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___ History of Honduras

keywords: History of Honduras, Discovery and Conquest, The Spanish Government, Independence, Annexation to Mexico, and Federation, The Unitarian Government


History of Honduras

The Republic of Honduras spans a territory of 112,492 square kilometers and has a population of 5.1 million inhabitants. Situated in the Torrid Zone of the Americas, its coasts are bathed by the waters of the Atlantic Ocean (Sea of the Antilles) and the Pacific Ocean (Gulf of Fonseca). It has common borders with the Republics of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

On the arrival of the Spaniards, this area was inhabited by indigenous tribes of a great linguistic and cultural diversity. The most powerful and advanced of these were the Mayans, who also populated Yucatán, Belize, and the northeast of Guatemala and built their sacred city and ceremonial metropolis in Copán, in the western part of Honduras.

By visiting the ruins of Copán, which the Honduran government maintains in excellent condition, the traveler can appreciate the remains of ancient Mayan splendor. The ceremonial plazas, stelae decorated with figures and hieroglyphs, extraordinary staircases, and varied sculptures continue to ignite a growing interest among contemporary archaeologists. They are unequaled examples of the artistic ability of a people, who were also well versed in mathematics and astronomy, and whose extensive commercial network reached as far as central Mexico.

The scope of the great Mayan empire can be appreciated in the remains of other important cities such as Tikal in Guatemala and Chichén Itzá in Mexico, in their famous writing system, and in the strong cultural influence that still persists among their descendants. Nevertheless, by the time the Spaniards set foot on Mexican soil, the Mayan kingdom was already in full decadence and had almost disappeared from Honduras. Today archaeologists and historians are in the process of shedding new light on the mysterious causes of the sudden abandonment of the great Mayan centers.

After the collapse of Mayan culture, different groups slowly settled in various parts of the Honduran territory. Their languages reveal a relationship with the Toltecs and Aztecs of Mexico, the Chibchas of Colombia, and even tribes from the southwestern United States. The western-central part of Honduras was inhabited by the Lencas, who spoke a language of unknown origin. These autonomous groups had their conflicts but maintained their commercial relationships with each other and with other populations as distant as Panama and Mexico Descendants of these peoples and of the Mayas were the aborigines who would later oppose the Spanish conquest and produce the legendary figures of Tecún Uman, Lempira, Atlacatl, Diriagúan, Nicarao and Urraca, leaders for autonomy among the native populations of Central America.

Discovery and Conquest
On July 30, 1502, during his fourth and last trip through the Americas, Christopher Columbus reached the Bay Islands and soon afterwards the coast of the mainland. This was the first time he saw Honduran soil. From the Island of Guanaja, which he is said to have named Columbus set sail toward the northern continental coast and in Punta Caxinas, now Puerto Castilla, he ordered the celebration of the first mass on the Honduran main land. In the Rio Tinto (Tinto River), which he named Rio de la Posesion, he claimed the territory in the name of his sovereigns, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile.

It is said that Columbus, while exploring the eastern coasts of the region, reached a cape where he found shelter from the inclemencies of a tropical storm and declared, Gracias a Dios que hemos salido de estas honduras! [Thank God we've escaped these treacherous depths!]. According to many historians, as a result of this exclamation the cape became known as Gracias a Dios and the territory as Honduras.

The first expeditionary forces arrived in Honduras in 1523 under the command of Gil Gonzáles de Avila, who hoped to rule the new territory. In 1524 Cristóbal de Olid arrived heading a well organized regiment sent by the conqueror of Mexico, Hernán Cortés. On Honduran soil, Olid founded the colony Triunfo de la Cruz and tried to establish an independent government. When Cortés learned of this, he decided to reestablish his own authority by sending a new expedition, headed by Francisco de las Casas. Olid, who managed to capture his rivals, was betrayed by his men and assassinated. Cortés had to travel to Honduras to resolve the struggle for power in the new colony. He established his government in the city of Trujillo and returned to Mexico in 1526.

Those first years of the conquest were filled with many perils. The colony was almost abandoned. Upon the arrival from Guatemala of the adelantado Don Pedro de Alvarado, the foundation of San Pedro de Puerto Caballos, now San Pedro Sula, was established. Alvarado also ordered the founding of the city of Gracias a Dios, where he began to exploit the gold mines. Later, with the arrival of the adelantado Don Francisco de Montejo, the conquest was consummated, the city of Santa Maria de Comayagua was founded, the great insurrection stirred up by Lempira was put down, and the city of Gracias a Dios was refounded where it is now located.

