Updated: Nov 14, 2019
I like to sit on our deck and imagine I’m back in the mid-1700’s. We sit on the side of a steep hill overlooking the waters of Port Royal just across from Cow & Calf islands. We can see the looming mountains on the mainland of Honduras just 30 miles away.
The sweeping views would have included two stone forts to the East, complete with canon emplacements guarding the narrow channel through the reef and into the harbor. A canon emplacement was also on the hill above us. Scattered homes would have dotted the shoreline with many others clustered around a small town in the eastern end of the harbor. As many as 20 or more tall mast ships might have been anchored in the harbor with many smaller boats shuffling among them moving supplies and people back and forth.
Europeans would have been crisscrossing the Caribbean for a couple hundred years now. Colonizing, treasure hunting, exploiting natural resources, developing agriculture and plantations and fighting each other for control of all of these. The Spanish hold much of the mainland of Central America and South America as well as a scattering of islands. The British, French and Dutch control a handful of others. These powers are fighting not only in the Caribbean but in Europe as well.
As part of these wars the various countries have granted permission to forces outside of their militaries to fight and harass their adversaries. Corsairs, buccaneers, pirates & privateers with charters from their governments sailed the seas seeking merchant vessels to raid - taking the plunder on board, the ships themselves and often conscripting the sailors. There were safe harbors on many islands, some in more developed trading towns, others on more remote and less populated islands.
Roatan had been one of these more remote spots for pirates over the years. It’s location was perfect, just off the coast of Honduras and along a main shipping lane for treasure laden Spanish ships on their way home. Reefs enclosing deeper harbors and bights gave refuge and places to hide while resupplying with fresh water, food and careening and cleaning their ships.
The first noted landing of pirates on the Bay Islands was in 1577, when British pirates raided and occupied a native settlement on Guanaja. The Spanish expelled them soon after and they reportedly moved on to raid native settlements on Roatan. In 1638 Puritans from England settled in Old Port Royal, setting up plantations but also were said to have dabbled in piracy when opportunities presented themselves.
For the next 100 or so years various pirates were said to have visited Roatan to rest and resupply, not settling or building anything permanent, rather staying on their ships while in port. In 1722 one captive, Philip Ashton, escaped well-known pirate Edward Low when his ships stopped in Roatan for a couple days - he was marooned there, alone in Port Royal, for 16 months.
In 1742 the British governor in Jamaica established a formal, though small, military outpost in Port Royal on Roatan and built a small town known as Augusta. They built Fort Frederick on a high point to the west and Fort George on a small cay at the entrance to the harbor in addition to a couple other canon emplacements including at least one across from Cow & Calf islands (where our home is now). The outpost was occupied by British military as well as British colonists and Miskitu Indians from the Black River region in Belize. The estimated population at that time was between 800 and 1000.
Port Royal, the forts, and the town of Augusta, were abandoned in 1749 after the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was signed ending hostilities, for a time, between England and Spain.
In October 1779 the British once again occupied the Bay Islands, and Port Royal in Roatan, to protect their interests on the mainland and in Belize. Three weeks later the Spanish attacked British interests on the mainland and settlers, slaves and refugees fled to Roatan. Three years later, in 1782, the Spanish sent a fleet of warships to oust the settlers (pirates in their eyes) who had been harassing Spanish vessels.
(Read about our exploration of the sites where Augusta and other settlements were once located at THIS LINK)
After two days the British surrendered and were forced to leave the island. The Spanish reported that they destroyed the town “and 500 structures”. There were no significant settlements in Port Royal from that point forward, and the European nations had ceased to give charter to buccaneers to harass their enemies and they began hunting down the remaining pirates in earnest and no significant presence was felt again in this area.
While I’ve heard reports that up to 5000 people lived in Port Royal at one point during this period, it seems more likely from historic writings and reports as well as archaeological evidence, that the number was more like 1000 to perhaps 1500 people occupying the harbor at the high point.
In 1797 the British removed about 5000 Black Caribs from St. Vincent and other islands near it and dropped them off on Roatan. Many moved to the mainland, others remained on the island and founded Punta Gorda, where they are now known as the Garifuna. I wonder if this is where that number comes from.
Today the Port Royal shoreline is dotted with a few homes, including ours, and around 20 residents. Not much remains in terms of the rich pirate history. A bit of the fort on Fort Morgan Cay (formerly Georges Cay) remains. Green glass from pirate era rum, beer and wine bottles can be found as well as hand fired bricks, cannonballs and other small implements, though much of that has been found and removed over the years. I’m told, and have read, about other minor archeological features covered over by jungle and can’t wait to explore the areas where these are rumored to be.
From the sea looking back the hills look as undeveloped as ever. Green jungle falling to crystal clear blue water, mangrove clusters and small sandy beaches. I love looking at all of this, imagining myself on a ship that has just finished a long sea crossing and looking for a bit of respite in a sheltered harbor. It would really look and sound almost exactly as it does today. Come to think of it, this is my safe harbor right now. A place to rest and a place to run to and get away from a frantic “other” world I also live in. We don’t raid and plunder, the treasure here to us is the place itself, and the rich history we are surrounded with.