Honduran History

Honduras
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Pre-Columbian Honduras The Europeans Arrive Spanish Colony Fight for Independence The Modern Honduran State Back to main page

Take a voyage through the interesting history of our country, from the rise of native civilizations, through the Spanish conquest and colonial period, on to the evolution of the modern Honduran state.

 

Pre-Columbian Honduras

The First Hondurans

The American continent was first populated by Asian hunters that followed migrating pray from Siberia, across the Bearing Strait, to Alaska, approximately 40,000BC, and continued migrating south.  They reached what is now the continental U.S.A. 17,000 years ago, crossed Central America, reached South America approximately 10,000 years ago, and eventaully populated the entire continent.

Archeological evidence shows that there were people fashioning stone arrowheads and creating paintings on cave walls in Honduras as early as 9,000 B.C.  These people can rightfully be considered the first Hondurans.   They used charcoal, white and red clays, paprika and even blood as pigments for their paintings.  For their carvings, they were equipped with nothing more than crude stone tools.  Anthropologists have found paleolithic paintings and stone carvings in caves and cliffs in over 100 locations throughout Honduras.

Before the arrival of the first Europeans in the XVI century, all of the territory of modern Honduras was populated by natives of different groups.  There is no accurate data to estimate how many people lived in Honduras then - some anthropologists estimate it may have been as few as 300,000, while others believe it coud have been as many as 1,000,000.

Pre-Columbian Honduras was an interesting place because - unlike other territories in the region - it was simultaneously populated by people originating from two distinct ethnic and cultural groups:

  • Mesoamericans, originating in central México and Guatemala, migrated south and populated western Honduras.
  • Macro-Chibchas, originating in Colombia, migrated north and settled in eastern Honduras.

Both groups were different, resulting in several native groups with different languages, religions, customs, and levels of social and technological sophistication co-existing in Honduras for several centuries before the Europeans arrived.

To learn more about Honduran ethnic groups, both before and after European colonization, visit our page on Honduran ethnic groups.

The Maya

The western part of our country was part of the domain of a great Mesoamerican culture that rose around 1000BC and prospered for nearly 2000 years.  They were called the Maya and they were great architects, mathematicians, astronomers, warriors, and politicians.  They built majestic cities of stone amidst the jungles of southern México and Central America.  There they developed their very own numeric and writing systems, as well as a highly accurate astronomical calendar.  The Maya were also accomplished artists, leaving great works of painting, pottery and stone sculpture.

To read more about the Maya, visit our page about the Maya civilization.

In what now is western Honduras, the Maya built one of their greatest accomplishments:  the city of Copán, considered one of the most important archeological sites in the contintent and whose ruins have amazed explorers and archaelogists alike since it was discovered in the XIX century.

To learn more about Copán, visit our page about the Maya ruins at Copán.

 

The Europeans Arrive

Amongst the first Europeans to set eyes opon what today is known as Honduras was none other than Christopher Columbus.   As part of their fourth voyage to the new world they had (unknowingly) discovered ten years earlier, Columbus's fleet landed at the island of Guanaja, today part of the Honduran Bay Islands, in July 1502.  At this point in the voyage, Columbus was looking for a straight that would allow him access to what he believed would be the Indian Ocean.

Precolumbian population

Partial route of Columbus's 4th voyage to the Americas

Map by ThisIsHonduras

Columbus's original fleet

Artist's rendition of the "Niña", the "Pinta" and the "Santa María" - Columbus's original fleet.

Near Guanaja, they came across a group of seafearing Mayan traders in a large canoe.  This was the first encounter ever between Europeans and (those who would eventually be) Hondurans.  The Maya traders attracted Columbus's attention for several reasons, but more importantly because they said the came from land (not from another island) and that this was directly south from Guanaja.

Columbus, who was still set on finding Asia, was desperate to find a continental land mass to prove that he had succeeded. So he  immediately set course due south and shortly after his crew landed at a place he named Punta Caxinas (today called Puerto Castilla) on the northern coast of Honduras on July 30th, 1502.  As Columbus's crew was not without a priest, the very first catholic mass on the New World was celebrated there that same day.  (To conmmemorate the 500th aniversary of this event, a new church was built in the city of Trujillo in 1992 and a special mass was held.)