The Heroic Action of Lempira
By October 1537, the Lenca chief, Lempira, a warrior of great renown, had managed to unify more than two hundred Indian tribes that had been ancient rivals in order to offer an organized resistance against further penetration by the Spanish conquerors. In the village of Etempica he announced his plans to expel the Spaniards and gave instructions to all his allies for a general uprising when he gave the signal. On top of the great rock of Cerquín, an impenetrable fortress, he gathered all the neighboring tribes as well as abundant supplies and made trenches and fortifications. He finally gave the signal to attack by killing three unsuspecting Spaniards, who happened to be in the region.

Governor Montejo ordered Captain Alonso de Cáceres to attack the stronghold, but it was impossible to take. Montejo then gathered a large number of Indians from Guatemala and Mexico as auxiliary forces, mobilized nearly all the Spanish troops at his disposition, and ordered them to storm the rock. Yet Cerquín remained invincible. At the same t ime, Lempira ordered a general insurrection, Comayagua was set on fire, and the Spanish inhabitants had to flee to Gracias. Gracias was threatened by the surrounding tribes; San Pedro de Puerto Caballos and Trujillo were placed under siege and the Spaniards were hard pressed to maintain their ground.

While Montejo sought help desperately from Santiago de los Caballeros in Guatemala, San Salvador, and San Miguel and even from Spain, Alonso de Cáceres resorted to treason to get rid of Lempira. He invited the chief to a peace conference; and when Lempira reaffirmed his desire to continue the fight, a hidden marksman shot him in the forehead. Lempira fell from the highcliffs; and with his death, his 30,000 warriors either fled or surrendered.

Montejo regained the Valley of Comayagua, established Comayagua city in another location, and vanquished the natives in Tenampúa, Guaxeregui, and Ojuera. The conquest of Honduras was consummated and later consolidated by the founding of new settlements.

The Spanish Government
In 1542, the Ordinances of Barcelona were proclaimed in order to protect the native population, which was suffering under conditions of near slavery, established by the conquerors under the encomienda system. Two years later the Audiencia de los Confines was formally established in the city of Gracias to Protect the rights of the Indians. The bishops of Guatemala, Honduras, León and Chiapas would appear before this body to obtain concessions toward a more humane treatment for the Indians. As a result of their intervention, improvements were achieved in matters of education and health services in Comayagua, the capital city of the Spanish government.

Since Honduras was a mining province, the resources that were extracted from its numerous mineral deposits served to sustain the Captaincy General of Central America, which had its headquarters in Guatemala. Nevertheless, the Spanish government used little of this wealth to further the development of Honduras. When the independence of the Central American provinces was declared in 1821, Honduras did not have a printing press, newspapers, or a university. The only material remaining from the colonial system are the churches of Comayagua and Tegucigalpa, the fort at San Fernando de Omoa and the Mallol Bridge.

Independence, Annexation to Mexico, and Federation
On September 15, 1821, the independence of Central America was proclaimed in Guatemala City, capital of the Captaincy General. The declaration was drafted by the Honduran lawyer José Cecilio de Valle, "el sabio", one of the founding fathers of the Pan American system.

Prior to 1821, there had been other insurgencies against the Spanish crown in Honduras. In 1812 the inhabitants of la Plazuela, Comayaguela and Jacaleapa demonstrated in protest against the system of perpetuating peninsular Spaniards as municipal office holders. Owing to intervention by the priest Francisco Máoquez, the protesters were pacified; and a new municipality was created to represent the will of the people. At the battalion of Olancho there had also been the beginnings of an insurrection with a few people landing in jail for their ideas of independence.

The traditional rivalry between Comayagua and Tegucigalpa was rekindled by the declaration of independence. While Tegucigalpa favored unification of Central America, Comayagua favored joining the monarchy that was incubating in Mexico under Agustin de Iturbide. In 1822 a maneuver by the Guatemalan conservatives along with the Archbishop Casaus y Torres resulted in the annexation of Central America to Mexico. However, in 1823 the empire of Agustin I was toppled and replaced by a republic. As a result of the negotiations of José Cecilio del Valle, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Mexican empire, the provinces of Central America once again were separated from their forced union with Mexico.

A National Constituent Assembly was gathered in Guatemala, which after approving a second declaration of independence, enacted the Constitution of November 22, 1824, thus creating the Federal Republic of Central America. The Federation included Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica with Guatemala City as its capital. Its first President was the Salvadoran General Manuel José Arce; however, civil war soon broke out in Central America due to the differences between the conservatives, who preferred the traditional values of Spain, and the liberals, who leaned towards the political and economic models of the United States and Western Europe.

President Arce, siding with the conservatives, forced the removal of Dionisio de Herrera, the first Chief of State of Honduras, who resented the president's authoritarianism. Arce invaded the Salvadoran territory to overthrow the Salvadoran Chief of State, Mariano Prado. In Guatemala he had already incarcerated the Guatemalan Chief of State, Juan Barrundia; and the mobs had assassinated the Vice Chief of State, Cirilo Flores in the city of Quezaltenango. As a result, President Arce was in a position to fill the resulting vacant seats at will.

