As one of the major islands of the Bay Islands, Roatan has a rich and colorful historical background that contributed to its unique culture and atmosphere that many tourists and investors have fallen in love with.
The island’s first inhabitants were known as the Paya Indians, a seminomadic group that many believe has roamed the islands since the year 600 AD. Many of their artifacts, called “yaba ding dings,” are still on display today.
Roatan and the other Bay Islands mainly remained as is until Columbus’ fourth voyage in 1502, during which he and his crew landed on the island of Guanaja and traded with the locals for additional supplies.
After this, the Spanish Conquistadores claimed the island during their conquest of the Americas, although never creating permanent settlements.
England also took an interest in the islands after British pirates landed on the island and raided the Spanish ships for supplies, starting an arduous battle over the islands’ control, which lasted for almost three centuries – from the 16th to the 18th century.
Aside from this, Roatan’s history is rife with stories of pirating, becoming the prime hideout for European pirates, including the English, French, and Dutch. Famous figures like John Coxen, Blackbeard, Henry Morgan, and Van Horn also once ruled the islands as part of their territories.
Although it was the Spanish who eliminated most of these pirates, it was the British who primarily occupied the island during the 17th and 18th centuries, creating the first European settlement on the island in Port Royal.
However, the Spanish would later gain control of the island, moving all the island’s native inhabitants to the mainland as a consequence of their help to the British. Despite being under Spanish control, no permanent Spanish settlements were created on Roatan.
Later on, in 1797, the British would forcibly exile 2,500 Black Caribs from the island of St. Vincent to Roatan, many of whom stayed and established one of the island’s most distinct ethnic groups, the Garifuna people.
The Garifuna would create their own village in Punta Gorda, which tourists can still visit today to immerse themselves in the island’s unique culture.
Nevertheless, the island mainly remained abandoned until the early 18th century, during which British colonizers once again took control of the islands, claiming Roatan and the others as part of the British Crown’s colonies in the Caribbean.
They would later surrender the Bay Islands and the Moskitia Coast to Honduras, honoring the Clayton Bulwer Treaty between the US and Britain, which prohibited either country from claiming or possessing more colonies in the West. The agreement was finalized on April 22, 1861, relinquishing Roatan and the others to Honduras. Roatan and the others were officially called the “Departamento de las Islas de la Bahia” on June 1, 1861.