At the mouth of a river which he called Río de la Posesión, Columbus claimed the Honduran territory in the name of Fernando de Aragón and Isabel de Castilla, the King and Queen of Spain.

A man, a country, and a name (the wrong name)

Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus

In Spanish, the word "honduras" means "deep waters" or "depths".   It is a peculiar name for a country, but there is also a peculiar story behind how our country got this name.  

In Honduras, itt has been traditionally accepted that Columbus's himself named the country.  According to the story, the Spanish fleet sailed east from Trujillo and encountered rough seas off our north-eastern coast, in deep waters that made the sailors very uneasy.  The weather was so bad that it took the fleet 28 days to reach shallower and calmer waters off the east coast of Nicaragua.  At this point Columbus reportedly said "Gracias a Dios que hemos dejado estas honduras.", which translates to "Thank God we have left these dephts.".  And so, for decades Honduran schoolchildren have been taught that this is why the territory on the northeastern part of our country (and the cape just north of it) is called Gracias a Dios ("Thank God") and our country itself is called Honduras.

However, historians now know that Columbus never actually named our country, only a portion of our northerneast coast as "Punta Caxinas" and the cape that gave him such difficulty as "Cabo de Honduras" (Cape of the Depths).  The name Honduras was invented by two rival explorers of Columbus as they were retraced his steps, "rediscovering" and renaming places that the Italian had already discovered and named.  The name used for the Honduran territory in early maps was "Guaymuras", but later mapmakers arbitrarily started using the name "Honduras" on their charts.  The name stuck.

The departamento (state) were Trujillo is today is named (in Spanish) after Columbus: "Colón".  At least we got his name right.

 

Enter the Conquistadores

Hernán Cortéz

Hernán Cortés

Two decades passed between Columbus's exploratory visit and the arrival of the first Spanish conquistadores ("conquerors").

The conquest of the territory of Honduras began with the arrival of two Spanish captains:  Gil González de Ávila in 1523 and Cristóbal de Olid a year later.  Olid headed a regiment of soldiers sent from México by none other than Hernán Cortés, the man who had conquered the Aztecs Empire in México.

At first, there were power struggles between Cortés and Olid, who tried to take the Honduran territory for himself.  To regain control of the new colony, Cortés sent a second captain, Francisco de las Casas, but he was captured by Olid. In the end, Cortés himself had to come to Honduras to set things straight.  He dealt with Olid, established his government in Trujillo in 1526 and then returned to México.  Today, one of 18 departamentos ("departments") which make up the country bears the name of the Spanish conquistador.

Pedro de Alvarado

Pedro de Alvarado

The Spanish initially built settlements in the more accessible lowlands near the Caribbean coast.  After Cortés returned to México, Pedro de Alvarado came from Guatemala and founded the city of San Pedro de Puerto Caballos, which today is called San Pedro Sula and is our country's industrial capital.

The Natives Resist

With time, the Spaniards made their way south into the mountainous areas in the central part of the country.  They found that the native tribes were not organized as a single force that could present any significant resistance.  The native tribes often warred amongst themselves and very few of the native caciques managed to mount a respectable opposition to the European invaders.  Caciques Pizacura and Mazatl tried to repell Cortés in the northern coastal area in 1526, failed and were executed.  In western Honduras, Copán Galel, a cacique of the Chortí, tried to hold the Spaniards back, with the same result.  Cicumba would have the same fate in the northern valley of Sula in 1536, against Pedro de Alvarado.  Under Alvarado's instructions, the city of Gracias a Dios was founded, to begin exploitation of the gold mines in the interior of the country.

The most famous of these chieftains was called Lempira (possibly"Enpira" in the original Lenca language), a cacique sanctioned by the Lenca tribes to lead them in battle against the Spanish invaders.  Lempira managed to organise a force of over 3,000 Lenca warriors from 200 tribes and used his knowledge of the rugged terrain of Honduras to mount an effective defense against the Spanish.

The invading force was led by Captain Alonso de Cáceres, under orders from Governor Francisco de Montejo.  In 1537, in a place known as Cerquín, in the mountains of southwestern Honduras, Lempira and his warriors built fortifications and engaged Cáceres and his troops.  Despite Cáceres having recruited fierce native warriors from Guatemala and México to support his Spanish soldiers, Lempira and his Lenca warriors managed to repell their attacks for six months and were even able to conduct raids on nearby Spanish towns, forcing the settlers to relocate elsewhere.

