UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA
Money Order Economy: Remittances in the
Island of Utila
A Dissertation submitted in partial satisfaction
of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
David George Lord
Professor Eugene N. Anderson, Jr., Chairman
Professor Alan R. Beals
Professor Michael Kearney
David George Lord
The dissertation of David George Lord is approved:
University of California, Riverside
I first became acquainted with the Bay Islands of Honduras while doing field research in
a British Honduran fishing village in the summer of 1966. Sacasa Gough, a good friend and
informant in Ambergris Caye, interested me in his home island of Roatan. Subsequently, I spent
four months in 1972 surveying various sites throughout the Bay Islands as future research areas.
Utila seemed especially suited to investigating a number of economic phenomena, and research
was conducted there during September and October, 1973; and January through May, 1974,
while I was on academic leave of absence from California State Polytechnic University.
Information employed in this study includes both quantitative and qualitative data
obtained from a wide variety of sources through a variety of collection techniques. A major
portion of the qualitative data were gathered via participant observation in the island where I
lived first as a single male in a boarding house, and subsequently as a householder and family
head in my own dwelling. I spent nearly five months of the research period as a secondary
school teacher at the Methodist parochial "college," thus giving both my wife and myself a
definite position within the community.
Data for Chapter II on historical background have been derived from literary sources and
from many "old heads"--the elder generation of Utilians, aged 70 and up--who provided
information on the island's past. Among those to whom I am indebted for their assistance in my
study are Rev. F. Gideon Cooper, Mr. Edward Senhouse Rose, Mrs. Sarah Ann Bodden (all
octogenarians), Mr. L. Dempsey Thompson, and approximately twenty other sometime
informants who gave valuable information through life histories and open-ended interviews. In
order to preserve their privacy, pseudonyms have been used except where such disguise would
clearly be useless (e.g., Miss Hester, Chief of Police in Utila). To all of these people I tender a
sincere thanks not only for the necessary temporal perspective of Chapter II, but also for the
substance of Chapters IV, V, and VI.
Thanks are also extended to my colleagues Dr. Joan Greenway and Dr. Thomas
Blackburn at California State Polytechnic University for their encouragement and criticisms in
bringing this study to completion. Dr. Robert Thorne of Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens,
Claremont, gave the invaluable identification of plant materials referenced in Chapter III.
To the members of my committee I am deeply indebted for the guidance and nurturance
they provided throughout the preparation of this study. I am especially grateful to Dr. Eugene
Anderson, Jr., who was involved in every facet of the study and unselfishly gave an inordinate
amount of time and energy to the project.
Finally, to my wife and helpmate Judith Bogdanoff-Lord, my daughter Christina, and to
my parents, I gratefully acknowledge the tremendous support they have given me throughout the
research and writing of this study. To them and to the people of Utila this is lovingly dedicated.
ABSTRACT OF THE DISSERTATION
Money Order Economy: Remittances in the
Island of Utila
David George Lord
Doctor of Philosophy, Graduate Program in Anthropology
University of California, Riverside, December 1975
Professor Eugene N. Anderson, Jr., Chairman
Utila, one of the Bay Islands off the north coast of Honduras, is representative of many
societies throughout the world; it is an economically dependent society supported largely or
entirely by remittance monies. Remittances, funds sent home by people who have emigrated or
are sojourning out of country, have given rise to a sociocultural system resting heavily on
traditional aspects of Utilian society and culture.
The contemporary interface between economy, society and polity shows that Utila was
preadapted to requirements of a remittance style economy. Such things as the traditional
importance of the nuclear family as the production and consumption unit, and a heritage of
maritime activity in shipping and fishing are just two preadaptive features. Underlying these and
other preadaptations were the extremely important orientations of individualism, commercialism,
consumerism, and community atomism or non-cooperation.
Utila's remittance economy depends on males serving in United States or Scandinavian
merchant marines, and therefore being absent for nine or ten months of every year. On the one
hand, therefore, individualism fosters the independent action needed in shipping out and selling
one's skills and labor. On the other hand, individualism allows continued nuclear family
functioning even in the absence of males. Commercialism and community atomism have
allowed loose social and political organization that easily accommodate male absenteeism.
Finally, consumerism provides the impetus to continue in the remittance economy in order to
acquire the various symbols of the good life such as land, a private dwelling, nice clothes and
furniture, and so on.
Beyond consumerism men on leave are indulged in their heavy drinking and partying
behavior; laws and social norms are not strictly enforced if they are breached by the men, and
women generally tend to pamper male whims in order to make their stay at home enjoyable.
This "rest and recreation" atmosphere in the island provides encouragement for men to
participate in the remittance economy throughout their productive years (generally from age 18
to 55). Such an atmosphere serves as an intermediary reward for men until they can retire and
reap the full benefits of the remittance system. Women and other stay-at-home islanders benefit
from providing a relaxed environment through the continued flow of money into the island.
Social organization itself helps to perpetuate the remittance economy by providing
motivation either to maintain the status quo by white Utilians, to try to move within the various
social strata by "Spaniards," or to change social organization by Utila's colored population. In
each case it is money, and what can be accomplished with money, that islanders believe would
affect social organization; only through the remittance system could funds be obtained.
The underlying orientations noted above originally combined with an image of limited
good (i.e., of diminishing opportunities for the good life) that arose during times of economic
recession and depression. Assessing their social and economic condition from the resulting
perspective, Utilians opted for a remittance economy when that opportunity arose at the start of
the Second World War.
The option for a remittance economy was, and continues to be, the most logical and
viable economic alternative open to islanders. Support for the remittance economy has
subsequently derived both from the traditional society and culture, and from the new benefits
accruing to those who participate in the overall remittance system. Ultimately, a system such as
Utila's may prove to answer the needs of many underdeveloped countries throughout the world.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I. INTRODUCTION .................................................................................... 1
Economic Studies in the Caribbean ............................................................... 3
Remittances and Economic Studies in the Caribbean........................ 5
Migration and Characteristics of a Remittance Economy ......................................... 7
Specific Aims of the Study 16
II. PREADAPTATIONS FOR A REMITTANCE ECONOMY: HISTORICAL
The Agricultural Phase 28
The Remittance Phase 36
III. PREADAPTATIONS FOR A REMITTANCE ECONOMY: THE
PHYSICAL SETTING AND ITS LIMITATIONS 42
Department of the Bay Islands 42
Utila's Maritime Setting and Shoreline 43
Flora and Fauna 54
IV. REMITTANCE SYSTEM INTERRELATIONSHIPS: ECONOMICS 59
The Agricultural Phase: 1836-1941 61
Production and Consumption Bases 61
Land Ownership and Utilization 69
The Distribution of Wealth 74
The Remittance Phase: 1941 to Date 78
Production and Consumption Patterns 78
Land Ownership and Utilization 86
V. REMITTANCE SYSTEM INTERRELATIONSHIPS: SOCIAL
Social Groupings ................................................................................119
Religious Groups ...................................................................120
Educational Groups ................................................................126
Residential Groups 131
Informal Groups 139
Status and Role 141
VI. REMITTANCE SYSTEM INTERRELATIONSHIPS: POLITICAL
Local Level Politics 160
Utila's Larger Political Involvements 169
VII. SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS 180
Economic Studies in the Caribbean 181
The Interface between Economy, Society, and Polity 187
Contributions of the Study 199
LIST OF TABLES
1. Chronology of Events Important in Utila s History 21
2. Summary of Meteorological Data, The Bay Islands 52
3. Utilian-Owned Ships During the Fruit Boom 67
4. Per Capita Income Figures from Central America and the Caribbean 83
5. Visas Issued by the United States Embassy, Tegucigalpa 95
In the following pages a remittance economy--that of Utila--will be described in detail
and hypotheses will be developed concerning the remittance economy as a type. Hypotheses
will also be developed concerning the impact of Utila's remittance economy on the nature and
structure of the local community.
Unlike many remittance economies, Utila's does not arise primarily from islander
emigration to another geographical area, whether elsewhere in Honduras or to a foreign country.
I am not, therefore, as one example, concerned with problems of assimilation or acculturation as
are other students of remittance systems. Utilian males, upon whom the greatest burden of the
remittance system falls, emigrate only in the sense of going away from the island. As merchant
mariners, they are not subjected to a foreign culture (as urban migrants could be) that lures them
permanently from their home. Their absence could be characterized as migratory labor--in the
strictest sense--and yet Utila is much more than just a home base from which workers operate.
Utila represents, in fact, an accommodation to limited local opportunities, and the forging of a
viable economy and lifestyle
from the merchants marine and remittances.
A primary focus of my investigation is, of course, the remittance aspect of Utila's
economy, but this is not just an economic study per se. Rather, it is a close examination of the
interface between economy, society, and polity in order to see how Utila continues to persist
with such apparent facility. Just as importantly, that interface should have both predictive and
postdictive value showing where similar systems might appear in the future and why they were
likely to have developed in the first place.
In addition to investigating the phenomenon of remittance economics, and all that it
entails, this study is also offered as a work that contributes insights into small community
structure and functioning, island dwellers with their maritime background, and English-speaking
peoples in a part of the Caribbean culture area that is politically attached to Central America.
I will let descriptive material in the succeeding pages carry the weight of how this study
sheds light on small, island communities of English-speaking peoples in the Caribbean. The
relevance to economic studies in general, and to remittance systems specifically, merits
In the overview of economic studies in the Caribbean, immediately following, several
general areas of investigation are enumerated which relate directly to findings in Utila but do not
adequately explain systems such as Utila's. In the generalizations no reference is made to the
actual mechanisms used by people like the Utilians to either develop or cope with their
dependent economic status. The general areas are therefore refined in this study by emphasizing
the importance of remittances and migration--dual aspects of a single phenomenon--to a
dependent condition wherever it appears. Subsequently, the remittance economy is shown to be
a strong, positive factor in the continuance not only of Utilian society but of other sociocultural
systems in Asia, Africa, Europe and throughout the world.
Economic Studies in the Caribbean
Adlith Brown and Havelock Brewster have recently surveyed the study of economics in
the English-speaking Caribbean (1974). The result of their investigation is the observation that
economic discussion has generally revolved around considerations of size and dependency, with
the result that a number of hypotheses deriving from these two factors--hypotheses remaining
largely untested--stand out in economic investigations. According to them (1974:52-53), the
hypotheses deriving from various studies are:
First, that the level of economic activity is externally determined, and is outside the
control of national decision-centres, public or private. Production, consumption and
investment depend directly or indirectly on exogenous factors.
They then go on to say in the article
that consumption patterns, diverging widely and increasingly from production patterns as
they do, provide the basis for continuing technological, and therefore economic
dependency. Fifth, that the level of domestic saving is determined more by institutional
characteristics, such as the value system, the distribution of income and the ownership
pattern of the surplus than by the average size of disposable incomes.
In concluding their survey and inventory of the hypotheses coming from economic studies in the
Caribbean, Brown and Brewster also observe (1974:53) that
the domestic price-level is determined from outside the system, principally by import
prices and the effect of export propelled income generation on domestic supply. Eighth,
that wage rates are, in effect, fixed throughout the economy above their equilibrium level
by the export sector and as a result the path to full employment is obstructed. Ninth, that
since industrial cohesiveness can be developed only to a limited extent on a national
basis, the prospects for the creation of an internal economic and technological dynamic
hinge on regional integration.
The analysis of Utila's economy is clearly relevant to the discussion of several of the
preceding points (particularly the first, fourth, fifth, and seventh) and thus in some measure helps
to test these hypotheses. For example, information in Chapter IV indicates that Utila's
contemporary economy functions, or does not function, as the result of external demand for its
single marketable commodity: the labor power of trained merchant mariners who work world-
wide shipping lines. Should this demand diminish or disappear, Utila's economy would be
sorely affected. Consumption patterns in Utila, established with the first settlers of the island,
have enmeshed the local economy in consumerism--i.e., the tendency to spend or invest income
in non-capital goods so that wealth does not in turn produce more income.
Subsequently, consumerism has irrevocably bound islanders to a life style that
undermines any local self-sufficiency. By the same token, saving of income has held a low
priority in Utila due to the well-ingrained pattern of consumerism, a seeming unconcern for the
future, and--at the same time--an assurance that there will always be income available to meet
future needs. Finally, because it depends totally on outside sources for cash income as well as
goods and many important services, Utila's domestic price-levels are determined from outside
At first glance the data from Utila might seem limited in the degree to which they could
test the foregoing hypotheses; Utila is, after all, merely one island in a small department (state)
that constitutes a minute fraction of a national polity and economy. The smallness in size and the
economic dependency, however, are the very things that create linkages to the larger economy of
the United States and through these linkages confirm the applicability of these hypotheses to
Utila. The specific factors--or factor--that might be involved in establishing dependency
relationships are not, of course, dealt with by Brown and Brewster since these could,
hypothetically, differ from one situation to another. In an earlier article, however, Robert
Manners (1965) stresses the importance of the precise mechanism whereby Utila and many other
Caribbean islands have developed dependent economic relationships; this mechanism is the
Remittances and Economic Studies in the Caribbean
Anticipating the total lack of reference to remittances in the Brown and Brewster survey,
Manners says (1965:185) that
while several Caribbean researchers have remarked on the importance of remittances to
some of the islands (e.g., Steward et al. 1956; Manners 1957; O'Laughlin 1959;
Lowenthal and Comitas 1962; Frucht 1963) and have even suggested that conditions
might be gravely altered by the cutting off of this source of cash, a great many more have
failed even to mention this interdependency feature in their treatment of small group
structure and function. Yet without the inflow of cash represented by remittances, the
present condition of many families, and most of the islands in the Caribbean would be
seriously altered. Some would move from a position of relative adequacy to marginality;
others would plunge from marginality to inadequacy, extreme poverty and crisis
The quotation was written almost ten years earlier than the survey; yet as of 1974,
consideration of remittances had not obviously increased. A review of literature on Caribbean
islands would--as just noted above--demonstrate the fact that it is money sent home by absentee
personnel that keeps many a local system from total collapse, but at the same time ties those
local systems ever closer to places like Great Britain and the United States.
The remittance is one of the prime factors, then, that creates and maintains a dependent
relationship between Caribbean islands and more developed socioeconomic systems.
Two fundamental problems, however, attend any study of remittance economies, the first
of which is the simple lack of a common definition for the term. Are funds sent home by
absentee migratory workers "remittances," or does the term apply only to monies sent back to
their natal home by people who have permanently emigrated? Or further, does "remittance" refer
to money supplied by stay-at-home family members to support an overseas member? In fact, the
term remittance has been applied to money allotments in all three--as well as other--examples.
Lowenthal and Comitas (1962:200) use remittance to apply to all of the foregoing situations,
while Manners (1965:185) considers the return flow of money from "migrants" to be remittances
(which is the same usage as Philpott's [1973:140 et passim]); Watson (1974:217-218) talks about
any money sent home by overseas community members (in this case from Hong Kong) as
remittances. Before resolving this issue, however, I must bring in the second problem area
referred to above, the inevitable concomitant of a remittance system: migration. "Migration"
subsumes not just the fact of absenteeism for varying amounts of time, but also the adjustments
made by those who migrate and those who send migrants, the results of remitting, and the like.
Here it is useful to examine material that bears specifically on migration to the end that not only
the term remittance may be defined, but also some of the characteristics of a remittance system
may be isolated.
Migration and Characteristics of a Remittance Economy
Nancy Solien De Gonzalez argues (1961:1265) that there is a typology of migration
categories that can be valuable to anthropologists for a variety of reasons, such as analysis of a
system like Utila's. The categories in her scheme derive primarily from temporal
considerations--literally, how absent are absentee individuals--so that five types can be
distinguished: seasonal migration; temporary, non-seasonal migration; recurrent migration;
continuous migration; permanent removal. From the standpoint of the individuals involved it is
doubtless quite useful to distinguish between one kind of migration vis á vis another since
various kinds of arrangements, in household functioning, for example, could be radically altered
depending on the duration of the intended absence. From the standpoint of a community at large,
however, especially in long-range terms, I think that the five categories could just as usefully be
reduced to two: permanent migration (where people set out purposefully to remove to another
area and demonstrate this intent by such things as taking out citizenship papers, etc.) and
sojourning (where personnel expect to return to the community and both they and the community
at large operate as if their return is imminent regardless of how long they are actually away).
As the overall discussion of migration types comes to focus on the term "remittance,"
nowhere is there any demonstration that the variations in the length of absence would have any
effect on what researchers should call monies sent back nor, necessarily, on the uses to which
such monies are put. In the interest of simplifying jargon, I will therefore use the term
"remittance" to refer to any funds sent by migrant or sojourner alike to stay-at-home individuals,
whether this be on a regular basis or not and whether or not a fixed sum is remitted.
Other implications stem from the typology of migrants and I have already commented on
the fact that to the specific people involved the nature of the migration--duration of absence--can
have profound importance. Solien De Gonzalez, in fact, concludes her article with this
acknowledgement and says (1961:1278)
. . . the main assumption of this paper has been that any society in which some members
regularly leave home to obtain money or goods must have special institutions to handle
the needs of daily life in the absence of these members. Many writers have been
especially concerned with the effects of migration upon marriage and family life.
However, from the extant descriptions of migrant wage labor it seems clear that there are
several essentially different patterns of behavior which are usually lumped together. . .
The main conclusion (in this analysis) is that migrancy will be reflected in the social
organization in different ways depending upon the nature of the sociocultural system
affected, as well as upon the type of migrancy itself. Some types of migrant labor appear
to have little, if any, effect on the family, regardless of what the traditional family form
may be. Other types of migrancy apparently are more compatible with some forms of
family and household organization than with others [emphasis added].
Beyond sheer economic considerations, which can themselves be potentially very
complex, are institutional responses that arise from migration and sojourning. Solien De
Gonzalez does not go into any detailed discussion of what might be involved in such responses
(i.e., characteristics of a remittance system) although she does give us some hint in this direction
with the illustration of the matrilocally extended family household--the so-called matrifocal
family--as one example of accommodation to absentee males.
In order to appreciate the scope of remittance systems (in terms of world distribution) and
comprehend the dimensions involved in such systems, one must look further than Solien De
Gonzalez. By far the most seminal work on such sociocultural systems, at least for the
Caribbean, has been done by Philpott (1970, 1973). In both of the references cited, Philpott uses
the example of Montserrat in the West Indies in order to illustrate his points. Primarily he wants
to under-score the fact that there are some societies that are "migration oriented" (1973:2); i.e.,
that are institutionally adapted to the absenteeism of some of its members. This fact becomes
important to analysis of Utila since the concept of preadaptation figures prominently in my
discussion. In addition, he invokes a "migrant ideology" (1973:177-178) as the motivational
force that takes Montserratians to Great Britain, causes them to remit monies home, and
ultimately returns many of the migrants to their natal homes. Such an ideology must also be
operative in Utila, a fact that I argue in connection with Utilian individualism, commercialism,
Insofar as remittances themselves are concerned, Philpott says that much of the
remittance money sent home by overseas islanders has been used to pay passages for other
Montserratians to migrate (1968:466). Migration does not constitute severing of one's ties to the
people at home nor discontinuance of involvement in island society. Absentee islanders are
expected to support their stay-at-home dependents, though many of the children involved are
actually illegitimate (the products of extra-residential unions) (1968:467). Depopulation of the
island has been induced by remittances, however, with the result that the cost of services has
risen and the burden of maintaining roads, schools, etc., has fallen on outsiders (Lowenthal and
Comitas 1962:206). Loss of expertise has required everyone to perform numerous different
functions, and this has resulted in incompetents being kept on for the good of the community
(Lowenthal and Comitas 1962:208).
