Tales of a Changing Island
This Article was originally published in 1986 in Islands Magazine under the title Roatan- Heart of the Bay Islands. William Lewis, Ph.D. is a writer and a primitivist painter who since 1970 has lived in Honduras. He lives in Tela and Santa Lucia. He first came to Honduras as a Fulbright scholar.

September 1st, 2009
by William Lewis


A dory off Punta Gorga

A dory off Punta Gorga

Legends abound on Roatan. They are, like the sea that sustains the island, both a nutrient and an inspiration–a fusion of folkloric wisdom distilled from the eight separate cultures that have fought and flourished here during the past 400 years: Payan Indian, Spanish, English, Garifuna, Afro-Antillean, Anglo-Antillean, Spanish Honduran and, most recently, North American. All islanders, it seems, regardless of their ancestral origins, tell tales of duppies (evil spirits), yaba ding dings (pre-Columbian artifacts) and pirate treasures still buried on Roatan. Garifuna (black Carib) seamen describe the magic of dreams-men like 75-year-old Benito Gotay Caballero, who has fashioned more than 150 hardwood dories by hand, each one inspired by a vision. “Dreams,” he told me, “are a gift; they are like bright stars. No man can navigate without them.”

Our dory pushed off the quay at Oak Ridge before dawn, bound for Port Royal. The bay was silent save for the sputtering of the Briggs and Stratton 16-horse inboard that propelled 10 of us past the white, monolithic hulls of the shrimp fleet at anchor. By mid-June the shrimp and lobster season would begin again, and these vessels, along with many others, would leave Oak Ridge and head for Serrana and Quito Sueno, better known as “the banks.”

Four of the passengers in our weathered 32-foot mahogany dory were Garifuna fishermen from Punta Gorda, who sat in the bow, chatting and joking in their native dialect. Behind them, a middle-aged ladino from Barrio La Fuerte sat beside his plump and pregnant wife, who shielded her face from sea spray with a piece of clear plastic, She smiled shyly, saying, “I don’t want to get wet.” Her husband told me that he was going to Port Royal to work on a building project for gringos. He later added that greater numbers of mainland Hondurans were going to the islands to seek a better life. I found myself wondering if escalating military activity and political tensions on the mainland might not be the reason.

The teenage skipper of our vessel, a muscular Creole (Afro-Antillean) from nearby Calabash Bight, was seated in the stern on sacks filled with mainland produce-lettuce, cabbage, carrots, beans and coffee. He opened the throttle a notch, then spoke to an old man seated beside him: “Dere be pleny a breeze in de wind’s eye today, mon … but dat sun, when she jump up, she gonna be hot.”

“No matta, boy,” the old-timer retorted, “I know you gonna be sittin in de shade when de woikin starts, cause you surely was blocked-up [drunk] last night.”
“Hah, no way, mon. By noontime, dis dory be full a snapper!”

Trade winds from the southeast stirred palm fronds on the hillside above Pandytown as we passed and waved at the mail boat headed east. Along the docks that framed the bay, powerboats and yachts lay silent at their moorings beside rust-gutted oil drums and wooden crates. A scrawny mongrel yipped at us from the dock as we entered a shallow, winding channel cut through mangrove and outcroppings of flint gray ironshore. Beyond the channel, the water was clear and I saw clumps of turtle grass and coralline algae against the sandy white bottom. Beside me, Henry Genthe, a marine biologist and photographer on Roatan–and my guide to the island–pointed eastward to a spreading veil of light upon the water. His camera was poised, as the sun slowly bulged against the horizon.

Approximately 400 miles to the north-east of Honduras’s north coast, near the Cayman Islands, a colossal crack runs along the floor of the sea. Lava from the earth’s mantle upwells through this crack, forming the Caribbean plate. As the plate pushes south and west, it buckles, creating the Bonacca Ridge upon which “ride” six small islands and more than 60 separate cays, known collectively as Las Islas de la Bahia, the Bay Islands. Roatan, 30 miles long and 4 miles wide, dominates the chain in size, followed by Guanaja and Utila. The other three islands–Helene, Barbaret and Morat–are tiny by comparison; they are, in fact, detached parts of Roatan, surrounded by reefs interlaced with narrow, mazelike channels.

Uplifted by thrust faulting to summits of nearly 1,000 feet, Roatan slopes gently on its southern side and more sharply on the north. The igneous and metamorphic rock that makes up the island has been eroded into sloping hills and valleys, broken by extrusions of solid rock. Resting on the ridge, the island becomes a discontinuous extension of the mainland Sierra de Omoa.

