How the USA Inadvertently Gave the Bay Islands to Honduras

The Monroe Doctrine

President James Monroe, the fifth president of the USA established a long-lasting policy by creating the Monroe Doctrine.  Monroe was president between 1817 and 1825. His Monroe Doctrine, which was first declared in 1823 during a speech before the USA Congress, states that the United States will not tolerate interference by European countries with their ex colonies. This coincides with the time when the different Spanish and Portuguese colonies where declaring independence in America. The actual term, Monroe Doctrine, was not coined until the 1850s. The Monroe Doctrine became a cornerstone of the US foreign policy. A manifesto that claimed that the United States of America should continue to expand and dominate the World. It became US policy. How then you will ask, can I say that the USA Inadvertently gave the Bay Islands to Honduras?

Bay Islands Flag
The Bay Island Flag is proudly displayed at the Buccaneer Restaurant and Bar in Utila

The Bay Islands were a United Kingdom colony. In addition to the Bay Islands, the Brits were also stakeholders along the Caribbean Coast of Central America, where they had the Miskito Coast Protectorate. This region, which today is shared between Honduras and Nicaragua was a region where the Brits provided support to the local Miskito natives. The main British interest in this region was logging, although geographically, it convenient when pirates and buccaneers, loyal to the UK would attack the Spanish Galleons. These ships carried precious cargo, including gold and silver from the Spanish Colonies to Spain.[themify_hr color=”light-gray” width=”1″ border_width=”1″]

By the end of the 1850, the United States of America was in a fierce competition with the French to create a trans isthmus canal that would allow easy passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The French had obtained a concession from Colombia for such an endeavor in Province of Panama. At the time, Panama was a province of Colombia.  The Americans had set their eyes on Nicaragua. The geography of this country, with the vast lake Nicaragua seemed like the perfect setting for a canal.

The California Gold Rush

Although the USA had already reached its goal of being a transcontinental country, with its annexation of California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas, it was extremely hard and dangerous to travel across this vast country. The Discovery of gold in California in 1848 suddenly created one of the most significant migrations within the United States of America. The Pacific Railroad construction took place between 1863 and 1869. This was 20 years after the start of the Gold Rush! It was simply too dangerous for settlers to travel west overland from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Thus, it was safer and faster to sail down to the Central American Isthmus and crossing overland, to again board a steamship north to California. Cornelius Vanderbilt saw a fantastic business opportunity and jumped on it.

The Accessory Transit Company was set up 1850s to provide this safe passage between the East Coast of the USA and the Pacific Coast in California. Ships would sail south to the port of Greytown, on the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Then they would board a smaller steamship that would take them up the San Juan River to Lake Nicaragua, to the Port of La Virgen on the western banks of the lake. There, a stagecoach would take them across the narrow, 11-mile-wide isthmus of Rivas. At the Port of San Juan del Sur they would board a steamship that would take them north towards San Francisco.

The Transit Company would transport approximately 2000 passengers a month. At a nominal price of $300 US per passenger it was a flourishing business of over seven million dollars a year! I am talking about 1855. To put this amount into perspective, in 1867, the US payed 7.2 million dollars for Alaska! Coincidentally, this was the route the USA had decided upon to build their transoceanic canal. There was one big drawback with this route for the USA. It was literally next door to the Miskito Coast Protectorate that was part of the British Empire. The Monroe Doctine stated clearly that the US would not tolerate European interference within America. It was time to execute the policy and force the UK out of here. In 1854 the US Navy bombarded Greytown to defend the rights of the Accessory Transit Company to operate here.

The Years Leading to Abraham Lincoln’s Election

As the United States grew, the discussion of whether slavery should be allowed in the new states became a hot topic. A concern for many southerners made them look for alternatives. William Walker, an adventurer from Tennessee decided that it would make sense to conquer Central America. He would then turn it into an English-speaking country and of course, slavery would be legal. Thus, he put together an army and set off to conquer Central America. He arrived by the way of the Transit Company. It soon became obvious that if he could commandeer the route across Central America, he would be able to finance his filibustering adventure. Soon, he took over the route and became president of Nicaragua by 1855. Central America joined forces and eventually forced him out of the region. Vanderbilt himself financed the war to rid himself of Walker and retake the business.

USA inadvertently gave the Bay Islands to Honduras
St. Helene as seen from Morat.

