Pirates of the Bay Islands
As much as the Garífuna or the Spanish, pirates have played an important role in the history of Roatán. Since the early days of the Spanish conquest of Latin America, buccaneers have hid out on the island to raid the gold and other treasures that were loaded on the ships and passing through the Bay of Honduras en route to Spain.
For much of the 17th century, the island was used to gather wood and make ship repairs and to trade slaves. The English Fort at Old Port Royal was taken over and became a safe harbor for all sorts of riffraff. In the late 1600s, Henry Morgan hid out here with several ships and untold amounts of booty. Other famous names, such as Captain John Coxen or the Dutchman Van Home, also frequented Roatán. As many as 5,000 pirates were believed to have settled here; many towns are named after these sea dogs, and thousands of locals are descended from them. For the most part, the pirate reign ended in 1650, when Spain, under the command of Francisco Villanueva Toledo, attacked Port Royal with four warships and forced the pirates to flee.
The island's pirate history has brought treasure hunters in recent years. Countless tales abound of buried treasure hidden in the sea caves surrounding Santa Helena and the eastern reaches of Roatán. Some claim that lost artifacts such as the chain of Huayna Capac, taken from the Inca ruler by the Spanish, and a golden life-size virgin created by priests in Panama that was loaded on a ship in Colón and never made it to Europe, are hidden somewhere on the island. Archaeologist Mitchell-Hedges, famous for his crystal skull, lived on the island for almost a decade in the 1920s and '30s, and did considerable exploring on the eastern end. He was one of the first adventurers to explore Old Port Royal, and legend has it he even found several chests filled with gold and silver, which he snuck off the island and sold off in England but never reported. In the 1960s, adventurer Howard Jennings followed an old naval survey map a friend, Robin Moore, had found at the British Museum and passed along. Rumors swirl that he eventually discovered a treasure chest filled with gold nuggets and 29kg (65 lb.) of pure silver in a secret compartment. Like Mitchell-Hedges, Jennings had to immediately leave the island, though he did return a few years later with his wife in the hunt for more.
Roatán's English creole is saturated with an endless number of phrases and words that aren't typical of the English language. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Monkey La-La: One of Roatán's favorite creamy cocktails is named after the Monkey La-La, but this creature is no monkey. The Monkey La-La is the name locals have given the basilisk lizard, which lives on the island. The creature is sometimes called the "Jesus Christ lizard" because it can seemingly run across the water.
- Yaba Ding Ding: Pottery and clay beads are occasionally pulled out of the ground when constructing a new house or digging a sewer on the island. This is the name the islanders have given to pre-Columbian artifacts.
- Duppies: Antillean folklore is richer than most think. Duppies are ghosts or evil spirits that live in the mangroves and may guard hidden treasure, although they are unable to turn corners.
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