Lempira

Lempira (artist's rendition)
1499? -1539

Unfortunately for the natives of Honduras (and the rest of Central America), the Spanish had a far better organized army, equipped with firearms, trained hounds, horses, and armour and swords forged from high quality European steel.  The natives had only primitive weapons fashioned from wood and stone.  And they had never seen a horse until the Spanish cavalry charged at them.  

Eventually, Lempira was defeated and killed.  The Lenca continued fighting, but without good leadership, they were inevitably doomed.

Lempira has passed onto history as the first Honduran hero, outshining Cicumba, Copán Galel, Pizacura, and Mazatl (who deserve no less recognition).  Our national currency is called the Lempira, as well as one of our departmentos, and the capital of coastal departmento Gracias a Dios is Puerto Lempira.

To learn how Lempira was defeated and why his story has been sorrounded by controversy, visit our page on Lempira - the man and the legend.

By 1542, all native resistance had been smashed and the conquest of the Central American territories was complete.

With the benefit of peace in their newly conquered lands, the Spanish founded the towns of Comayagua and Tegucigalpa, which started as small mining communities in central Honduras.  These two communities would eventually become important cities with starring roles in the country's history.

 

Spanish Colony

After native resistance was controlled, the territory was left under the jurisdiction of the Capitanía General de Guatemala (General Captainship of Guatemala)

The Spanish established a system called "reparto" by which a Spanish citizen would be granted ownership of vast extensions of land.  Parallel to this, they established the "encomienda" whereby the Spanish would be assigned the care and supervision of any natives found in his lands and was allowed to use them as labour in mines and/or farms.  Needless to say, the natives generally recieved brutal treatment from their masters, despite noble attempts by some Spanish priests to improve their living and working conditions.

Natives from Honduras and the rest of Central America were transported to other areas of the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean area to make up for shortage of labour and soon the population of the coastal areas grew thin.  The native peoples living in the central parts of the country, were the topography was more challenging, where relatively (but not completely) safe from all this.

Nobody knows exactly what the population of the Honduran territory was by the end of the 15th century. Some anthropologists estimate that there were as few as 300,000, while others calculate over a 1,000,000 native inhabitants.  Regardless of the exact figure, it is almost certain that most of the territory was already populated when the Spanish arrived.  We do know that by the end of the XVI century the native population of Honduras had fallen to approximately 5% of what it was before the conquest began.  This was due to the combined effect of the conquest wars, slave trade, forced labour, and diseases such as smallpox and measles, which the European newcomers carried and the natives had no defenses againsts.

The two main economical activities in the Central American territories were mining and cattle farming.  The original Spanish settlers and their descendants attempted mining at first, but eventually turned to cattle farming, as this was less taxing on the native labour force and demanded lower financial investments.

Even during the XX century cattle farming remained one of the main areas of the Honduran agricultural sector.

 

Fight for Independence

During the three centuries that the colonnial domination of Central America lasted, the system needed to maintain social and political order in the colonies became a problem for itself:  native labour was so grossly under-used (despite its less favourable treatement) that despite the natural resources available, the colonies's productivity was low and the economies were so weak that the Central American provinces need to borrow money from their Mexican neighbours.  The social hierarchy, with a minority of European-born whites at the very top, made the majority of the inhabitants unhappy, even those who were descendant of Europeans, as they were also considered inferior simply for having been born in the Americas.

At the beginning of the XIX century, after having fought France for years, Spain was politically and militarily weak.  There was a revolutionary movement sweeping across the colonies in the American continent, fuelled by the powerful example of the independence of the British Colonies from the rest of the British Empire in 1776 and by ideologies borne of the French Revolution of 1783.

Declaration of independece

There had been at least five uprisings in Central America during the early 19th century, two of them based in Honduras.  The provinces of Central America declared and gained independence from Spain in September 15th, 1821.

