The Pre-Columbian residents of the Bay Islands are believed to have been related to Paya, Maya, Lenca or Jicaque, which were the cultures present on the mainland. Christopher Columbus, on his fourth voyage (1502-1504) came to the islands as he visited the neighboring Bay Island of Guanaja. The Spanish soon after began using the Islands for purposes of slave raiding, and no original Native American communities survived.
Throughout European colonial times, the entire Bay of Honduras attracted a diverse array of individual settlers, pirates, traders and militarists, engaged in various economic activities and playing out political struggles between the European powers, chiefly Britain and Spain. Roatan and the other islands were used as frequent resting points for sea travelers, and on several occasions were the subject of military occupation. In 1723/1724 an approximately 20-year-old-man from New England, Philip Ashton, managed to survive as a castaway on the island for sixteen months until he was finally rescued.
Britain, in its aggressive attempt to usurp the colonization of the Caribbean from the Spanish, occupied the Bay Islands on and off between 1550 and 1700. During this time, the buccaneers found the vacated, mostly unprotected islands a haven for safe harbor and transport. English, French and Dutch pirates established settlements on the islands and raided the cumbersome Spanish cargo vessels laden with gold and other treasures from the new world. The English buccaneer Henry Morgan established his base at Port Royal on RoatÃ¡n in the mid-17th century; at that time as many as 5,000 pirates were living on that island.
In a fortuitous event in 1797, the British defeated the Afro-indigenous Black Carib, who had been supported by the French, in a battle for control of the Windward Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Weary of their resistance to their plans for sugar plantations, the British rounded up the St. Vincent Black Carib and deported them to RoatÃ¡n.
The majority of Black Carib migrated to Trujillo on mainland Honduras, but a portion remained to found the community of Punta Gorda on the northern coast of RoatÃ¡n. The Black Carib, whose ancestry includes Native American (Arawak) cultures and African Maroons, remained on Punta Gorda, becoming the Bay Island's first permanent post-Columbian settlers. They also migrated from there to parts of the northern coast of Central America, becoming the foundation of the modern day GarÃfuna culture.
The main permanent population of RoatÃ¡n originated from the Cayman Islands near Jamaica, arriving in the 1830s shortly after the end of slavery in British territories disrupted the economic structure that had maintained Caymanian culture. Caymanians were largely a seafaring culture and were familiar with the area from turtle fishing ventures and other activities. Former Caymanian slave-owners were among the first to settle on the seaside locations throughout primarily western RoatÃ¡n. Former slaves continued to arrive during the 1830s and 1840s, and altogether, the former Caymanians became the largest cultural group on the island.
In the 1850s for a brief period the Bay Islands were declared a colony by Britain, who within a decade ceded the territory formally back to Honduras.
The island populations grew steadily in the latter half of the century, and new settlements became established all over RoatÃ¡n and the other islands. Individual settlers came from all over the world and played a part in shaping the cultural face of the island. A fruit trade industry started by islanders became very profitable and by the 1870s was taken over by American interests, most notably the New Orleans and Bay Islands Fruit Company. Later companies, the Standard Fruit and United Fruit Companies, became the foundation for modern day fruit companies, the industry which gave Honduras the sobriquet "banana republic".
The twentieth century saw a continued population growth resulting in increasing economic changes, and then environmental challenges. A population boom began with an influx of Spanish-speaking settlers from the Honduran mainland, who in the last decades tripled the original resident population. The Spanish settled primarily in the urban areas of Coxen Hole and French Harbor. In these areas Spanish is common, with English being more common to the families of original residents as well as in the other areas inhabited chiefly by islanders rather than former mainlanders.
But in terms of population and economic influence, the mainlander influx was dwarfed still by the overwhelming tourist presence in most recent years. This trend originated via a number of American, Canadian, British, New Zealand, Australian and South African settlers and entrepreneurs engaging chiefly in the fishing industry, and later, providing the foundation for tourist trade.
Although Spanish is spoken in mainland Honduras, the main language on the island is (creole) English, because the first modern population originated from parts of the British Caribbean. In general, the history of the Bay Islands was driven by the various larger political, economic and cultural forces throughout the entire Caribbean and Central American region.
Wikipedia.(2007) History of Roatan. Retreived January 20, 2008 from http://en.wikipedia.org