Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the Mayas, who drifted down from Mexico and Guatemala to settle in the highlands and valleys throughout the western half of the country, inhabited Honduras. In A.D. 426, they founded the city-state of Copán, considered one of the intellectual capitals of the Maya for its rich architecture and design -- until around A.D. 800, when the Mayan civilization mysteriously began to collapse. While pockets of the Mayas' descendents remained in the region after this collapse, other indigenous groups -- such as the Lencas, the Miskito, and the Pech -- eventually developed, as well.
On July 30, 1502, during his fourth and final voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus reached the pine-covered island of Guanaja, becoming the first European to set foot on Honduran soil. Eventually, Columbus would set sail for the northern mainland coast, stopping in Trujillo on August 14 and soon after in Puerto Castilla, where the first Catholic Mass in Honduras took place. The Honduran coast was ignored for several decades until after Hernán Cortés's conquest of the Aztecs, when the Spanish exploration of the mainland began. In 1523, conquistador Gil Gonzáles de Avila reached the Golfo de Fonseca, but was quickly captured a year later by rival Spaniard Cristóbal de Olid, who founded the colony of Triunfo de la Cruz. Olid's soldiers turned on him, though, and he was swiftly executed. Cortés learned of the power struggle and sent trusted Francisco de las Casas to intervene and establish a colony at Trujillo in 1525.
In the 1530s, gold and silver were discovered in the country's western highlands, and an influx of Spaniards quickly arrived on the scene, leading to the founding of the cities of San Pedro de Puerto Caballos, now San Pedro Sula, and Gracias a Dios. In answer to this, a Lenca chief named Lempira unified rival tribes to launch attacks on the Spanish from his fort at Cerquín. The Spanish waged a fierce assault on the fort for more than 6 months but to no avail. So the Spanish initiated peace talks with Lempira, only to murder him upon his arrival. After his death, significant resistance from the native groups was slowed and eventually stopped.
The Spanish, now that they were in full control of the territory, proceeded to decimate the native population via enslavement and harsh treatment -- they wiped out as much as 95% of the indigenous population within a few decades. To make up for the labor shortage, African slaves were brought in during the 1540s. For the next few centuries, more colonies were founded, and a provincial capital was established in Gracias a Dios, though it was quickly moved to Comayagua. Mining fuelled the economy until the collapse of silver prices forced the Spaniards to turn to agricultural endeavors such as tobacco farming and raising cattle.
Pirates & The Garífuna
During the 1600s, the Spanish began looting the riches of the South American continent and would send ships up the Central American coast on their return to Spain. French and English pirates, like the legendary Henry Morgan and John Coxen, began using the Bay Islands as their base for expeditions to plunder these Spanish ships and they set up semi-permanent settlements there. When war erupted between England and Spain in 1739, the British took control over the islands and established a fort at Port Royal in Roatán. The treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle returned the islands to Spain, though the British reclaimed them during another war in 1779; in 1797, descendents of Carib Indians and African slaves from the Cayman Islands, called the Garífuna, were dumped in Roatán by the British. More waves of Garífuna arrived from the Caymans in the 1830s and began permanent settlements on the islands, as well as along the north coast of the mainland.
On September 15, 1821, Honduras declared independence from Spain, along with the Central American territories of Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. After a brief period as part of independent Mexico, it joined the United Provinces of Central America in 1823. Infighting among the provinces brought upon the collapse of this federation in 1838, however, leaving the members to form independent countries. On November 15 of that year, most of current-day Honduras became a separate nation. The Bay Islands gained sovereignty from Britain in 1859.
Over the next 150 years, the country was plagued by political unrest that saw various rebellions, civil wars, coups, rigged elections, invasions, and changes of government, most of which occurred during the 20th century. In one of the more unusual events, American William Walker attempted to conquer Central America with his own army, going as far as taking over Nicaragua in 1856, before being sent back by joint Central American forces. In 1860 he returned, landing in Trujillo, but didn't get very far. He was executed that same year.
The Banana Republic
In the early 19th century, U.S. companies such as the Tela Railroad Company, a subsidiary of United Fruit (now Chiquita) and Standard Fruit (now Dole) established banana plantations of vast tracts of land along the North Coast and held sway over politics in the country. Bananas became the chief product in the country, accounting for as much as 80% of exports in 1929. The bribing of politicians and unjust labor practices marred the industry for much of the 20th century and kept the country from developing its own business elite, which led to a two-month strike by plantation workers in 1954.
