Long before Christopher Columbus landed on the Bay Islands in 1502, Paya Indians called Roatan their home. While not much is known about the very first inhabitants of the island, it is believed people roamed this paradise as early as 600 AD. Today, “Yaba-dind-dings” (Paya artifacts) are still found including pottery, shell ornaments, conch trumpets and clay figures.
Roatan has a rich history of pirating on the island. The island became a hideout for French, English and Dutch pirates who would intercept and conquer Spanish cargo vessels en route to Europe loaded with gold and other treasures. It is estimated by the mid 17th century there were approximately 5,000 pirates living on Roatan and the Bay Islands. Some of the names you may recognize: Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, John Coxen, and Van Horn once ruled these shores and waters.
By the late 1700s, the Spanish had either killed most of the pirates or sold them as slaves, taking control of the community of Port Royal, Roatan’s oldest European settlement. Not too long after in 1797, approximately 2000 Black Caribs were left on the island by the British. The settlement of Punta Gorda was established and the Garifuna people as they became known, live there to this day. Each year in April, a festival celebrates the anniversary of the Garifuna people’s arrival.
British ruled the Bay Islands area from the late 1700s until 1982 at which time it was returned to the Spanish and became part of Honduras.
Diversity is perhaps the best way to describe the collection of culture that has created Roatan’s unique culture over time including a mix of Carib, European and African heritage. In recent years many European and North Americans have made Roatan their home and an increasing number of ladinos (a mixture of European and Indian parentage) have moved here.
English was for many years the first official language of the Bay Islands under British rule and is still the most dominant language spoke. Spanish is increasingly used as more people from the mainland move to the island. And if you venture to the village of Punta Gorda, you’ll even hear the traditional Garifuna spoken.