, Guanaja, Barbarat, Helene, and eastern Roatan. In 1850 around 120 White settlers left Coxen Hole and settled the Utila Suc-suc Cay and Guanaja’s Sheen and Hog Cays.

By the late 1850s the Bay Islands had become economically self sufficient, an exception in the post-slavery period in the British Caribbean. But the Bay Islands was a new colony, created without the vestiges of the British colonial system, slavery and servitude. It was the promised land for both fleeing White ex-slave owners and ex-slaves. It was a place for entrepreneurs from other countries. An 1858 British census of 1739 residents of the Bay Islands showed 600 Cayman Islanders, 488 Bay Islanders,139 people from the Mosquito shore, 61 Belizeans, 28 Jamaicans, 14 English, 14 Africans, 8 US citizens, 6 Scotts, one German and one Arab, amongst others. Interestingly, Spanish, estimated at about 15% of the total population and Garifuna, also around 15% or so, were not accounted for in the document. Between 1855 and 1858 around 300 people, more than 20% of the English speaking population, left Roatan for Belize and Jamaica in anticipation of the return of the islands to Honduras.

It is curious that the Garifuna community that was based almost continually on Roatan since 1797, never dispersed and claimed land in other parts of the island or on other Bay islands. Garifuna were on Roatan for 35 years before Cayman Islanders showed up and distrust between two groups quickly begun. Garifuna, like the Spanish, were Catholic, and many spoke Spanish and associated the English with the traumatic Black Carib expulsion from Saint Vincent, during which hundreds of Garifuna died.

A Santos Guardiola bilingual poster about the return of Bay Islands to Honduras

A Santos Guardiola bilingual poster about the return of Bay Islands to Honduras

In 1850s Garifuna conducted raids on islander property and the British government decided to issue muskets to British subjects in Bonacca and Coxen Hole. A group of Garifuna were imprisoned, but managed to escape.

Despite an economic boom, Bay Islands wasn’t always a happy place. A minor riot followed a “perjury” trial and imprisonment of Black schoolteacher in Coxen Hole. That documented event set islander against islander.

As the Bay Islands colony grew economically self sufficient, its entrepreneurial citizens embarked upon the business of farming, trading plantains, coconuts and bananas. The exports were valued at 14,000 British Pounds and produced a surplus. Bay Islands produce was shipped to Belize and the US with the US export market rising from 41% to 90% by 1859, but barely 1% of exports went to the Honduras mainland and only 2% of its imports came from there.

The desire to hold sea frontage land led to rapid growth of communities of West End, Flowers Bay, and Jobs Bight. Around 90% of 1,600-1,700 people living on Roatan in 1850 lived in or around Coxen Hole. There is even one account of Coxen Hole serving as a slave holding station for slaves destined for US and Cuba.

Still the English weren’t the only people attracted to the archipelago’s unclaimed land. Also some US citizens (Samuel Warren and Joshua) settled on the Utila Cays. Some French families settled around Roatan’s Port Royal and the Spanish Ruis family settled on Barbarat.

In 1849 William Fitzgibbon, a US citizen, was elected Chief Magistrate of Bay Islands and the US was quick to respond. In an 1850 letter, John Clayton, US secretary of State, declared “under no circumstances would the Government of United States permit the Government of Great Brittan to interfere with the affairs of the settlers at Roatan.”

In the 1850s several US Senate discussions claimed that the British presence in the Bay Islands was a violation of the Monroe Doctrine and the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. With the potential strategic importance of the archipelago if a Nicaraguan trans-isthmus canal was built, the US was not happy to see Britain expand its interests. On July 4, 1850 the US Congress ratified the Clayton-Butler treaty with Great Britain in which colonization, occupation, and fortification in Central America were forbidden.

Despite some backtracking to the US congress, the British government did eventually claim the Bay Islands as its colony. A Letters Patent was issued in March 1852 creating the Colony of the Bay Islands, a higher status British possession than Belize had at the time, which was a settlement. On July 11, 1852, the Superintendent of Belize declared the Bay Islands a colony of Great Britain. “Her Britannic Majesty has deigned to constitute as a colony Roatan, Bonnacco, Utila, Barbareta, Elena and Morat, designated by the name ‘Colony of the Bay Islands,'” stated Superintendent Wodehouse.

