Timeline of British Colonization of the Bay Islands

March 22nd, 2013
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The following chronology is derived primarily from two sources both found in the Bay Islands Voice library:

1) Historical Geography of the Bay Islands, Honduras, William V. Davidson, 1974.

2) Through the Eyes of Diplomats: History of the Bay Islands, 1858-1895, United States Diplomatic Correspondence; Ramon R. Isaguirre, Charles G. Gerke and Cookie Rocklin; 2003.

The Voice recognizes that other sources may have conflicting information and invites comments.

1502: Christopher Columbus passes through the Bay Islands during his fourth voyage to the Americas and claims them for Spain.

Early 1500s: Spanish slaving expeditions visit the islands and abduct Paya inhabitants.

1530: First documented Spanish license to settle on the Bay Islands.

1564: French English and Dutch pirates, some acting with the blessing of their governments, are routinely harassing Spanish shipping in the Bay of Honduras. An English pirate ship captures four Spanish frigates in the Bay and then hides out at Agua Baja, in the Bay Islands. It is the first of many documented cases of English pirate attacks on Spanish ships in the area, sometimes using the Bay Islands as an operating base.

1582: First documentary reference to an encomienda system on the Bay Islands. Encomienda was a Spanish colonial system by which territory was awarded to a landlord with rights to use the occupants as labor (whether they liked it or not). By this time it is evident the islands are producing surplus foodstuffs and supplying Spanish ships returning to Europe.

Early 1600s: First specific evidence of Spanish clergy on the island. The first reference to churches was in 1639, when the Dutch burned some of them.

1630: King Charles II of England grants rights to the Providence Company to settle effectively anywhere in the Caribbean south of Cuba and west of Hispaniola (Haiti/Dominican Republic). The Bay Islands fall within this vast area.

1638-39: An unknown number of English colonists arrive on Roatan and establish a settlement, probably around Port Royal. The Spanish oust them four years later.

1639: Spanish authorities decree that all indigenous inhabitants of the Bay Islands should be removed and resettled elsewhere so that pirates will be less able to use the islands to shelter and supply their ships. Essentially all inhabitants are removed by 1650.

Mid-late 1600s: Buccaneering, essentially state-sanctioned piracy, reaches its peak in the Western Caribbean. Guanaja and Port Royal are popular pirate hide-outs/bases for raiding the Spanish Main. Pirates occupy the Bay Islands intermittently and sporadically, but they leave little lasting trace.

1739-48: The Spanish and British Empires engage in a global war known variously as the War of Jenkins’s Ear or the War of the Austrian Succession. The British for the first time establish a military base on the Bay Islands, at New Port Royal, garrisoned with 460 soldiers. It is estimated 800-1,000 people occupy the area, including families. British forces withdraw from the Bay Islands in 1748 under the terms of the peace treaty ending the war.

1749-78: There is no record of permanent English settlement on the Bay Islands during this period. Fishermen from the Cayman Islands occasionally visit to hunt turtles, and some Englishmen from Jamaica obtain permits from Trujillo to graze livestock on Roatan.

1779: Spain supports the revolting colonists in British North America by declaring war on Britain. Britain responds by going on the offensive against Spain in the Caribbean, including reoccupying Roatan. Refugees from Spanish attacks on Belize flee to Roatan and Guanaja.

1782: Spanish forces expel the British from Port Royal and burn the fort.

1797: The British maroon about 2,500 Garifuna on Roatan after crushing a revolt on St. Vincent (Garifuna oral tradition is that their ancestors came here on their own rather than be enslaved by the British). Spanish authorities see this as an attempt by Britain to reoccupy the island and remove most of the Garifuna to the area around Trujillo, on the coast. A few remain behind, however, and settle at Punta Gorda.

1821: Honduras and the rest of Central America declare their independence from Spain. Britain recognizes Honduran sovereignty over the Bay Islands under the principle of uti possidetis, which essentially maintains the previous colonial borders.

1834: Slavery is abolished in the British Empire. In the years leading up to abolition, white Cayman islanders begin settling on the Bay Islands, primarily around Coxen Hole, in search of green fields since those who were slaveowners were about to lose their slaves. Following abolition, freed slaves from the Caymans follow and soon far outnumber the white settlers. By around 1850, different sources indicate between 1,500 and 2,000 people are living on the Bay Islands, most of them British subjects, most of them on Roatan and about 90 percent of them freed slaves.

