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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 where all the 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. Mitchell 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, Mitchell Hedges' friend, known as Doctor Ball, was walking around one of the nearby keys near old Port Royal with a compass in hand. Suddenly the compass started going mad, with the needle spinning around in all different directions. He signaled for Mitchell 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 excavators 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 Mitchell Hedges that according to the rumours the police were going to investigate the dig site tomorrow morning. With these rumours in mind Mitchell 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 hard about these discoveries.
The only civilization to be found near Helena is a very ancient Garifuna 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 lempiras 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. Their smiles as we passed by spoke to me of 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. Mitchell 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.
Mitchell 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 Nicaragua 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. Mitchell Hedges believed the sharks were trapped there when the mountains climbed out of the sea during the great earthquake.
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 labeled 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.
I also heard stories from the locals around Roatan that you can see remains of temples on the ocean floor, but since I am not a scuba diver I can't be sure of this. I had to be satisfied for the time being exploring some of Helena's caves for myself.
Our guide led us through the jungle up a windy path to the limestone caves. Rob and I crawled inside with our flashlights on our hands and knees. As we crawled I imagined Mitchell Hedges doing this himself so many years ago. I wondered if I would find anything inside it myself and indeed I did. The first thing I noticed on the floor of the cave was a large tarantula, which Rob moved out of the way by hitting with a stick. As we crawled through the narrow passageway, I noticed another rather nasty looking spider dangling from the ceiling just inches above my head but that wasn't all. Beside me was what looked like a giant ant hill but crawling out of the top were all kinds of slimly looking beetles. We to say the least moved on in haste.
Within minutes the cave started opening up and we were able to stand upright. The passageway was now going downward deeper into the uncharted blackness of the earth. It was now so humid in the cave I was now sweating from every pore in my body. When we got to the bottom of the cave it opened up into a large room and as we shined the beam of the flashlight around I couldn't believe what we saw.
Sitting in front of us was an ancient coffin. We walked over to it, my heart pounding with intensity. We pried the lid off and staring at us was the skeletal eyes of what could be a dead Atlantean. Old rags were draped over his bones. What his eyes must have seen, I could only wonder. There where also several artifacts in his coffin which we left in place. The artifacts proved to me we were indeed looking at the bones of a dead Paya, not a pirate burial. We stared at the remains in wonder for several minutes in complete silent awe before placing the lid back on the coffin and heading back to the surface.
When I got back to the beach I stared off into the distance and I was overwhelmed at how little this place had changed since Mitchell Hedges was here. My god how much more there must still be waiting to be found on this island of mystery.
I started thinking about anther explorer who visited here long after Mitchell Hedges. His name was Howard Jennings and he was a treasure hunter to the very bottom of his soul. Like Mitchell Hedges he was extremely interesting.
Howard grew up on all kinds of adventure yarns and believed that the ghost of Captain Jennings, a notorious Caribbean pirate, who successfully plundered several Spanish treasure galleons along the Spanish main, was guiding him on his quest for lost treasure. Who knows maybe he was, because Howard Jennings was very successful in his search.
Howard first came to Roatan in the 1960s, because of the discovery of some maps by his writer friend Robin Moore in the British Museum. These were drawn by a Lieutenant Jeremy Thandyke, who was a surveyor in the Royal Navy back in 1843. The maps showed in detail the ruins of pirate town on Roatan called Augusta, which was a town used by Henry Morgan. Howard and Robin thought that if they could locate this town they would be sure to find some pirate treasure.
When Howard and Robin arrived on Roatan they hired a local guide named Jeff to take them around to several of the ruins which can be found on George Island and in Port Royal harbour itself. Howard, like most treasure hunters, believed that after Henry Morgan did his famous raid on Panama he brought most of his wealth to Roatan, which according to Howard would be worth over 50 million dollars on today’s market.
Port Royal did in fact play a very important role for British pirates towards the end of the sixteenth century. The Spanish empire was at the time operating a huge gold mine in the mountains of Honduras.