Despite some of the negative results of the remittance-migration relationship, the overall
impact on Montserratian society is a conserving one; i.e., there has been a tendency for the
system to remain socially unchanged because, for one thing, ". . . migrants generally wish to
maintain the status which accrues to them as a result of their migration . . ." (Philpott 1970:18).
As a more generalizing commentary on migration and remittances, the work of
Lowenthal and Comitas (1962) is clearly one of the most important in this subject area. In the
particular reference cited, the two authors discuss emigration and depopulation in several
European countries. In the case of Ithaca, Greece, for example, a remittance economy developed
that was characterized by cyclical migration of sailors who would sometimes be absent several
years at a time. Return of absentee males to Ithaca was the cherished goal and long separations
did not alienate seamen from their families (1962:203). Yet, despite the desire to return, many
individuals permanently left the island, causing a depleted labor force at home, later and fewer
marriages, a blurring of the patrifocal pattern, decline in agricultural production, a higher
standard of living for those who remained (from remittances), and the exhibition ". . . for
overseas consumption [of] an image of the past, a false sociocultural orthodoxy" (1962:204).
Although many of the specifics related to remittances and migration just outlined do not
apply directly to Utila, they form part of a remittance economy profile that bears on the
discussion of dependency and the larger problems of this study. The relevance of the profile
becomes evident as analysis unfolds, but there is considerable additional information that needs
to be introduced.
Watson, speaking of the remittance system in San Tin village, Hong Kong New
Territories, says that many of the young men visiting home after working in Britain ". . .
antagonize the village elders by wearing modish clothes and by listening to Western pop music.
They also comment at length about London's amenities as opposed to what they now consider
the physical hardships . . . of life in San Tin" (1974:219). Nevertheless, ". . . upon marriage,
many of the emigrants became enthusiastic supporters of traditional values" (1974:202). Watson
also notes that regularity in the flow of remittances sent by the men while overseas is crucial and
that "even a brief disruption would cause immediate hardship to almost every household in the
Several other points made by Watson fill out--though by no means exhaust--profile
material on remittance economies:
For most absentee workers the village continues to be a primary reference point
regardless of how long they have lived abroad. The workers ordinarily return to San Tin
once every three to five years for an extended holiday of up to six months. . . . The
emigrants make up for the years of deferred gratification abroad by spending their hard-
earned savings at a furious pace when they return to the village (1974:220).
Important family decisions are held until the heads of household are home on leave and
further evidence of emigrant inclusion in the society is by his preparation for retirement with the
building of a new house (1974:220). Finally, emigration has not brought cosmopolitan culture to
San Tin although there have been material improvements as well as further knowledge of the
outside world. The people remain insular (1974:221).
Plotnikov, discussing migration and remittances in Nigeria, echoes Watson's point about
migrants supporting traditional values. The returning migrant, in order to avoid suspicion from
being absent among strangers, is more or less forced to join the conservative elite himself and
defend the old ways (1970:172).
Van Velsen writes about the Tonga of Nyasaland, who support their economy by
remittances from the Rhodesias and Union of South Africa, and the fact that absentee males do
not disrupt regular day-to-day activities. Rather, the migrant workers maintain an active stake in
political and social structures of their native villages through remittances and in turn are
sustained through communications with Tongaland and a continued flow of migrants from the
rural countryside (1960:265-278). In the absence of many job opportunities in the towns to
which they migrate, the natal areas attract migrants back home where they may in turn be
supported by remittances.
Inishbofin, one of Ireland's west coast islands, has benefitted a great deal from migration
and remittances, according to Freeman (1958:202-209). Remittance monies have made it
possible to make farms ". . . which can give basic sustenance [and] as more and more farms are
united, some men will prosper, especially those who fish as well as farm" (1958:209).
Gallin and Gallin (1974) report the maintenance of ties between rural migrants to Taipei
(Taiwan) and their home villages by means of remittances and the importance of these monies to
landholding in rural areas.
Remittances constitute an important--if not critical--input to the local economies of
British Honduras (Jones 1952), Barbados (Ruck 1960), Puerto Rico (Lewis 1963), and even the
Peoples' Republic of China (Wu 1967). Still other studies show the importance of migration
(hence of remittances) to Nevis (Frucht 1967), pre-Revolutionary Russia (Dunn & Dunn 1963),
and again, Nigeria (Adepoju 1974). In this last case several additional attributes of remittance
economies are brought out. According to Adepoju (1974:388), a few high-income earners
among Nigerian migrants to urban areas remit money home due to the fact that they usually
support more dependents, and rising costs of living in the towns cut into the amount that could be
remitted. He also notes that wage earners, unlike the self-employed migrants, can plan what
proportion of their income can be remitted which makes them potentially more reliable as
remitters (1974:388). The remittance funds themselves are utilized in building or repairing
houses, starting small businesses, educating younger family members, and for general family
support (1974:393-394). Adepoju claims (1974:394) that owning a house in one's natal village is
evidence of continued connection with the home area and that visits intensify identification with
home (1974:387). Overall, however, since visits are costly (one has to bring presents to show
success) they become infrequent over time, and the more important link between migrant and
stay-at-home family members is remittance money and the aid a migrant can provide for still
others to migrate (1974:387).
A number of very specific studies, although not ostensibly concerning migration and
remittance economics, are nevertheless relevant to this area of investigation. Wilson (1971),
following from Solien De Gonzalez's comments on matrifocality (cited above), has investigated
male status-role in Providencia Island. Based on his findings, he postulates a male social
structure complementary to females (1971:18). Males and females live in a marked dualistic
society where females tend to be heads of household, have major importance in economic
matters, and so on. Rather than males being marginal figures, however, they simply have a
different social structure which is characterized by the male peer group (that he terms a "crew")
wherein male activities--especially recreation and drinking--and male status-role are reinforced
(1971:18-20). The importance of this to analysis of Utila will become apparent when male
behavior in general is discussed, but is more significant when the relative absence of
matrifocality in Utila is analyzed.
In a similar vein to Wilson's study is the work of Rodgers and Long (1968) which deals
with male sexual identification in the Out Island Bahamas. Among the Out Island Bahamas
there is a prevalence of mother/child (matrifocal) households due to the absence of men on
fishing boats (1968:326-327). Adult males, in order to impress maleness upon their adolescent
sons--and dilute the influence females may have had on sons' sexual identification--take the boys
at about age fourteen to work on the fishing boats. For more than a year the young males are put
through a very rigorous apprenticeship kind of training that has the effect of stamping them with
appropriate adult male characteristics (1968:327). Although matrifocality is rare in Utila, the
absence of males is uncontestable, and the fact is that induction of eighteen-year-olds into the
merchant marine may do for Utilians1 what Rodgers and Long claim the fishing boat experience
*Utilian is used by islanders both as an adjectival modifier and as a proper noun to refer to
an island resident. This practice is in keeping with other English speaking populations of the
does for Bahamians.
Finally, there are studies relating to social (community) atomism in Caribbean societies.
Wagley (1957) observes that throughout Plantation-America (which includes the Caribbean
islands and the Caribbean littoral of Central America) there is a weak sense of community
cohesion and communities are only loosely organized (1957:8). This observation leads to a
discussion in which the characteristics of atomistic societies are summarized and explanations
for the phenomenon are offered (Honigmann 1968:220-226). Essentially, atomism derives either
from psychological factors related to early life experiences or to situations to which adults must
adapt. This material becomes important when considering Utilian individualism and atomism,
both of which figure so prominently in explaining the continued functioning of the remittance
system. Utilians, operating on self interest, do not enjoy a very cooperative society, but this lack
of interdependence allows large numbers of people at a time to be absent from the island without
hampering social and political activities. Likewise, self interest motivates people (through
consumerism and pursuit of the good life) to continue going to sea.
Specific Aims of the Study
Having looked at some of the economically oriented study areas that need further
investigation, at the concept of a remittance economy and some of the attendant features that go
with migration, remitting, and so on, the purpose of this study can be outlined as follows:
First, I will be examining four of the hypotheses noted by Brown and Brewster above
through a general application of data from Utila.
Caribbean cf. Gussler 1973) who add "ian" to a place name to refer to its population.
Second, I will be examining the interrelationship between economy, society, and polity in
Utila by means of a model that emphasizes Utilian individualism, commercial and consumer
orientations, and a "Limited Good" outlook deriving from limited economic opportunities in the
island. The model will serve as a heuristic device to integrate succeeding chapters, leading to an
analysis of remittance systems that will have predictive value beyond the limits of Utila. Third,
again via the model noted above, I will be looking for support of the contention that Utila was
"preadapted" for ready involvement in a remittance economy and that alterations needed to
accommodate a remittance economy were primarily amplifications of traditional sociocultural
elements. In this analysis the concept of preadaptation will be employed in the same sense as it
is used in biological sciences. A concise statement of this usage is found in Brace and Montagu
(1965:53) who say that
evolution, being opportunistic as well as cumulative, frequently takes advantage of
structures developed under certain circumstances, and uses them as the base for
adaptation to changed environmental circumstances. Such a condition is referred to as
preadaptation. Preadaptation, the reapplication of structures originally developed for
other purposes, has accounted for some of the otherwise remarkable developments in
evolution, although this should not be taken to indicate that there was any such
The essential point, in sum, is that Utila has prospered in toto through its assumption of a
Chapters II and III will give background material necessary to understand Utila's
preadaptations that culminate in successful transition to a remittance economy and all that this
entails. Chapters IV, V, and VI constitute the data to support the areas outlined just above. Each
of these is a contribution to the ultimate summary and conclusion of this study that is brought out
in Chapter VII.
PREADAPTATIONS FOR A REMITTANCE ECONOMY:
A major thesis of this study is that remittance economies are a rational and viable
economic alternative for peoples who live in areas with a limited range of economic choices. A
economy, however, implies the absence, for varying amounts of time, of some of a society's
personnel. Absenteeism and other results of a remittance system must be accommodated in
order for social and political functioning to continue smoothly, and some sociocultural systems
make such accommodation more easily than others. A corollary of the preceding thesis, then, is
that economic, social, and political preadaptations in some sociocultural systems enable a given
population to readily implement a remittance economy when that choice appears to be the most
This chapter will be a preliminary demonstration of the fact that Utila's traditions of
individual economic striving, a commercial orientation toward one another in economic dealings,
males being absent on trading or fishing ventures, and community non-cooperation were well
suited for its people to develop a remittance system. Utila's historical background is divided into
three sections that reflect important developments leading to contemporary times: the
presettlement period, the agricultural phase, and the subsequent remittance phase. Comparison
and contrast between the latter two phases, discussed much more fully in Chapter IV, allows us
to see how older patterns were amplified or otherwise reworked in order to meet demands of the
contemporary society and culture.
Few published materials deal with Utila's history, but recollections of "old heads" and
two anecdotal histories (one published, one simply in manuscript form) provide a rough sketch
of the island's background (see Table 1).
Valladares (1939:1) starts his history of the Bay Islands with their "discovery" by
Columbus on his fourth voyage. Accordingly, Utila and its companion islands come into history
on the 30th of July 1520, when Columbus approached Guanaja's northern shore, possibly at what
is today called Pine Rich Bight. The greater navigator was apparently impressed with the thick
timber stands and dubbed the island Isla de Pinos. He was also impressed with the friendliness
of the "Indian" inhabitants of the island, but no attempt was made to establish any kind of
settlement or fortification. After the discovery of Guanaja the conquistadores Juan Diaz Solis
and Vicente Yañez Pinzon founded an establishment there, but ". . . sin duda fue enfumero [sic],
puesto que no existen vestigos de ellos ni ruinas antiguas. . ." (Cevallos 1919:13).
Don Diego de Porras, a clerk among the early Spanish explorers, reported (Valladares
1939:24) that Bay Islands residents spoke the same language, were handsome and of martial
stature (this comment is not explained), and concluded that they formed a tribe that was related
to (unidentified) aboriginals encountered at Punta de Castilla. Other than this foregoing
observation, however, there was apparently no attempt to delve into the society and culture of
these original island settlers, and it served the purposes of Cuban-based conquistadores to report
that the indigenous population was hostile, opposed to Christianity, and were cannibals. There is
no evidence whatsoever to support the contention that Bay Islands aboriginals were cannibalistic
although it is true that the Spanish had encountered anthropophagy among the Carib
CHRONOLOGY OF EVENTS IMPORTANT IN UTILA'S HISTORY
July 30, 1502 Columbus' fourth voyage resulted in the discovery of Guanaja, the
Isle of Pines
September 15, 1821 Central America proclaimed independence from Spain
1834-1836 Utila was permanently settled
July 4, 1850 The United States ratified the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty with
Great Britain; colonization, occupation, fortification, or
protectorateship in Central America was forbidden
July 11, 1852 The Superintendent of Belize declared the Bay Islands a colony of
1852-1862 Utila's settlers removed from the Cays to populate and
farm the main island
November 28, 1859 The Wyke-Cruz Treaty settled the Bay Island controversy
April 22, 1861 Honduran authorities took possession of the Bay Islands
May 14, 1872 The Department of the Bay Islands was created; Islanders were
brought under Honduran law
July 18, 1902 Captain Cooper-Key made final disclaimer of British citizenship
assumed by many Bay Islanders
1939-1945 The Second World War brought economic prosperity after
Depression years; Utilian males established a tradition of
serving in the merchant marine
July 23, 1961 Winds from hurricane Anna destroyed many of the remaining
plantations in Utila
Indians (cf. Rouse 1951; Sauer 1966:6, 137, 162, 171, 194-195). While the ethnicity of the Bay
Islanders is still uncertain (Sauer 1966:130 suggests that they may have been Maya, related to the
Maya of mainland Honduras but this is not an assertion), there is no hint that they were even
remotely akin to the Caribs. More to the point is Sauer's comment (1966:194) that ". . . Isabela's
original command that only cannibal Indians (i.e., Caribs) should be enslaved was taken as
lightly as her declaration that inoffensive natives were Spanish subjects with the rights of such. It
was necessary only to declare an island as Carib to legitimize slave raids." Apparently Isabella
might tolerate hostility but not opposition to Christianity, and "the Queen had been indoctrinated
by stories of horrid cannibals" who to the soldiers and administrators in the field were any and all
who were either hostile, cannibalistic, Carib, or any combination of the three (Sauer 1966:162).
Subsequently, in the year 1516, Queen Isabella gave Diego Velasquez, Governor of
Cuba, leave to enslave the Bay Islanders and transport them to Cuba where they could take the
place of the already exterminated--or fast dwindling--aboriginals there. Valladares (1939:25)
gives an account of the first slaver expedition to the Bay Islands wherein the unsuspecting native
people of Guanaja were rewarded for their hospitality by being thrown in chains into a brig's
hold and carried to Havana. An almost legendary event then ensued: the skeleton crew of eight
men was overpowered by the Indians and the latter proceeded to sail the 250 leagues back to
their home. The Spaniards, undaunted, returned to the Bay Islands, captured some 500 islanders,
again imprisoned them, and again were overpowered when the Indians broke out of the holds. A
bloody hand-to-hand battle followed, and this time the Spaniards not only vanquished the
Indians, but successfully captured 400 men, women and children and took them to Cuba. With
this second expedition, according to Sauer (1966:213), the name Utila appears for the first time.
The value of the anecdote related by Valladares is that it serves to point up two simple
facts: the Bay Islanders were obviously familiar with boating and must have been excellent
navigators. This datum is one more evidence that pre-Columbian navigation was far more
developed than Europeans had ever acknowledged and is only now coming to be appreciated (cf.
Edwards 1969). The other fact is that Indians in the Bay Islands fared no better than any other
aboriginals in their encounters with Europeans, despite an image of island fastness, and in fact
were altogether liquidated from the islands when De Avila removed the last Indians to
Guatemala in 1650 (Strong 1935:15).
From the early seventeenth century until the early nineteenth century, the history of the
Bay Islands is a seesaw account of sometimes Spanish, sometimes British control of one or more
links in the chain; neither of the parties comported itself with any distinction, militarily or
otherwise. The Spanish exercised a weak and ineffectual control of the area, more tied up with
their own perpetual internal political problems in centers such as Lima, Guatemala City, and
Mexico City. Britain, through the efforts of freebooters, privateers, and buccaneers, did its
rapacious best to hold the territory in order to have a sea base from which it would be easy to
intercept Spain's homeward bound treasure ships and also to protect any British activities on
terra firma (i.e., on mainland Central America).
The first British incursion into the Bay Islands was in 1638 when William Claiborne, a
planter from Virginia and Maryland, attempted to found a colony in Roatan under his Providence
Company patent. Claiborne brought several hundred colonists from North America and issued
grants of land to them under the company's authority (Floyd 1967:18), but the colony was short
lived and (according to Evans 1966:13) was abandoned by 1642.
Between 1639 and 1642, the first British-Spanish confrontation in the Bay Islands took
place. According to Cevallos (1919:15), British and Dutch pirates burned a Spanish
establishment in 1639 whereupon a base of operations was founded by the Spanish in Puerto
Real (near the present-day community of Oak Ridge in Roatan) to clean the sea of pirates.
Lutchen-Lehn (n.d.:10) claims that in that same year, 1639, the Bay Islands had been
investigated per order of Governor Avilay Lugo; and it was reported that Guanaja, Roatan, and
Utila, with the Cays, had 400 inhabitants. No source, unfortunately, for this datum is given.
In 1642 pirates invaded Roatan and Guanaja with the objective of setting up a seat of
operations in this part of the Spanish Main:
The depredations of the invaders were such that the supreme authority of Guatemala,
together with the governors of Havana and the president of the Audiencia of Santo
Domingo organized an expedition to expel the English from Roatan where their defenses
were already strong. The expedition was composed of four ships of war under the
command of Francisco Villalba y Toledo. Having found that the principle ports of the
island were well fortified, he quietly withdrew to get reinforcements. He returned with
these in March 1650, and after a fierce fight dislodged the pirates and left only ruins and
some already enslaved Indians which the Captain General of Guatemala had transported
to the mainland to the region between the rivers of Polochic and Motagua (Valladares
After the encounter just noted, the islands remained abandoned and deserted until 1742
when the British intended to take possession of the entire Atlantic coast and therefore built
fortifications both at the mouth of the Rio Negro and in Roatan. Edward Trelawney, Governor
of the Shoremen at Spanish Town (in the Mosquitia, the southeastern coastal area of Honduras),
caused Roatan to be fortified and turned into a military base. William Pitt, a long-time planter in
the Mosquitia, was named superintendent of the Bay Islands and was authorized to issue land
grants free from quitrents for twenty years (Floyd 1967:69). Pitt was, however, more than a
military governor; and Floyd (1967:103) comments that
the temper of the London court was well represented by the statesman, William Pitt, who
defined English objectives in the West Indies as commercial supremacy, which must be
attained by English industry, not by English military power. He recognized correctly that
the main enemy was not Spain, but France, and believed friendliness toward Spain would
be rewarded with commercial privileges. He gave substance to this conciliatory policy
by ordering the evacuation of the Bay Islands in 1748. . . .