1830s-40s: Honduran authorities are nervous about this influx of British subjects onto the Bay Islands, which they claim as Honduran territory, inherited from Spain. At one point, the military commandant at Trujillo threatens the settlers, and the British superintendent for Belize sails to Port Royal to protect them and raises the Union Jack over the fort. But London disavows his actions. The US Congress also takes notice of the influx of British subjects, with some members viewing it as an infringement of the Monroe Doctrine and an effort to control the approaches to a prospective canal across the Central American isthmus. The Monroe Doctrine, named for US President James Monroe, was the US policy from the early 19th century to support the independence of the new American republics and oppose any further European colonization in the Americas.

1846: Settlers on the Bay Islands, feeling the need for law and order, hold a public meeting and adopt a resolution to establish a 13-member assembly and elect five magistrates. Elections are held the following year, and again in 1848. In 1849, according to US diplomatic sources, the islanders elect a US citizen, William Fitzgibbon, as Chief Magistrate. Another public meeting is held the following January to discuss forming a more formal local government. In February, again according to US diplomatic sources (clearly not unbiased), a US citizen, this time a former US Vice Consul for Cuba, is elected Chief Magistrate. Fitzgibbon is elected Chief Justice.

1849: US Secretary of State John Clayton writes a letter stating that “under no circumstances would the Government of the United States permit the Government of Great Britain to interfere with the affairs of the settlers at Roatan.”

1850 (April): US Secretary of State John Clayton and British Ambassador Henry Lytton Bulwer conclude a treaty intended to resolve the competition between the two rival sea powers over strategic control of the approaches to transit routes between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans across Central America. Britain has already established formal or informal presence or protectorates over the Mosquito Coast, the Bay Islands, and Belize (all English-speaking areas to the present day). In the treaty, the two sides agree that any canal across Central America should be neutral, not exclusively controled by anyone, and toward that end, neither would “occupy, or fortify, or colonize, or assume or exercise any dominion over Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Mosquito Coast or any part of Central America.” However, Bulwer subsequently communicates to Clayton his “understanding” that this clause does not apply to “Her Majesty’s settlement at Honduras or its dependencies.” The US interprets this to mean “the British settlement in Honduras commonly called British-Honduras,” i.e. present-day Belize.

1850 (May): British Warship Bermuda, commanded by Lieutenant Jolly, visits Coxen Hole and asks a public assembly of settlers there whether they wish to be placed under the protection of the British Crown. Fitzgibbon, acting in the absence of the Chief Magistrate, claims that he asked Jolly whether London claimed jurisdiction over the islands, to which he says Jolly did not reply. Fitzgibbon responds that, in that case, the settlers prefer “to be left to ourselves” as an autonomous settlement under the sovereignty of Honduras. The matter is put to a vote, and, according to Fitzgibbon, only two vote in favor of Crown protection.

1850 (August): The Bermuda returns to Roatan, and Jolly proclaims that, under instructions from Sir Charles Gray, the British Governor of Jamaica, he is placing the islands under British protection, and the existing local government must disband. Jolly claims to be acting at the request of the British subjects on the islands. Fitzgibbon claims the purported letter conveying such request was illegitimate. Jolly in turn accuses Fitzgibbon of attempting to place the islands under US protection, which Fitzgibbon denies. (Note: All of the above per a letter of protest penned by Fitzgibbon and relayed to Washington through US diplomatic channels.)

December 1850/January 1851: Charles Gray signs an order authorizing British magistrates to be commissioned for the Bay Islands. US and Honduran governments protest.

1852: Charles Cuyler, named from Belize, is installed as Magistrate for the Colony of the Bay Islands.

1852-59: US, increasingly preoccupied with its internal problems that ultimately result in onset of Civil War in 1861, continually protests that the annexation of the Bay Islands as part of Belize violates the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. London ultimately responds that it will not give in to US pressure but will negotiate the question of sovereignty over the Bay Islands directly with Honduras.

1859: In November, British Crown representatives sign a treaty at Comayagua with the Government of the Republic of Honduras stating: “Her Britannic Majesty agrees to recognize the Islands of Ruatan (sic), Guanaca (sic), Elena, Utile (sic), Barbarette and Morat, known as the Bay Islands, and situated in the Bay of Honduras, as a part of the Republic of Honduras.” The treaty includes the proviso that: “The inhabitants of said Islands shall not be disturbed in the enjoyment of any property which they may have acquired therein, and shall retain perfect freedom of religious belief and worship, public and private, but remaining in all other respects subject to the laws of the Republic (of Honduras).”

1860: The above treaty enters into force upon exchange of ratifications at Comayagua April 18.

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