The Paya of Bay Islands
After around 1,000 years of living on the Archipelago, the Original Inhabitants of Bay Islands have been Forcibly Removed. The Echo of their Presence is Hidden in Pottery Mounds and on Dusty Museum Shelves.

May 1st, 2011
by Thomas Tomczyk

[private]William V. Davidson’s 1973 book “The Historical Geography of the Bay Islands, Honduras” was instrumental in gaining understanding about the early, pre XVII century life in the Bay Islands. Anthony’s Key historical museum proved an invaluable tool at studying Paya culture and artifacts. Many thanks to them.

An artist's painting of the Paya settlement on the Bay Islands (Anthony's Key Museum)

An artist's painting of the Paya settlement on the Bay Islands (Anthony's Key Museum)

In pre-Columbian times, what today is Honduras was an area of active contact between cultures. Many societies in this area had elements of influences from the nearby cultures of Guatemala and even Mexico. Bay Islands, on the maritime trading routes between these cultures, were especially benefiting from contacts and influences of these diverse peoples.

The original inhabitants of the Bay Islands, likely from as long ago as 600 A.D. were the Paya, or Pech. A strong archeological, historical and ethnographic data supports that belief. The word “Pech” means “people”, a term used exclusively by the Paya for themselves. For other people the Paya use the term “pech-akuá” meaning “other people.” Other names for Paya include: Pahaya, Pawyer, Pesch, Popya, Poya, Poyai, Poyer, Seco, Taia, Tawka and Taya.

It is not known where the Paya came from. Some theories state that the Paya came to Central America in the great North to South America migration 5,000 BC. Many Paya archeological sites have been discovered in Southern Honduras. Paya linguistic studies however indicated that they are possibly descendants of some South American tribes. Paya language shows particular similarities with the Chibchas of Columbia, and common roots with the Kuna language of Panama. Thus, with a lack of archeological evidence to the contrary, it is commonly accepted that the Paya are of South American descent.

In pre-Columbian period the Paya lived in the Central Moskitia, North East of Olancho and until the latter part of the XVII century, they inhabited the valleys of rivers Aguán, Patuca and coastal areas all the way to the Nicaraguan border. Over the next several centuries many of the Paya have intermixed with the Miskito, lost their language and social cohesions.

Archeological findings suggest that the Paya settlements on the Bay Islands were small, dispersed and semi permanent, usually located inland in the hills and not close to the shore. The buildings were likely made from semi-permanent materials such as cane, mud and thatch. The Bay Islander Paya planted manioc, maize and probably used dugout canoes to fish, gather horse clams and conch. They also ate land crabs, turtles, iguanas deer, agouti and variety of fruits and nuts.

The Paya made spears and knives from local woods and manufactured sharp points and cutting edges from the imported obsidian. The Paya performed rituals such as smoldering of aromatic plants using braziers.

Hand beaten copper bells, symbol of elite status in Paya society, were found through the Bay Islands, some dated to 600 A.D.. Jade, imported from an area of today’s Guatemala, were found on the islands and are dated to as far as 1,000 A.D. The island Paya produced bracelets, anklets, beads, small bells and small ax-like shapes thought to have been a form of money.

Cocoa and coffee beans were also traded, especially from the agricultural centers in the Sula and Aguan valleys where the Jicaques and Nahuas lived.

With all the trade in the region, Bay Islands provided some exotic goods for the native mainland inhabitants. The original Bay Islanders exported stingray spines and seafood to the mainland and in return brought back jade and basalt from the Guatemala area, copper from nearby mainland Honduras and obsidian, cocoa beans and seashells from the Sula valley. Most of these raw materials do not occur naturally on the archipelago. Utila, formed partially from volcanic activity, was an exporter of basalt – an important material used in making grinding stones on the mainland.

Monochrome baked clay bowls with finger stamped decorative patterns have been commonly found on Roatan, Utila and Guanaja. These potsherds are very durable, and provide opportunity to study the Paya ability of decoration and techniques of clay manufacturing. The analysis of the ceramics from Bay Islands and northeast of Honduras indicates that these peoples formed a united cultural region at the time of European arrival.

