"Dis where da big croc live."
Not the words I was expecting as we got off the skiff and waded into the shallow and clear water, but it's what Randy said just before he strode across the narrow sandy beach and off into the jungle marsh along the slow trickling stream. I can't believe we so easily and merrily walked behind him, in shorts and light shoes, prodding the mud and muck with a long metal rod, listening carefully for a light "clink" below, the sound we're supposed to hear if the rod struck a piece of glass. Glass likely left by a British soldier, settler or pirate centuries ago. But away we went, in search of archeological evidence of the settlement that once ran along this little tributary of fresh water and up into the hills.
It's been over a year since we purchased our home in Port Royal, an historic harbor on Roatán island. As Port Royal, or really our part - New Port Royal - currently sits it is one of the most beautiful and pristine parts of the island. Development, at least for now, is minimal with just a few eco-lodges and a handful of private homes dotting the pristine shoreline but it hasn't always been this way.
It was quite different in the 1600's and 1700's, a time when European regimes fought for treasure, power and territory in Central America and the Caribbean Sea. Roatán played a part in the struggle between Spain and Britain with Port Royal being one of the main hubs of activity at the time. British forts were built here, pirates (or buccaneers more specifically) also made the harbor their home - both intending to harass and rob the Spanish ships making their way between the mainland coast of Central America and Spain - much of the goods being plundered treasures and gold in heavy laden galleons.
At one point, a few hundred people & homes could be found here. Plus stone forts along the cays out at the reef and a couple others on the points and hills above the shoreline. A few smaller cannon emplacements strategically placed helped guard the harbor from other vantage points, including one in front of our home on Cow Cay and another above where our home presently sits. We've been told the actual cannon was found there many years ago. The bay was also home to a cooperage (barrel building site), barracks for soldiers, docks and piers, and other various support buildings.
Very little of this can be found today with the tropical jungle quickly swallowing up the structures and reclaiming its territory. Also, after the last battle here between the Spanish and English in 1782, (more here) the Spanish prevailed and are said to have destroyed everything they could to prevent the English from making another attempt to return and resettle the port. If you look close enough you can still find signs of these early settlements and fortifications, and that's what drew us into the jungle, tromping through marshy soil behind our co-worker, friend and guide Randy.
The map below was drawn by Anne Jennings, author of the book "Roatán Odyssey" - a novel about her life in Port Royal decades ago. It's based on a couple historic maps drawn by both the British and Spanish in the 1700's and shows locations for various town centers, home sites, fortifications, canon emplacements and all sorts of elements of British settlement in the harbor. This was supplemented by her own explorations in Port Royal over 50 years ago. Her home was built on the point labeled as "Fort Frederick". In the novel she talks about the stone cannon battery still evident as well as other evidence of the fort they found when clearing to build their home. Stonework plus musketballs, cannonballs, glass bottles...laying around the site.
I've subscribed to numerous history & archeology publications like National Geographic and Archeology Magazine for most of my life. It's been a passion for years, so I can't believe it's taken us this long to explore the rich history found in Port Royal.
On our most recent trip, in October of 2019, we finally set out one clear morning with Randy to see what we could find. Our search for treasure wasn't really the shiny type of legend, we didn't expect wooden chests filled with booty. What we were really in search of was much more simplistic but every bit as exciting to us. Foundations of the buildings where they lived, centuries worn green glass that traveled here from Europe to supply the outpost and settlements with rum, beer or even wine in the 17th century - tossed away as trash at some point later. We were in search of any sign of this history that we'd heard and read so much about. According to locals, a few decades ago the area was covered in these glass pieces, and at times fully intact bottles, as well as other artifacts. I've seen bricks and cannonballs from the era on Lime Cay and we were given a collection of the glass pieces when we bought our home - but we'd not found any ourselves.
We'd been talking to Randy about the "pirate sites" and shipwrecks as we sipped coffee that morning. He and his family have deep ties to Port Royal, his father Lee is a character in "Roatan Odyssey" and Randy has lived in or near Port Royal his entire life. He works with us now at Fort Linwell, and he's worked in the past at both Royal Playa and Mango Creek Lodge - small eco-resorts - right around the point from us. He knows the area as well as anyone. He told us how, when he was a little boy, his parents would take him to a small freshwater stream to look for pirate bottles, the same stream we'd later find ourselves in, using the same technique he used as a boy.
We wrapped up coffee and breakfast, dropped the skiff into the water, and slowly headed across the bay while Randy reminisced about his childhood. He pointed to areas where various homes had once stood, where Anne Jennings lived on Fort Frederick point, Roatán Lodge where the pirate era cooperage had also once stood. Both long gone, but evidence of them are still here - a stone seawall still holding back the waves where the lodge had once been and concrete steps leading into the underbrush of the former site of the Jennings home.
