We set foot on Roatan for the first time

Lorenzo Dee Belveal

Rob and I stepped off the plane at the airport in Coxen Hole on to the shores of Roatan Island, one of the bay islands in the Gulf of Honduras. We were assaulted by taxi drivers all wanting to take us to the west end, a place which we were told in broken Spanish is the place where all gringos are supposed to go.

The West End is a popular tourist district where scuba divers stay from all over the world. Roatan Island is famous these days for its amazing scuba diving, but I wasn't here for a tropical diving trip. I was here to explore Roatan's forgotten history which to me is far more interesting than the diving, even though the reefs which surround Roatan are some of the most beautiful in the entire world.

Some of the first people to ever walk the shores of Roatan - next to the Payas, more on them later - were the pirates of the Spanish main. Roatan Island has seen some pretty historical figures in it's day. The most notorious being Sir Henry Morgan, who was said to have stopped on Roatan sometime in the late 1600s with his ships loaded with untold amounts of wealth.

My first destination on Roatan was Oakridge at the far end of the Island, a town worth a visit just to marvel at it's design. Oakridge is a very ancient town built on stilts all around the bay and you have to take water taxis to get anywhere. The locals there are nothing but friendly.

I mentioned Henry Morgan to our taxi driver as he was taking us across the bay to our hotel, the Reef House, and he wouldn't stop talking about how he believed all of Henry Morgan's treasure was still to be found on the island. I believe this story to be true because of just how much treasure has already been found on the Island.

One of the first people to ever find buried treasure on Roatan was an archaeologist named Mitchell Hedges, who did a lot of exploring around the Bay Islands back in the 1920s and 30s. Hedges lived on Roatan for seven years and he learned the island very well. He was one of the first people to ever explore the pirate ruins of Old Port Royal. Here can be seen to this day the ruins of a pirate fortress which was used by Henry Morgan along with many other notorious pirates who roamed the shores of the Island.

It is a fact that near these ruins Mitchell Hedges discovered four chests filled to the brim with gold bullion, which were reaped from the Spanish by the pirates of Roatan. As the story goes Hedges' friend, known as Doctor Ball, was walking around one of the nearby keys near old Port Royal with a compass in hand. When suddenly the compass started going mad, with the needle spinning around in all different directions. He signalled for Hedges who at the time was out in his boat the Amigo just offshore. He told him about the compass's behaviour and the two of them decided that the only thing that would make the compass behave in such a way was a large amount of metal buried under the surface of the key. The two men wasted no time and started digging like mad; within minutes the two explorers had unearthed two large wooden chests loaded to the brim with golden doubloons.

They kept digging after their discovery in a fever of excitement and much to their surprise discovered two more treasure chests of equal size. They placed the chests back in the ground for later recovery and searched the rest of the island with the compass. They found nothing.

Several hours later after making the discovery word came to Mitchell Hedges from one of his crew of excavaters that his discovery had been reported to the police in Coxen Hole by one of the locals, who must have witnessed them digging up the key.

The crew member also informed Hedges that according to the rumours the police were going to investigate the dig site tomorrow morning. With these rumours in mind Hedges, his daughter Sammy Hedges and Doctor Ball decided that it would be best not take any chances. So wasting no time the three explorers recovered three of the four chests that night and loaded them onto the Amigo and quickly set sail across swelling seas to the town of Belize which was then the Capital of British Honduras.

Mitchell Hedges anchored the Amigo 150 miles off the coast of a small key and headed into the mainland on the Amigos extra boat. He returned several hours later with some lumber from which the expedition made three new chests for their treasure and dumped the old crusty ones into the sea. They then headed back inland and booked passage on a steamer that was headed for New York, their treasure safely stored in the cargo hold of the ship with the label Maya artifacts across the sides.

When the three explorers arrived in New York Mitchell Hedges sold off his lost treasure for the sum of $6,000,000 US. He then headed back to England where he bought himself a castle in the English countryside. Here he began work on his biography, Danger My Ally. In his book there is no mention of this incident.

