Conquest and Colonization
Columbus’s Fourth Voyage
In July 1502, on the fourth and final voyage of Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus), the famed admiral sailed from Hispaniola along the Caribbean coast of Central America and came upon the island of Guanaja, where he met with the local people and waylaid a trader’s canoe laden with axes, copper goods, cacao, and pottery.
Despite the fact that the canoe was seen approaching from the west, Columbus continued east from Guanaja, which he named the Island of Pines. His first stop was at Punta Caxinas, near present-day Trujillo. The first mass spoken on the mainland of the Americas was held at Punta Caxinas. A weather-beaten concrete cross now marks the reputed site.
East of Trujillo, Columbus stopped again at the mouth of a large river, which may have been the Aguán, Sico, or Patuca. Because this was the place chosen to claim the lands for the Spanish crown, Columbus named the river Río de la Posesión.
Continuing farther east along the coast of the Mosquitia, Columbus’s fleet was buffeted by severe storms until rounding the easternmost point of Honduras and reaching calmer waters off present-day Nicaragua. In honor of the better weather, the point was christened Cabo Gracias a Dios, a name it retains today.
The Conquest Begins
Following this uneventful first visit, the Spaniards ignored Honduras for the next 20 years, apart from a possible scouting trip by explorers Juan Díaz Solís and Vicente Yáñez Pinzón in 1508. Occupied with consolidating their newfound possessions in the Caribbean, the conquistadors did not return to Honduras until 1522–1523, when Gil González Dávila led an exploratory expedition up the Pacific coast from Panama, reaching the Golfo de Fonseca.
In the following couple of years, six Spanish expeditions converged on Honduras, each headed by ambitious soldiers after wealth and glory, just as predisposed to fight each other as the indigenous people. Not an auspicious start to colonization, it presaged the trend of placing personal power over group interests—the rule in Honduran government ever since.
González Dávila, with the approval of the crown, was the first to land on Honduran shores, establishing a small town near the mouth of the Río Dulce, in what is now Guatemala. The explorer marched into the heart of Honduras toward Nicaragua in early 1524. Shortly thereafter, Mexican conqueror Hernán Cortés sent an expedition of his own led by Cristóbal de Olid, who arrived on the north coast in May and quickly set up a settlement at Triunfo de la Cruz (which was later resettled by the Garífuna, who remain there still). It is said that the Aztecs told Cortés they received their gold from the mountains of Honduras. Thus it may have been no accident that the conquistadors made directly for the gold-rich rivers of Olancho.
Olid wasn’t totally loyal to Cortés, and once on his own he tried to claim the province for himself. When word of this reached Cortés in Mexico, he promptly dispatched a second expedition, led by Francisco de las Casas, to ensure his authority. Further complications occurred from the incursions of Pedro de Alvarado and Hernando de Soto, who entered Honduras from Guatemala and Nicaragua, respectively. Amid the bickering and fighting, in which Olid literally lost his head, the first permanent settlement was established in the country, at Trujillo.
Impatient with reports of fighting among these various factions, and not trusting anyone, Cortés personally led an expedition to Honduras. Beginning in late 1524, he undertook an incredible several-month overland trek through the jungles of the Yucatán and the Guatemalan Petén, reaching Honduras in the spring of 1525. Although Cortés briefly took control of the situation in Honduras, by the time of his departure in April 1526, his long absence from Mexico had undermined his position in the royal court, and he never again held a position of power.
Displeased with the turbulent course of conquest and wanting to ensure direct control over the new colony, the Spanish crown sent Diego López de Salcedo to act as royal governor of Honduras. López de Salcedo anchored off Trujillo on October 24, 1526, and after a few days of negotiations with suspicious colonists loyal to Cortés, he was allowed to land and take office.
Rebellion and Consolidation
The 15 years after López de Salcedo took over as governor were chaotic for the nascent colony and catastrophic for the indigenous people. Continued infighting, conflicting royal cédulas (orders giving authority to conquer and govern a given area), and repeated revolts by native peoples prevented the Spaniards from significantly extending their control across the country.
