ROATAN'S EAST END AND HELENE IN A HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Long before Columbus made his first voyage to the Western Hemisphere, the Paya Indians of Roatan were engaged in commerce with the Indians of the Orinoco River basin of what is now Venezuela, the nearby mainland Mayas, and maintained commercial, cultural and religious ties to the Aztecs of Mexico. Their huge seagoing sailing canoes, holding up to twenty-five individuals, were the means by which Roatan became an early crossroads of seafaring traffic on these routes. Later, these routes were to be known as the Spanish Main, when its traffic in the gold and jewelry seized from the Incas in Peru started with Francisco Pizarro.
The Payas created Helene Creek, which now serves to separate the National Preserve from Helene, to facilitate local boat traffic between the north and south sides of the Island some hundreds of years before Columbus discovered the Bay Islands on his fourth voyage.
It was here on Helene that the Payas maintained their burial grounds. And, when the Spanish later occupied all of the Bay Islands, they found that the Payas practiced cannibalism as part of their religious rituals. Their religion recognized the creator grandmother Hamas, called Coyoxahqui by the Aztecs, or she who wore the war bells. She required human blood from prisoner sacrifice, and the human sacrifice was consumed as part of the ceremony.
Hernando Cortez ordered that the human sacrifices be stopped, and the end result was that the Spanish killed many of the Payans and removed the remainder. Today, the copper bells of Hamas/Coyoxahqui can be seen in the Roatan Museum, along with polychrome ceramics painted with the plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl. Shards of those same ceramics can still be seen in archeological excavations on Helene.
The Spanish also claimed that the Payas cooperated with the pirates who used Roatan as an outpost for their raids on the treasure laden Spanish Galleons en-route from South America to Spain, and this probably contributed to their demise. However, the Spanish effectively lost control of all the Bay Islands to the pirates and the French, Dutch, and English Buccaneers; especially the English Buccaneers. The British took total control of Roatan in 1642.
While pirates preyed on anyone or anything, the buccaneers preyed primarily on the Spanish, and rarely, or never, on their own nationals. The most famous buccaneer of them all, Henry Morgan, had his Roatan headquarters at New Port Royal, and erected a defending fort on the cay at the entrance to the harbor. This was to protect his Buccaneers from both the Spanish and the pirates. (Fort Key, now a private airfield extending into the harbor, still has remnants of the old fort in place.)
Captain Morgan, later Sir Henry Morgan, amassed treasures that have never been fully accounted for, and legend says that some of his gold and jewels are still buried in the areas east of Port Royal, such as the National Preserve and the low lying parts of Helene. While buried treasures from the days of the pirates and buccaneers have been found on Roatan, none has been identified as having belonged to Captain Henry Morgan. And, although artifacts and treasure from all eras are occasionally still found, most representative pieces now reside in the Roatan Museum.
What is indisputable is that Roatan served as a base for all sorts of cutthroats and smugglers before the British somewhat tamed the lawless Bay Islands. In 1796 the British government deported the remaining cannibal Caribe Indians from Dominica and St. Vincent to Roatan, from where they left and spread to the mainland of Honduras and Guatemala. Their descendents survive in Guatemala today.
The Garafuna of Punta Gorda, located on the northeastern coast of Roatan, are the descendents of the mutinous Black Carib slaves forcefully brought to Roatan by the British from St. Vincent.
Next came the white farmers and free blacks from the Cayman Islands in the 1830s, forming the basis of the permanent immigrant English speaking Islanders. Then, in 1859 the British ceded sovereignty of all of the Bay Islands to Honduras. However, the Islanders felt very little pressure from the mainland Spanish speaking culture until the 1980s.
Today, the final wave of immigrants to Roatan has been under way for a decade. That wave is mobile semi-permanent and permanent ex-pats, primarily from the United States and Canada, and increasingly from Western Europe. That wave initially settled in the western part of Roatan because of the International Airport and locally available amenities, but the trend has moved gradually to the east. Oak Ridge, the eastern most of the three urban areas, remains the most "Islander" area, with its descendents from the British colonial days now speaking Spanish as well as English.