The Bay Island’s rich cultural diversity stems from the variety of peoples who have inhabited them over the ages. Today’s inhabitants are the descendants of native Indians, Africans, and Europeans -including pirates-, and mainland Hondurans, accompanied by an ever-growing expatriate community.
The Islands original inhabitants were Paya Indians. The Paya were a nomadic group of hunter-gathers and fisherman, who traveled in canoes between the islands and to the mainland to trade amongst themselves and the Maya and other tribes from the mainland. Although the Paya weren’t as numerous as the Maya and left no written history, archaeological sites have been found throughout the islands containing simple pottery and tools. Today, Bay Islanders refer to these findings as “yaba ding dings”.
In 1502, on his 4th voyage to the new world, Christopher Columbus discovered the Bay Islands and claimed them for Spain. Over the following centuries Roatan would be caught between Spanish and British rule. During these years’ famous pirates such as Henry Morgan and Edward Mansfield also used the Island as a base to restock their ships and for raiding passing ships. At one time, 5000 pirates were believed to be settling near Port Royal. This situation caused the Spanish Governor of Honduras to order the abandonment of the Bay Islands in 1641.
The Spanish weren’t able to drive the pirates out until 1650. At this time, most of the island’s original inhabitants were also forced into slavery or relocated and it wasn’t until 1797, when English soldiers relocated 3,000 black Carib-African Indians from St. Vincent to Roatan, that the Bay Islands received the first permanent settlers. Today, the descendants of these early settlers are known as the Garífuna, and while most of the original Garífuna resettled in the mainland town of Trujillo, Roatan’s town of Punta Gorda remains the first home of the Garifuna.
In 1830, immigrants from the Cayman Islands and freed black slaves. They first arrived in Utila and eventually spread to the other Bay Islands. Today, the descendants of these immigrants consider themselves the original islanders and speak a unique version of Caribbean English, which is still predominately spoken. While the British reclaimed the islands in 1852, they were forced to turn them over to newly formed Republic of Honduras in 1859. This caused for a strained relationship between the Bay Islands and mainland Honduras as many of islanders considered themselves “English” rather than Hondurans due to the centuries old conflict between Spain and England. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the cultural gap between the Bay Islands and mainland Honduras began to lessen. Spanish was established as the official language taught in the schools and the Bay Island’s popularity as a world class diving destination caught the attention of the central government, which began promoting tourism to the islands. In the 1990s, the Honduran government also legalized the sale of coastal properties to foreigners, which continues to attract an international community and an influx of mainlanders in search of work in tourism and construction.