Updated: Dec 26, 2021
Since purchasing our home in Port Royal we've become more and more fascinated with the history of the area. We knew a bit when we bought - essentially what is commonly heard on the island - that at one point up to 5000 "pirates" lived in the port in various towns and forts on the outlaying cays, along the shores and in the hills. Looking at the port today it's a bit hard to imagine and little is left from that period. The jungle in the tropics is quick to take back its territory. We've dug in, though, over the past couple of years, and have discovered as much as we can about our historic surroundings from written sources both in print and online. The Battle of Roatan is just one part of a colonial history that stretches back over 400 years.
***Added since the original posting - AN ORIGINAL NEWSPAPER CLIPPING - Reprint in The Derby Mercury newspaper from Derbyshire England, July 11, 1782 reprinted from the Madrid Gazette June 12th - Article describing the Spanish attack on Port Royal and British forts and towns just 4 months earlier***
We became reinvigorated recently when a group contacted us from one of those posts, they are trying to put together a coalition of archaeologists, property owners, government officials and locals who might be interested in having Port Royal listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While looking around online, deeper than before, over the past few weeks we found a couple older maps and drawings by the Spanish depicting one of the pivotal historic moments in Port Royal. A naval and land battle in 1782. The various attempts to colonize and to fortify in Port Royal post-Columbus (Spanish, English, buccaneer & pirate) go back as far as the late 1500's, this was the last major settlement and the battle that ended it.
On March 13, 1782, three Spanish frigates and numerous other smaller sailing vessels arrived just outside Port Royal, Roatán, to assault English forces occupying and settling New Port Royal harbor. They had sailed from Trujillo on mainland Honduras, where they had gathered troops and militia, under the command of Matías de Gálvez, the Captain General of Spanish Guatemala. He was under orders to "dislocate the English from their hidden settlements in the Gulf of Honduras". This included areas around the Black River, present day Belize, and the Bay Islands including Roatán.
The island had played an important role in the Colonial era conflicts between Spain and England. For centuries the two European powers fought & harassed each other in a power struggle for territory & wealth. Other Europeans were also in the Caribbean for the same reasons, the French and Dutch primarily, but England and Spain were the main players in Central America and the islands of the Gulf and Caribbean Sea.
Roatán played a major role in this conflict and Port Royal and the Bay Islands were front and center. Fresh water could be found along the shoreline, coming from the mountains above. Those same mountains set high and would give long range views of the Gulf of Honduras and Spanish ships laden with treasure making their way from the mainland to Spain. There are only a couple breaks in the reef protecting Port Royal and the narrow channels only allow one vessel at a time to pass. Cays at the reef provided land for fortifications as did the points on the shoreline. Cannon were easily placed to guard those channels.
Starting in the late 1500's and early 1600's various buccaneers, corsairs, smugglers and pirates found shelter in the harbor, stocked up on water and food, rested and repaired their ships. Reportedly they hid treasure as well (that's for another post!). The British military also built fortifications and established a couple towns over the years. None lasted more than a few years, and the same was holding true in 1782.
The Spanish fleet arrived off Roatán early morning, March 13. The ships carried some 600 militia, sailors and soldiers, Port Royal was defended by an English force of 81. The British fired several cannon shots, to no effect, and the Spanish ships moved out of range. The Spanish commander sent in his English-speaking second-in-command ashore to request the surrender of the island's defenders. They requested and were given six hours to consider their options. The defenders refused to surrender and prepared to fight. High winds and rough seas prevented an immediate attack by the Spanish, but they prepared for an assualt when conditions would allow.
On the morning of March 16 the weather subsided and Spanish cannon from the ships opened fire against the British fortifications which guarded the entrance of New Port Royal harbor. By midday the British guns on the cays had been silenced and the Spanish began landing troops. After the forts and cays at the entrance were secured the Spanish warships entered Port Royal and began firing on the towns inside the harbor along the shoreline. British artillery fired back from positions in the hills above the town and along the shore. The battle continued throughout the afternoon and into the evening but they were out manned and outgunned and as night approached the English surrendered. The terms of the surrender were agreed upon the following day.
For several days the Spanish remained on the island rounding up those that had escaped into the hills, destroying the towns, fortifications, homes & buildings and anything useful should settlers attempt to return. They sank or burned most ships in the harbor, presuming they had been used for illicit trade, smuggling or piracy. The fleet left Port Royal on March 23rd, taking with them everyone captured and leaving the harbor unoccupied and empty. It's essentially remained that way, with no major settlements or development since. Today a few homes dot the shores (ours included). A couple small eco resorts are also in Port Royal, including Fort Morgan Cay (formerly George's Island on the map at the top) a small boutique resort on the outer island which once was home to the main British fort guarding the harbor. Remains of that fort are still present, see below.