A Paya exhibit at Anthony's Key Museum

A Paya exhibit at Anthony's Key Museum

The first point of contact between the European and the Bay Islands Paya took place in 1502. Christopher Columbus encountered Paya on his last voyage to the Americas. Off the coast of Guanaja the discoverer found a flotilla (a small fleet) of several large dugout canoes filled with trade goods destined from the mainland to the Bay Islands: cotton cloth, maize, cacao, beans, copper goods and wooden swords with sharp flint edges. The discoverer captured one canoe carrying 25 men, women and children.

In 1516 a first recorded slaving expedition on the Paya in the Bay Islands took place, when Diego Velasquez sent licensed slavers to the Bay of Honduras. Two slaving ships left Santiago de Cuba for Bay Islands and according to historical accounts captured 300 and killed others who resisted.

On return, in Havana harbor the ship was taken over by the Paya who forced the crew to sail them back to their homeland. When Diego Velasquez heard of the news, he ordered two ships to head towards Bay Islands where the slavers took 400 people on Utila and one other island. Reports of 100 Paya killed in the raids were also made. The captured Paya ended up working in the mines of Santiago de Cuba.

By 1520 an order from Hispaniola decreed that all Indians or “Non-Christians” could be enslaved. While most of the raids took the Spanish to the north coast of South America, some went to the Bay of Honduras. The accounts of Hernan Cortés, a Spanish conquistador, mentioned slaving raids on Guanaja and Trujillo. One of the Spaniards, Rodrigo de Melo, captured Paya on Utila for work in Cuba “in the mines, sugar cane, and fields, and to serve as shepherds.”

In 1527 “Archipelago de las Guanajas” was formally incorporated in to the Province of Honduras. There are records of a first Bay Islands “encomienda” in 1530, a Spanish right to settle, where the settler had a right of use of the local Indians and in return was obliged to Christianize his laborers and build new settlements.

These early slave raids did not disrupt traditional religious ties between the Paya on the mainland and in the Bay Islands. The Spanish account from that time describes 60 Paya houses on Guanaja and 150 on Utila. Even though the Spanish friars had visited the Bay Islands in early 1600s, at that point 90 percent of Indians in the province of Honduras hadn’t been baptized.

At one point, around 1580s Trujillo was getting a large portion of their food supply from the Bay Islands. Much of Spanish ships provisions for return voyages to Spain had their supplies brought in from Bay Islands: pork, chickens, plantains, pineapples and yams. Trading with mainland Spanish settlements, Paya brought back with them European animals: chickens, hogs, and cloth and iron tools.

With the Paya surviving the first century of the Spanish Conquest they eventually became part of the economic fabric of the region: trade, fishing, farming and supplying Trujillo with valuable staples. Parrots and rock crystals from the Bay Islands were sent to the Bishop of Trujillo which served as gifts to the Spanish Crown. Limes from Utila were sold at Puerto Caballos. Pitch was extracted from island pines for trade, and bark was gathered to make cordage.

Nearby Trujillo, the seat of the first Honduran dioceses (a district under the supervision of a bishop) with Bishop Cristobal de Pedraza known as “the protector of the Indians of Honduras” suggests that there was likely some presence of the Catholic Church amongst they Paya in the Bay Islands that would either have an assigned priest, or at least had been visited frequently. In1622, historical records show, the Bay Islands Paya were used as interpreters for a missionary expedition on the mainland.

In early 1600s there were around 400 people and around 80 homes and even churches on the Bay Islands. A 1639 and account by Francisco de Ávila y Lugo, mentions that “Dutch sailors burned the four island towns – churches first.” No location of any chapel or church has been determined by archeologists on the Bay Islands.

Increasingly in the XVII century the Bay Islands proved to be a strategically good place for pirates interested in raiding Caribbean Spanish ports and shipping routes. The Gulf of Honduras had the only two ports between Panama and Havana: Trujillo and Puerto Caballos. The two Spanish fleet routs passed close to the archipelago.

The pirates were often violent and destructive towards the Paya. They often burned to the ground entire Indian settlements, steeling boats and supplies. Still, with the increase presence of pirates on the Bay Islands, the Spanish came to see the Paya as providing assistance to them not the Honduran mainland. The Spanish came to see the Bay Islands as a place where pirates came to regroup and resupply.