In these difficult moments of Central American history, there appeared a great statesman, Francisco Morazán. Born in Tegucigalpa on October 3, 1792, Morazán became known for his military prowess in 1827, when, with a small military column, he was able to defeat the federal troops commanded by Col. José Justo Milla. After this triumph he advanced to Tegucigalpa and Comayagua, convened the Representative Council, and by disposition of the Council he assumed the position of Chief of State. He was reaffirmed later by the will of the people.

Morazán then proceeded to help El Salvador, where he defeated the federal Guatemalan forces in Gualcho and San Antonio. He then organized the Ejército Aliado Protector de la Ley, an army made up of Hondurans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans, with which he captured Guatemala City on April 13, 1829. The defeat of Manuel José Arce and the conservatives was thus consolidated.

In 1830, Morazán rose by popular vote to the presidency of the Federal Republic of Central America and initiated short-lived liberal reforms to bring down the semifeudal structures left by the Spaniards. There was immediate opposition to his reforms on the part of the conservatives, the clergy, and the numerous exiles living in Mexico and Cuba. In 1831 and 1832, the le ader defeated the armed movements of his adversaries, but unfortunately his reform actions did not take hold.

In 1834, José Cecilio del Valle was elected president of the Federal Republic of Central America. He was a conservative with liberal ideas on economic matters, but Valle died before he could ascend to his new position. General Morazán was then elected president. The conservatives' systematic attempts to undermine him, the divisions among the Guatemalan liberals, jealousies among the provinces, epidemics of cholera and smallpox, and even natural disasters like the eruption of the Cosigina volcano in Nicaragua were all used by the enemies of the Federation as excuses to attack him and organize conspiracies against him.

Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras separated from the Federation. The conservatives took power in Guatemala. Honduras and Nicaragua went to war against Morazán, who was in El Salvador at the time; and although Morazán succeeded in defeating the invaders, he subsequently failed when he tried to overthrow the new conservative Guatemalan regime. Morazán was exiled, and even though he tried to reestablish the Federation from Costa Rica, the people rebelled. Morazán was captured and executed by a firing squad in San José, Costa Rica on September 15, 1842.

The Unitarian Government
On November 5, 1838, Honduras separated from the Central American Federation. From that moment on, it has struggled to cope with the difficult tasks of development. Since 1886, the year in which Marco Aurelio Soto ascended to the presidency of the Republic, the country began to develop, especially in the Atlantic coastal region with the cultivation of bananas. In the beginning, ships came from the southern United States to load fruit at Honduran ports. Later, foreign companies were established in the country. They began to grow bananas on a large scale, utilizing the latest agricultural technologies. Those same companies opened the foreign markets to this product and obtained generous concessions from the government of Honduras. In order to further their activities, they constructed railroads, adequate port facilities, and modern buildings, all of which fostered the emergence of new towns and helped bring prosperity to existing towns. This was especially true in the ports of La Ceiba, Tela, and Puerto Cortés as well as in the city of El Progreso and the village of La Lima.

Until 1932, Honduras suffered a prolonged civil war with only brief intermissions of peace. This situation was overcome by several progressive presidents, who were able to bring the country forward. From 1954 on, social reforms began to take place. Workers' trade unions, peasants associations, and cooperatives were developed and have remained at the forefront in the fight for social equity.

The economic organization of the country began with the founding of the Central Bank of Honduras in the early 1950s. Subsequently, both the private and public sectors have continued to strive toward the goal of economic stability. Today, the country is on the way to a better future and is trying to extend the benefits of democracy to all its people and to face the challenges posed by the demands of the great majority.

The author of this piece is Ambassador Oscar Acosta, advisor to the Honduras Ministry of Foreign Relations. The article is reproduced from the book Honduras with the authorization of "Editorial Transamerica, SA", Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

(Source: Embassy of Honduras, Washington D.C.)

Related Honduras pages:

Honduras Country Profile

 Political Map of Honduras
 Searchable map/satellite view of Honduras
 Searchable map/satellite view of Tegucigalpa, Honduras's capital

 Map of Central America and the Caribbean

External Links:
Hieroglyphs and History at Copán
Paper by David Stuart about Copán in the Decipherment of Maya Hieroglyphic Writing.
Talgua Cave Archaeological Park
Page about the Talgua Village archaeological site and the Cave of the Glowing Skulls.
Glowing Skulls
More about the finding of Cave of the Glowing Skulls in this Honduras This Week article.

Wikipedia: History of Honduras

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