Annexation to the Mexican Empire

Agustin de Iturbide, Emperor of México

Agustín de Iturbide
Emperor of México

The Central American provinces enjoyed a very short independence.  The social elite of Centralamerica felt that independence had been declared too soon and that the backing of a strong ruler was still necessary.  They were also interested in maintaining their social, political and economical status, just not as part of a colony.  Shortly after declaring independence from Spain, Agustín de Iturbide , Emperor of México, presented the Centralamerican provinces with an offer to join his empire voluntarily or by force.  Assemblies accross the provinces voted in favour of accepting Iturbide's proposal in January of 1822.

The Central American Federation

With time, Iturbide's rule in México weakened. The Central American nations declared independance from the Méxican Empire in 1823 and formed a federation named Provincias Unidas de Centro América (United Provinces of Central America).  Iturbide's reign in México would end shortly after.

Civil Wars

Francisco Morazán

Francisco Morazán
1792 - 1842

Despite having joined as a federation, peace would not come to Central America for some time. There were still internal power struggles and the federation had enemies from within.  In 1827, Guatemalan conservative leader Justo Milla attempted to take the Honduran government by force.

Francisco Morazán was a Honduran-born army officer who had served as representative to the assembly from which the Federation was formed.  In 1824 he was elected General Secretary of the Government of the State of Honduras and assembled troops to defend the Honduran territory from Milla.  On November 11th, 1827 Morazan's force engaged Milla's at a place known as La Trinidad, to the south of Tegucigalpa.  Proving to be an astute military commander, Morazán defeated Milla.  His triumph at La Trinidad and a second victory to control a revolt in El Salvador made him famous throught the Federation.


Battle at La Trinidad

Morazán's victory at La Trinidad appears on the back of the current 5.00 Lempira bill.
(Morazán is shown on the left, charging into battle on horseback)

In 1830 Morazán was elected President of Central America.  He was a progressive president who enacted reforms that introduced freedom of speech, press, and religion, equality of all peoples before the law and trial by jury.  But it was precisely this forward thinking that earned Morazán some of his most powerful enemies, amongst them the Catholic Church, whidh did not approve his ideas on separating church from state and of introducing secular marriage and divorce.

Rafael Carrera

Rafael Carrera

By 1838, conservative Rafael Carrera had managed to forcefuly take over most of Guatemala and led an uprising against Morazán, who was unsuccesful in keeping his armies under control. Carrera's uprising led the way for others in different places in Central America and soon there was a open civil war.  By 1839, the Federation was only a shadow of what it once was, formed by only a few scattered territories.  In 1840, Carrera finally succeded in defeating Morazán, forcing him into exile in Colombia.

Two years later, Morazán returned to Central America, this time to the aid of opponents of dictator Braulio Carrillo, who had taken control of Costa Rica.  Morazán planned to use Costa Rica as a base from which to direct his effort to reunite the Centralamerican provinces.  But the Costa Ricans did not wish to be involved in conflicts beyond their borders, and so turned against Morazán, jailed him and condemned him to death by firing squad, without the benefit of a fair trial... despite his success in helping them get rid them of Carrillo.

Francisco Morazán, the man who had oppossed the annexation to México and then fought so hard to keep the provinces united, was executed in San José de Costa Rica in 1842.  As if to add a touch of irony to the story, it happened on September 15th of that year - exactly the 21st annivesary of the original declaration of independence.  In an unusual demostration of courage, Morazán himself commanded the firing squad that ended his life.

 

The Modern Honduran State

Honduras became an independent republic in 1839, after the definitive fall of the Centralamerican federation.  During the later half of the 19th century and most of the first half of the 20th, the economy and politics of the country were dominated by the power of influence of American companies that established vast banana plantations on the northern coast of Honduras.  It was for this reason that Honduras earned the unglamorous nickname of "Banana Republic".

An Incident with the Neighbors

In July of 1969, whilst most of the world was amazed by the technological achievements of NASA's Apollo project, Honduras and El Salvador went to war against each other.

Relations between Honduras and El Salvador had been tense for some time for several reasons:  disatisfaction over trade relations in the Centralamerican Common Market; a high rate of immigration of Salvadorians to Honduras; El Salvador's need for land and Honduras's having land; and the opportunity created by an ill-defined borderline between the two countries.  

