Exploring Pirate & British Fortifications on Fort Morgan Cay, Roatán
I woke up with the sun, like I always do when we are in Port Royal. I could walk through the house to the kitchen but I don’t. The deck spans the front of the house and is just a couple extra steps. That route includes a full view of the ocean, the rocks known as Cow & Calf, a breeze, and the sunrise peaking just above the horizon. From our vantage point it rises right over Fort Morgan Cay - where we’d be spending the day.
After a short pause on the deck to take in the view and a bit of the tropical morning breeze I’m in the kitchen, putting a pot of water on the stove and prepping the French press with grounds for our morning coffee. We don’t eat breakfast, instead we begin the day with a cup or two of coffee followed immediately by Piña Coladas. I know, tropically cheesy and cliché, but a Roatán tradition for us. I don’t even drink rum if I’m not on the island and certainly not for breakfast, but the local fresh pineapples are too compelling. Those or mangoes fresh from our tree when it's in season. We loved the fresh Mango Coladas so much we brought the idea back home to our little bar in Charlotte, The NoDa Company Store, and it's been a summer time staple there ever since.
I was a extra excited that morning. It would be the first time I’d visited Fort Morgan Cay (originally Georges Cay or Fort George when the English fortified it), a small 30 or so acre island resting on the reef just across Port Royal Harbor from us. Two years had passed since we’d last been to Roatán, having been grounded at home in North Carolina by Covid. During that time I’d dug in deep learning all I could about the history of the island, Port Royal in particular. When we bought our home in 2018 we knew there was history there, but had no idea the depth. So much of the post-Columbus history of the Caribbean and Central America and the English-Spanish power struggles could be summed up in this little spot on the East End of Roatán. So for this trip we’d made sure to plan a day on the Cay (pronounced "key").
In 1502 Columbus landed in the Bay Islands, more specifically Guanaja, a small island just east of Port Royal, on his 4th trip to the "New" World. What he found were islands inhabited by the Pech and Paya natives. Spanish slaving raids depleted the islands of their inhabitants, and throughout the 1500's and 1600's French corsairs and Dutch & English privateers, pirates and buccaneers took advantage of the islands to launch raids on the coastal towns of the Spanish main.
From the hills they watched the shipping lanes for Spanish galleons laden with plundered treasures, raiding those as well. The Islands, and Port Royal in particular, offered sheltered deep water for their ships, fresh water, wild game and small cays to careen and repair their vessels.
In the 1700's the British began fortifying parts of Port Royal to enhance the natural barriers and to protect towns they planned and started deeper back in the port. They built a fort on Georges Cay, another on a point just across the bay (Fort Frederick) and a couple of small towns and encampments on the main part of the island - Augusta and Litchfield. They rounded out the defenses with additional cannons at various points around the harbor.
In addition to the ruins of the former fortifications, Fort Morgan today has multiple beaches, over water decks, an open-air bar and neatly landscaped grounds. All there for 8 - 20 guests to have for themselves. And today would be our day. We had family with us on this trip, so spending a day on a private island & eco resort was a huge plus. Who wouldn’t want a day, or several, on a private Caribbean island?
Coconut palms are everywhere, as are hammocks, as well as a mangrove canal at the far end of the island. There is a pool, snorkeling gear and boats for fishing. Fort Morgan has all the makings for a fantastic visit with no one else around other than us, the staff, the hermit crabs, the rays and the fish. Walking around the remains of the British and pirate fortifications would be the highlight of the day for me. I’d spent two years reading and researching all that I could find in print and online about the history in Port Royal, and this Cay was central to it all.
After a short boat ride from our home to the island we were dropped off on the small dock adjacent to the pool, greeted by Sarge (a coconut retriever and leader of the Rottie guard pack), handed freshly opened coconuts filled with coconut water and given a quick overview of the island and grounds. We had a couple of hours before lunch to explore and I was ready.
I noticed Jimmy, my brother-in-law and one of our fellow guests, had already started wandering down along the north shoreline, heading towards a small pier and deck looking back into the harbor. I followed and joined him out over the water. “This is amazing” he said and I agreed. We lingered for a few minutes more, tempted by the hammock hanging from the rafters of the roof above us, but I was anxious to get over to the crumbling stonework just across the open field behind us. The main bulwark of the old fortifications.
As we walked over we passed a large open stone and brick lined square dug into the ground, just behind fortifications on the shore. This was the remains of the well I’d read so much about. It was my first glimpse of the ruins of old Fort George.
Just beyond, maybe 20 or 30 yards away, were the stone mounds we’d seen on the boat ride over. These were where cannons had once been, guarding the narrow passage into the harbor just beyond the surf, now falling and giving way to the pounding waves that pummel them from the open sea. You could clearly see how they’d been built to house the artillery, open just enough to fire but heavy thick stonework around them to protect from return fire.
