What Are We Celebrating?
April Marks Return of Bay Islands to Honduras

March 22nd, 2013
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British diplomat Henry Lytton Bulwer artfully “understood” an 1850 treaty he negotiated with US Secretary of State John Clayton as allowing Britain to claim the Bay Islands. Nine years later, London was obliged to relent.

April marks 153 years since the treaty was ratified in which Britain relinquished its claim to the Bay Islands. There will be celebrations in public, but many English-speaking islanders will mourn the occasion in private.

British influence on the Bay Islands runs deep. But the islands were officially part of the British Empire for less than a decade.

Columbus claimed the Bay Islands for Spain in 1502. As elsewhere in the Caribbean, though, rival powers England, France and Holland, and pirates operating with their blessing, challenged Spain’s dominion.

In 1564 an English pirate ship captured four Spanish frigates and holed up in the Bay Islands. Such buccaneering raids recurred regularly in the ensuing decades, peaking in the late 17th century. Guanaja and Port Royal were favorite hide-outs.

English settlers established a colony on Roatan in 1638, but the Spanish expelled them four years later. Over the next decade they removed all the indigenous people as well in an effort to deny the pirates provisions.

In 1742, during a global conflict between Britain and Spain, British troops built a military base at New Port Royal. But they withdrew per the treaty ending the war in 1748. For the next 30 years, British presence on Roatan appears to have been very limited.

In 1779, Spain declared war on Britain in support of North American independence, and the British returned to Port Royal. Spanish troops expelled them in 1782. With the end of hostilities, Britain again recognized Spanish sovereignty over the Bay Islands. That recognition extended to Honduras after Honduras became independent in 1821.

It was only in the 1830s, with the ending of slavery in the British Empire, that large numbers of English speakers began to settle here, mostly from the Caymans.

Honduras was uneasy about this incursion of British subjects. At one point the commandant at Trujillo threatened the settlers. A British officer from Belize sailed to Port Royal to protect them and hoisted the Union Jack. But London disavowed his action. According to US diplomatic correspondence from the time at least, Her Majesty’s Government consistently acknowledged Honduran sovereignty over the islands throughout this period.

By the late 1840s, however, the Bay Islands became enmeshed in the competition between the US and Britain over who would control a prospective canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans across Central America. In the 1850 Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, both sides foreswore any territorial ambitions in Central America. However, Britain asserted its existing “settlement at Honduras” was grandfathered in, then promptly annexed the Bay Islands to British Honduras (Belize).

Interestingly, US diplomats at the time asserted the islands’ inhabitants preferred autonomy within Honduras.

After several years of diplomatic wrangling, London saved face by saying it would negotiate the sovereignty of the Bay Islands only with Honduras, which it did, signing a treaty at Comayagua in November 1859.

That treaty, ratified the following April, said that the inhabitants of the Bay 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 “in all other respects,” they would be thereafter “subject to the laws of the Republic (of Honduras).”

From: Historical Geography of the Bay Islands, Honduras, William V. Davidson, 1974; Through the Eyes of Diplomats: History of the Bay Islands 1858-1895, Ramon Isaguirre, et al., 2003; both in the Bay Islands Voice library.

Click here for a concise timeline of British occupation of the Bay Islands.

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