The pre-Columbian indigenous people of the Bay Islands are believed to have been related to the Paya, Maya, Lenca or Jicaque which were the cultures present on the mainland. Christopher Columbus, on his fourth voyage (1502–1504), came to the islands as he visited the neighboring Bay Island of Guanaja. Soon after the Spanish began raiding the islands for slave labor. More devastating for Native American communities was exposure to Eurasian infectious diseases to which they had no immunity, such as smallpox and measles. Diseases ran in epidemics, and no indigenous people survived.
Throughout European colonial times, the Bay of Honduras attracted a diverse array of individual settlers, pirates, traders and military forces, engaged in various economic activities and playing out political struggles between the European powers, chiefly Britain and Spain. Roatán and the other islands were used as frequent resting points for sea travelers. On several occasions, they were subject to military occupation. In 1723/1724 an approximately 20-year-old-man from New England, Philip Ashton, managed to survive as a castaway on the island for sixteen months until he was rescued (see Edward E. Leslie, Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls, 1988, pp. 100–120). During that time they were governed by self-proclaimed King Kyle Edward Chauncey, a red-haired white man leading mostly Spanish speakers among those of European descent.
In contesting with the Spanish for colonization of the Caribbean, the English occupied the Bay Islands on and off between 1550 and 1700. During this time, buccaneers found the vacated, mostly unprotected islands a haven for safe harbor and transport. English, French and Dutch pirates established settlements on the islands. They frequently raided the cumbersome Spanish cargo vessels carrying gold and other treasures from the New World to Spain.
In 1797, the British defeated the Black Carib, who had been supported by the French, in a battle for control of the Windward Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Weary of their resistance to British plans for sugar plantations, the British rounded up the St. Vincent Black Carib and deported them to Roatán. The majority of Black Carib migrated to Trujillo on mainland Honduras, but a portion remained to found the community of Punta Gorda on the northern coast of Roatán. The Black Carib, whose ancestry includes Arawak and African Maroons, remained in Punta Gorda, becoming the Bay Island’s first permanent post-Columbian settlers. They also migrated from there to parts of the northern coast of Central America, becoming the foundation of the modern-day Garífuna culture.
The majority permanent population of Roatán originated from the Cayman Islands near Jamaica. They arrived in the 1830s shortly after Britain’s abolition of slavery in 1838. The changes in labor force disrupted the economic structure of Caymanian culture. Caymanians were largely a seafaring culture and were familiar with the area from turtle fishing and other activities. Former Caymanian slaveholders were among the first to settle in the seaside locations throughout primarily western Roatán. Former slaves also migrated from the Cayman Islands, in larger number than planters, during the late 1830s and 1840s. Altogether, the former Caymanians became the largest cultural group on the island.
For a brief period in the 1850s, Britain declared the Bay Islands its colony. Within a decade the Crown ceded the territory formally back to Honduras. British colonists were sent though, and asked William Walker, a freebooter with a private army, to help end the crisis in 1860 by invading Honduras; he was captured upon landing in Trujillo and executed there.
In the latter half of the 19th century, the island populations grew steadily and established new settlements all over Roatán and the other islands. Settlers came from all over the world and played a part in shaping the cultural face of the island. Islanders started a fruit trade industry which became profitable. By the 1870s it was purchased by American interests, most notably the New Orleans and Bay Islands Fruit Company. Later companies, the Standard Fruit and United Fruit Companies became the foundation for modern-day fruit companies, the industry which gave Honduras the sobriquet “banana republic”.
The 20th century saw continued population growth resulting in increasing economic changes, and environmental challenges. A population boom began with an influx of Spanish-speaking Mestizo migrants from the Honduran mainland. In the last decades they tripled the original resident population. Mestizo migrants settled primarily in the urban areas of Coxen Hole and Barrio Los Fuertes (near French Harbour). In these areas Spanish is common, with English speakers more common among descendants of early colonists, as well as in the other areas inhabited chiefly by islanders rather than former mainlanders.
But in terms of population and economic influence, the mainlander influx was dwarfed by the overwhelming tourist presence in most recent years. Numerous American, Canadian, British, New Zealand, Australian and South African settlers and entrepreneurs engaged chiefly in the fishing industry, and later, provided the foundation for attracting the tourist trade. The rapid and dramatic demographic change that Roatán has experienced in the 21st century has contributed to the complexity of the environmental challenges of the island.