Using captured Mayas as their slaves, they hauled out unknown quantities of gold which then was loaded on their galleons and shipped back to Spain. On their way across the Gulf of Honduras the galleons would pass right by Roatan, ripe for the picking by the pirates that where using Port Royal as their base of operations.
Another treasure which Howard was hoping to find was the Chain of Huascar which was a giant gold chain weighing over 10 tons. It had belonged to the Inca King Huascar. At the height of the Inca empire it was used to surround the great square in Cuzco, the Inca capital, but was taken away and hidden when Pizarro was marching across Peru. The chain has never been found. Could it as well be on Roatan?
What about the mysterious seven foot tall golden virgin, that was created by Spanish priests and placed inside a Catholic church in Panama City? Records in the archives of Seville in Spain show that it was shipped from Panama city to Colon in sometime in the mid eighteenth century. There it was loaded on a ship for transport to Spain but it never showed up. Was it also plundered by the pirates of Roatan and hidden away in some secret cave? It’s very possible.
Howard’s first objective after having a quick cruise around Port Royal with Jeff was to know the location of the ancient city of Augusta. According to the maps Robin had found in the British Museum, the town rested near the mouth of one of the many rivers which flowed down into the ocean. But which one? None of the rivers he saw had any flat ground near the mouth of the river where a town could have stood. Howard and Robin decided it was time to take Jeff into their confidence. Perhaps Jeff knew of a river where flat land could be found somewhere near the mouth of one of the many rivers.
Jeff agreed to help Howard and Robin with their quest but for a 20 percent cut in any treasure that was found. Robin and Howard eagerly accepted his proposal. Jeff then told the two treasure hunters that the only place he knew of in these parts which matched the description of Augusta was a place called Fort Frederick, a half mile away and just across the lagoon from where they were.
Within minutes the treasure hunters were headed across the lagoon to Fort Frederick. As they were approaching the beach Robin noticed that in the water beside the boat was a straight line of stones which indicated that there were indeed ruins nearby. Howard and Robins excitement was beginning to grow as they knew they were getting closer.
Jeff pulled the boat up on the beautiful tropical beach and unloaded their gear from the boat as Robin and Howard started clearing away the mosquito infested jungle with machetes. After several of hours of chopping through the jungle the treasure hunters stopped in their tracks as they came across a huge ruin: a giant stone wall with places cut into where brass cannons once used to rest.
They dropped their machetes in excitement. Howard pointed out that this must have been the fort which guarded the pirate fort of Augusta from the pirates. They cleared away several more feet of jungle hoping to find traces of other buildings but had no luck. The buildings must be farther in Howard thought so they continued hacking away at the jungle. Hours passed and they were just ready to give up when Robin yelled out in excitement as the foundation of an ancient building revealed itself from the jungles grasp. They had found Augusta.
Robin went back to the boat with Jeff to fetch the metal detectors as Howard continued to clear away the jungle, exposing building after building. As soon as Robin returned he began searching the foundations with the detectors and within moments had several strong hits. The first few targets didn't turn up much but a bunch of rusted cannon balls and other pirate articles, and the hope of the expedition was starting to fade.
After all it had been a long hot mosquito ridden day, but as Howard dug into the last hit which was near the foundation of the ruin his shovel hit something hard. Jeff and Robin quickly joined him digging furiously around the metal, their fading hope quickly returning as they unearthed every treasure hunters dream: an ancient encrusted pirate treasure chest. For a several minutes the treasure hunters sat there only staring in awe at what they had found.
Howard tried to open the chest but the hinges were so rusted shut it proved impossible. Robin told him to move out the way and began smashing the chest with the shovel, smashing the rusty hinge to bits. Howard opened it with hungry eyes and when he looked he found himself staring at a pile of silver and a golden chain. However it was not the Golden chain of Huascar.
Several hours after their discovery at Augusta, Howard and Robin were cruising with Jeff back to Port Royal Harbour lost in the sense of wonder that comes with discovery. Heading back towards Oakridge, Howard spotted a small island. He pointed it out to Jeff, who told him that the island was known on Roatan as the Cow and the Calf. Howard thought that it looked like an excellent place for a pirate to stash a treasure and having been so lucky already Howard decided to push his luck. He asked Jeff to pull up closer to the island so he could have a better look.
