That Island To the East
Often overlooked and ignored, Saint Helene’s history and people go back centuries

October 1st, 2007
by Thomas Tomczyk


The natural Saint Helene mangrove canal.

The natural Saint Helene mangrove canal.

How 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. 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.

Houses in the Bight of Saint Helene.

Houses in the Bight of Saint Helene.

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.

Often overlooked and ignored, Saint Helene’s history and people go back centuries

Entrance 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

Entrance 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

As 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 Bowman.

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.

Seafood 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 subsistence levels.

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. [/private]

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