In 1956, the country's first military coup took place. A new constitution put the control of the military in the hands of the top general, not in the president, and thus began a period of military rule of the country. In 1963, only days before the next election, the military, headed by Colonel López Arellano, seized power and canceled the election. Two years later, Arellano was elected on his own and then served a 6-year term. A year after the next election he again took control during another military coup. When it was discovered that Arellano took a $1.25-million bribe from the United Brands Fruit Company, previously known as United Fruit, he was removed from office. In his place came General Juan Alberto Melgar Castro, whose reign was rocked by a scandal involving using the military for drug trafficking. Next came General Policarpo Paz García, who would return the country to civilian rule in 1980 with the election of a president and congress.
The Soccer War & Civil Unrest
During the end of the 19th century and much of the 20th century, the two main political parties in Honduras, liberals (who preferred a free market economy like in the U.S.) and conservatives (who desired an aristocratic-style regime), wrestled power from each other again and again. From 1821 to 1982, the Constitution was rewritten an astounding 17 times. Political conflict was not all internal, however. In 1969, more than 300,000 undocumented Salvadorans were believed to be living in Honduras and the government and private groups increasingly sought to blame them for the country's economic woes. During a World Cup preliminary match in Tegucigalpa a disturbance broke out between fans on both sides, followed by a more intense incident during the next game in San Salvador. Salvadorans living in Honduras began to be harassed and even killed, leading to a mass exodus from the country. On June 27, 1969, Honduras broke off diplomatic relations with El Salvador, and on July 14, the Salvadoran air force began an assault on Honduras and took control of the city of Nueva Ocotepeque, marking the start of what would be called the Soccer War. Though the war ended up lasting only 5 days and ended in a stalemate of sorts, in the end, between 60,000 and 130,000 Salvadorans were expelled or fled from Honduras, and more than 2,000 people, mostly Hondurans, were killed. While a peace treaty was signed in 1980, the subject is still touchy on both sides and even to this day relations remain strained.
Civil wars broke out in every country neighboring Honduras in the late 1970s and '80s. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua all saw wide-scale political upheaval, assassinations, and all-out civil unrest. To the surprise of many, Honduras, despite its shaky governments, scandals, and economic problems, escaped any major turmoil during this period -- the one exception being protests over U.S. military involvement in the country.
During the 1980s, the U.S. provided aid to the country in exchange for using it as a base for counter-insurgency movements (led by the CIA-trained group the Contras) against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Student and opposition leaders in Honduras organized massive protests against the U.S. military influence, to which the Honduran military responded by kidnapping and killing protestors. The protests only grew, however, and eventually the country was forced to reexamine its policies on U.S. operations in Honduras -- especially after it was revealed in 1986 that the Reagan Administration had sold arms to Iran to support the anti-Sandinistas in Honduras. In 1988, the military agreement with the U.S. was not renewed, and the Nicaraguan Contras ended up leaving the country entirely by 1990, when the Contra War concluded.
The Modern Economy
During the late 1980s and into the 1990s, struggles to maintain the value of the lempira against the dollar resulted in rapid inflation. Because wages remained the same, many Hondurans simply became poorer than they already were. When Carlos Roberto Flores Facussé became president in 1988, he initiated wide-scale currency reforms and took steps to modernize the economy. Things looked like they were about to change for the better. And then came Hurricane Mitch. Killing thousands and displacing more than a million, Mitch was not a disaster that the country could overcome quickly. The infrastructure of many towns and villages was forever changed, and the effects still continue to linger.
In 2006, Manuel Zelaya Rosales, a rancher from the Olancho town of Juticalpa, was elected president after promises of doubling the police force, re-educating gang members, and lowering petroleum prices. Soon after, the Central America and Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement, CAFTA-DR, went into effect in Honduras amid wide-scale protests throughout Central America. Elsewhere, corruption, scandals, and growing concerns over the economy marred the first years of Zelaya's presidency. Rising food and energy costs led Zelaya to turn to controversial Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for help. In 2008, he famously called on the United States to legalize drugs in order to prevent violence and murders that are the result of the drug trade in Honduras. In 2009, Zelaya raised the monthly minimum wage from $157 to $289, an approximately 60% hike. The intention was to help eliminate poverty in the country; however, the motion backfired, and many employers were forced to lay off workers they could not afford to pay. Zelaya's presidency was marked by low approval ratings and frequent clashes with many business leaders, who are generally pro-U.S.
In June of 2009, after an attempt to alter presidential term limits, Zelaya was ousted -- in his pajamas -- by a military coup and exiled to Costa Rica, much to the surprise of the world community. President of the Congress Roberto Micheletti, of Zelaya's own party, was immediately sworn in as interim president. Zelaya snuck back into the country briefly, holing himself up in the Brazilian Embassy until January before being transferred to the Dominican Republic. In November of 2009, conservative Porfirio Lobo Sosa was elected the new President. At first, international leaders were hesitant to support the new government amid the confusion of Zelaya's ouster, though most eventually came around.
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