They cruised around the island for several minutes when it started to rain lightly. Howard spotted what looked like an ancient stairway going up towards the top of the rocky island, which was nothing but two huge chunks of limestone sticking out of the sea. Why would someone build a stairway on such a rocky island like this, if not to hide something? They pulled the boat up to a small beach on the island and made their way up the ancient stairway. When they got to the top they came across the foundations of what was once a building. Howard ran the detectors across it hoping to find a strong signal like the one at Augusta but there was nothing.
It was now starting to rain rather hard and the treasure hunters decided to call it quits. As Howard was making his way down the stairs his detector let out a strong signal. He was shocked at his luck and yelled for Jeff to grab one of the shovels he had just loaded on the boat.
The rain now pelting down on their heads, turning the area into a stream of muck, and the heat was almost unbearable as the three treasure hunters dug frantically to unearth their find. After several minutes of digging Robin's shovel hit something solid, the treasure hunters fell to the muddy ground on their hands and knees and began scraping away the mucky ground, unearthing a huge crack in the rock but no treasure.
Howard ran the detector over the crack and sure enough there was metal down in that crack. Robin stuck his hands inside and ran his hands across the rusty surface of what felt like a treasure chest. Howard and Jeff reached into the crack and they all began pulling on the metal object. Within minutes it became loose and they pulled it to the surface. Sure enough they found themselves staring at yet another rusty old treasure chest.
Howard smashed its hinges open with the shovel and the three treasure hunters found themselves staring at a chest loaded to the brim with golden doubloons. The rain poured down harder and the winds stared howling making the sea very rough. They had to escape the island as soon as possible or be trapped for the night. Howard loaded the golden doubloons into his backpack as Robin and Jeff headed back to the boat.
Howard was just about to cast the ancient chest into the sea when he noticed it was still very heavy. So he smashed at the bottom with his shovel and sure enough the blade of his shovel went right through the ancient wood revealing a secret compartment in the chest. It was loaded with huge silver bars. He loaded them into his backpack as well and walked down the muddy stairway back to the boat, where the treasure hunters made haste for Oakridge, their boat thrashing in on the crest of the swollen ocean.
When they returned to the place they were staying, they were muddy and exhausted. Howard was told by Merle, a kind old woman who owned the guest house, that the police had been looking for him that day. So Howard and Robin gave Jeff Tree his share of the treasure and quickly fled the island leaving with a fortune in pirate loot.
After Howard and Robin's adventure on Roatan the two split company. Robin was off to Vietnam and Howard went off to find the legendary river of Gold in Honduras which in itself is another story. Howard Jennings never forgot what happened to him on Roatan. He moved there with his wife several years later where he helped build the first airport on the island.
On my visit to Roatan I talked to a fellow named David who was the owner of the hotel in Oakridge where I was staying about Howard Jennings. He told me that he had heard of an American who found a coffin loaded with treasure in a secret underwater cave under an island in the bay who went by that name.
He also showed me a map of Roatan which showed several of the old ruins and archaeological sites around the island which was drawn by a lady by the name of Anna Jennings. I told him that Howard Jennings had lived on the island himself and perhaps the creator of this map was Howard's daughter. He explained that that was nothing unusual because the name Jennings had been on the island since the days of Henry Morgan. So perhaps Captain Jennings did visit the island, leaving behind not only buried treasure but offspring as well.
After my conversation with David, I strolled down to the beach and gazed off across the beautiful blue ocean at mainland Honduras and the Mosquito Coast. I wondered what it would be like to visit there. Howard went there after selling off his Roatan loot. It was there where according to his memoirs he discovered a river loaded with placer gold. However the area where it’s located is somewhere in the Mosquito Coast but unlike Roatan it is very inaccessible even to this day. My mind drifted with thoughts of heading there but I was running short on time and had to get back to Belize, but as I stared off in the distance one sentence kept running through my mind. My god, there is still so much to find and I will return one day.
(March, 2003, from Latin American Travel News Group)
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