Conciliation with Spain did not sit well with Trelawney, the Baymen, and the Shoremen, but
Spain was mollified and relaxed enforcement of contraband laws on the open seas. Improved
Anglo-Spanish relations were reflected in the Treaty of Paris signed in 1763 whereby, according
to Article 17 of the treaty, it was agreed that:
His Britannic Majesty shall cause to be demolished all the fortifications which His
subjects have erected in the Bay of Honduras, and other places of the Territory of Spain
in that part of the world, four months after the ratification of the present Treaty; and His
Catholic Majesty shall not permit His Britannic Majesty's subjects, or their workmen, to
be disturbed, or molested, under any pretense whatsoever, in the said places, in their
occupation of cutting, loading and carrying away logwood; and for this purpose they may
build without hindrance, and occupy without interruption, the houses and magazines
which are necessary for them, or their families, and for their effects; and His Catholic
Majesty assures to them, by this Article, the full enjoyment of those advantages and
powers on the Spanish coasts and Territories, as above stipulated, immediately after the
ratification of the present Treaty (quoted in Floyd 1967:117).
In 1780, the Spanish, aggravated by continued British presence in Roatan and by
insurgency of coastal Indians that was British inspired, again declared war on Great Britain. One
of the actions of this war was invasion of the Bay Islands by the Captain General of Guatemala
to once again expel any British there present. Treaties in 1783 and 1786 were twice more
designed to regularize British-Spanish relations, primarily through cessation of British
colonizing along the Spanish Main. The terms of these treaties were again nullified by war, in
1796, and Britain went so far as to establish a penal colony in Roatan. A large number of Black
Caribs (Evans 1966:15, says 5,000; Floyd 1967:184, says 2,000) from the island of St. Vincent--
collaborators with the French against British activities in the Lesser Antilles--were interned in
Roatan, only to have many of their number disperse to the mainland of Honduras, to British
Honduras, and Guatemala (cf. Gonazlez 1969).
Conflicts between Spain and Great Britain continued intermittently until 15 September
1821 when Central America proclaimed its independence from the mother country. Spain had
been in the weaker of the two European contestants for some time; but the independent Central
American Federation was weaker still; and Britain, unhindered, expanded its influence all along
the Caribbean littoral from British Honduras to the Bay Islands to the Mosquitia. Characteristic
of much of its imperial expansion, British advances into the Bay islands took place in leisurely
fashion and without official sanction, through efforts of British subjects simply squatting
wherever they were inclined to settle.
Utila, from the material above, appears to have led a quiescent existence during the years
of Spanish and British hostility, quite unlike the islands of Roatan and Guanaja. Perhaps for this
reason, early in the nineteenth century Utila attracted people who were basically farmers
interested in good, free land that they could cultivate for subsistence crops. No doubt several
motivations were at work to bring the first permanent settlers to Utila, but for whatever reasons
the early 1830s found nearly a dozen people located in the Utila Cays.
The Agricultural Phase
Joseph Cooper, his wife and nine children--two boys and seven girls--came to Utila from
the Caymans by way of Belize. He was apparently one of the many land hungry British subjects
of peasant or working-class extraction that found the British isles too constricting. The Cooper
family and an American named Samuel Warren who had been born in Massachusetts and served
with Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie formed the nucleus of Utila's future population. Warren
and another American surnamed Joshua (who early dropped out of the historical picture) were
already cultivating small plantations in the Cays. Cooper also settled there to avoid the clouds of
mosquitoes and sandflies that infested the bush-covered main island.
Within a few years other Cayman families had heard about Utila and established
branches in the Cays (i.e., in Howell and Suc Suc Cays): Thompson, Morgan, Bodden, Diamond
(or Dimon), Howell, Gabourel. Initially, settlement was made by white families intent on
cultivating individually owned plantations in the nonresidential Cays. The fact that they were of
lower class British background, influenced by their stay in Cayman, is in part attested to by a
linguistic peculiarity still found in Utila. Doran (1954:83) says that
. . . common to all Caymanians is the almost invariable substitution of w for v at the
beginning of syllables. . . .John Woodhead, of the University of Leeds, states (personal
communication, 1951) that the substitution is characteristic of Elizabethan Cockney and
was recorded in vulgar London speech up to about 1870.
Sometime around 1870 the first black Utilians settled in the island; like their white
predecessors, they too were primarily from the Cayman Islands--Grand Cayman, Little Cayman,
or Cayman Brac--near Jamaica, and were also interested in farming. Some of these immigrating
black families bore the same surnames as white Utilian families, testimony either to a slave
heritage whereby slaves names had been adopted in Cayman or to having (at least in one known
case) been raised in white families and taking the names of foster parents.
Subsequently, settlers from the United States, British Honduras, and places as far afield
as Germany and Sweden took up residence in Utila, adding their several influences to Utilian
society and culture.
Like the other Bay Islands, Utila very largely took care of its own affairs, appointing its
own officials, creating its own ordinances, etc. On occasion the islanders looked to British
Honduras, the closest British outpost, for advice or--since no churches existed in Utila until
1852--to make use of the religious establishment for marriage rites.
Toward the end of 1849, the close intercourse between British Honduras and the Bay
Islands that had sprung up--primarily commercial in nature though it was--produced a petition by
Islands residents that they be included in the British Empire. Evans states (1966:19) that
on September 21, 1849, a letter was forwarded to Belize from the Clerk of Courts and
three Justices of the Peace on Roatan, in which they asked to be placed under the
protection of the British Government. . . . This letter is the first of a series of pleas from
the islanders for British protection and status for the Bay Islands.
He also says that when no help from Belize was forthcoming the islanders turned to
Jamaica and subsequently realized their objective of colonial status. In June of 1852
. . . the Governor of Jamaica sent the Superintendent a commission under the 'Great Seal',
which appointed the Governor of Jamaica Governor of the Bay Islands, and the
Honourable P. E. Wodehouse, Superintendent at Belize, as Lieutenant Governor (Evans
On 11 July 1852, Superintendent Wodehouse declared that "Her Britannic Majesty has deigned
to constitute as a colony Roatan, Bonnacco, Utila, Barbareta, Elena and Morat, designated by the
name 'Colony of the Bay Islands'" (Valladares 1939:29). A magistrate for Utila was duly
appointed by the governor of Roatan and British jurisdiction in Utila was thereby officially
British governance rested lightly on Utilians, and islanders enjoyed the benefit of
receiving actual British land grants to the properties that they claimed; likewise, as a British
island Utila escaped duties and the like that were imposed at nearby Honduran ports.
The official British aegis over the Bay Islands was, however, of short duration. The
United States had entered into the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty with Great Britain on 19 April 1850,
and dignitaries of the Republic of Honduras pressed both parties to that treaty to abide by its
conditions; i.e., they wanted an end to illegal British intrusion in the Bay Islands through
application of U.S. pressure on the latter.
Regarding the violation of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, Scroggs (1916:382-383) says that
in the United States this action evoked much resentment, and the Senate passed a
resolution declaring it a violation of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. The Dallas-Clarendon
Treaty of 1856 was ammended in the Senate by the insertion of a clause restoring the Bay
Islands to Honduras. The British government rejected this and suggested in turn that the
disposition of the colony should be fixed by a treaty between Great Britain and Honduras.
The American government would not concede that Honduras should dispose of any of
her territory by treaty with a European power.
Nevertheless, negotiations, which dragged on for seven years, went forward between Great
Britain and Honduras; and finally on 28 November 1859, the Wyke-Cruz Treaty brought
international controversy over the Bay Islands to an end (see Appendix A).
For their part, Utilians and the other Bay Islanders were little affected by this last shift in
official governance. By the terms of the treaty Islanders were allowed to retain all rights inland
and chattels that they had claimed as British citizens. They were assured religious freedom.
Local people were still appointed to municipal posts. In fact, life for the Bay Islanders went on
virtually unchanged since none of the (disdained) Spanish authority was truly exercised in these
maritime possessions; disaffected Islanders had the additional option of accepting free Crown
land grants in British Honduras and free transport there if they should so desire. Scroggs does
point out, however (Ibid.), that a large portion of the British subjects in Roatan were not happy
about losing their citizenship, and "early in the spring of 1860 one of the discontented Bay
Islanders visited New Orleans and sought to invite (the filibuster [soldier of fortune] William)
Walker to Ruatan to aid them in resisting the Hondurans." Through fast political maneuvering
by British and Honduran authorities, Walker--who was interested in Roatan as a base for
launching an attack on Nicaragua where he had been the sometime "elected" president--was
foiled and ultimately captured and executed at Truxillo on the mainland. No retaliation was
taken against the Islanders, and political conditions in the islands remained little changed for the
In Utila, the major development of the next few years was the birth of the fruit trade with
U.S. cities. According to a diarist's information, this trade was inaugurated in 1868 when two
schooners from Portland, Maine, came to Utila to buy bananas and coconuts that would be
carried to New Orleans.
Rose (1904:56) claims that there were some 177 persons living in Utila the preceding
year (i.e., 1867), and most of these were then resident at East Harbor on the island proper. A
growing trade between Utila and Belize (as well as coastal towns and villages) had apparently
stimulated the bulk of the population to quit the Utila Cays and settle on the larger island where
land for plantations was plentiful. Thus, Utilian farm production and U.S. fruit buying interests
Utila enjoyed a veritable boom time during the next quarter century. Thousands of
bananas, coconuts, limes, etc., were exported to Boston, New York, Tampa, and New Orleans.
Rose (1904:110) claims that ". . . Utilla reached the zenith of its prosperity, as a fruit port, in
1876" and provides the following table:
1,073,100 86 Bbls.
15 Bbls. 13,700
55 dozen 2 Bbls.
All of the "old heads" in Utila swear, in fact, that it was Utila and the Bay Islands that
gave start to the gigantic United Fruit Company and Standard Fruit Company operations on the
mainland of Honduras. This assertion is not, however, supported by historical evidence provided
by such sources as Wilson (1968) or May and Plaza (1958). The actual situation appears to have
been that the newly born tropical fruit trade of the mid-nineteenth century relied on a system of
"pickups" which involved many places like the Bay Islands. Wilson, talking about this system as
it operated even into the 1920s says (1968:197-198): "typical of the 'pickup' system was the run
from Livingston Harbor in British Honduras to the Indian farms along the Golfete Estuary and
Lake Izabal." In the early years of the trade all fruit was supplied by "pickup" until companies
like United and Standard had planted their own farms; in the interim the independent producers
attempted to supply any buyer whenever one appeared. By the early 1900s, the "pickup" system
had all but ended insofar as the Bay Islands were concerned; Standard Fruit had planted large
farms in back of La Ceiba and United Fruit was entrenched at Tela. The fruit companies no
longer had to engage in the time consuming practice of running from port to port having no
control whatsoever over the quantity or quality of the fruit available at any given time.
The result of decreasing purchases by the large companies, plus the outright competition
they gave to Utila and the other Bay Islands, led to economic recession in these latter. The Bay
Islands were ripe, so to speak, for setbacks on another count. On 14 May 1872, the Bay Islands
had been formed into a Department of the Republic of Honduras.
Various governments . . . in vain decreed laws and regulations to harmonise [sic] the
rights and interests of the islanders with those of the Republic. They continued to govern
themselves more or less according to their customs and earlier statutes, whose
documentation, in greater part, is conserved in the National Archives, until the energetic
hand and intelligence of the government, the 14th of May 1872 made the Bay Islands a
true Department of the Republic, subject to its laws and particularly of all the betterments
that have established modern legislation. . . (Valladares 1939:32).
By organizing the islands into a department, the Government of Honduras was attempting to
enforce the letter of the Wyke-Cruz Treaty. Most islanders had previously honored the
stipulations of the treaty in the breach (and in most respects managed to perpetuate a status quo
ante for thirty more years, i.e., until 1902!). Mistakenly, many islanders assumed that they could
continue to live under English Common Law, and were bona fide British subjects still. Islander
reaction to what may have been a practiced ignorance of their actual status is reflected in Rose's
. . . the (ensuing) change of laws gave a crippling blow, for some time, to the industries in
the islands and to the hopes of the people. There was general discontent chiefly on
account of the high import duties imposed under the new laws. And this discontent was
perhaps excusable, because the people had always been accustomed to a very low tariff.
Many of the people began to think seriously of leaving the islands, and some did so; but
the majority loved too well the land which had been their home for many years, so they
De facto independence of the Bay Islands during the years 1872 to 1902, a function of
Honduran disinterest and Islander hauteur (they were, or had been, British, after all), ended with
the visit of H.M.S. Psyche during July 1902. Captain Cooper-Key was commissioned to
disabuse Bay Islanders of their uniform pretenses to British citizenship.
Rose (1904:167) quotes the Captain as saying,
All British subjects that were living in the islands in 1861 when the latter were delivered
to Honduras, are subjects of Honduras, they and their children, while they remain in this
country; but beyond the limits of Republic they are British subjects. All British subjects,
who settled in the islands after the latter were ceded to Honduras, are British subjects
still; and as such are entitled to the privileges of British protection in or out of the
The creation of the Department and the effect of the Psyche's visit were connected with the
economic slump starting circa 1900: the Islands were not to enjoy the boom (referred to above)
brought about by the fruit trade; incursions made by United and Standard Fruit saw to that, but in
addition they were not to be able to import commodities, own land, et cetera, exempt from
"outside" taxes and duties.
From the turn of the century until the Second World War, Utilians strove to reverse blows
received to their economy and morale. Life styles assumed during more affluent days were
modified: less trade and contact with the United States resulted; consumer products (e.g., luxury
goods in household furnishings, and the very lumber from which houses were built) were no
longer purchased; varied emphases on plantation crops were tried in order to fit available
markets (e.g., a shift from bananas and plantains to coconuts), and the like.
Despite attempts to "regroup," Utilians had become too enmeshed in social, political, and
economic systems that directed their course. The World Depression effectively killed the
possibilities of continuing the comfortable plantation life; produce, at times, could not even be
The years from 1929 to 1939 are referred to locally as "the Coconut Oil Years." With no
market for agricultural commodities, no wage labor available since job specializations had never
developed (and with too small a population to support specialists in any event), and with
shipping defunct, householders were reduced to rendering out coconut oil in order to survive.
This was an arduous way of making a living. Two hundred select coconuts (four inches in
diameter or larger) were husked at a time, shells chipped off, the meat grated and mixed with
water. After standing overnight the coconut "milk" would be skimmed off (oil that had risen to
the top) and this would then be boiled down to the final coconut oil: five gallons in all. The tin
of oil was then taken to a local merchant who paid for it by giving the maker fifty cents (U.S.)
worth of goods from his store!
The Remittance Phase
events in particular at the beginning of this period color the sociocultural system in Utila
today. Initially, the market in coconuts improved, and planters who had maintained their cocals
in good condition reaped the rewards which ultimately affected the entire island. Companies
such as Peter Paul demanded large quantities of coconut for its candy manufactures, and
according to informants, throughout the 1940s as many as 350,000 coconuts at a time were
exported to Company factories in Tampa. The bleak, dreary Depression years were apparently
quickly supplanted by the anticipation of prolonged prosperity: aspirations to travel, foreign
education (in the U.S.), and the like rose concomitantly. By the 1950s, however, another bubble
had burst and coconuts were worth only five cents apiece; it was time for the second important
event of the decade to take effect.
According to Wilson (1968:288), "during 1940 the United States government had begun
to lease some of the larger and better equipped banana ships for emergency defense duty." In
1941 United Fruit Company sent representatives to Utila to sign up would-be seamen for its
steamship line. The score or so of local men to join the company, having become experienced in
one or the other of its two training ships, rapidly found themselves working in U.S. merchant
shipping. Whether United Fruit was involved in the emergency leasing in this instance or was
simply training a reserve of sailors for its own use is not known, but what is significant is that
male Utilians were being given marketable skills as merchant mariners at a time when the
coconut bubble was expanding to its bursting point and the need to avoid return to the "Coconut
Oil Years" was paramount.
Utila's heritage of men going to sea in order to fish or carry things to market, coupled
with islander attachment to Anglo-American ancestors and culture, made it logical for Utilian
males to find their way quickly into maritime service. Nor did the close of the war bring a return
of men to island agriculture and fishing, for subsistence or otherwise. Laboring in tick-infested
bush under broiling sun or on sun-reflecting brine would, perhaps, have had a more favored
alternate in merchant mariner service in any event, but post bellum market conditions worsened
and neither agriculture nor fishing would return more than a pittance for labor expended.
Likewise, disease and hurricanes laid waste to many coconut and banana plantations. Utila,
rounding the corner of the Second World War, became a remittance economy.
Since the Second World War a custom, born of necessity, has taken hold: the adult males
between ages 18 and 55 regularly and repeatedly leave their home island to wander the globe.
For nine months, ten months, or a year at a time, men work for various shipping lines and send
home a monthly allotment to their families. The dependability of income from the ships--salary,
fringe benefits, free room and board while at sea--has continued to induce men to turn away from
Utila as the source of support for their dependents. The orientation of Utilians has consequently,
once again, shifted toward the United States as the figurative pot of gold and font of all that is
culturally good. Children, for example, are sent to high school in New Orleans; relatives head
north to "Big America" for visits with emigrant Utilians; increasing numbers of native islanders
stay in the U.S.--or seek to--as permanent residents. Few islanders pin their hopes on carving out
a living in Utila or restricting their lives totally to the island, and as far as former circumstances
go they are realistic. On July 23, 1961, hurricane Anna struck, perhaps, the death knell to hopes
of any islanders who wanted to remain locally self-sufficient through agriculture, to provide at
least subsistence for himself and his household. Although Anna did not strike Utila head on,
accompanying winds from the storm blew down an estimated 75,000 coconut trees alone,
approximately a third of the island's cocal. It was reported that for fully two years afterward, not
a single locally grown plantain could be had. Few men were inclined to repair the damage.
Today Utila can boast perhaps two farmers, a dozen fishermen, a handful of merchants. All
other male bread-winners look to the United States, the merchant marine, and the remittance in
order to perpetuate life in Utila.
In this brief overview of Utila's historical background, several points crucial to this study
are introduced. First of all is the fact that the original settlers of Utila found abundant land for
farming. Secondly, farming of tropical fruits was done on an individual basis (a single man or
his immediate family worked a given plantation), and for commercial purposes. Utilian planters
were oriented toward production for a market--often as far away as the United States--to the end
that they and their families could prosper from cash sales of their goods. Thirdly, the experience
of islanders during their agricultural phase entailed fairly extensive seafaring in order to market
agricultural goods and engage in subsistence fishing.
The disappearance of market outlets for their bananas, coconuts, etc., destroyed a local
prosperity geared to commercial agriculture. Whatever investment in capital goods there may
have been previously (specifically in land or boats) was no longer economically sound and a
society oriented basically toward consumerism was totally frustrated in attempts to achieve--or
maintain--the good life. Shipping suffered concomitantly with the decline of commercial
farming. Overall, Utilians were reduced to a subsistence level economy wherein few people
were emotionally or otherwise prepared to labor for so little reward. Nor, in the midst of
economic disaster, did individualistic Utilians appear to have become more cooperative with one
another. The commercialism connected with agricultural production was an indicator not only of
motivations behind economic activity, but reflected the fundamental non-cooperative orientation
of islanders. As Utilians conducted their economic affairs, so too they conducted social and
political ones. Thus, while there was strong identification with the island and one's loved ones
therein, there was not a tightly knit social and political organization.