I stood on the crumbling ramparts facing out over the reef and open ocean, and facing the mainland of Honduras just 30 or so miles away. The position was perfect to defend the harbor and the narrow lane through the reef that would only allow the passage of one ship at a time. Other fortifications inside and across the bay and on the main part of the island also held cannons aimed at this narrow cut. One, according to many maps of the era, once stood at the top of the hill near where our home now sits. The fortifications on this westward side of Fort Morgan round the point, with some slightly facing back into Port Royal. From here I had a great view of our home and the rising mountains behind it - Port Royal National Park.
After a few minutes of walking the stonework and taking in the views, we started down the wide sandy beach that separates this part of the old fort from the best preserved part of the fortifications. It lies just a few dozen yards away, and on old engineering drawings I’d found (see below), appears to be part of what was designated as the “ordinance and provisions storehouses” or the powder magazine. Only one portion of the former walls still stand, but its construction is impressive. I could just imagine what this isle must have looked like when all the walls where this well laid and standing tall. I’d seen quite a few photos of this structure, it stands adjacent to a beautiful sandy beach and the resort treats guests to fire lit dinners beside it.
A few minutes later Joey & Jennifer (my husband and our sister-in-law) joined Jimmy and I. We strolled casually along the beach, sipping beers they’d carried over and talking about how unbelievably beautiful this place was. Our conversation centered around the resort itself and how wonderful it must be for overnight guests - having a private island like this to yourself isn’t something any of us had grown up imagining, but here we were.
We made our way back across the open green of the center of the island and over to the small cluster of buildings that make up “The Residence” on the Cay.
These include the guest rooms, the kitchen, a building that houses the study / library, sitting room and the open air dining area. It was almost time for lunch and our colada breakfast had long worn off. I stopped for a moment to chat with Julie, our friend and one of the hosts at Fort Morgan. When I caught up with the crew they had already found the bar beside the dining room and were mixing up rum punch and pouring shots of gifiti.
As we sat at the bar, chatting with Julie and her co-host and husband Mark, I noticed what appeared to be a cannonball perched on a small display. Looks were not deceiving, it was indeed a cannonball - found on the beach adjacent to the ramparts we’d just walked. I wondered if it had been left there by the British or shot over from a Spanish ship during the attack and Battle of Port Royal in 1782 when depleted British forces were defeated and the forts, towns and homes (numbering 500 or more according to Spanish accounts) in Port Royal were destroyed and the inhabitants deported. It’s still hard for me to imagine that this 2 mile wide harbor, which now has just a dozen or so homes, was once that heavily occupied.
We rounded out our day at Fort Morgan with an amazing lunch followed by some time on one of their boats. We were technically fishing, though we didn't catch anything. We did get a full tour by water around the cay and out in the ocean looking back into Port Royal, a view I'd never seen from the west or from that far out. It was perfect. The day was everything I'd expected, hoped for, and more. The wait was worth it and I'm certain I'll be back.
It’s easy to see why the British, Spanish, pirates and buccaneers often chose Port Royal to layover for weeks, months or years. It’s perfectly set up to defend, but don’t take my word for it, just take the words written in 18th century and posted in The Derby Mercury (Derby, Derbyshire, England) on Jan. 18, 1765. Fresh water & food sources and a protected harbor.
In the years following the Battle of Roatan in 1782 the bay was never resettled to any large degree. A wonder since it is such a perfect natural sheltered deep harbor. The remnants of the forts that once stood guard crumbled over the years, and little is obvious today.
Fort Frederick once stood on a point directly across from Fort Morgan Cay but a home was built there in the late 1960’s which scraped much of the surface, though prior to construction Anne Jennings, who built the home with her husband, describes what was there when they first cleared the area in her book “Roatan Odyssey”:
“Fort Frederick was built as an English garrison in 1742, and was captured by the Spanish at the Battle of Port Royal in 1782, at which time they took away all eight cannons. It has also been taken over and used by the pirates at various undocumented intervals. The artifacts, of these soldiers, sailors, desperados and buccaneers, and their turbulent history, laid undisturbed until we arrived there. Coins, pieces from flintlock pistols, swords, shoe buckles, buttons, and of course plenty of cannon balls, grape-shot, and sling shot, were scattered around the bush and garden. Rum bottles, both broken and whole, were left to be picked off the reef below and the Fort and in the gully which flowed in the rainy season behind the house.”
While pieces of green glass from the era can still be found here and there around Port Royal, most of these types of artifacts seem long gone, though many are likely still buried, laying in the surf, or taken by the jungle. We’ve found a few pieces over the past few years in the water just off shore though no whole bottles. I’d love to find a cannon ball, a coin, or any other piece of history left years ago, though just being there is quite enough for me. It just feels historic in Port Royal and the more I dig for information the more I feel it when I’m there. Plus we own a slice, however small in comparison to the whole harbor. It's ours and it serves as our base to continue to explore and learn more or just sit back with a bit of rum and take it all in.