Several localized attacks against Spanish settlements took place around Trujillo and in the Valle de Sula in the early 1530s, and in 1536, mass rebellion broke out across most of western and central Honduras. Led by the Lenca warrior Lempira, for whom the national currency is named, thousands of Lenca and allied tribes took up arms against the Spaniards. The hostile tribes kept the colony in a precarious position until 1539, when Lempira was assassinated by the Spanish. Localized rebellions continued after Lempira’s death, especially in the Valle de Comayagua, but the Spanish put them down easily.
Victory over the Lenca served the Spanish well, both eliminating further native resistance and uniting the conquistadors in the colonial project. Establishing the towns of Gracias a Dios, Comayagua, San Pedro Sula, Choluteca, and Tencoa in the late 1530s, the Spaniards laid the foundation for extending control throughout the region.
As always, gold and silver proved the main impetus for new Spanish settlements. Deposits were discovered early near Gracias a Dios and Comayagua, and not long after in Olancho and in the hills above the Golfo de Fonseca.
In the early colonial era, the province was divided into two sections: Higueras, which comprised present-day western and central Honduras, and Honduras proper, which covered Trujillo, the Mosquitia, Olancho, the region around Tegucigalpa, and the Golfo de Fonseca.
Indigenous Population Declines
In the first decades after the conquest, the indigenous population of Honduras went into a precipitous decline, devastated by both the constant fighting and European plagues. Diseases for which the indigenous people had no tolerance actually preceded the Spaniards, communicated by infected Indians coming to Honduras from Mexico and Caribbean islands. When the conquistadors arrived in person, the plagues picked up force, ravaging local populations.
An estimated 500,000–800,000 native people lived in Honduras before 1492, but by 1541 colonial reports put the number of Indians under Spanish control at just 8,000. Although this figure does not include the populations of Tolupán, Pech, and Tawahka outside Spanish influence, it still represents an almost unimaginable decline in population.
While this unintended biological weapon certainly facilitated the conquest, it also posed serious problems for the Spaniards, who needed laborers to work the mines and provide them with food. Indigenous populations would not recover from the plagues and begin to grow again for more than 50 years.
The Poorest Colony
Because of labor shortages and the rapid depletion of the richest veins of gold and silver by the end of the 16th century, Honduras quickly became a colonial backwater. Since the possibilities for getting rich were slim, able governors did their utmost to be stationed elsewhere, leaving Honduras with incompetent administrators who were eager to leave at the first opportunity, with whatever they could take with them.
Spain’s control over Honduras, as with many other regions of Latin America, was through encomiendas, a method in which Spaniards received awards of land and the right to use the native people who lived on the land for labor in return for religious instruction.
Farming was difficult; Honduras lacked the rich volcanic soils of its neighbors and the rugged terrain made bringing produce to markets even harder. Because of these hardships, would-be colonists looked elsewhere for land. In the early years of the colony, the only industries of any importance were ranching, often for local consumption, and gathering sarsaparilla, thought at the time to be a cure for venereal disease.
In addition, the developing colony was faced with the constant threat of pirate attacks against coastal towns on both the north and south coast, and later with British settlers in the Mosquitia and the Bay Islands. These Shoremen (as they were called), helped by their Miskito allies, made living on the north coast a dangerous undertaking, effectively sealing off the Caribbean coast from Spanish control for the better part of two centuries.
Late in the colonial era, improved technology led to a renewed though short-lived boom in mining, particularly in the mines of Santa Lucía, above Tegucigalpa, and El Corpus, near Choluteca. Farmers in the region of Copán and Gracias also exported large quantities of high-quality tobacco to Europe and other colonies. Nonetheless these were mostly small-scale ventures compared to the wealthy coffee plantations of neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador, to say nothing of the fabulously rich mines of Mexico and Peru. Thus it comes as no surprise that Honduras did not attract significant migration or experience significant economic development during the colonial period.
© Chris Humphrey and Amy E. Robertson from Moon Honduras, 5th Edition