Christopher Columbus reached the Bay Islands during his fourth voyage to the Americas (1502-1504), and visited the island Guanaja. The Bay Islands were inhabited at this point, but we still do not know much about these people or peoples. Based on the tribes present on the nearby mainland at the time, these Bay Island natives are believed to have been related to either the Paya, the Maya, the Lenca, and/or the Jicaque. Some archeological and ethnographic evidence indicate that the Bay Islands were inhabited as early as 600 AD by the Paya culture (also known as Pech).
Soon after Christopher Columbus first visit, the Spaniards began using Bay Islands people as slaves. The native population was also infected with Old World diseases to which they had little resilience, such as smallpox and measles. Historians now believe that none of the Native Americans of the Bay Islands survived this, and that the people with Native American ancestry that now live on the islands hail from Native Americans and mixed populations that migrated to the Bay Islands later. When an English fisherman ended up on the island in 1722 – escaping from pirates – the found the island completely uninhabited. (For more information, see below.)
During the colonial era, various entities struggled to gain control over the Bay Islands and use them for their own purposes in the Bay of Honduras. The two dominating forces where the countries Great Britain and Spain, but pirates and traders that did not exactly represent any specific country also had a huge influence here from time to time.
The English crown occupied the Bay Islands on and off between 1550 and 1700, and when England was in conflict with Spain they did not exactly put much effort into keeping pirates off the islands – provided they attacked Spanish ships. Pirates, privateers and similar – typically of British, Dutch or French origin – used the islands as a stopping point, and some established settlements here. They chiefly raided Spanish cargo ships carrying gold and silver from the Spanish colonies.
One of the best surviving accounts of the situation on Roatán in the early 18th century is from the 1720s. In 1722, a fisherman named Philip Ashton was captured by pirates near Nova Scotia and escaped from them when they landed on Roatán to fetch water. At that point, Roatán had no permanent settlement, and Ashton spent a lot of time here alone, before briefly meeting an English castaway who then disappeared. In total, Ashton survived 16 months on the island, eating tropical fruit and killing tortoises and crayfish. He was finally rescued by a ship from Salem, Massachusetts, and his “Memorial” was published with the help of a minister in 1725.