Opportunities in Utila during the first four decades of the twentieth century were,
empirically, few; many Utilians--as will be discussed in Chapter IV--appraised the local
situation, found it untenable, and permanently migrated to the United States. Those individuals
who stayed were given another economic option when the merchant marine began recruiting at
the start of World War II. Utilians who reappraised their own position at this time found the
option attractive: going to sea is an individual endeavor, and individualism was typical of
The very fact that many Utilian males had spent long periods of time on boats, in connection
with shipping and fishing, meant that wives and families had already come to terms with this
aspect of a potential remittance economy. Organizational features, then, enhanced Utilian
entrance into remittance economics since community functioning would not be hampered by
In terms of production factors, men had only to provide their labor; no investment in
land, trees, and so forth would be necessary to enter the service which meant that anyone of age
and having passage money to catch a ship in the United States could obtain gainful employment.
The fact that men would catch their ships in the United States provided further opportunities to
contact an area that had long held important cultural associations. The additional contact with
the United States bolstered islander self-image as Anglo-American, rather than Latin American,
and reinforced islander separateness from the mainland of Honduras. Utila had already
experienced considerable autonomy, even as a British colony, and this plus a sense of superiority
to mainland Hondurans (as amicably as this superiority was usually expressed) precluded very
close ties with non-island society or culture. The possibility also exists that the very trait of
consumerism, which would be reinforced by more frequent contacts with the United States, had
become as pronounced as it was due partly to its function in demonstrating island autonomy and
uniqueness within the Honduran state.
In sum, there were both organizational and emotional preadaptations in Utila for
emergence of the remittance economy. It is necessary, however, to understand the genuine
limitations of the locale in order to appreciate the wisdom of the Utilian decision. In the
following chapter describing the physical setting, further support is given to the argument that a
remittance economy was the rational choice for islanders to make in order to again achieve the
PREADAPTATIONS FOR A REMITTANCE ECONOMY:
THE PHYSICAL SETTING AND ITS LIMITATIONS
The primary thrust of the preceding chapter was to outline some of the traditional aspects
of Utilian society and culture that would enable people to take up a remittance system should that
opportunity be available and appear to be the best economic alternative at the time. The
following pages demonstrate the shortcomings of the physical setting within which Utilians have
had to operate. The purpose of the description is to reinforce the idea that Utilians had little
economic opportunity on the local scene at the beginning of World War II. Secondly, through
that description it becomes evident that making Utila's economy a dependent one (cf. Brown and
Brewster 1974, quoted above) was the best option that islanders could have chosen.
Department of the Bay Islands
In the year 1872, the assorted Caribbean maritime possessions of Honduras were
organized into the Department of the Bay Islands. Constituting this department are three major
islands, three minor islands, sixty-three cays (pronounced "keys"), and two small ancillary cays
named the Cayos Cochinos.
The largest of the major islands--both in terms of area and in terms of population--is
Roatan, and at Coxen Hole the administrative headquarters of the Department is located.
Another major island is Guanaja (also known as Bonacca), which boasts the second largest
population in the Bay
Islands. Utila is the third of the major islands in the Department and is the smallest: 8.4 miles
long and 2.9 miles wide at its extreme limits.
The minor islands--Helene, Barbarat, and Morat--are smaller even than Utila and have
few permanent residents; they currently figure, to greater or less degrees, in development
schemes that involve both Americans and native-born islanders.
The Cayos Cochinos and most of the other assorted cays are either uninhabited, are only
sometime residences of a few individuals (e.g., the Cayos Cochinos are used by some Utilian
fishermen as a base of operations during the fishing season that ends with Good Friday), or--
again--are the private domains of developers. Throughout the Department, however, several of
the cays have figured as important satellites of the major population centers; the two populated
Utila Cays--Aldea de los Cayitos--are two such satellites.
Utila's Maritime Setting and Shoreline
Thirteen cays lie off the west end of Utila. Informants claim that modern maps do not
correctly identify all of these islets (no two maps of this area agree on place names or spellings,
in fact), but Castaneda (1939:75) inventories eleven of them as follows:
Little Cay 0.41 hectares
Billy Eden's 0.82
Suc Suc 1.22
South West 0.83
Jack O'Neil 0.43
Suc Suc and Howell (also known as Pigeon) cays were the first sites of European habitation in
Utila; they are still occupied by approximately three hundred "Cayans." Other cays are or have
been used for coconut plantations and other cultivation, as a cemetery for the Aldea, and as a
proposed lighthouse site.
In addition to the Utila Cays the other notable features in the island's maritime setting are
encircling coral reef and extensive foreshore flats.
Off the west end of Utila, particularly around the Cays, coral reef extends as much as two
miles into the Caribbean. Reef also abounds in the vicinity of Turtle Harbor, Blackies Point, and
Rock Harbor on Utila's "North Side;" and there are remnants of reef on Utila's south side near the
population settlement at East Harbor. It teems with various forms of sea life: brain, fan, fungi
and finger corals; sea fans; sea urchins; sea anemones; and myriads of small tropical fish.
Human intrusion has caused the death or diminution of parts of the reef complex, as at East
Harbor, where purposeful destruction of the reef has eliminated an important breakwater for the
eastern end of Utila. For its part the coral reef has been a hazard to navigation, wrecking or
disabling ships that come too near; sunken ships dating as far back as the period of the Spanish
Main have been found nearby.
Those parts of Utila's perimeter that are not bound by coral reef are touched by foreshore
flat--sand and mud shallows no more than ten fathoms deep, much of which is a tangled murk of
sargasso or sea grass. Foreshore flat is not uniform around the island, however; so called "white
holes" punctuate the shallows where there is a total absence of sea grass and the depth may be a
bit greater than the adjacent sea floor.
Soundings in the immediate vicinity of Utila, as implied above, are not very deep where
reef or flat exist. Beyond the near-shore shallows, however (specifically on the North Side),
rapid drops in the sea floor may go to 120+ fathoms. On the south side of Utila, between the
island's settlement and the mainland of Honduras, waters never drop as deep as in the north; but
soundings of more than forty or fifty fathoms are recorded.
It is in the waters beyond reef and flat proper that the bulk of useful marine life is found.
Fishing banks two to sixteen miles distant are important in providing fish for market and local
consumption alike. More than a dozen banks were identified by informants, some only a few
yards in area, others as large as two and a half miles long by a mile wide and ranging in depth
from nine to 180 fathoms. On the periphery of the North Side reef line, for example, is the
Pumpkin Hill Bank where many food fish are found, among which are Porgies (Sparidae), Old
Wife (Balistes vetula), Black Fin (Lutjanus buccanella), Wahoo (Acanthocybium solanderi), Red
Snapper (Lutjanus blackfordi), Dogteeth Snapper (Lutjanus jocu ?), and Hogfish (Lachnolaimuus
maxumus). Conchs and occasional crayfish (Panulirus argus) can also be found in the vicinity of
the Cays or along the reef line. Turtles, notably Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and Green
(Chelonia mydas), are becoming rare.
Numerous bays, bights, and harbors interrupt the shoreline of Utila: Spotted Bay, Carey
Bay, Turtle Harbor, Rock Harbor, Jack's Bight, Swan Neck's Bay, Big Bight, East Harbor, Little
Bight. All of these locations can provide anchorage to shallow draft vessels such as dories or
skiffs, but East Harbor is the only place in Utila where larger craft--such as shrimpers, goletas
(passenger/cargo boats), et cetera--can safely find a berth. East Harbor has the virtues of
relatively deep water (up to ten fathoms) and protection from prevailing north and east winds.
Other anchorages are both shallower (three to six fathoms) and, more importantly, are exposed to
winds that can easily drive a boat aground or onto unyielding reef.
The Utila shoreline is also broken by entrances to the island's two lagoons: the Upper
Lagoon and the Lower Lagoon. The larger of the two, the Lower Lagoon, is about a mile west of
East Harbor. It abounds in oyster beds that go unused by islanders but is nevertheless important
to Utilians as the entrance to a man-made canal that curves its way through mangrove swamp to
the North Side. At high tide the canal can be navigated by dories to cut through the island to
Rock Harbor; during rainy weather, when surrounding swamp is impassable on foot, it is the
only practical route to cocals (coconut plantations) and the like that rim the island from Jack's
Bight to Turtle Harbor.
The Upper Lagoon lies near the eastern tip of East Harbor's deep crescent at the virtual
extremity of population settlement. Unlike its lower counterpart, the mouth of the Upper Lagoon
is spanned by a narrow wooden bridge that gives access to the community's airstrip and,
incidentally, impedes entrance to the lagoon by any boat larger than a dory. A natural canal
leads off from this lagoon, extending nearly a quarter of a mile to a private landing that served as
the loading terminus for island produce during the heyday of plantain and coconut production.
According to Strong (1935:3) the Bay Islands chain is
formed by the tops of a great submerged east-to-west mountain range around which coral
reefs have formed and rich soil has accumulated. . . . The formations are for the most part
limestone. . . . . In the interior valleys a rich alluvial soil occurs, the product of decaying
vegetation, and the hills are covered with red clay, which usually supports a dense
vegetation. There are no rivers on any of the islands. . . .
Quite probably the Bay Islands are an extension of the Barrier Reef that runs from Yucatan all
the way to South America, the Reef itself being part of the immense limestone shelf that supports
three Mexican states (Campeche, Yucatan and Quintana Roo), British Honduras (or Belize), and
other portions of eastern Central America (Bradford Duncan: personal communication). In
virtue of the essentially limestone base, three quarters of Utila is little more than a swampy basin
for catching rain water; soluble limestone has eroded to near-sea-level elevations leaving slightly
harder materials to confine precipitation that may fall on the island.
Volcanic materials constitute another important part of Utila's geology. Near the eastern
end of the island is Pumpkin Hill (also known as Conical Hill, elevation 290 feet), the greatest
prominence in Utila. Judged by its size, shape and surrounding lava flows, it would seem that
Pumpkin Hill is the site of ancient volcanic activity. From this supposed cone, lava spewed in all
directions leaving jagged terrain in locations throughout the eastern part of the island. Volcanic
activity was also responsible for the "iron rocks" (i.e., the lava flows) that jut at random into the
sea from Rocky Point near East Harbor all the way to the Iron Bound on the North Side. It
cannot be confirmed that volcanic activity resulted in forming Byron Cave and Brandon Hill
Cave--the only caves in Utila, both natural reservoirs for rainwater--but doubtless it is due to the
build-up of volcanic material along with decaying organic matter that Utila gets its gentle west-
east incline. The gentle grade just referred to has resulted in the colloquialism "going up" (i.e.,
east toward Pumpkin Hill) or "going down" (i.e., west toward lower elevations) when walking
about the island.
Like many Caribbean islands and cays, Utila is an insignificant speck viewed from a few
miles distant: a thin green line in the ocean that barely breaks the boundary between water and
sky. As noted above, however, Utila does have several distinguishing features when viewed
closer on: the protuberance of Pumpkin Hill and the two lagoons. Several other slight elevations
also exist in Utila, such as Stuart's Hill (elevation approximately 150 feet) but fully three quarters
of the land surface is covered by lowland swamp.
Several attempts have been made to alter island topography, one already referred to being
the construction of the canal at the Lower Lagoon. Another exception is the landing strip east of
the Upper Lagoon which was bulldozed out of a twenty-foot-high cliff area, a zone
approximately two hundred yards long that can accommodate aircraft as large as DC-3s.
Destruction of the reef breakwater has also been noted as a human alteration in the physical
environs and in connection with that is the most ambitious and extensive modification that
humans have effected in Utila: making land. Islanders have actively tailored their shoreline
around East Harbor to meet demands for seaside residential property. For more than a century,
islanders have continuously augmented their beach front by "making land. The original
shoreline of Utila, only a few yards deep from the high water mark, has been extended in many
places an additional thirty to forty yards or more by filling in fenced rectangles of water with
refuse and broken coral. Houses that were poised on pilings over eight feet of water some sixty
or seventy years ago now sit on terra firma and the process goes on--giving portions of the
harbor a Venetian effect--even though the cost is high in money and labor. Land making in the
swamp areas has been pursued in like manner, one barrio in the community being named
Holland to commemorate its origin through reclamation.
As a result of the largely limestone foundation, combined with very low elevations
throughout most of Utila, there is no surface water on the island. Hand-dug wells dotting the
eastern part of Utila intercept a water table between ten and twenty feet below the earth's surface.
Contrary to local lore, this water table and the feeding of local wells is not due to the existence of
springs but to percolation of swamp water through sand and pebbles (Bradford Duncan: personal
communication). (As mentioned above, water is also found in the two caves.) The water supply
of the island is, therefore, provided by rainwater being caught in the limestone basins, i.e., the
swamps, and then tapped off by the several wells that exist. Attempts to dig seaside wells have
generally proved unsatisfactory due to infiltration by sea water; the well water has been too
brackish to be used by humans and is useful, perhaps, only for irrigation, etc. Water for human
consumption is in short supply during dry seasons--rainwater does not resupply the swamp--and
can be a problem when tides are low. According to informants, the presence or absence of high
tides is directly correlated with higher or lower water levels in the wells: tides produce drive on
swamp water which is thereby forced through sand and gravel seams to the wells. During the
months of Spring Tides (July, August and September), water levels in the wells are higher and
more regular, easily siphoned off by the community water system. So too during February,
March and April--when another set of high tides reportedly beset Utila--well water is abundant.
The balance of the year, and especially from June until the end of July or middle of August,
potable water can become critically short.
Climatically Utila is the tropical island fabled both in adventure tales and travelers'
diaries. Although no scientific measure of temperature, winds, or rainfall exist for the island,
informants and field observations have provided rough approximations of these aspects of the
natural environment. (Comparative figures for Guanaja appear in Table 2.)
Rainfall in Utila runs to approximately one hundred inches per year. During the
traditional "winter"--October through January or February--the bulk of the precipitation is
received; occasional squalls throughout the remainder of the year account for the balance.
Temperatures normally range between high 70s F and the low 90s F for "summer"
months--March through September--but during the winter months the thermometer may drop as
low as the high 50s F.
Traditionally, the winds prevailing on Utila have distributed themselves through the year
with great regularity and, of course, have been closely tied to the other climatic factors of rainfall
The months of October through February--winter--have characteristically been marked
by nor'westers which bring the largest part of the year's rainfall. March, in contrast, has
generally been a hot, still month with overcast and low visibility due to fog or haze. Toward
Eastertime this weather is referred to as "Good Friday Weather" and does not break until the
easterly (trade) winds begin to blow. From late March or early April through August--the bulk
of the dry summer months--strong easterlies sweep Utila only to give way in September to
another hot, calm period that lasts until winter's nor'westers begin again.
RESUMEN DE LAS OBSERVACIONES PRACTICADAS EN LAS ESTACIONES
From Anuario Estadistico 1970, pp. 4ff.
METEOROLOGICAS DE LA REPUBLICA, POR ESTACION, 1970
(Guanaja, Departamento Islas De La Bahia)
Temperature in the shade in degrees centigrade
Average for the year 26.7
Average yearly high 30.0
Average yearly low 24.6
Average monthly high--October 31.1
Average monthly low--February 22.5
Extreme yearly high--September 2 33.2
Extreme yearly low--February 5 18.3
Relative humidity in percentage
Direction and velocity of the wind
Average for the year 82.1%
Prevailing direction . . . .East
Average monthly high85.2% Average annual velocity. . . . .
Average monthly low 79.9%
Maximum recorded velocity, 7/25,27-
Rainfall in millimeters
2205.2 (86.82 inches)
Maximum rainfall in one day (24 hrs.)
133.4 ( 5.25 inches)
Number of days with precipitation
Monthly distribution of rainfall in millimeters
January 167.4 (6.59") July 226.3 ( 8.91")
February 152.2 (5.99") August
68.6 ( 2.70")
March 38.4 (1.51")
September 112.5 ( 4.43")
April 28.5 (1.12")
October 167.9 ( 6.61")
May 200.9 (7.91")
November 666.8 (26.25")
June 222.3 (8.75")
December 153.7 ( 6.05")
In addition to their effect on agriculture, creating obvious problems for would-be
cultivators with dry or wet periods out of season, winds can have other profound implications for
Utila. Strong easterlies and nor'westers easily blockade the island; men do not dare to venture
out in their dories which result in hardship for the several households of fishermen. More
important to the community at large, however, is the weathering in of cargo boats upon which
the island depends for the transport of necessary supplies from the mainland. Interruption of the
weekly run to La Ceiba--Utila's closest mainland port and victualer for the island--invariably
means critical shortages in basic comestibles such as flour, rice, beans, sugar, meat, coffee and
In the past forty years, according to informants, the traditional pattern of seasons has
undergone change, some of it marked. Many "old heads" claim that all the predictability has
gone out of the weather and now "Utila has no seasons at all." Winds and tides, from first hand
inspection, seem to abide by traditional schedules; rainfall, however, is indeed unpredictable.
Fortunately for the island, Utila has through the years remained outside of the regular Caribbean
hurricane path that winds its way among the numerous islands from June to October; only
occasionally does Utila receive peripheral winds and rain from bypassing storms. Even then,
however, great damage to plantations has occurred and many farmers have had to retire in recent
years due to the destruction of their coconut, plantain, banana and other plantations.
Flora and Fauna
None of the informants involved in this study could provide specific data on pre-
settlement flora and fauna, but it appears certain that most of the useful food plants and animals
of Utila were imported to the island from the 1830s onward. (One informant claimed, however,
that Utila--like the other Bay Islands--had been stocked with goats and pigs by pirate visitors
who might have occasion to use the island. No reference to wild hogs, etc., being found by early
settlers has come to light, however.) At least a dozen different varieties of mango, pawpaw
(Carica papaya), breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), plantain (Musa paradisiaea), two or three
varieties of banana (Musa spp.), citrus (grapefruit, lime, orange), canop (unidentified), mamey
(Mammea americana), mamea (unidentified), almond, guava (Psidium gujava), tomato, melon
(watermelon and cantaloupe), cucurbits (collectively called "pumpkins"), casava (Manihot
dulce?), cocoyam (Colocasia esculenta), and star apple (Chrysophyllum caimito), to name the
preeminent cultivars, have been brought in from the Cayman Islands, the coast of Honduras, the
United States, and so on.
Cattle, horses, pigs, chickens and ducks have also been brought to Utila and represent the
total non-indigenous fauna.
The three-quarter portion of Utila that is swampland--manglar--sports three varieties of
mangrove that antedate settlement: white (Laguncularia), red (Rhizophora) and black
(Avicennia). The red mangrove bark was once used to produce dye for staining tanned leather.
Aside from this latter use, however, mangrove has primarily been useful for firewood, making
charcoal and fenceposts.
Bush, or woodland, intersperses plantation and pasture lands over the quarter of the
island not in swamp. The origin of plants constituting bush is largely unknown and a great
number of the floral repertoire are not even given common names. Of those plants that are
named, however, there are many that Utilians have employed for medicinal purposes or to other
utilitarian ends. The mahoe tree (Paritum elatum), for example, provides "poor man's rope" in
the form of its fibrous bark; a piece of mahoe bark one inch wide and two or three feet long can
easily support the weight of a man. The bark of the gumbo-limbo (or Indio Desnudo) tree
(Bursera simaruba?) can be used to force-ripen green bananas or plantains by alternating layers
of bark with layers of fruit in a drum or barrel. Heat (of unidentified chemical origin) generated
from the bark turns bananas or plantains ripe within a day or two. Sempervire, a spike-like
cactus, is used internally for inflammation of the kidneys and externally to heal boils and open
wounds. Scotchineal, another cactus, is used to cure external inflammation. Circe, worrywine,
ramgoat (Vinca rosea) and stinking toe are all used as blood builders. In addition to the
foregoing, such plants or vines as "licorice" (Abrus precatorius), worm bush, red scallop leaf,
forbidden fruit, tamarind, pepper leaf, madre cacao and bay leaf are used for maladies ranging
from coughs to amoebas to eczema.