In mid June of 1969, Honduras and El Salvador were disputing the right to participate in the upcoming World Cup, which would be held in México the following year.  A riot ensued after a football match in El Salvador, in which the home team beat the Honduran counterpart, and as a result, many Hondurans attending the game were injured, even as they tried to return to Honduras.  Tensions escalated and Salvadorians in Honduras began to flee en masse back to El Salvador.  Tensions escalated even more.  This situation was used by El Salvador as an excuse to initiate military action against Honduras and so.  At dawn, on the 14th of July 1969, Salvadorian troops crossed the Honduran border aiming to advance northeast and take several Honduran cities.  Foreign news correspondants, who may or may not have understood what was happening (and probably didn't think it was too important), quickly and creatively named the conflict "The Football War" (or "The Soccer War").  And so, Honduras and El Salvador have sadly gone down in history as countries that went to war over a football game.

Fortunately, the war lasted for only 100 hours.  The Organisation of American State (OAS) intervened and a cease fire was declared.  But before this, aproximately 4,000 lives were lost, split approximately evenly between both sides, and 130,000 Salvadorians were forced to move from Honduras back to El Salvador.  Diplomatic and commercial relations between the two countries would be complicated for the next ten years.  Finally, a peace treaty was signed between Honduras and El Salvador in October of 1980.

Honduran Army parade c.1969

Honduran infantry troops parade while 4 Honduran Air Force Corsairs fly overhead.

The Cold War

The 1980's were the one of the darkest and bloodiest periods in Centralamerican history, as the region found itself a reluctant participant in the Cold War.

In 1979 a Soviet-backed communist goverment took over neighbouring Nicaragua in a bloody coup and seemed to be gearing up to invade Honduras.  In El Salvador, a strong left-wing guerrilla managed to tip the country into a civil war.  Guatemala had a similar problem.  Thanks to its central geographical location and comparatively stable political climate, Honduras became the stronghold from which the United States would attempt to stabilize the region, militarily and diplomatically.   A large American/Honduran airbase was established at the heart of Honduran territory and the country was flooded with American military equipment and advisors.  Clandestine airbases and training camps dotted southwestern Honduras, from which the U.S./backed Nicaraguan Contras waged war against the communits government of Managua.

For nearly a decade, the Americans and the Soviets waged war in Centralamerica.  Tensions were high in several occasions and many thought that Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador would become unwilling participants in a new version of the Vietnam War.  (Trivia:  In the film "2010", which was released in the late 1980's, a ficticious incident between the Honduran and Nicaraguan naval forces was used in the script to set the stage for possible start of WWIII.)

Peace at Last

Eventually, peace returned to Centralamerica, but not because of what anything Centralamericans did, but simply because the Cold War itself came to an end and the two foreign superpowers lost interest in our region.  Honduras came out of all this relatively unscathed, but the people of El Salvador and Nicaragua suffered greatly. The Nicaraguan people held democratic elections in 1990 and the civil war in El Salvador finally ended with a cease fire between the army and the guerrillas in 1991.  

Honduras and the rest of Central America have enjoyed peace and relative political stability for more than 25 years.  These conditions have allowed most of the Centralamerican economies to grow, some with more success than others.

Quest for Democracy

During most of the 20th century, Honduras was governed my its military.  For several decades, power was passed on through the coup d'etat mechanism, sadly stereotypical of Latinamerican countries for years.

Finally, an assembly was setup in 1980 to draft a new constitution and elections were held two years later, resulting in rise to power of the first democratically elected president in several decades.  Since then, Hondurans have freely elected a new president every four years and military coup d'etats are a thing of the past.  

A lot can be quickly learned about Honduras as a country and why it faces the challenges it does today by studying how it's been governed during the last 100 years and by whom.  To learn more, visit our page about Honduran presidents during the last 100 years.

 

Today, Honduras's greatest challenge is that of participating as a small and poor country in a highly competitive global economy, were things change quickly and the capability of economies to adapt is frequently put to the test.  To learn more, visit our  page about the Honduran economy today.

 

 

Sources:

  • Carías, Marcos. De la patria del criollo a la patria compartida. Tegucigalpa: Ediciones Subirana, 2005.
  • Becerra, Longino. Evolución Histórica de Honduras. Tegucigalpa: Editorial Baktun. 1988.