As the USA set the stages for the intercontinental canal project, they made use of diplomacy to move the Brits out of Central America. The main concern was the Miskito Coast Protectorate. However, The Bay Islands where to close to the maritime routes that would come to be with the canal. The United States wanted the Brits out of there too. As a result of their diplomatic efforts, the United Kingdom agreed to turn the Bay Islands to Honduras and the Miskito Coast to Nicaragua. Thus, the treaty of Comayagua was signed in 1860, transferring the sovereignty of the Islands to the Honduras. That same year, the Treaty of Managua transferred the Miskito Coast Protectorate from the UK to Nicaragua.[themify_hr color=”light-gray” width=”1″ border_width=”1″]

USA inadvertently gave the Bay Islands to Honduras
A lovely view of Paya Bay Resort in the East End of Roatan

Of course, the Brits did not just simply part with their territories. The United States agreed to look the other way and even support their interests in British Honduras. This territory was part of Guatemala, and the Brits had no legal claim to it. In the end, the USA inadvertently gave the Bay Islands to Honduras. They did the same with the Miskito Coast Protectorate, which went to Nicaragua. Guatemala on the other hand, lost British Honduras, which is now Belize. It is interesting to note that neither Honduras nor Nicaragua were disputing the land controlled by the UK. But the US had achieved its goal of getting the United Kingdom away from its area of interest.[themify_hr color=”light-gray” width=”1″ border_width=”1″]

A Change of Plans

William Walker
Walker was a successful Filibusterer who became president of Nicaragua. He was put before a firing squad in Trujillo Honduras

By 1860, Abraham Lincoln was president. Many of the southern states seceded from the American Union. The deadly civil war in the USA came to be, and the plans to build a canal where put in the backburner. In the meantime, the British citizens living in the Bay Islands were furious. They did not want to be part of Honduras, much less citizens of Honduras. A group of islanders decided to convince William Walker, the filibuster who had been in Central America before to come back and help them gain independence from Honduras. Walker, always ready for an adventure quickly got his army together, and set off for Roatan, where he new he would be welcome. As luck would have it, upon arrival to Roatan he found a British Navy vessel in port. He would not be able to simply disembark and take over the island.[themify_hr color=”light-gray” width=”1″ border_width=”1″]

William Walker
A view of from the Fortress of Santa Barbara in Trujillo Honduras

He quickly came up with an alternate plan. We would sail to the coast, to the port of Trujillo and take the port. He would then negotiate with the weak Honduran government and exchange Trujillo for the Bay Islands. I the end Walker underestimated the Honduran governments resolve to boot him out. A few weeks after he first took Trujillo, a large army showed up to oust him. As he scrambled to board his ship to escape, luck turned on him. The British Navy vessel that had been in Roatan sailed into the Bay of Trujillo, cutting off his escape route! Thus, he fled overland toward the east, in direction of the Miskito coast. Walker ran into much hardship and was eventually fell into the hands of the Honduran forces that were chasing him.[themify_hr color=”light-gray” width=”1″ border_width=”1″]

William Walker
The Gravestone at William Walkers Tomb in Trujillo, Honduras

William Walker was put to trial and put before a firing squad. His remains are in the old Trujillo Cemetery. Indeed, this was the final trip that Walker would have to Central America. The rest of his army went back to the USA after promising to never to come back.[themify_hr color=”light-gray” width=”1″ border_width=”1″]

A Change of Venue for the Canal

While the USA was occupied fighting a civil war, the French were building the Suez canal. The engineering team was emboldened by the success of the Suez Canal. They started working on a new project: The Panama Canal.  However, the Panama project was far more challenging than the Suez Canal. The French did not take into consideration the inhospitable rain forests of Central America. They were losing workers by the dozen, prey to malaria and dengue fever. Eventually they came to the verge of bankruptcy. It became clear that they did not have the capacity to fulfill the project. They came up with a bold idea. Convince the Americans, that were now talking about their own canal that the French project made for sense and that they should buy it away.

The French insisted that it made no sense to build a canal across a land full of active volcanoes. The fact that Ometepe Island, which has two volcanoes and is in the middle of Lake Nicaragua helped them sell their project. In the end, they US bought the rights to the Panama Canal from the French. This deal took place at the very beginning of the twentieth century. However, Panama was part of Colombia, and the Colombian government did not agree that the USA would take over the concession. In the end, the USA sponsored the independence movement in Panama to secede from Colombia and give the United States rights to the Panama Canal Zone. But that is another story.

So as you can see, the USA inadvertently gave the Bay Islands to Honduras. It was part of a grand scheme that in the end did not have to happen. When they took the decision to take over the French project, they rendered the diplomacy to move the Brits out of the region unnecessary. But in the end, Honduras came out ahead. Today, the Bay Islands of Roatan, Utila and Guanaja are part of the most important tourism destination in Honduras. The fact that they are close to the mainland makes them easy to get to. It is also easy and affordable to bring supplies to the islands.

Hondurans should be grateful that they effortlessly got the sovereignty of islands. Indeed, they were on the lucky side of history when the USA inadvertently gave the Bay Islands to Honduras!