Besides finding pirate treasure on Roatan, Mitchell Hedges made several other discoveries which could be more important in the archaeological world then the discover of pirate treasure. One of Hedges' favourite places on the earth was the Island of Helena located at the very far end of Roatan Island. As I cruised out into the harbour on a small skiff that I had charted from the Reef House headed for the general direction of Helena I thought long and heard about these discoveries.

The only civilization to be found near Helena is a very ancient Grafuna settlement called St. Helena. Like its nearest neighbour Oakridge it is a town built on stilts. The buildings in the town are much more run down than Oakridge and the people are extremely poor. The natives there fish for a living, selling their fish for a few lempurias at the markets in Oakridge on Sunday.

On our way to the other side of Helena, we saw several local kids fishing,sitting on the end of their cayukas with their fishing line wrapped around old laundry bottles. They looked very happy; you could see a strange glow in their eyes as they cruised in their tropical paradise free from western influence. The smiles as we passed by spoke to me a happiness that we westerns will never understand in our world of technology and restless competition. I hope when St. Helena eventually becomes more touched by westerners that we don't rob them of this happiness but we probably will. All in the name of progress of course.

When one arrives on the island of Helena the first thing you notice are the limestone cliffs shooting out from the beautiful virgin jungle. As our boat pulled up on the shores of the island I had the feeling that I had truly found one of the last paradises on the earth.

The limestone cliffs of Helena are honeycombed with caves and its inside these caves where Mitchell Hedges believed he made one of his most important discoveries. He explored the caves off Helena with his daughter Sammy and some of the locals from Roatan. As they excavated the floors of the caves they started discovering all kinds of strange artifacts. Hedges had never seen anything like them in all his days of archaeology. The artifacts were not Maya or Toltec, which were the only two known cultures that had been found in the area. So what culture were they from? Mitchell Hedges believed the relics he had found were from a culture which was much more ancient then the Mayas or the Toltecs. He believed they were from a culture which existed before what he calls the great earth quake. This had changed the face of the earth causing mass flooding and sinking one of the greatest civilizations known to mankind, the legendary Atlantis.

Hedges believed that the bay islands which contain Roatan are pieces of this legendary continent which was first mentioned by Plato so long ago. He thought that the artifacts found on Helena were left by the survivors of this tragic event and indeed there is some evidence besides his discoveries to back up his claim.

In other parts of Central America there has been all kinds of strange discoveries, such as a lake in Nicarauga high in the mountains,where one can find sharks. Sharks are known to be only found in salt water and this is the only lake in the world where sharks have ever been reported. Hedges believed the sharks were trapped there when the mountains climbed out of the sea during the great earth quake.

The sharks have survived for hundreds of years here because they have since evolved to fresh water sharks, a rare phenomenon indeed. Of course Hedges had been scorned by academic scientists for his claims; most academics say his find is nothing but a trading post belonging to the Mayas.

But even this claim makes his discoveries important because in the view of conventional archaeologists there was no contact between the Mayas or any other culture.The only culture they could have been trading with that far south would be the Incas of South America. This in itself would be a very important discovery.

Mitchell Hedges however claimed to have found evidence which shoots down this theory anyway. In his excavations he unearthed an artifact of branded sheep. Archaeologists have always denied the use of domestic animals by the Maya. This discovery shows not only did this culture use domestic animals in their activities but branded them for identification as well, killing the theory in the eyes of Hedges that Helena was a Maya trading post.

So is Mitchell Hedges right, is Helena a piece of Atlantis?

The culture that he found has since been labelled as Paya, but try finding any reference to them in your library. I guarantee you will find nothing.

The only place I have heard of the Paya culture being found is in mainland Honduras. It is said that there is a lost city called the Ciudad Blanca or White City which is rumoured to be hidden on the 1.5 million acre Rio Plato Biosphere reserve. The city is said to be guarded by living Paya vigilantes who will kill anyone who comes near the city.