Vegetation on the island is dense. Thick stands of Caribbean slash pine and oak line the central ridge, jutting up through chunks of white quartz and tall grasses. At the lower elevations, deciduous hardwoods are covered with lianas and epiphytic bromeliads, orchids and philodendrons, creating patches of impenetrable forest. Fruit trees bloom throughout the island: zapote, hog plums, cherimoya, cashew, mango, guava and breadfruit. On the southern slopes and along the road from Coxen’s Hole to Oak Ridge, thorn scrub forests grow side by side with small oaks and dense clusters of “cuttin grass.” Near the waterline on both shores, coconut palms, sea grape, coco plum and creeping morning glory stabilize the sands.

A Horse hides in the shade of a palm tree on Saint Helene

A Horse hides in the shade of a palm tree on Saint Helene

The southern shoreline, along which we passed, meanders erratically through 12 natural harbors fronted by 20 coral and mangrove cays and numerous reefs. Horse Shoe Reef at Port Royal is typical–a solid mass of storm-broken coral fused with calcareous red algae and covered, in places, with gardens of living coral.

We continued eastward, into the wind, as Genthe pointed out tiny inlets lined with coconut palms and sporadically dotted with small houses of wild cane and thatch built on pilings above the water. Except for two inland ladino towns–Juticalpa and Corozco–people (white, black and brown) have settled exclusively on the coast, where breezes from “the trades” provide natural air-conditioning. Since Roatan is situated in an east-southeast arc, there are no truly windward or leeward shores, so both sides of the island experience onshore winds during some months of the year. Staying cool is but one reason for elevated homes; the other is to escape the plague of mosquitos and other insects, most notably the jejenes. “We sometimes call them no-see-ums,” Genthe said. “They breed in the wet sand an inch below the surface. Mosquitos will give you a break now and then, but these critters bite 24 hours a day!”

A blue and yellow angelfish swam into view, then quickly disappeared within the spires of elkhorn coral. “These reefs,” Genthe enthused, his eyes on the water, “have spawned some of the richest and most varied sea life in the Caribbean–more than 50 species of coral and infinite varieties of tropical fish and plants.” For the past four years, Genthe has escorted groups of student naturalists here from the states to study marine biology and to learn to scuba dive. “There’s no better diving in this hemisphere,” he assured me, then added: “I’ve seen a lot of `tropical paradises.’ Roatan is in a class by itself. Basically, it’s still a frontier.”

Of the 18 states that comprise Honduras, only one–the Bay Islands–is detached from the mainland. As a result, this tiny state is like a separate country, historically rooted to a heritage more British than Spanish, which has left its imprint on language as well as attitude. During the Falkland Islands war, Bay Island sentiment clearly rested with Britain. Most islanders still refer to mainland Hondurans as “Spaniards,” with an air that reflects not only indifference but, at times, clear and unabashed distrust. As Mrs. L. Starry, an 80-year-old resident of Oak Ridge, explained, “It’s not blood or boundaries that hold people together, luv; it’s language.”

[In early 1980s] fewer than 15 percent of the 18,000 inhabitants of the Bay Islands are ladinos. The majority are Creole blacks–descendants of Cayman Island slaves who came to Roatan in the 1830s to found and settle Coxen’s Hole and the other coastal towns. Not until 1859, with the support of the United States and its Monroe Doctrine, was Honduras able to gain control of the islands the British had called “the Keys to the Spanish Main.”

Psychologically and culturally, the “keys” have never changed hands. The reason is obvious. Honduras has paid little attention to the islands, leaving them to evolve on their own.

The sun blazed above Port Royal through a haze of clouds. I sat beside Lee Matute, a Creole native of Roatan, on the porch of Henry Genthe’s beach house. Across from us, Genthe reclined in a hammock, cleaning his camera lenses. For the past two days, the two of us had been touring Port Royal in Mr. Lee’s dory, which was now tied at the dock in front of the house. Genthe and 72-year-old Mr. Lee were longtime friends and had shared more than one Port Royal adventure.

“I brought you here for two reasons,” Genthe said to me matter-of-factly, “to know Port Royal and to know this man.”

Mr. Lee chuckled, holding up the line he was rigging to better examine it. I watched his fingers; they were long, slightly arthritic, strong. He caught my eye and grinned. “Goin fishin today, mon!” he said jovially. He was hurrying so that he could fish the reef off Lime Key before it got too hot. At Genthe’s request, he had consented to take us to the island of Helene to meet his family. But fishing came first. “Yes sir, mon,” he declared, securing the last hook, “Dem Port Royal grunt [fish] be bitin good today!”

We pushed from the dock at Port Royal in the early afternoon, bound for Helene. Again, we moved slowly eastward, just outside the reef, and Genthe pointed out scattered homes along the hillsides, most of them owned by North Americans. The tangled shoreline of Careening Key was visible behind the wreck of Rambler, a decaying, storm-battered hulk that teetered on the sandbar at the edge of the bay. Mr. Lee sat at the tiller, a smile on his face, a sack of fish at his feet.