We passed over an area near the shore in front of the lodge / cooperage, where the map of Port Royal shows a "shipwreck". He showed us what little remains, a darker area in clear water over an otherwise sandy bottom where you can see faint outlines of something below, now covered in coral and sea fans. We'd actually looked at this area before, on Google Earth, and you could see the stone foundations through the water that once formed the foundation of the "pirate dock" also noted on the map.
As we rounded the coast, looking up to the hills that rise from the water in places and the marshy mangrove flats and small sandy beaches that rest in between them, it was easy to see why the British and buccaneers chose to build here. Access to fresh water from the mountains above is one obvious reason and is mentioned often in the historic literature regarding the Port. Other reasons included vantage points to watch for passing ships or ships coming to engage and dislodge - places where lookouts and cannons could be placed. The handful of fresh water streams in Port Royal brought "permanent" settlers who'd eventually come and go as well as, according to past writings and journals, the port was a frequent stop for buccaneers to bring aboard fresh water and drop anchor to rest and repair their ships.
Our first stop on this expedition was the site of the former town noted as "Litchfield". There is a small beach there, just a strip of sand really, with mangroves and marsh just behind it. The area is at the base of a ravine, where structures of the settlements had once been found above. The bottles and fragments found here were either thrown there centuries ago or have washed down the stream over time to make their way to the waterfront.
The Bay Islands are home to Caribbean saltwater crocodiles, and this was the spot where Randy said the "big croc" lives. There are very few of them so they're rarely seen. In Port Royal there is a large one (or two?) that is spotted every once in a while leaving the mangroves and taking a swim out in the open water, presumably moving from hunting spot to hunting spot.
The area looked like a great place to live if you were a crocodile. We'd discussed the local crocs with Randy, neighbors, friends and islanders over the past several months. We'd done our online research as well. These crocs aren't supposed to be aggressive to humans, known to avoid us actually, and no one we'd met on the island had ever heard of one attacking or biting a human. With that knowledge I shelved my instinct to stay out of his territory, this swamp, and followed Randy back through the brush and into the jungle.
We were crossing over a small meadow of sorts. It was marshy, but our feet didn't sink more than an inch or two into the soil/sand. It was beautiful, covered in small creeping and flowing vines, flowering bulbs and holes with little mud piles beside them where crabs had dug their homes.
Randy walked and pressed the metal rod into the mud, about every foot or two, as he made his way to the creeks edge. We walked along that for a dozen or so feet, as far as we could given the heavy vegetation around us. Randy said this is where his parents found lots of glass. We couldn't find any though we didn't stay there for more than a few minutes. We made our way back to the beach, stopping to grab a couple coconuts from a palm leaning over the ocean so Randy could open them with his macheté and we could enjoy a much needed fresh coconut water break.
We walked along the shore, pulling the Blue Noodah behind us, on a search to find the location where Randy said there was an old building foundation on the top of a bluff. As he walked in front of us, knee deep in the water, his eyes fixed on the ocean floor in front of him, he told us he'd often find glass fragments that had washed from above and into the surf.
As if on cue, just a step or two out, he bent over and picked up a small object and carried it over to us. "Like this" he said. And there it was, a thick curved green piece of glass, edges smoothed by the constant movement of the surf over many years. Pirate glass! We both stood still for a moment, jaws agape, excited that we'd finally found what we were there for. While he was somewhat non-plussed, we were now obsessed! As we made our way around the point to the site of what was Augusta, our eyes rarely gazed up as we searched the ocean floor for more treasure. We weren't disappointed.
We found a handful of pirate glass fragments, plus a piece of hand-fired brick, all in just a short walk of 50 yards or less.
We'd made our way around a small point to the next flat area. This spot was where the Jennings map indicated the location of "Fort Augusta" & "Town" and a note: "14 Steps". We stepped into the brush and started up a slight incline to make our way up the steep hill. There were stones protruding from the bed of leaves and underbrush just a few feet up, stones that were randomly laying about as we began, but slowly took shape as intentionally laid steps the closer we got to the summit. As we approached the top, these stones became very obvious and useable steps. The top of the bluff was flat, unlike the general terrain all around us, with a large mound at one end. Randy said the mound was what had been dug back centuries ago to create the flat area we were on, where buildings once stood. He poked around a bit, looking for bricks and pieces of foundation from those buildings, that he said were once much easier to find. Years of soil washing onto the site and the sediments of leaves turning to earth had largely hidden all of this though we did see some outlines that looked man-made and very small fragments of red clay bricks.
We eventually made our way back down the hill, across the small clearing and back to the Blue Noodah. We set out across the water towards home, a handful of "treasure" with us. We'd found what we set out to find, bits of history left behind long ago by people that once inhabited this beautiful harbor we now call home.