By the 1850s the majority of Bay Islands residents were born outside of the archipelago, mostly in Cayman Islands. The case of Texan secession from Mexico in 1835 could inspire the Cayman Islanders in hopes of bringing a similar coup in the Bay Islands.

The Wyke-Cruz treaty between Queen Victoria and Honduras was signed at Comayagua on November 28, 1859 that clarified the status of Bay Islands and guaranteed their return to Honduras.

American buccaneer and adventurer William Walker had landed on Roatan on June 15, 1860. Some 40 British troops from Belize were already there, sent there to quell any potential trouble from any of the population unwilling to submit to the Honduran takeover.

For over a month Walker distributed leaflets trying to gain support from the islanders. He got only three Roatanians to join his expedition party that in August sailed to Honduran mainland and took Trujillo by force.

In an ironic twist, the British lent the Honduran government a helpful hand and quelled Walker’s plans. A British schooner Icarus, under Captain Salmon, went in pursuit of the American filibuster all the way up to Black River in La Mosquitia. Salmon captured Walker and 73 of his followers, accomplishing what the Honduran troops could not do. Walker was executed in Trujillo and the three islanders sent back home.

In a sense, this is what Honduras really wanted: for the Bay Islands to be given back and Honduras to be able to count on British naval protection in the Bay of Honduras.

When a copy of the “Honduran Gazette” with the text of the Wyke Treaty arrived at Coxen Hole in December 1860, some islanders refused to believe it. Barely two days later, 150 islanders signed a petition to Queen Victoria asking to “enjoy our own laws and institutions under the Protectorate of Your Most Gracious Majesty’s Government.”

The Wyke Treaty not only didn’t give islanders British protection, it did not guarantee trail by jury, or exemption from taxes or military service. The treaty did guarantee islander’s property rights and freedom of religious worship and belief. There is a speculation that granting religious worship rights to the islanders was the chief cause of president Santos Guardiola being excommunicated in December 1860. In fact, the rift between the Catholic Church and the state of Honduras followed into late 1860s.

An attempt to have the Wyke Treaty sent back for revision by the Honduran Senate failed by one vote in March 1861.
On April 22, 1861, Honduran authorities took physical possession of the Bay Islands. A one page poster, signed by president Santos Guardiola, and announcing the return of Bay Islands to Honduras is dated April 24, 1861. La Gazeta, Honduras’ official newspaper, printed the ratified treaty in its issue 36 on October 30, 1861.

While the Wake Treaty guaranteed an annual 5,000 British Pounds payment to be paid by the Honduran Government to the Mosquito Indians, not even the very first payment was made. This brings up the issue of whether the treaty should be considered as valid. Upon rejoining Honduras, the Bay Islands actually paid into the Honduran coffers. The 168 British Pounds that was found in the Bay Islands treasury was handed over to the Honduran authorities on June 1, 1861.

If the Bay Islands had any chance at becoming reintegrated into the British Colonial empire, the chance came in the several years after ceding the islands to Honduras when the US was distracted by its civil war and Honduras was strapped for cash.

After the assassination of Santos Guardiola, the new Honduran president, Victoriano Castellanos offered in 1862 to revert the treaty and give the archipelago back to Great Britain for 40,000 BP in bank holders’ claims. By that time however the British Government wasn’t interested.

A disabled ex lobster diver looks on from his bed. He has spent almost 20 years lying on his stomach and has difficulty clearing his lungs.

A disabled ex lobster diver looks on from his bed. He has spent almost 20 years lying on his stomach and has difficulty clearing his lungs.

In the late 1860s, the US was increasingly distracted by the growing polarization between the North and South. The period leading to the US civil war left few in Washington preoccupied with Central America or the Caribbean. In general in the 19th century, British interests were usually more focused on Belize, Black River and the Mosquito Coast, than they were on the Bay Islands. Whatever interest Queen Victoria had in the archipelago, it dwindled fast. While the US had a consul on the Bay Islands, Great Britain did not and soon even withdrew their consul from Trujillo.

Two decades went by and the Honduran government finally embraced the idea of keeping the Bay Islands. On May 14, 1872, the department of the Bay Islands was created and its citizens brought under full Honduran law and legislature. For decades following the handover, Bay Islanders that didn’t leave to claim British land offered in Jamaica or Belize refused to serve in the Honduran armed forces and resisted paying any kind of taxes. [/private]

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