Historically, the Bay Islands were situated on a major trade route. From 1536 to 1700, English, French, and Dutch pirates found the islands ideally situated for providing refuge as they plundered and looted the Spanish Galleons loaded with New World gold and silver. The English were most successful at disturbing Spanish control of the Bay Islands. The British buccaneers often hid their booty in the sheltered ports of the Bay Islands. In 1638, the English attempted to establish an agricultural colony on Roatán, challenging the Spanish dominion. In the 1640’s, the Spanish tried to exile the Bay Island Indians to the mainland. There they could provision Spanish ships without also supplying food to British pirates.
Buccaneering peaked in the late 1600s. Pirate leaders Morgan, Morris, Jackson, Sharp, and Coxen all occupied the islands at various times before British military occupation in 1742. The port town name of Coxen Hole dates from this period. Some believe the treasure from Morgan’s 1671 raid on Panama still lies buried on Roatan.
Both England and Spain claimed the islands from 1650 to 1741, but neither government exercised control until the occupation of the British military began. Pirates settled down and raiding and pillaging were soon replaced by cultivation of sugar cane and trading. Cannons and fortifications of the British Fort George can still be found on Fort Key, just offshore of the town of Port Royal. The British vacated the island in 1752 after signing a treaty with Spain. Their departure would not be permanent.