Although the roar of alligators was common in Utila at the time of settlement, few of
these indigenous reptiles still exist in the swamps. Most alligators were exterminated years ago
for their valuable skins. Land crabs--the Blue Crab especially--can be found throughout the
length and breadth of Utila and number "in the millions." Islanders eat the larger of this breed
and sometimes use smaller ones for bait to catch such fish as the White Pompas. Crab holes
undermine many portions of the island and in residential areas are a hazard to building
foundations and pedestrian traffic: the ignominy of falling in a crab hole is exceeded only by the
pain of a sprained ankle.
Two varieties of lizard--called wishiwillies (unidentified)--and iguanas are also abundant
in Utila. Wishiwillies are either "high-landers," living on dry ground, or "swampers," for their
habit of living in the wetter portions of the island. Both varieties grow to between one and two
feet in length and four to five pounds weight. Iguanas, distinguishable from their black- or gray-
skinned cousins by their green epidermis, may grow to more than six feet in length and a
proportionate weight. Wishiwillies and iguanas alike are considered delicacies, especially when
fried in coconut milk and served with "bread kind" (cassava, plantains, sweet potatoes and the
like). The other notable feature concerning iguanas and wishiwillies, especially the latter, is their
destructiveness to agricultural plants; considerable ruin is done by these lizards eating off the
leaves and young shoots of cultivars3.
No inventory of insect or bird life has been taken in Utila, but prolific numbers of sand
flies, mosquitoes, ticks and common house flies are noisome to humans and domesticated
animals alike. Scorpions, tarantulas, wee wees (leafcutter ants), small insect-eating snakes and
waulas (boa constrictors) are denizens of bush land. Pelicans, seagulls, pigeons, ground doves
Although Utilians distinguish between wishiwillies and iguanas, Evans reports (1966:10) that
residents of Roatan apparently use these names interchangeably for the same creature which he
identifies as Ctenosaura similis.
and John Crows (vultures), hummingbirds and numerous small, colorful bush birds are in
Size is obviously a limiting aspect of Utila's physical setting. Of the maximum 24.36
square miles of area representing the main island, only six square miles are usable for agriculture
or habitation due to the mangrove swamps. Volcanic and limestone composition of the usable
land area inhibits mechanized agriculture, should anyone be inclined to pursue any form of
agriculture at all, and problems of precipitation and irrigation also hamper any prospective
agricultural activity. At best, Utilians could hope, perhaps, to cultivate their island in traditional
slash-and-burn style in order to provide subsistence crops.
Although there are abundant varieties of fish and other marine life in surrounding waters,
it is questionable whether they are available in commercially profitable quantities or whether
Utilians could--with their available capital and technology--gain access to them. Shipping itself
is inhibited through a lack of good port facilities (shallow waters and coral reefs abound), but
there is nothing produced locally that would be marketable in any event. Access to the island by
air is not sufficiently well coordinated from the mainland or the United States--let alone other
Caribbean or Central American countries--to make a tourist industry likely and support facilities
such as restaurants and hotels are extremely limited.
In sum, the physical attributes of Utila are, and have been, limiting in terms of the viable
economic alternatives. To the extent that certain options were open to Utilians, considering also
such factors as capital and available technology, they coupled with historical conditions to
preadapt islanders for the remittance economy. The concept of preadaptation is further
illustrated in Chapter IV where the economic component of Utila's remittance system is
REMITTANCE SYSTEM INTERRELATIONSHIPS: ECONOMICS
A preliminary overview of Utila's past was traced out in Chapter II in order to illustrate
preadaptation for a remittance system. That over-view was presented according to a two-phase
scheme which emphasized economic phenomena as demarcations between a traditional society
(based on agriculture) and a contemporary society (dependent on the merchant marine). Using
same two-phase distinction, the economic sector of Utila's remittance system is examined below.
With this examination, the interface between economy, society and polity comes into clearer
focus and assertions made in Chapter I are further strengthened.
The particular chapter divisions employed in the following discussion contribute to
understanding Utila's remittance-supported society, and to the theses set forth in Chapter I, in the
following ways. First, "Production and Consumption Bases [Patterns]" lets us look at the
traditional ways of making a living (and underwriting the expense of the good life) during the
years leading up to World War II. Having established the baseline of Utilian earning and
spending patterns, it is possible to see--by comparison with counterpart phenomena in the
remittance phase--the ready transition from one phase to the other. This, then, supports the idea
of preadaptation in Utilian society and long-existing tendencies to commercialism and
Second, "Trade" illustrates how Utilians took advantage of their agricultural activity and
the markets for agricultural produce in the United States to bring prosperity to their island. It
likewise establishes the extensiveness of maritime activity which served as a preadaptation for
future merchant marine service. In addition, this section underscores the facts of Utilian
individualism and commercialism and also is an indicator of the deprivation islanders
experienced once northern markets disappeared and island shipping vanished. This deprivation
relates directly to the "limited good" perspective that prevailed in Utila as the good life became
increasingly difficult to attain. From this viewpoint (i.e., that chances for the good life were
actually diminishing radically), it is possible to understand Utilians choosing to go into the
Third, "Land Ownership and Utilization" is particularly relevant to the arguments
pertaining to individualism and consumerism and to understanding motivations for present day
involvement in the remittance system. Land, directly linked to socioeconomic success during the
agricultural phase, has become the major symbol of the good life in contemporary Utila. Land
ownership demonstrated individual striving during the agricultural phase. Since the remittance
system began, however, land ownership demonstrates the most conspicuous facet of consumer
Further, because land represents an important element of the good life and because of its
associations with social stratification (discussed in Chapter V), Utilians are motivated to work in
the remittance system. The quest for land and the reward that owning land can mean to a Utilian,
show the significance of this section to the overall study.
Fourth, "The Distribution of Wealth" shows the differential advantages, hence differential
enjoyment of the good life, accruing to the individualistic (and commercialistic) islanders prior
to the remittance economy. In connection with land ownership and social stratification, this
discussion underscores the point about Utilian individualism. In relation to migration, this
section helps to demonstrate the shrinking number of economic alternatives open to islanders and
a preadaptation for the remittance system.
Finally, discussion of "Migration" lends support to the contention that Utilians, aware of
the lessening opportunities to attain the good life, were prepared for the viable alternative of
going into the merchant marine.
In summary, as in Chapter II, emphasis in the following description and analysis is on the
attributes of individualism, commercialism and social non-cooperation within the Utilian
population. Again, it is through these orientations that traditional island practices and
institutions become comprehendible. It is also through these orientations that Utila's physical
limitations can be appreciated as contributors to the islander decision to go into the merchant
marine rather than abandon the island, as many had earlier done, or remain to endure poverty.
The Agricultural Phase: 1835-1941
Production and Consumption Bases
During this initial economic phase particular patterns were established in producing and
utilizing goods and services; these patterns have had continuing significance in the aftermath of
World War II (the point dividing the two phases) and reflect islander values that were present
with the very founding of Utila.
Production and distribution techniques in the initial economy were simple: slash-and-
burn horticulture was practiced by each planter with little or no help from non-household
members. Each man attempted to grow enough of the crops he had under cultivation to supply
his household with those particular commodities and, just as importantly, have enough surplus to
sell at various ports along the Honduran coast, in British Honduras or as far away as Tampa and
New Orleans. Commercial production for export was absolutely necessary since planters
concentrated on a narrow range of crops--items often associated with monocrop agriculture such
as coconuts, bananas, citrus and the like--and made no attempt to provide a full array of
agricultural foods needed by a household. Even kitchen gardens were apparently absent from
Utila's agricultural scene.
Contact with consumer markets throughout the early years of settlement was effected by
a boat owner periodically gathering produce from other planters and then "making a run" to
specified ports such as El Porvenir or Puerto Cortes (on the Honduran coast); profit from sales
would be turned back to the producer less fees for shipping.
In addition to planting and shipping, several other part-time occupations filled out the
production aspect of Utila's economy. Males did some subsistence fishing, hunting for whelks,
turtle eggs and crabs, and occasional husbanding of cattle, pigs and chickens. Women operated
primarily in domestic functions--cooking, washing, etc.--and sometimes did sewing or baking to
Internally, the island economy operated with mixed barter and monetary systems of
exchange. Islanders often practiced selective reciprocity in goods (for example, when a man
butchered a pig all of his neighbors shared in the meat; if a turtle or large fish were caught the
flesh would be shared) and services (for example, in making boat repairs, house building and the
like). Small-scale merchandising (as in the retail vending of rum or imported groceries and
manufactures) was done primarily on a cash sale basis. From its very settlement, then, Utila has
been characterized by commercialism. Apparently from 1836 onwards a system of mixed
currency was used in the various monetary transactions; not only was Honduran currency used,
but also that of other British Caribbean territories and the United States (the latter is still used in
Utila and is referred to as "gold").
Insofar as overall consumption patterns are concerned, data indicate that islanders
brought with them several cultural biases that, in their persistence, have had significant impact
on the Utilian economy. In the realm of consumer consumption, preferences in clothing,
housing, furnishings and in their diet reflected British and U.S. styles and sentiments from the
beginning of island settlement.
Clothing and dry goods, for example, were purchased in British Honduras, the United
States or in other Caribbean islands because they were of better style and quality than anything
available in Central America. Likewise, these items tended to be cheaper than Central American
products due to the fact that as a one-time British colony Utila was relatively duty free--not to
mention the lower prices obtained through extensive smuggling between British Honduras and
Utila (which may have something to do with mainland Hondurans still referring to islanders as
Lumber for the construction of their frame houses (plus adornments such as lattice work)
was imported from the United States on the grounds that it was better milled and treated than
anything available from the Honduran mainland.
Household furnishings were derived largely from non-Central American countries.
Islanders bought settees, rocking chairs, china cupboards, bedsteads and so on from the United
States. Again, their quality and design are stated to have been more congenial to Utilians than
anything available locally. Various "conspicuous consumption" items such as pianos, cast iron
stoves, elaborate (kerosene) lighting fixtures, etc., were also acquired in the United States as
desirable elaborations beyond basic household needs. Gadgets and bric-a-brac found ready
homes in Utilian households.
Dietary preference ran to heavy meat intake--beef, pork and chicken in particular--the
eating of wheat flour bread and consumption of prepared foods (tinned cocoa, biscuits, preserves,
etc.). Items in this array were either atypical of Central American buying patterns or were too
costly for mainland compatriots, but persisted after settlers came to Utila as a part of their
traditional life style.
The significance of this brief sketch of biases in consumer consumption is that it
demonstrates Utilian perseverance--and pride--in maintaining traditional patterns while at the
same time being progressive, e.g., self-consciously modeling themselves on comparable
communities along the Gulf Coast of the United States (cf. Rose 1904:11 et passim). The
combination of biases accounts for a major component in the Utilian image of the "good life"
and is therefore important in understanding economic motivations in Utila. It was the amplifying
of consumption and production patterns alike that led to Utilian option for a remittance system
when that option was afforded residents of the island.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the United States market for tropical fruits
expanded radically. Concomitantly, Utilian planters expanded their production to meet market
demands and almost as a body, settlers moved from the original cay communities to occupy Utila
Plantations were increased to commercial proportions--some as large as 90 acres--
shipping increased in number of boats owned and operated and in gross tonnage transported and
became an enterprise in its own right.
Consumerism in all its facets increased along with the additional production and income:
more goods, more travel, more everything upon which money could be spent were acquired.
Beyond these amplifications of the fundamental aspects of Utila's economy, the boom created by
the influx of cash from the United States brought about several other alterations in the
sociocultural system. For example, immigration to Utila increased markedly. Wage laborers
(recent arrivals from other Caribbean islands and also from the Honduran mainland) arrived to
do unskilled or semi-skilled tasks. A merchant-captain-landholder class of the "first families"
also began to emerge.
Unfortunately for islanders, the advent of large fruit companies (Standard and United) to
the Honduran mainland around the turn of the century aborted Utilian prosperity. Competition
with the giant companies was futile and Utila was rapidly thrown into an economic recession; the
world depression of the 1920s and 1930s only aggravated an already bad situation in Utila.
Production had to be cut back; shipping disappeared; purchase of any goods save absolute
essentials was radically curtailed.
Before turning, however, to Utila's second economic phase it would prove illuminating to
look at greater depth into one or two of the first-phase alterations mentioned above.
The magnitude of trade during the agricultural phase, either in monetary or other absolute
terms, could not be ascertained, but some indication of the importance of trade to Utila is given
by reference to a roster of ships owned by Utilians and sailing out of East Harbor during its
boom period (approximately 1875-1900). Ships were primarily involved in local (i.e., coastal
Honduran) trade but also plied waterways between Utila and the United States. Since the boom
period represents the zenith in Utilian maritime activity, the number of ships, crews, etc., would
be radically lower both before the boom and directly after it. The data for Table 3 were provided
by Lutchen-Lehn (n.d.:47-49) and could be substantially corroborated by my own informants.
SHIPS OWNED BY UTILIANS AND SAILING OUT OF EAST
HARBOR DURING THE BOOM PERIOD, 1875-1900
Ship's Name Owner
*Clara L. Dyer D. Warren & Co.
*Franz B. Hiller "
*Storm King R. Woodville & Co.
*Royalist R.H. Rose & Co.
*Nellie Dixon Alfred Morgan, Sr.
*Elsa Louisa "
*Violet Charles Cooper, Sr.
Luria Esau Cooper
Sybilla Alfred Morgan, Jr.
Marian Cutter Irwin Bodden
Southern Queen Edward Warren
Olimpia White Bush
Beloit Mowat Eden
Sally Dwight Hunter
Wireless Charles Cooper
Kate Esau Esau Cooper
Viola Hill Clifton Hill
Roncador James Bush
Adele Irwin Bodden
Frances Darryl Thompson
Telegram Edward Warren
Emma Grace Esau Cooper
Reporter Timothy Morgan
Editor Alfred Morgan, Jr.
Concord Alfred Morgan, Sr.
TABLE 3 - Continued
Ship's Name Owner
Unity Henry Bodden
Dispatch Henry Greenwood
V. C. Harriman Timothy Morgan
Britannic Albert Morgan
Beatrice Adele Damon Cooper
Violin Henry Greenwood
Romeria Lindsay Bush
Obispo Darryl Thompson
Nimrod Clifton Hill
Maxine Timothy Morgan
R. E. Hill George Hill
Daisy C. Bryant Cooper
Verdun Irwin Bodden
Honduras Alfred Morgan, Sr.
San Cristobal Van Baker
Conduct David Warren
Gerty May Alfred Morgan, Jr.
Monitor R. Woodville
John A. Woodville "
C. L. Clark Alfred Morgan, Sr.
Gypsy Irwin Bodden
Anette Damon Cooper
Exelcior Van Buren Bodden
Cecile Harry Bodden
Frank Luis Luther Howell
Wooloo Mooloo David Warren
Willie Ebanks A. Greenwood
Eureka Darryl Morgan
Pilgrim Luther Howell
*Ships marked with an asterisk were apparently the only ones involved in actual trade with the
U.S.; other ships were restricted to local runs.
It should be obvious, then, from Table 3 that Utilians committed a great deal in money
and energy to shipping as an economic venture. By the time the world depression hit Utila most
of these ships no longer claimed East Harbor as their berth: some had been sold; some were long
since inoperable due to age and decay; and many--according to informants--had been lost in
hurricanes and bad weather. Insofar as shipping was ever important to Utila and its local
captains, that importance waxed and waned entirely during the agricultural phase.
Land Ownership and Utilization
Field data indicate that the founders of Utila--probably of lower or working class origin,
as previously noted--carried with them the ideal of independent ownership of land. Several of
my informants claimed that many islanders in the course of Utila's history had actually died
"land poor" given their propensity to possess land. Nor was the acquisition of land
indiscriminate: from the time Utilians moved to the main island certain plots appear to have
been more favored than others.
The shore of East Harbor and the hill directly behind it--La Loma--were prime residential
areas, so much so that when waterfront lots, for example, could not otherwise be obtained
islanders resorted to making land. Subsequently, Utila's founding--first--families controlled the
choice housesites in the island; and with that control some aspects of land tenure took on more
than sheer economic (or aesthetic?) importance; there came to be a correlation between social
place and physical space.
This latter, non-economic aspect of land ownership, was also extended in a modified
form to plantation areas in the bush. Although bush land was more a chattel than an element of
social stratification, there were more desirable properties than others as determined by
accessibility and usefulness. Tracts were more or less distant from the community at East
Harbor and more or less directly approachable through swampy areas that make up the bulk of
the main island. Some land was flatter and more open than other, especially in terms of lava
flows whose jagged ridges made pasturage or easy cultivation all but impossible (e.g., along the
Iron Bound; see Map). Latecomers to Utila were often, it seems, relegated to less desirable
properties simply as a function of their arriving too late for choice spots. The advantage of the
founding families--both socially and economically--over subsequent arrivals was, to repeat,
measured in part by land tenure.
During those years when the Bay Islands had been a British colony, land grants from the
Crown were made to individuals for various parcels, both housesite and plantation types.
Subsequent to the Wyke-Cruz Treaty all land transactions were subject to Honduran law. The
sale of property (hence its acquisition) had to be arranged with private documents--sales
contracts describing the property, cost, etc.--and public documents which legally registered a
sales transaction and involved a lawyer and/or payment of registration fees.
Utila's low population density during the agricultural phase (see Appendix B) and what
would seem to have been the rather easy matter of obtaining land either from Spanish or English
governments (depending on the period in question) or from one of the already existing owners
nevertheless did not prevent islanders from attempting to defraud one another of territory. Not
only did they attempt to gain land from one another by chicanery, they at times would simply
resort to squatting on another's land and win it to their own holdings by default.
The observation that islanders had, and have, a penchant for encroaching on one another's
land is more than gossip or malicious slander on the part of informants. Rose (1904:67), in
talking about various homicides that had occurred in Utila's history, notes that the first murder in
the island involved land disputes and the moving of boundary markers.
Another datum we provided by (black) Utilian informants regarding an island tragedy
taking place in 1905. During that year one of the black residents of the island, a long-time and
trusted employee of many island whites, shot or otherwise murdered more than a dozen people
(both black and white) on board the goleta (passenger and cargo ship) Olimpia (see Table 3).
The Olimpia massacre is legendary in Utila as the font of interracial friction, but more
importantly here is one particular account of the massacre given by black informants. According
to this version, the murderer had committed the murders and robbery in order to get revenge and
economic recompense for being cheated out of a parcel of land that he had put in pawn. A
wealthy white Utilian had accepted the land as collateral for a small cash loan; when the
borrower attempted to pay off the loan and recover his land the lender claimed that a sale had
Insofar as utilization of land was concerned, to Joseph Cooper and the other early settlers,
cay and main-island land was merely a factor--the prime factor--of production in their farming
economy. Although they termed their cocals, etc., "plantations" the sense in which they used the
term is not the conventional academic usage found, for example, in the writings of Mintz and
Wolf (1957:380) in which they say:
We shall let plantation stand for an agricultural estate, operated by dominant owners
(usually organized into a corporation) and a dependent labor force, organized to supply a
large-scale market by means of abundant capital in which the factors of production are
employed primarily to further capital accumulation without reference to the status needs
of the owners.