Lee Matute’s house was built on the cove in the center of a large family compound not 30 feet from the water. Within minutes of our arrival, many of his children and grandchildren had shown up to welcome us. Leonara, Lee’s wife of 47 years, told us at once that another healthy grandchild (their sixty-first!) had been born earlier that morning and named after his grandfather. Mr. Lee insisted that his family was small. His great-grandmother, he said, had a “large” family–175 great-grandchildren!

In many respects, Lee Matute epitomizes the Creole islander. Living off the sea and a few small plantation crops, he works hard to support his family. He raises pigs and chickens and, at times, hires out as a laborer for North Americans who, in recent years, have begun to settle Port Royal and the outlying areas. Unlike many of the foreigners, however (whose connection to the island is often tentative), Mr. Lee and his people belong here; their bond to Roatan is visceral, immutable, linked by blood to a rich maritime-island tradition.

While Leonara and three of her daughters busied themselves with cooking, Mr. Lee took us around the island to meet others in his family–more sons and daughters and scores of eager-eyed grandchildren, whose reverence and love for this gregarious old patriarch was warmly expressed. He showed us the boat he was building, his pride and joy, a vessel that has been three years in the making. “Pleny good size, mon,” he said, “haul maybe 15,000 coconuts. … She soon be in de water!”

After Leonara’s dinner–fish fried crisp in coconut oil with beans, plantain, coffee and pineapple cake–we went looking for Mr. Lee’s friend, Sam, who had promised to take us to the interior of the island for a look at a pre-Columbian site. A short time later, we were on our way, using machetes to cut a trail as we climbed over jutting blocks of iron shore into a cool, high canyon overgrown with vines and wild orchids.

Sam was visibly excited as we reached the top of the ravine and came upon the site–a wide circuitous plateau extending more than 100 feet and covered with hundreds of bone white conch shells. Sam told us that kids from the far side of the island had found the site and dug some small jadeite carvings and pottery shards from beneath the shells, but that few people on the island knew the place. Too exhausted from our climb to dig, we rested for a while, then started back down the canyon.

“Why did the Payans drag those shells all the way up there from the beach?” Genthe wondered aloud.

Mr. Lee shrugged. “I don know, mon … but I used to take my girlfriend up dere, long time ago … Got her away from her mama before de roosters crow. … Boy, boy!”

That night, Genthe and I joined Mr. Lee on the porch. Leonara served us coffee and cake, and we heard music coming from a portable radio someplace down the beach. There was a full moon and its light cast a brilliant sheen across the cove, illuminating the island of Barbaret, about two miles distant. I watched two of Mr. Lee’s sons rolling up a large net, which they stuffed in the head of their dory. The old man was talking about his youth days when he boxed as a young middleweight in port towns along the mainland; days when the sea turtle was abundant and sailing from Helene to Trujillo and back in just 10 hours was a matter of routine. His new boat had clearly inspired him. He said now that he could go to sea again and fish for conch and lobster. “Yeah boy,” he repeated, “she soon be in de water!”

At my prompting, he described voyages he once made to Belize and Nicaragua, from the Gulf of Honduras to the Cayman Islands, and he remembered his mates–“Sponish,” Waika (Miskito Indian) and Jamaican–unified by the sea. “De sea is every mon’s country,” he said, “She got but one language.”

I asked him about duppies. “Duppies, mon!” he snorted, with a grin. “Why duppies ain’t nothing but de devil; never bother you if you live right, by de rules.” Lee laughed aloud. “Never hit a frog with a yucca stick, cause dat frog chase you till he dies!”

Mr. Lee on his Porch in 2008.

Mr. Lee on his Porch in 2008.

Genthe said good night and entered the house while Lee and I remained, watching the light upon the water. I looked at Lee’s arms; they were still lean and well-muscled, capable of quickness and agility. Even in old age he was vital and rugged. But there was a seasoned gentleness about him, too, a serenity that comes only with generations of time.

He asked suddenly, sitting upright in the hammock, if I believed there was ever a man on the moon.

I told him there was and mentioned the Apollo space flight.

He grinned, looking up at the moon. “I don think so, mon,” he said, almost apologetically. “Dat be in de hands of de Lord. I think dat de Lord made de moon to light up de night, just like he made de sun to light up de daytime. Well mon, listen to me good: if de Lord can do dat, he surely can put a man on de moon if he want one up dere.”

On impulse, I asked if he’d like to go to the moon. “Boy! Boy!” he chortled. “You must be crazy… I’m an island mon. I stay right here. Dis be pleny fine place for Mr. Lee.” [/private]

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