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Honduras - History

Honduras was originally inhabited by indigenous tribes, the most powerful of which were the Mayans. The western-central part of Honduras was inhabited by the Lencas. Mayan civilisation reached western Honduras in the fifth century AD and spread rapidly. Over the next three and a half centuries the area of Copan developed into the principal centre of Mayan culture and was the leading centre for both astronomical studies – in which the Maya were quite advanced – and art. Then, at the height of the Mayan civilisation around 800 AD, Copan was mysteriously abandoned and fell into ruin.

Following the period of Mayan dominance, Honduras was inhabited by a multiplicity of indigenous peoples. Although divided into numerous distinct and frequently hostile groups, they carried on considerable trade with other parts of their immediate region as well as with areas as far away as Panama and Mexico. These autonomous groups had their conflicts but maintained their commercial relationships with each other and with other populations.

On July 30, 1502, on his fourth and final voyage, Christopher Columbus arrived off the island of Guanaja and first saw Honduran soil. Columbus claimed the territory in the name of his sovereigns, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. Sailing east along the Caribbean coast and into harsh storms, the fleet rounded a cape where, encountering calmer waters, Columbus is reputed to have exclaimed ‘Gracias a Dios que hemos salido de estas Honduras’ (Thank God we have now left these depths), christening both the cape – Cabo Gracias – and eventually the country.

Twenty years later, the conquistadors returned to take possession of the new territory. In 1523, the first expeditionary forces arrived under the command of Gil Gonzales de Avila, who hoped to rule the new territory. In 1524, Cristobal de Olid arrived with the same intent on behalf of Hernan Cortes. Olid founded the colony Triunfo de la Cruz and tried to establish an independent government. When Cortes 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. Cortes then traveled to Honduras to firmly establish his government in the city of Trujillo before returning to Mexico in 1526. Honduras formed part of the colonial era Captaincy General of Guatemala. The cities of Comayagua and Tegucigalpa developed as early mining centers.

By October 1537, the Lenca chief, Lempira, a warrior of great renown, had managed to unify more than two hundred native tribes in order to offer an organized resistance against penetration by the Spanish conquerors. After a long battle, Governor Montejo gained the Valley of Comayagua, established Comayagua city in another location, and vanquished the indigenous peoples in Tenampua, Guaxeregui, and Ojuera.

For the indigenous inhabitants, the consolidation of Spanish power was catastrophic. Contemporary population records are notoriously inaccurate, but from an estimated 400,000 in 1524, the population probably fell to as low as 15,000 by 1571. Those who survived were enslaved and shipped either overseas or into the mines. Incredibly, considering their impact, the number of colonists numbered fewer than 300 throughout the 17th century.

By the early 1800s, Honduras was an economy in crisis. Mining was virtually defunct and a series of severe droughts hit both agriculture and livestock. Spanish power went into rapid decline. On 15 September 1821 all the Central American provinces declared their independence from Spain. The country was then briefly annexed to the Mexican Empire. In 1823, Honduras joined the newly formed United Provinces of Central America federation, which collapsed in 1838. Gen. Francisco Morazan -- a Honduran national hero -- led unsuccessful efforts to maintain the federation. For Honduras, the first decades of independence were neither peaceful nor prosperous. The combined impact of civil strife and foreign interventions had doomed Honduras to a position of relative economic and social backwardness that lasted throughout the 1800s.

In the late 19th century, US fruit companies were more than happy to accept government concessions which included exemption from customs duties and ownership of mineral rights in order to develop the banana industry, an industry that was to become the dominating factor in Honduras’s future. Honduras' agriculture-based economy was dominated in the 1900s by U.S. companies that established vast banana plantations along the north coast. By 1900, bananas were the most important export and by 1930 Honduras was the world’s leading banana exporter. Foreign capital, plantation life, and conservative politics held sway in Honduras from the late 19th century until the mid-20th century.

By 1940, however, diseases had taken their toll and Ecuador overtook Honduras in production. For much of the 20th century the political scene was dominated by the military, foreign (banana) companies and large land-owning interests. Authoritarian Gen. Tiburcio Carias Andino controlled Honduras during the Great Depression, until 1948. In 1955--after two authoritarian administrations and a strike by banana workers--young military reformists staged a coup that installed a provisional junta and paved the way for constituent assembly elections in 1957. This assembly appointed Ramon Villeda Morales as President and transformed itself into a national legislature with a 6-year term.

In October 1963, conservative military officers preempted constitutional elections and deposed Villeda in a bloody coup. This second coup in 10 years installed Colonel Oswaldo Lopez Arellano as provisional president. During 12 years in power, he decimated the Liberal opposition and reversed most of his predecessor’s social reforms. Above all, however, his period of office is best remembered for one of the more bizarre conflicts of modern Central America, the so-called ‘Football War’ or "the Soccer War".

On July 14, 1969, war broke out on the Honduras-El Salvador border ostensibly caused by a disputed result in a soccer match between the 2 countries. After 3 days, around 2,000 deaths and a complete rupture of diplomatic relations, the Organisation of American States (OAS) negotiated a cease-fire. Popular discontent continued to rise after the 1969 border war with El Salvador.

A civilian President--Ramon Cruz of the National Party--took power briefly in 1970 but proved unable to manage the government. In 1972, Gen. Lopez staged another coup. Lopez adopted more progressive policies, including land reform, but his regime was brought down in the mid-1970s by corruption scandals. The regimes of Gen. Melgar Castro (1975-78) and Gen. Paz Garcia (1978-82) largely built the current physical infrastructure and telecommunications system of Honduras. The country also enjoyed its most rapid economic growth during this period, due to greater international demand for its products and the availability of foreign commercial lending.

Following the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in 1979 and the election of Ronald Reagan to the US Presidency, Honduras became the focus for support to the US-backed Contra war in Nicaragua, accepting in return over $1.5 billion of direct economic and military aid from the US during the 1980s. Domestically, the relationship between the military and government grew ever closer. Human rights violations grew alarmingly, with the army implicated in the ‘disappearance’ of hundreds of activists from labour organisations and peace movements.

With the resolution of both the Contra war and the civil war in El Salvador, the military’s power receded somewhat, forced conscription was ended and most of the US troops stationed in Honduras were recalled, throwing the country’s endemic economic and social problems into stark relief. In 1982 a freely elected civilian president and National Congress were inaugurated, returning the country to constitutional rule after 10 years of military-led government.

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Page last modified: 10-11-2016 10:35:13 ZULU