THE ROATAN MUSEUM
Honoring the History & Culture of Roatan and the Bay Islands
Combine ancient civilizations, Carib Indians, African slaves, notorious swashbuckling pirates, English and Spanish conquests, sunken treasures, and a tradition of living off the sea passed down from countless generations and you have Roatan.
In 1992, Cheryl Galindo, wife of resort owner Julio Galindo, created the Roatan Museum. The museum is housed in the RIMS facility and created with the guidance and expertise of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology. Through artifacts, murals, maps, and documents, the museum reflects the culture and history of the Bay Islands.
Columbus arrived in the Bay Islands on his fourth voyage to the New World between 1502 and 1504. He reportedly landed on Soldado Beach on the western shore of Guanaja and christened it Isla de los Pinos (Pine Island). The island was incredibly green and fertile: a virgin tropical deciduous forest with towering oak, mahogany and Ceiba trees. He also encountered the Paya Indians, living successfully off the bounty of the land and sea. Within 10 years of discovery, the Spaniards would almost completely depopulate Roatán.
Over the next century, the Payans were enslaved, forced to work in the mines and sugar cane fields in Cuba, and later Christianized and used for farm labor and to provision Spanish trade ships. During this time the native population produced enough foodstuff to provision returning ships to Europe as well as settlements on mainland Honduras.
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.
Around this time, in the 1860s, the fruit industry began to prosper and the New Orleans and Bay Islands Fruit Companies were formed. Commercial fruit growers in Utila and Roatán began exporting bananas, plantains, and coconuts to the U.S. In 1877, a hurricane coupled with Honduran competition from the mainland decimated the fruit industry for several decades. At the turn of the century, islanders deserted their large fruit plantations and headed out to sea and they were soon recognized as fine seamen. Shipyards were constructed and the island gained an international reputation for building seaworthy vessels.
The landscape lost its tallest hardwoods to the newly flourishing ship building industry. Until recently, seafaring has traditionally provided most of the income for the Bay Islanders. This activity began with the harvesting, processing, and export of shrimp, lobster, and conch and expanded to include several fish species. The volume of fish processed in the Bay Islands has decreased as fish marketing channels in Nicaragua reopened. State controls and civil war throughout most of the 80’s made Nicaraguan commercialization of their own products virtually impossible. Instead, Nicaraguan fisherman sold their products on the high seas at low prices, primarily to Honduran boats in the Bay Islands. While many locals still derive some income from fishing, the principal income is now derived from tourism.