Utilians never managed to achieve the full-fledged state of plantation agriculture--
agribusiness, in fact--due primarily to external market conditions. They did amplify their
original farming activity, however, to a very lucrative pitch; and incipient plantation economy, in
the sense of the term as used by Mintz and Wolf, may have had much to do with the "social
place=physical space" phenomenon that ultimately developed.
By and large, bush properties were divided into pasture lands and plantations. No exact
figures nor estimates could be found, but pasture land seems to have been by far the lesser use to
which the bush was put. Animal husbandry was not, apparently, a popular pursuit with islanders
even though one could imagine that there would be a ready local market for such a product as
beef. The quality of pasture fed tropically grown beef might have been one factor inhibiting a
local market, however, since--without corn or other cereal grains to fatten the animals--that meat
would be lean and stringy (in contrast to imported meat that might well have been corn fed).
Still another factor bearing on the quality of island-grown beef would have been the lack of
refrigeration or proper preservation of butchered meat: Utilian butchers, however deft they
might have been in cutting less-than-prime carcasses, could never adequately age the meat to
provide tender, tasty viands for island households.
In pure economic terms, it could be hypothesized that animal husbandry was not popular
since, for example, beef raising is a high capital, long term investment. From calf stage to
marketable beef stage might take as long as two to three years, which along with the problems of
insuring good health to the tropically raised animals (warding off insect and parasite pests such
as ticks, mosquitoes, worms, etc.) may well have made beef raising too risky a venture.
In contrast to relatively small scale, economically secondary pastoral usage, land for
plantations was crucial to Utilians. Again, no exact figures are available, but plantings from a
few to several score acres are known to have existed in the island. Popular with Utilian farmers
were banana and plantain "trees" (actually perennial herbs with soft herbaceous stalks) that could
be brought into production within two to three years from the time the root stock material was
planted. Coconuts, which took up to seven or eight years to bear, were also popular since they
would continue to produce year after year with relatively little care once they had reached
maturity. Fruit trees, especially citrus and mango of different varieties, also found a place in
island plantations although they do not seem to have been economically as important as bananas
The care of a banana or coconut "walk" consisted mainly in keeping back the ever-
encroaching tropical bush and harvesting ripe fruit. Some walks appear to have consisted of
mixed trees, i.e., some coconut, some banana, some mango or citrus, rather than solid stands of
just one kind. This is evidently due to terrain; banana plants, for example, are quite tenacious
growers and can even survive in little pockets of earth between lava flows where other trees or
tree-like plants could not prosper. The mixed nature of an individual's plantation required
considerable familiarity with his inventory of cultivars; a man had to know each of his trees in
order to properly attend to it during various facets of the growing/bearing cycle (this too,
perhaps, inhibited large scale use, at least initially, of outside wage laborers: too much reliance
on individuals not intimately concerned with planting would put a block between a man and his
production--with costly results).
As already mentioned, seaside and hillside properties were specifically housesites. The
major consideration in choosing the shorefront or hillside was comfort; either of these locales
was kept cooler and more insect free than inland sites because of the easterly winds.
Subsequently, when trade and transshipping of fruit from the island interior became important to
Utila, shorefront lots gained economic value for their ready access to ships at wharves or at
anchor in the harbor. Stores and bars were located along the shoreline in order to minimize
problems of supplying them from cargo boats. Large warehouses were even built out over the
water near the shore as collection centers for agricultural produce (especially coconuts) to make
transshipment easier. Those who owned the wharves and/or seaside lands could levy fees for
access to the various boats. In this way too the peculiarities of land tenure, as it developed in
Utila, helped to reinforce the growth of distinctive socioeconomic classes.
The Distribution of Wealth
Settler families were, logically, in an advantageous position to establish and control any
initial economic enterprises. Not surprisingly, then, a relatively larger amount of Utila's wealth
gravitated to the founding families, especially when monies earned in planting were multiplied
by the entrance of these same families into maritime trade and/or merchandising. Reference to
Table 3 should provide sufficient evidence that a handful of families dominated shipping; the
same families, essentially, who were the merchants and holders of the largest amounts of land.
Support, from the section on land ownership, also exists for the contention that
socioeconomic classes formed rather early. Additional data regarding differential distribution of
wealth come from two other sources, one direct and the other inferential. Francis Moran (a
pseudonym), a merchant in the Utila of 1973, pointed out that during the "Coconut Oil Years,"
already mentioned, his family's store was the only such venture (out of more than half-a-dozen)
to weather the depression disaster. As will be recalled, merchants during this period were in the
position of operating "company stores": people could render out coconut oil, but payment was
received only in merchandise from the purchaser. Either the Moran enterprise was simply
luckier than others, or--as asserted by my informant--there was more substantial foundation to it:
the Moran family was categorically in a different position relative to the other merchants and
other islanders as well. Those merchants who were financially submerged by the depression
must have entered those years relatively better off than most islanders, which further points to
the existence of economic gradations in Utila's population.
Inferential evidence of (socio)economic classes in Utila comes from census records and
various registries in the municipality. Taken together the figures from these sources show the
importance to Utila of emigration during the agricultural phase as a literal escape valve from the
local economic situation. Emigration points quite directly to certain aspects of Utila's economic
class structure as well as to the overall condition of an economy that would force many people to
Appendix B, compiled from a number of different sources, demonstrates that between
1858 and 1935 Utila's population increased by 955 people. Vital statistics were not kept in Utila
before 1881, but from 1900 (after which date fairly reliable, intact records exist) until 1935 only
507 births were recorded. For the same 1900-1935 period some 200 death entries can be found.
Obviously natural population increase would not account for the number of resident Utilians in
1935: many outsiders had to have immigrated to the island over the years. And, indeed,
informants affirm the importance of outsiders augmenting the island population.
Reference to Appendix B again shows that Utila experienced two sizeable jumps in
population--between 1867 and 1889 (during the fruit boom) and between 1897 and 1935. The
first jump would, as just noted, have to be due to the influx of immigrants since Utilian fecundity
would not account for the increase; this is also logical since there was the attraction of wealth to
be made from the expanding fruit production frontier.
The apparent jump from the 1897 to 1935 populations is, however, mainly due to natural
increase but the figures hide the fact that during this period Utila in fact lost a significant
proportion of her population through emigration to the United States.
Although the overall island population grew from approximately 600 to slightly more
than 1000 during the period under discussion, an estimated 500 emigrants permanently left Utila
to settle in New Orleans, Tampa, New York, Chicago and other U.S. cities. Most of these
islanders maintained contact with Utila and, in fact, returned--with varying frequency--to visit
friends and relatives. Some sent money to family members still in the island in order bolster
flagging finances. Lowenthal and Comitas (1962:202) make an observation that is significant
here in the analysis of Utila's outward-bound population:
The common belief that international migrants are the most desperately poverty-stricken
misfits and outcasts is denied by the evidence; in the Irish famine, for instance, only the
comparatively well-off could scrape up the energy and the passage money to emigrate
across the Atlantic.
Utila's emigrant population was, more than likely, made up of people who were not as
economically disadvantaged as late-arriving wage laborers. They were, nevertheless, in a less
enviable position than the Morans, and rather than attempt to weather the economic storm
besetting Utila, opted to go to the United States while they still had some resources to draw
upon. The inference here is that Utila had supported a socioeconomic structure consisting of at
least three sectors; two of these remained in the island (the wealthiest and the poorest) while a
middle sector--perhaps Utila's potential or would-be "middle class"--chose to emigrate. Those
who emigrated would, hypothetically, have been at least in a fair position to help with
remittances, as they subsequently did, those who remained since they were perhaps the relatively
more adventuresome, competitive, or at the least more solvent than those who were in a sense
compelled to stay. At the same time, of course, Utila lost some of the very people who might
have prevented the island from becoming a money order economy had they exercised their
energies and talents in Utila proper to overcome limitations already discussed.
The Remittance Phase: 1941 to Date
Production and Consumption Patterns
Shortly before the United States entered World War II, United Fruit Company sent
representatives to Utila to sign up seamen for its steamship line. The score or so local men who
joined the company, having become experienced with United, rapidly found themselves working
in wartime U.S. merchant shipping. While at sea they sent monthly allotments to family
members at home. Monthly money orders and checks from absentee sailors and remittances
from permanent emigrants started an economic upturn in Utila. Nor did economic renaissance
end with the war; returning sailors inspired others to ship out, and themselves returned--again
and again--for tours of sea duty.
In the years that followed, Utilian males have totally forsaken agriculture, part time
subsistence fishing, or any of the traditional pursuits of island men. Young boys have been
socialized, and therefore geared themselves, to the expectation that at age eighteen (when they
can obtain seamen's papers) they would take their place in the ranks of merchant mariners.
Females have likewise been socialized to anticipate wifedom and motherhood as largely solitary
status-roles, solitary save for the company of other women who share in the same cultural
Utilians spend much of their wealth on improved housing and/or their own piece of land.
So great an expenditure of money can best be explained by the reward that having these
commodities represents to islanders, but while being the reward on one hand for going to sea, the
house and lot are also the motivation for shipping out. Traditional house plans have been
retained, but additional refinements are made. Many people have wired their houses for
electricity, which came to Utila on a part time basis during the 1950s; some half a dozen men
bought their own generators. Some houses (less than a score out of 240, however) are now
totally equipped with indoor plumbing--sinks and lavatories, showers, toilets--rather than wash
basins and pitchers, out-of-doors bathing facilities and privies. House pilings--used to elevate
structures off the ground as protection against high tides, and for circulation of air--were made
taller and from reinforced concrete (as opposed to short buttonwood posts). Space "under the
house floor" could now be used for storage or work purposes, or as a recreation area where a
porch swing could be suspended.
Furnishings have been far from neglected. Many islanders own kerosene refrigerators
and stoves and new vinyl covered furniture.
In 1973 Utila obtained full time water and electrification service from a fish processing
plant that had been opened by U.S. investors. Subscribers to the service--an estimated 80%-85%
of island households--pay for electricity according to kilowatt-hours used and for water based on
the number of people in the household and have become thoroughly tied to the existence of these
amenities. (The rate of electricity runs from $5.00 for 0-20kwh to $37.65 for 440kwh, or 16¢ per
kwh, about three times as much as Southern California Edison.) Although the utilities are very
costly in themselves, the effect of their availability has been most significant economically.
Ever since electrification was available even on a part time basis, Utilians have purchased
an increasing number of appliances and electrically-operated gadgets. There are, for example,
more than forty television sets in the island, an equal number of stereophonic record players,
radios, electric irons and fans and perhaps a score of electric refrigerators and washers. These
have absorbed much of the island income, as have butane gas stoves, power tools, motor cycles,
bicycles and motor-driven dories. Ready-made clothing, imported canned goods (as well as
tobacco and liquor) continued to appear in increasing volume from the beginning of this phase.
Men often have returned to Utila with lump sums of money that they had saved while
abroad; it is not rare for a man to bring $2000-$3000 with him when he comes home. Much of
this latter wealth has been spent in outright recreation. Thus, while wives or other family
members might use remittances on things noted above, sailors themselves often exhaust the lump
sum savings on a two or three month spree involving day or week-long binges at local bars or in
private parties held in someone's home. Inasmuch as home leave is coordinated, in most cases,
with island holidays (the 15th of September, Central America's Independence Day, to New
Years, inclusive), partying has been reinforced by the culture itself, to say nothing of sailors'
traditional desire to "blow off steam."
The foregoing is not meant to imply that islanders have totally consumed the earnings
brought in by merchant mariners; some investment has taken place, even if inadvertent, in the
purchasing of real estate. Also, without question, many Utilians put money aside in a savings
account in the United States (in Tampa, for example) or in La Ceiba, the nearest coastal city to
Utila. Not until 1966, however, was there any formal financial institution in the island itself. In
1966 a credit union was established where islanders could save money, and--just as importantly--
The incidence of island males investing in businesses (shops or bars, for example) or in
capital goods (land for use as plantations, boats that could be run on coastal or other trade) has
nevertheless been relatively small. Few households have earmarked funds to obtain schooling
for their children beyond the primary school level, although it has not been unusual for a child to
be sent to the United States for secondary school.
In sum, economic prosperity achieved by Utilians in post World War II years has not
been harnessed in order to insure long term economic well-being that could derive from the
island itself, and the argument advanced in this study is that opportunities for such investment
would be limited and largely unprofitable anyway.
Before turning to other aspects of Utila's remittance phase economy, a look at some
specific features might bring contemporary production and consumption patterns into greater
relief. At the time I did research in Utila its remittance economy had been in force for almost a
quarter of a century. Approximately 240 households--around 900 islanders--constituted the
population of the main island, and these households marshalled close to 150 men between the
ages of 18 and 55 to work various U.S. and Scandinavian shipping lines.
According to figures provided by the manager of the recently opened bank in Utila, some
270 remittances clear his bank monthly (based on figures from 17 February 1973, when the bank
opened, until May 1974). At an average of $100 per check, roughly $27,000 has entered Utila
via Bancahsa each month. The Credit Union manager also provided remittance figures: between
$15,000-$20,000 monthly entered Utila in money order or check allotments. In addition to the
$40,000+ income to Utila each month for at least ten months of every year has been the lump
sum savings (previously referred to) brought by sailors on home leave, monthly pensions coming
to retired mariners, and incidental remittances from emigrants (temporary and permanent) in the
United States. It would seem that just short of $1,000,000 a year enters Utila. Per capita income
is therefore over $1100 if just the main island population of Utila is used for calculations
(slightly more than $830 if the Cayans are included), and is thus far higher than it is in most of
Central America or most Caribbean islands. Utila's overall standard of living obviously far
surpasses that of any mainland Honduran community of the same size. (For comparison figures,
see Table 4.)
COMPARISON PER CAPITA INCOME FIGURES FROM CENTRAL
AMERICAN AND CARIBBEAN COUNTRIES
1960 1963 1968 1969
Barbados 330 399 472 512
British Honduras --- 346 --- ---
Costa Rica 347 351 429 468
Dominican Republic 222 284 280 309
El Salvador 219 235 265 265
Guatemala 258 284 306 315
Haiti --- 74 86 87
Honduras 197 201 259 260
Jamaica 368 412 507 561
Martinique --- 573 --- ---
Mexico 315 370 543 580
Netherlands Antilles 1193 1113 1139 ---
Nicaragua 242 286 377 385
Panama 349 431 552 600
Puerto Rico 717 914 1393 1533
Trinidad, Tobago 535 595 683 ---
Source: United Nations Statistical Yearbook, 1972, p. 622.
With regard to expenditure of this income, it has already been observed that two or three
months of the year are "rest and recreation" time for returned sailors. At the rate of 35¢ per
bottle of beer and around 50¢ for a shot of rum, a major (though seasonal) expense in Utila has
been the alcohol consumed in traditional drinking sprees.
Savings accounts at the bank amount to $125,000, and shares in the Credit Union total
$120,000. Savings may have been accumulated over a number of years; the bulk of Utila's
annual income still has to be accounted for.
Between $3000-$4000 worth of provisions are purchased weekly from the mainland by
Utila's ten merchants. In the absence of other victuallers in the island (there is only one farmer
left perhaps eight or ten seasonal fishermen, and approximately the same number of cattle
owner/butchers) these expenditures reflect the basic annual outlay for food stuffs and small
household goods: $200,000. Interestingly, retail merchandising in Utila is done in very small
amounts: 10¢ worth of flour, 5¢ worth of powdered milk, 15¢ worth of lard, and so on are
standard sales/purchases (local recipes are even given out in the manner: "take 5¢ Klim
[powdered milk], 15¢ flour," etc.) despite the apparent wealth of the islanders. Piecemeal
merchandising extends to the vending of aspirin (2¢ each), penicillin (5¢ each), and to other non-
food items that are sold by the tablet or "piece." One merchant claimed that this was done
because people in his neighborhood were poor--which was also the reason given for not stocking
certain items that cost too much for his clientele. (My wife and I, for example, were virtually his
only customers for Log Cabin Maple Syrup, imported from Guatemala.) Although some people
were very definitely less well off in the neighborhood being referred to, this style of
merchandising pervaded the entire island to include neighborhoods with individuals who just as
definitely were wealthy by island standards. I think, therefore, that "penny capitalism"--to use
Tax's words (cf. Tax 1953)--might have as much or more to do with two other factors in Utila's
economy. First, there is a problem for many islanders of monetary logistics: remittance checks
are received once a month, which means that Utilians can easily experience a feast-or-famine
situation if their allotment is not big enough to last until a subsequent money order or check
and/or they do not follow a fairly strict budget. It might seem that buying each day's actual
needs as they arise would facilitate budget watching, although the fact is that people pay more
for items purchased in small quantities or by the piece than in bulk. Furthermore, there is the
problem of actually overspending the budget by having unobserved five and ten cent
expenditures quickly mount to whole dollars. The second reason for the perpetuation of small
scale retailing is the tradition of daily marketing. As in many parts of the Caribbean and Central
America, Utilian women have done their marketing on a day-to-day basis, which--aside from
possible cash-on-hand problems--has had to do with the availability of certain items (e.g., in
Utila beef is butchered each Tuesday and Friday) and possible problems of perishability since
many homes do not have refrigerators or ice chests.
Loans from the Credit Union have averaged a little more than $70,000 a year since its
inception (divided roughly into thirds between loans for medical bills, passage money for men to
go to their ships, and house construction) and these, obviously, must be repaid.
Exact figures for the number of people going to visit relatives in the U.S.--some of them
to become temporary emigrants--could not be obtained, but Utila-New Orleans air passages on
SAHSA (the Honduran airline running between these two points) totaled 48 for the period March
through May 1974. Although this is a slack period for Utilian travel, even at so low a rate as 16
trips per month nearly $20,000 a year ($100 for a round trip ticket) is spent by Utilians,
accounting for another substantial sum expended.
The remainder of Utila's income, as closely as I can calculate from the data, does go for
house building, house furnishings, etc., just as it did traditionally. In 1974, expenditures were
reflecting the same inflation that plagued the United States. Building materials have risen
drastically in price over a twelve month period, partly in their own right and partly through
increased freight charges, the latter being tied to higher petroleum costs (in January 1974 diesel
fuel, for example, jumped from 19¢ per gallon to 36.5¢ per gallon). Jalousie windows, plumbing
and lighting fixtures, etc., are all increasingly expensive (a "good" house could be built just a few
years ago for less than $7000; the same house today would cost between $12,000-$13,000).
Land Ownership and Utilization
A recent map of Utila, prepared in September 1973 by the Instituto Nacional Agrario--the
land reform organ in Honduras--shows that the main island and satellite cays are divided into
119 parcels of land owned by 64 private parties, the municipality, and the Tela Railroad
Company (part of United Fruit). Discounting the cays, these parcels all lie outside the residential
community at East Harbor, and constitute the usable land of Utila. Mangrove swamp, which
technically is owned by the municipality, is not considered in the land survey represented by the
map, nor is the area of the two lagoons considered. Both lagoons were, however, apparently
being negotiated for by mainland Hondurans at the time field work ended as potential residence
sites once they had been drained.
Fewer than 50 families (including at least ten emigrants now living in the United States)
control the non-mangrove land of the island. Control is, perhaps, a better term to use in regard to
Utilian soil because islanders experience to this day a wide variety of difficulties surrounding
deed rights and uncontested ownership of property.
First of all, most of the sales documents (referred to above), which amount to our
equivalent of an abstract, are clouded according to land reform--INA--leaders and their
supporters. Apparently many, if not most, sales of land in Utila have been effected by means of
private documents alone, the public documents being ignored due to the cost involved
(sometimes several hundred dollars, in fact). Several islanders attempting to make land
purchases during the field work period had been detained and put to some--often considerable--
expense in order to clear the abstracts needed for complete transactions.
