Honduras — History and Culture
With the misfortune of being dubbed one of the “banana republics” of Central America, history has not been kind to Honduras. From early times to the Spanish invaders to recent political troubles, the nation has struggled to live up to its full potential. As the second largest country in the region, Honduras still has a great mix of people and traditions, and a proud heritage and culture to boast.
The concept of “banana republic” comes from the idea that, even though Honduras was one of the earlier countries to break free from colonial rule, the departure of the Spanish rulers left a power vacuum to be filled. Since Honduras lacked an established wealthy elite or strong government, they were left to the mercy of ruthless foreign investors who more or less plundered the lands for resources with little opposition. The early 20th century saw US companies arriving in Honduras to set up and export goods, most notably banana crops. The later part of the 20th century has seen Honduras strive to achieve economic growth to the value of its citizens.
Honduras was discovered by Christopher Columbus in his fourth and final voyage of 1502. He sailed down from the island of Hispaniola, further north in the Caribbean Sea, where he first came across the island of Guanaja, in Bay Islands’ He continued to the mainland and reached Punta Caxinas near the present day city of Trujillo. A concrete cross marks the spot where he is said to have landed. The Spanish ignored Honduras for another 20 years until 1522, when they approached the country from the south on an expedition leading to the present-day Panama. A couple years later, the conqueror Hernan Cortes came down from Mexico on an overland trek in 1525 and Honduras was officially considered to be in Spanish hands.
As with much history of the Spanish conquests, many of the indigenous inhabitants died after being exposed to diseases they had no resistance to. Honduras was no different, and historians estimate that up to 800,000 native people lived in the country before 1492, which was decimated to at most 8,000 in 1541. This did not suit the Spanish colonialists plans, who were hoping to rely on local labor to plunder the riches, and even by the end of the 16th century it appeared as though the resources of gold and silver had been substantially depleted. This made Honduras unattractive, thus getting very little attention from the Spanish.
Spanish colonial authority completely collapsed in the early 19th century, and by 1821 Honduras was handed over to the locals without any struggle like other former colonies. Briefly they joined a federation with other countries in Central America, but before long the “United Provinces of Central America” fell to pieces, and Honduras was left on its own once again, declaring itself an independent country in 1838. What followed was political instability and lacking any strong leadership, Honduras was at the mercy of foreign powers once again who were still looking to take advantage of the nation’s natural wealth. In Honduras’ case, most famously, it was the export of bananas by foreign companies. The banana companies were notorious for bribing government officials, and made no secret about their practices or intentions. The companies also rescinded on deals to help develop the country, making empty promises to develop infrastructure. One was given an extensive amount of land to grow bananas in exchange that they would pay for and construct a railroad, which they never did.
Honduras has had a long and difficult road to modernize and form a true democracy. The subject of a series of dictatorships from the 1930’s until the ‘50s, the next three decades saw a great deal of change in leadership, including military led coups. The 1980’s returned to democracy, and by the 1990’s this developed further. To this day Honduras is governed by mostly popular, charismatic figures, although political tensions still exist. Given the country’s history, though, any leader who takes office is bound to be met with economic and political challenges.
Honduras has a diverse mix of people, thereby providing the country with an interesting variety of culture. Around 90 percent of the population is “Mestizo” (a mix of European and Latin American descent), and since it was a former Spanish colony, Roman Catholicism is still widely practiced. Minority ethnic groups comprise about six percent of the population, and where the communities are prevalent the culture is strong, such as the indigenous “Lenca” who have about 300,000 people living in the southwest region. Interestingly, there are two ethnic minority groups who are growing stronger in the country: the Garifuna and the Miskitos. Both of these are unique in that they can trace their roots to one specific event in history, when the survivors of an African slave ship mixed with the indigenous population during the early colonial era. Both groups live on the north and west coastal regions.
More generally, the north coast, the “mosquito” coast and the Bay Islands have a culture that is more similar to the Caribbean islands than traditional Latin America. The British and North American traders has influenced these areas, and you will hear English spoken just as much as Spanish. The Bay Islands has a mostly English speaking population (although the official language of Honduras is Spanish).
To find out more about the history of Honduras, you can visit the Museum of Anthropology in San Pedro Sula, which documents 1500 BC until present day. If you wish to find out more about the colonial era, the Colonial Museum in Comayagua houses religious art and antiquated jewelry. When visiting the Copan ruins, the Mayan Museum of Sculpture and the Copan Ruins Archaeology Museum are nearby to discover more about the ancient Mayan civilization that also once thrived in Honduras.