The Spanish had to come up with a strategy to deal with the constant harassment by the pirates. In 1641 Don Antonio de Lara, a Spanish Council of War, ordered the Captain-General of the province of Honduras, Ávila y Lugo, to “depopulate the islands – Guanaja, Utila and Roatan – for the great inconveniencies they have caused.” The order required the burning of the settlements, fields, milpas (a crop-growing system used throughout Mesoamerica) and cemeteries. The Paya were to be brought to the mainland within 12 miles of Trujillo. “So the enemy is prevented from being aided by them.”

In 1642 the Spanish resulted to trying to bribe and convince by argument of the advantages for the Paya if they relocated to the mainland. A few Paya did relocate voluntarily, others moved to the mainland when the island Paya chief’s son was taken hostage. Still, the majority of the Paya remained on the islands. That is when the Paya loyalty has changed and they allied themselves with English pirate William Jackson who based on Roatan has sacked Trujillo with 16 ships. Jackson even helped with returning the 120 displaced Paya back to the islands.

Over the coming years there were even reports of Paya joining the ranks of the pirates and raiding mainland targets. The bishop of Trujillo insisted on the removal of Paya from Bay Islands by alleging “bad effects of the English heretics were spreading among the Indians and even on the mainland coast.”

The process of depopulating the Bay Islands from the Paya took several years and was finally completed in August of 1650. This was when Spanish united forces from all over Caribbean gathered to attack the pirate camp at Port Royal. Led by Diego de Villalba y Toledo (a Spanish general of artillery and colonial governor in America) the 450 Spanish quickly took over the pirate strongholds and spent nine days looking for Paya hiding in the forests. The raids on Saint Helene, Guanaja and Utila followed suit and the Paya were brought to the mouth of Rio Dulce and given the task of serving as lookout for nearby Spanish fort of Santo Tomas.

The Paya relocated to a village called Jocolo in Guatemala, a hot, humid and very much isolated place. They looked at their new home as a place of banishment for changing their alliances.

The Bay Islands were depopulated for the first time in many centuries. The Paya settlements and fields overgrew with vegetation. The wildlife thrived and the islands became an intermittent home to adventurers, pirates, shipwrecks, and English settlers until 1797 when Garifuna settled on the north side of Roatan. The plan of making the life difficult for English pirates in the Gulf on Honduras backfired on the Spanish. The English saw the islands as potential settling places for colonists and established a military outpost there.

While the Paya disappeared from the Bay Islands some continued to live on the mainland of Honduras. Until the middle of the XVII century, they inhabited between the large lagoon of Caratasca and El Cabo de Gracias a Dios. During the colonial period, the Paya were ravaged by European diseases and military attacks by their neighboring Miskito Indians.

In 1864 Honduran government awarded the Paya legal title to their communal lands. The mestizo population continued to move eastward and engulfed the Paya that now live in only 11 isolated communities surrounded by Garifuna, Miskito and Ladino people. Since the 1950s, loggers and immigrants have continued to exert pressure on the Paya resulting in erasing almost all vestiges of their traditional culture. With around 1,500 Paya surveyed around 990 speaking Pech, but among the 6 to 20 age-group, only half of them speak Pech at all. Even more striking is a report from 1982 that documented only 17 “racially pure” Paya Indians.

Paya Indians are considered to be isolationists, proud of their ethnicity and culture, in spite of colonization and assimilation of other indigenous groups. The Paya struggled hard to avoid intermarriage with other cultures. Today greatest concentration of Paya Indians is in the towns of Dulce Nombre de Culmí and Santa María del Carbón in Olancho.

The Paya with strongest cultural roots live in the community of Las Marías. They maintain much of the traditional life-style: they continue to catch iguanas by hand, to catch fish with handmade harpoons, and to navigate the waters of the local rivers in dugout canoes. They raise maize, beans, cassava and Opuntia cactus plant on which the cochineal insect feeds, using simple tools.

The future of the Paya doesn’t look great. They are isolated and their culture is engulfed in the homogenizing setting of the Honduran melting pot. In the next decades the remaining Paya could very well disappear like their cousins that once inhabited the Bay Islands. [/private]

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