Second, the descriptions of property in sales documents often seem to be at variance with
others' claims. Lack of proper surveying cannot be held to account for discrepancies--several
informants claimed that a number of good surveyors had been trained on the island. Rather, the
propensity of Utilians to try to gain parcels of someone else's land must be the source of
misinformation in land-related documents.
Many islanders had contemporary anecdotes about themselves or other residents of Utila
being cheated (usually by one another rather than by outsiders) over land transactions; the local
bank manager, for example, observed in passing one day--as a casual, matter of fact statement--
that "the Pointians are at war again," meaning that residents of the barrio Puente Caliente in East
Harbor were once again taking one another before the Judge of Letters over a disputed strip of
land. Litigation that continues on and on seems to be the only logical resultant of attitudes
toward and conditions around land that exist in the island.
Third, island property is "developed"; i.e., the usable land in Utila has been planted into
crops, put into pasturage, or the like and little of it exists as rank bush per se. As developed land
it is highly desirable compared to tracts that would have to be worked up from a wild state--as,
for example, in many areas of the undeveloped mainland such as the Mosquitia. This fact, so
many Utilians believe, is what has been a prime consideration in recent government land reform
agitation: Utila has improved land that Government could award to campesinos from the
mainland in order to help insure political support among the masses. The map referenced at the
beginning of this section was commissioned by INA officials who, according to islanders, have
brought into question the legality of titles, descriptions, etc., solely in order to bilk islanders out
of their land, and use that land to buy political clientele. This point cannot be substantiated,
though Utilian contentions may have some justice. The current regime came to power by coup
in 1972 and clearly wants a broad base of support among "the people." The Bay Islands, long
time objects of contention and (perhaps) envy, have a standard of living far above that to be
found on the mainland. Wages for common laborers, for example, may be two to three times
higher in the islands than on the coast, even though banana worker unions have forced higher
wages there than exist inland. (In Utila a common laborer may earn 6 to 8 lempiras daily--$3.00-
$4.00--as opposed to four to six lempiras on the mainland; skilled workers, e.g., carpenters, make
from $5.00 a day and upward.) The prospect of settling people who would be loyal to
Government in an area where people could apparently enjoy a better life style--and at the same
time dilute some of the islander independence from Tegucigalpa--must indeed be appealing.
Utilian informants almost uniformly consider the entire land reform program to be
conspiratorial--even a "Communist plot"--and distrust it in the extreme. Furor over INA
investigations had died down by the time field work was completed, but there is little doubt that
land tenure is, and will continue to be, a touchy issue in the island.
In the post-World War II years the value of bush land as a factor in agricultural
production has disappeared. Land these days, whether in the bush or in East Harbor, is
considered valuable--an asset--for one of two reasons. First, Utilians are anxious that they--as
individuals or households--can have and hold their own plot of ground, even if it is no larger than
the area of the house. Newly married couples pursue the ideal of neolocal residence (though this
may be preceded by matri-or patrilocality until they can afford setting up housekeeping), which
often entails the carving out of a new residential lot somewhere in the island. Many retired
sailors, as another example, wish to have a place of their own where they can live out the
remainder of their years in relative peace and security.
Besides the value of land as a part of one's sanctuary or necessary life space is the
investment or speculation consideration that has recently arisen. Over the last ten years or so a
steady trickle of promoter/developer types from the United States has found its way into Utila.
The intent of these individuals has been to buy real estate in East Harbor or on the island
periphery and open a resort, factory, cluster of tourist cottages, or some other venture that is
usually touted as a benefit not only to the investor but to Utila as well. To my knowledge, none
of the enterprises thus undertaken has ever been profitable (unless, perhaps, as a tax loss that
might advantage an investor), and with only two or three exceptions the island is now devoid of
outside investors. The fact remains, however, that outsiders have inflated the value of real
estate--inside and out of the municipal limits--to an incredible extent. One plot of land along the
seashore and within the East Harbor community--perhaps 60 feet by 80 feet--was reported to
have brought $10,000 from a U.S. developer. Utilians, as a result, have come to place very high
prices on land anywhere near the shore or refuse to sell land outright and opt instead for leasing
their properties. Islanders have heard that the Bahamas, Barbados and other Caribbean islands
are out of favor with many U.S. investors due to racial strife and the high cost of living.
Consequently, Utila, with its English-speaking, U.S.-oriented population, is a "natural" to get the
diverted investors. It is also rumored--in conjunction with the stories told about the Bahamas,
etc.--that the Mafia is, in fact, tied into some of the dealings carried out in Utila. Whether the
rumored Mafia connection is desirable or not to Utilians is hard to say; most of the people with
whom the matter was discussed were unimpressed with the possibility that organized crime was
directly involved in island financial ventures.
High prices for land are charged even when an outsider has married into the community.
The example exists in my notes of a young mainlander from Tegucigalpa who, having married
an island girl, wanted to buy property in the island for a sometime residence. The girl's aunt
offered to sell the new bridegroom a small plot of land (within East Harbor limits but not shore
front property) for $10,000. Whether $10,000 has come to be a minimum sale price to outsiders
remains to be seen.
To be sure, cheaper land than that just mentioned is still available to islanders and
"developers" in bush areas outside the municipality and behind shore front property. Few if any
local people would, however, genuinely want to live beyond the town limits: living conditions
would simply fall below the standard now expected by Utilians. Insect pests, almost always
more abundant than in East Harbor proper, would not be tolerated. More importantly, running
water and day-long electricity are not available outside of town, the lack of which would
eliminate many of the amenities now viewed as fundamental to the "good life." For similar
reasons this type of land is also undesirable to developers, in addition to the obvious drawback
that landlocked, viewless property would represent if tourist trade were a consideration.
The essential point in discussing land utilization in Utila is that while land ownership, or
control, is still an abiding concern of islanders, there has been a shift from earlier times in how it
gains importance and economic value. In pre-war years it was primarily a capital good,
necessary for a man in order to pursue the planting occupation. Secondary value accrued,
through residence sites, in social prestige. In post-war years land of any kind is simply a chattel
that, even unplanted or lying within municipal boundaries but next to a swamp, has appreciating
value over time given the desire of outsiders and local people alike to control or speculate with it.
The movement of people into and out of Utila has already been mentioned in connection
with Utila's pre-war (agricultural) economic phase. Immigration during the remittance phase has
continued at a very modest rate, due to mainland Hondurans seeking employment and to
developers settling at the site of their respective investments, but in 1973 less than 10% (fewer
than 100 people in the total population) constitute immigrants. Far more important to Utila is its
During the agricultural phase, those people who left Utila did so permanently in the
majority of cases. They removed to the United States in large numbers, often took up U.S.
citizenship, and in many cases became cultural brokers (cf. Wolf 1965:97) who facilitated the
movement of other islanders to overseas settings. As the remittance economy has developed,
proportionately more emigrants appear to be only temporary in their removal from Utila.
Paralleling the behavior of Ithacans (Lowenthal and Comitas 1962: 203), Montserratians
(Philpott 1968:472) and Chinese from Hong Kong (Watson 1974:218), the present generation of
Utilian emigrants leave home for service in the merchant marine or at landbased occupations
with the full intent that they will return home. For some the return is regular with the advent of
the annual holiday season. For others the return may be several years in the making; some never
do quite make it back. But the important point is that emotionally, and financially, emigrant
islanders are still very much tied to their natal community, as is evidenced by the flow of
remittance monies. The continued and continuing attachment to Utila is in some cases, no doubt,
a matter of practicality: jobs that emigrants have taken are only short-term ones (eg., a billet
lasting for a specified number of months or a specified number of voyages) that would require
some sort of home base upon which they could fall back. This would appear to be especially so
in instances where Utilians have gone to New York, etc., on tourist visas with the manifest intent
of visiting friends and family. In fact, many islanders travel north with the unmentioned or
undiscussed intent of finding jobs--often through the assistance of permanent migrants who act
as brokers--and working until they are either discovered and sent home, or until they have made
as much money as they had aimed to make and voluntarily go back.
It is apparently a common ploy for islanders to obtain a visitor's visa to the U.S. for the
ostensible purpose of visiting a citizen-relative, but once the "visiting" islander has reached his or
her U.S. destination a job is secured--often as a domestic or in some semi-skilled occupation--
and the visitor becomes one of the untold number of aliens working illegally in the United States.
Wages obtained for their services may be pitifully small in comparison to those of a United
States citizen, but the temporary migrant may be able to afford depressed wages since he or she
can live with a relative. Quite possibly neither taxes nor other withholdings will be taken out,
which is a convenience for both the employer and the employee and an inducement for migration
Some islanders claim to have stayed in the U.S. for as long as a year pursuing their labors
and saving towards the time when they would return to Utila. Not all islanders can remain as
long as this, and field evidence is that many do not want to; rather, they prefer to work for only a
few months--until a specified amount of money is earned to finance some in-island project they
have in mind--and then go home. How many people there are who involve themselves in this
illegal activity is virtually impossible to determine (some indication of Utila-U.S. traffic is
reflected, however, in Table 5), but it is by no means rare. One island couple was singled out by
informants as actually practicing a rotational "visitation" system: the husband would work in the
U.S. a few months and then return only to have his wife fly north and figuratively take his place,
etc. Although the object seems to be to save a lump sum of money with which to return to Utila,
it is also the practice of the temporary migrants--in the fashion of the merchant mariners--to send
home remittances to relatives, especially in the case where children have been left behind.
Amounts sent, usually on a monthly basis, vary according to the whims of the sender and, of
course, his or her capacity to remit. There is the obvious restriction placed on the amount sent
home by the temporary migrant because of the characteristically low wages and the high cost of
living in the United States--even with a culture broker's assistance. Emigrants invariably fulfill
this obligation, as far as could be learned from informants, and maintain an active, though
absentee, involvement in Utilian life.
Aside from those cases just referred to, the return to Utila may have even more to do with
two other matters of practicality that, in a real sense, prevent permanent removal. To begin with,
the possibilities of permanent migration to the U.S., with attendant U.S. citizenship, are not as
favorable as they were in the pre-quota days earlier in this century. Further, although potentially
permanent migrants might envision themselves as better off than stay-at-home Utilians, the fact
is that since most islanders are semi-skilled (at best) in the overall fabric of U.S. economic life
they would be worse off than in their little island; this fact may well come
VISAS ISSUED BY THE UNITED STATES EMBASSY, TEGUCIGALPA*
FY IMMIGRANT (RESIDENT)
Following are the numbers by classification for FY1973. The proportions are approximately the
same for preceding years:
Visitors (tourists or persons visiting families)
Transit (mostly seamen joining ships)
Crew members (mostly seamen, a few airmen)
International organization personnel
Temporary workers (mostly musicians)
Cultural & professional exchange visitors
*Data provided by the American Consul, U.S. Embassy, Tegucigalpa, Honduras (February
home to islanders during their temporary stays overseas.
The remaining reason for the return of temporary emigrants may well have to do with the
value of U.S. dollars even in the inflated Utilian economy. At the conversion rate of two
lemipras for each dollar, the value of wages earned out-of-country and then brought home is
considerably enhanced. Beans and rice, lumber and kerosene may all have risen appreciably in
cost over the past few years, but Utilians are the first to remark on the high cost of living in the
north as compared to their home in the island. Likewise, they are constantly made aware of their
advantageous position relative to mainland compatriots through trips to the coast and by
contrasting themselves with mainland immigrants to Utila, who are almost uniformly despised
for their impoverished economic station in life.
In sum, emigration is a vitally important factor in the life of Utila today, but it is not a
migration of islanders such that connections with family, friends, and the home of one's youth
are severed; it is a rotational and serial emigration that keeps Utila economically alive.
A stated objective of this study is to illuminate the dynamics of economic, social and
political integration in Utila. More especially, it is my aim to show that traditional elements of
the system have preadapted it to the remittance economy just discussed, and that key features of
Utilian tradition have been an emphasis on individualism, commercialism, non-cooperation, and
an "image of limited good." These key features are intimately interrelated and share coequal
importance in motivating Utilians to pursue the remittance system.
Individualism refers to the trait of independent economic, social, and political action that
characterizes people in Utila. As noted, the earliest economic endeavors in the island were
undertaken as one-man (or one-family) efforts. Commercialism underscored the rarity of mutual
economic support--as in cooperative work ventures--which has marked the evolution of Utilian
economic life. Likewise, in terms of social and political endeavors--as will be brought out in
Chapters V and VI--there has been a self-serving, self-help kind of attitude among islanders from
the time of settlement: one's prestige, share in power and authority, and other rewards were a
function of one's own effort, hence the tradition of non-cooperation.
Limited good derives from the concept Image of Limited Good formulated by George
Foster, and seems to describe a way of assessing reality that was typical of Utilians during a
period of diminishing income and disappearing opportunities. While developed in connection
with peasant populations, the Image of Limited Good was intended to apply--in lesser or greater
degrees--to all societies, and hold as one of its basic assumptions that
peasants view their social, economic, and natural universes--their total environment--as
one in which all of the desired things in life such as land, wealth, health, friendship and
love, manliness and honor, respect and status, power and influence, security and safety,
exist in finite quantity and are always in short supply (Foster 1967:304, emphasis in the
Limited good in Utila differs from Foster's construct partly because Utilians are not peasants.
Utilians were yeoman farmers, not subjected to high taxes by a superordinate governing unit, nor
rents to a landlord class that could be an effective barrier between tillers of the soil and the soil
itself. More importantly, the Utilian image of limited good arose from the reality that prime
parcels of land for plantations, and subsequent access to the sea for marketing, were in short
supply--hence the need to "make land." The relative scarcity of the fundamental factor of
production, and the attendant limitation on income, logically implied a limitation on the capacity
to achieve the good life. This perspective was, as could be seen above, crucial to development of
the remittance system.
Uninhabited (or virtually so) at the time of Joseph Cooper's arrival, Utilian land--cays
and main island alike--was available to all who duly applied for it and had their request granted
by the Honduran government. By the time Utila became a British colony, more of its land had
been taken by additional migrants, but parcels were still available for land grants by the crown.
Even today, municipal property (e.g., the lagoons) and interior bush land can be fairly easily
obtained. Yet, from its earliest years, Utila experienced problems over ownership of land, and
even murder over boundary markers. The close association between land ownership (or the type
of land owned) and social stratification that came into being with the arrival of colored and
Spanish settlers, discussed more fully in Chapter V, accentuated the limitation on price land in
On the one hand, then, is the empirical reality that there is still available land for islanders
to purchase; on the other is the fact of Utilian contentiousness over as little as a few feet of earth.
The key to understanding this condition is the point made concerning stratification (detailed in
Chapter V): various parcels of land carry differential prestige and advantage. Since there is a
finite number of choice parcels, there is finite entrance into or participation within the system of
stratification. To the extent that stratification itself determines one's share of the good life, land
ownership--what kind of land as well as how much--defines the quantity and quality of good life
one may enjoy. Utilians have, of course, always had an ethnic component to the land ownership-
stratification-good life interrelationship, but as long as whites had been first on the scene
(therefore in a position to define the stratification system), and the island's wealth came from its
own produce (therefore being limited by the size of a plantation and one's luck and skill in
marketing) there were no potential problems. Since the beginning of a remittance economy,
however, this has changed.
With remittances being available to anyone who can qualify for the merchant marine and
chooses to pursue the seaman's life, or who chooses to go periodically to the United States and
work illegally till evicted, virtually anyone in Utila has the potential--if he has enough money
and can find a seller--to acquire the prime requisite of the good life and socioeconomic position.
This potential is a threat not to the stratification system itself, but to the personnel within it; the
"wrong kind of people" (my term) can attempt to run island politics and so on. For this reason,
which is merely an extension of the image of limited good held by the original occupants,
fighting over land is of far greater importance than it might at first seem. Likewise, the function
of remittances in land fights is crucial, as already discussed.
From its foundation, the economic heart of Utila was its independent farming operations
that seldom in 140 years allowed cooperation in economic or any other venture. Men not only
produced independently of one another, but they also marketed independently, in direct
competition with each other, as evidenced in Chapter IV's roster of privately owned ships used in
Land was an object of contention, and indeed an expanding population could hardly have
yielded any other orientation: three-fourths of the island was useless (as described in Chapter
III), and improved agricultural techniques were precluded by the same natural limitations.
Unconquerable plant diseases, and logistic problems in marketing--distance and restriction to the
use of sailing vessels--were the final strictures involved in promoting an image of limited good.
Natural rather than human boundaries gave Utila's economic system the semblance of being
closed; natural rather than human factors created the dependency Utila has experienced from the
time its early settlers turned from subsistence to commercial agriculture. Utilians were actually
spurred on by one another's successes to strive for the good life (note the early penchant of
islanders for consumerism).
Individuated economic production, distribution, and consumption were never conducive
to cooperative action in other sectors of the sociocultural system; hence there has never really
been strong political control (in the form of a centralized decision-making body that
monopolized power and authority which are elaborated in Chapter VI). One needs to keep in
mind that early demographic conditions in Utila would have reinforced both economic, political,
and other individualism: the Cays were the first areas of habitation, and each family (household)
was more or less obliged to have its plantations separate from others due to the smallness of cays
under cultivation. At least two cays were used for actual habitation, and this too promoted
individualism in the population since political decisions would obviously be specific to one cay
or the other (but not both) on many occasions.
A still further consideration of the image of limited good relates to preadaptations for
merchant mariner life and the remittance economy. Just noted above was the fact that Utilians
have always tended to expend their money for consumer goods. This is a major support for the
contention that islanders have been inclined from the founding years to a "rest and recreation"
mentality typical in the island today. Consumerism is directly self-rewarding of the individuals
who labor in order to so expend their funds: hard (profitable) work will yield commensurate
pleasure through purchasing the symbols of the good life. Self-indulgence in dancing and
drinking is part of the foregoing since they too are part of the good life and either cost money or
time for their enjoyment. With individualism and the rest and recreation mentality already built
into Utilian society, virtually no changes had to occur for islanders to adopt the remittance
system. A final factor, least mentioned in this study but of coequal importance with
individualism, etc., was the fact that islanders already had something of a maritime tradition to
work from. Utilian shipping activities and subsistence fishing had, at the time the remittance
economy was born, already acquainted islanders with the periodic absence of males and the
reactions necessary to keep a smoothly operating system in their absence. Fortunately, Utila's
non-cooperativeness in the political sector meant that there were few or no disruptions attendant
upon male absence.
With the introduction of this type of "Image of Limited Good" considerably more of
Utilian society and culture comes into focus. The points about preadaptation and
accommodation need, however, even further discussion. Still working from the standpoint of
their individualism, non-cooperation, and "limited good," I will further analyze the ideas of
preadaptation and accommodation in the following chapter.
REMITTANCE SYSTEM INTERRELATIONSHIPS: SOCIAL ORGANIZATION
In the Introduction to this study, the point was made that while migration and sojourning,
which are intimately involved in a remittance economy, have been considered from certain
economic and social perspectives, relatively little work has been done on the interface between
the economic and social dynamics involved in a locale such as Utila. In Chapter IV several key
findings--brought out by contrasting agricultural and remittance phases in Utilian history--were,
however, made. Among these was the fact that social stratification has been important in
motivating individuals to strive, singly or in family groups, to gain or preserve social position.
In the "Stratification" section below this point is elaborated while at the same time further detail
of Utila's inner functioning is shown.
Also established in Chapter IV was the point that Utilians were amply preadapted to a
remittance style economy and all that it implied. Numerous aspects of Utilian preadaptation had
to do with social organization generally, and certain elements particularly. Specific
preadaptations were implied in the areas of family structure, and male and female status-roles.
These preadaptations, in their modified forms, and other sociological phenomena, account for
Utila's success with a remittance economy. It is therefore essential that we look more closely at
the various segments that comprise Utilian society. To facilitate discussion the segments
referred to will be examined in terms of five social groupings, which have significance in the
following ways. First, "Religious Groups" shows some of the internal divisions that exist in
Utila. The different
denominations provide ideologies that help to extend, in a minor way, Utilian non-cooperation
by drawing attention to differences within the population. It will also be pointed out that
religious groups have been a mechanism for social mobility within the system of stratification.
Second, "Educational Groups" reaffirms a contention made in Chapter II: Utilians have
been isolated from mainland Honduras through emphasis on their Anglo-American heritage.
Islanders reinforce their isolation by operating private English-language schools, whose curricula
and teaching methods are distinct from government operated counterparts. Private schools teach
values that promote individualism and other orientations crucial to Utilian pursuit of the good
life--and to working in a remittance system. Equally important, the English language literacy
provided by the private schools increases prospects of getting into the merchant marine.
Third, "Economic Groups" gives data on the extent of the remittance economy and its
pervasiveness throughout the sociocultural system. It also illustrates how the Credit Union is
especially important to the overall remittance system. Selective disbursement of loan funds
enables credit purchasing (relating to consumerism), and, perhaps, differential access to
merchant shipping lines (relating to social stratification and pursuit of the good life).
Fourth, "Residential Groups" illustrates crucial patterns in Utilian family and household
structure that accommodate absenteeism necessitated by the remittance economy. Individual
family striving initially oriented Utilians to test the viability of a merchant marine based
economy. Subsequently, individual family striving sustains a sociocultural system where
complementary husband and wife status-roles allow males to be absent for prolonged periods of
Fifth, "Informal Groups" demonstrates the "rest and recreation" mentality espoused by all
Utilians on the occasion of males returning from the merchant marine on annual leave. Informal
male drinking groups provide a context wherein the rigors of seafaring may be forgotten during
three months of relative abandon. These groups are not only recreative per se in their function,
but serve to support a male image of "manliness" that is important to the socialization of young
to maintenance of the nuclear family unit, and to the mariner himself as an interim reward for his
Finally in this chapter I turn to discussion of male and female status-roles. The behavior
of adult males and adult females appears to be consistent and congruent with virtually all the
demands of a remittance system enmeshed in traditional island ways. This section, therefore,
demonstrates preadaptability on the part of Utilians for the remittance system that has evolved
using an image of limited good as partial explanation. It also shows the strength of the nuclear
family unit (related to individualism), the viability of complementary male and female status
roles in which females apparently take an inferior position to men, and the fact that male
absenteeism does not necessarily lead to the matrifocal family so commonly found throughout
the Caribbean culture area.
The key to understanding social organization in Utila lies in the facts that (1) there are
three locally recognized strata based on ethnicity, and (2) there are prestige gradations within
these strata based on income and life style. Since the subject of social organization generally is
not too clear from the standpoint of the concepts and theories used to discuss it, in order to avoid
misunderstanding here it would be helpful to define the terms employed in this section.
According to Broom and Selznick (1973:162), "those individuals, or families, or groups,
who have similar ranks on any of the dimensions of stratification constitute a social stratum or
social level." They also say, following Marx and Weber, that social class refers to " . . . a
grouping of people--for example, all wage earners--who share a common situation in the
organization of economic production" (1973:163).
The concepts stratum and class are both used extensively below, but with the
modification of the class definition to contain also the notion of degrees of variation (gradation)
within strata that are based in economic and life-style factors alone.
The word group, also according to Broom and Selznick (1973:47) has a general meaning
that ". . . refers to any collection of persons who are bound together by a distinctive set of social
relations." Throughout the discussion I will be using "group" in this sense.
Finally, "caste" will be understood to signify "an endogamous social group whose
members are ascribed to it at birth for life" (Richards 1972:304). As it appears in Utila, stratum
is identical with caste, but is better understood, perhaps, as ethnic grouping.
Social distinctions in Utila, by local standards, are not simply a matter of socioeconomic
differences between various sectors of the society. As one life-long resident put it, "This is Little
Rock, Arkansas," by which he was referring to the fact that ethnic prejudice and stereotyping are
basic to the ordering of social existence in Utila with resultant ranking of the island's population
into several distinguishable strata.
Although Negro and Spanish surname Utilians were relatively later arrivals to the island
than whites, and therefore could not, in most cases, obtain choice properties that would give
economic and social advantages, skin pigmentation--not arrival time--is the important
consideration when looking at social stratification in Utila.
At the top of the social order in terms of social prestige, occupancy of the most important
positions in local leadership, wealth, and so on are the so-called white population of Utila (nearly
three-fifths of all islanders). Most of this segment of the society came from other parts of the
Caribbean and conceivably have mixed ethnic backgrounds, but contemporary white Utilians
would strongly disclaim this possibility. Doran (1952:264) would, in fact, support such a
disclaimer from his research in the Cayman Islands--the original home of most Utilians--where
he points out that "the maintenance since 1800 of an unmixed white population, comprising
some 30 percent of the total, is certainly one significant difference from other West Indian
islands." Doran aside, in Utila "white" people actually include two analytically distinguishable
groupings who derive from the founding families--Cooper, Diamond, Howell, et al.--and their
descendants both affinal and consanguineal.
One sector of the white population bears surnames of the founding families, but the other
sector is white by having married into one of the white, founding families. (When working with
Mr. Eddie Rose on genealogical relationships in the island, he invariably traced out family lines
in terms of descent from the Cooper family alone; to him the white Utilians were categorized as
such through their demonstrated relationship to the Cooper family specifically.)
The second subdivision within the white population contains people who bear Spanish
surnames (not pseudonymized), e.g., Funez, Valle, Ponce, Zelaya, Zuniga, Perreira, Inestroza,
members of which families have married into founding families and are now "white," a point that
becomes extremely important in discussion below.
Second on the ladder of social prestige, etc., are Utilians with Negro ancestry,
collectively called "colored." Somewhat like the white population, there are two analytically
distinguishable sectors in the colored population. The first sector is made of Utilians who have
what are locally considered the Negro physical features (elaborated below), and who are
descended from the original colored settlers. The second sector consists in those individuals who
bear Spanish surnames but who have married colored Utilians.
Colored people are not, in general, considered to be mentally or morally inferior to
whites, but it was implied by white informants that there was a qualitative difference between
themselves and coloreds that would forever separate the two groups even though they lived side
by side. At no time, despite being introduced to this subject of stratification with the Little Rock,
Arkansas metaphor, did I find the same stereotypes of colored people as I have encountered in
the United States (e.g., that they are inherently lazy, immoral and decadent, and the like).
Third, and at the bottom of the hierarchy, are "Spaniards," identified as an
ethnicpopulation by a term that doubles as an epithet in Utila. "Spaniards" are individuals of
Spanish heritage (usually from mainland Honduras) who bear Spanish surnames, speak little or
no English, and are common laborers recently arrived in Utila. They are typically poor in
comparison to Utilians, have to live in the worst housing in the island (due to cost factors and the
absolute shortage of rental property), usually have shabby clothing (and little of this), are
immoral in the extreme according to Utilians (women have questionable reputations, men and
women live in common law union rather than marry according to civil statutes) and epitomize
uncouth and uncivilized behavior (e.g., spitting on the floor on one hand, and being satisfied with
meals of only beans and rice on the other). Occasionally the term "Indian" is used--
interchangeably, also disparagingly--for Spaniard; the reference in this case is not to physical
characteristics but to the uncouth customs associated with "Indian" culture. It also carries with it
the idea of "uncivilized person." "Spaniards" typically have little to do with other Utilians,
although there is some (limited) interaction between them and lower class white and colored
There is no distinct "native" population in Utila's local hierarchy, although Utilians
acknowledge their presence elsewhere in the country. "Native" is a term applied by Utilians to
people who elsewhere in Central America might be classified "mestizo," but who are definitely
higher class than "Spaniards," and who are not derived from any of the Negro-descended
populations (such as the Caribs or Sambos) found extensively on the mainland. In Utila, a
person of higher class Spanish background--a "native"--becomes assimilated into the white
sector of the society apparently within a generation after arrival via the mechanism of marrying
members of white families. Lower class Spanish, "Spaniards," either stay to themselves, or
marry into the colored stratum's lower class.
Boundaries between these several sectors of society are a conscious part of interaction
between islanders, and expressions of them are many. The boundaries are breached only to the
extent that the Spanish surname population can penetrate either white or colored strata as a
function of their own individual or family socioeconomic class. Probably the most convincing of
the data to support the preceding taxonomy of social strata comes from the vital records in Utila's
Cabildo. Some 700 marriage records, dating back to 1881, demonstrate the caste-like, system
that exists in Utila, and at the same time shows the importance of class--intra-stratum--variations.
Each of the records referred to above was coded to indicate whether the marriage took
place between white, colored, or Spanish couples, or crosses between any of these. In order to
properly code the marriages I made extensive use of the genealogical records assembled in Utila,
and defined each of the categories as follows:
white -- anyone of, or marrying into, a founding family: anyone who could
ultimately trace ancestry to the Cooper family
colored -- anyone identified in the genealogical material as colored and/or bearing
one of the surnames belonging to recognized colored families (not
pseudonymized): Hinds, Buckley, Coban, McKenzie, McCoy, Ebanks,
White, James, Angus, Forbes, Bennett, Bernard, Sanders, and Crimmins
Spanish -- anyone having a Spanish surname
The results clearly support the taxonomy. Excluding 48 unions that could not be coded,
56 marriages took place between white and Spanish, 35 marriages between colored and Spanish,
and seven between colored and white. All other marriages (80.1% of the total) were between
people marrying within their own category. The Spanish-white marriages, significantly, all
involved Spanish surname individuals that would initially be considered "natives" to white
Utilians. The Spanish in colored-Spanish unions were all "Spaniards." Unquestionably, class
determines where Spanish surname individuals are placed in the social hierarchy with the result
that at least 70% of Spanish surname Utilians are categorically "white."
Finally, the incidence of colored-white marriages (at least two of which I know took
place with white sailors not even from Utila) would underscore the almost caste-like nature of
Utilian society since for white and colored Utilians class standing does not matter in marital
considerations: white does not marry colored.
Another major way in which social stratification is manifested is in the demography of
the settled part of the island. Counting the Aldea de los Cayitos, i.e., the two populated cays,
there are seven "barrios" in Utila. Roughly equivalent in meaning to "ward" in a U.S. town or
city, barrio is used mainly for identification purposes in official documents (e.g., recording of
births or deaths), but is also used by islanders as a frame of reference to identify what kind of
Utilian one is by stratum and class. In order of population size, the barrios run from Puente
Caliente ("The Point") and Aldea de los Cayitos ("The Cays") as the largest, to Cola de Mico
("Monkey's Tail"), La Loma ("The Hill"), and Main Street of intermediary size, to Sandy Bay
and Holland as the smallest. Ethnic composition is more important than the physical size of the
barrios: Sandy Bay is almost exclusively colored, as is a sector of Cola de Mico, but Main Street
is totally white with the exception of one indigent Spaniard household. The Point, especially its
eastern portion, is made up of many transplanted "Cayans" (from the Aldea) and has only a few
scattered households of colored or Spaniard types. The Cays are restricted to "whites only"; La
Loma is also white, with one or two exceptions, and was one of the first areas settled when
Utilians removed from the cays to the main island. To say that someone lives at Sandy Bay, for
example, is virtually to say that the person is colored. Conversely, to say someone is from Main
Street is to say he or she is white. In mixed areas, such as Cola de Mico, there are additional
reference points. A reference point for Cola de Mico is the "Bucket of Blood" bar; anyone living
below "The Bucket" is either white or upper class colored.
There are at least three dialects of English found in Utila that have a rough
correspondence with the ethnicity-barrio residence-socioeconomic class phenomenon. The
dialect found in use by residents of Main Street and La Loma--many of whom are "old heads" or
from Utila's long-established white families--is distinct from the dialect employed by whites
from the Point and Cola de Mico, and is in turn different from the colored dialect found in Sandy
Bay, Holland, parts of Cola de Mico, and among scattered colored on the Point. On more than
one occasion an interview with Mr. Eddie Rose, an old head and Main Street (white) resident,
was interrupted by his ridicule of the English used by passing children from the Point.
In non-technical terms, the Main Street and colored dialects are similar to counterparts
used by whites and blacks in the southern United States, though the Main Street dialect is not as
drawn out as the stereotypic southern dialect. Pointian, in contrast, is much more rapid than
Main Street dialect, and speakers of Pointian have a tendency to place the accent on the last
syllable of a word, and also to use a rise in inflection at the end of a phrase or sentence.
Dialects are themselves indicative of the gradations that stem from socioeconomic class
and ethnic background: Pointians, as more recently transplanted Cayans, have less prestige than
those whites who moved to the main island at a much earlier date. (The impression given by
main island people in general toward Cayans is that Cayans are a little provincial and rather out-
of-touch with what goes on in the larger world. What Cayans think of people on the main island
is unknown to me.)
Aside from the marriage, residential, and linguistic evidences of social stratification in
Utila, are countless anecdotal examples from field notes. To cite just a few support data, several
conversations between Utilians were overheard in which reference was made to "good hair" or
other physical traits associated with whites as opposed to non-white residents. The context of the
conversations, and tone of voice involved, unmistakably identified "good hair" as a desirable
(superior?) thing; conversely, "bad hair" (short, kinky hair as seen on colored Utilians) was
undesirable, and not from a purely esthetics standpoint.
Perhaps more convincing than the foregoing is the operation of Utila's three bars. Utila
boasts three establishments where beer and hard liquor are served, but also where occasional
dances are held. In all cases, colored, white, and Spaniard are served drinks, stand or sit together
to drink, and treat one another to beer or whatever (all are equally denied credit drinking). On
occasions when a dance is held at Spekeman's or the 06 (both pseudonyms), colored and white
dancers are forbidden (even if so inclined) from cross ethnic dancing. At least two dances in my
own knowledge were nearly ended when interethnic dance was attempted, and during August
1972, one of the bar owners even advertised dances as: "Colored folks dance, Friday night, 7:30
p.m." and directly above that on the advertising slate: "White folks dance, Saturday night, 7:30
p.m." The Bucket of Blood is frequented primarily by colored Utilians, young U.S. type tourists,
and those whites who (one must conclude) do not worry about gossip. The latter point must be
so since interethnic dancing does occur there regularly. Despite its slightly unsavory reputation,
"The Bucket" is often the last of the bars in town to close up since the serious party goers and
heaviest drinkers can almost invariably find activity there (due, perhaps, to the less restrictive
It would be accurate to summarize bar behavior and extend it to all of Utila: if
amicability is involved, then groups may mix; if intimacy is hinted then the groups remain
separate. Thus, on one hand it is possible for people to go to church and school side by side, but
on the other hand a white family would not entertain a colored family for dinner.
The preceding statement refers not only to individuals in one-on-one relationships, but
also applies to groups; on occasion, groups can act as self-conscious units to demonstrate how
clear the ethnic (stratification) lines are drawn in Utila. The paramount example of this group
phenomenon is the so-called Olimpia Massacre referred to in Chapter IV. Although the incident
occurred in 1905, it is still alive--in several different versions--among contemporary Utilians.
The several versions of the story have to do with differing explanations for the piracy that
resulted in robbery and multiple murder. Variations in the scenario aside, the end of the affair is
most important because when the culprit, a colored Utilian, was caught on the mainland he was
brought back to Utila and promptly lynched. Not only was he hung without the benefit of a trial,
but according to one informant was buried in the cemetery in a standing position until public
opinion forced reburial in a horizontal plane (even then he was buried on a north-south axis
rather than the traditional east-west axis prescribed for Christians in Utila). White outrage over
the piracy, even though colored islanders also had been murdered, has derived from assumed
colored animosity towards whites (the hangman of the Olimpia murderer had his house
mysteriously burn down shortly after the hanging), and subsequently whites have acted as a
group to obtain retribution or at the least prevent further episodes of anti-white feeling.
Far less bloody, and more contemporary an example of self-conscious ethnic group
action, occurred during the research period. Two young white female tourists from the U.S.
visited Utila. They were just two of approximately a score of young people who toured Utila
during our stay, but they alone of all those visitors--several of whom were stereotypic "hippies"--
were escorted out the island by outraged Utilians. Reportedly, they made the error of associating
too closely with one of Utila's lower class colored men. Broad hints were made that they had
had sexual or other intimate relations with him that are proscribed between colored and white:
hence their ouster. In this situation it was not just whites alone who expelled the women since
the value system of upper class colored people was equally violated; both white and colored
acted to mend the breach in proper behavior.
Finally, Utila's ethnic stratum and class distinctions are demonstrated through the
selective emigration or sojourning of islanders. By and large, white Utilians remove to areas in
the southern United States when they go north; colored Utilians, on the other hand, go to
Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York. Without question, the decision to go to northern or
southern U.S. cities and towns is conditioned by known attitudes toward non-whites found in
these respective locales. The fact that Utilians are both sensitive to these attitudes and travel to
places where their respective groups predominate would support the conclusion that they
themselves hold similar attitudes.
All of the evidence taken together provides a model of Utilian society that has three
distinct strata within each of which are gradations that differentiate the more or less affluent,
vocal, and socially active individuals or families from one another. The fact that this situation is
now intimately bound up in Utila's remittance economy rather than just in tradition per se is the
Men originally opted for service in the merchant marine because few or no occupational
alternatives existed for them either on or off the island. Currently, world-wide merchant
shipping appears to be so secure that there is no threat to Utila's source of affluence. Yet, men
and women alike see difficulties in pursuing a life style dictated by merchant mariner service.
The question therefore arises as to why people do not go into other livelihoods. The obvious
answer to this question is provided, for the most part, by the continued lack of economic
opportunity in Utila noted above in Chapters III and IV (e.g., in merchandising, tourism, and
industry), and likewise by the well perceived difficulties that islanders would experience by
permanent emigration to the United States (e.g., the higher cost of living and the faster pace of
life). In addition, however, it could be hypothesized that Utila's social organization--centering on
the stratification phenomenon--could itself be a positive motivation for perpetuation of merchant
On one hand, white and upper class colored Utilians can--according to their own words
and actions--attain the symbols of "the good life" (my phrase) by continuing their involvement in
the merchant marine: the importance and comfortability afforded by remittances are defined by
the pattern of stratification. The lower social elements in Utila might well serve as an
inducement to continue going to sea simply because they illustrate to higher-ups what would
happen if they did not (i.e., by demonstrating a depressed life style). Field data record that all
white, propertied informants were hostile toward Spaniards in particular for having already
inflated laborers' wages (the truth of this could not be verified), but more especially for the
rumored threat they posed to Utilian land (through government land reform). It seems likely that
higher strata Utilians would want to maintain as much economic distance as they could,
figuratively speaking, between themselves and people like Spaniards; this they can only hope to
do via their remittance economy.
On the other hand, viewed from the perspective of lower strata and lower class Utilians,
the social system supported by remittances is beneficial and attractive from two standpoints.
First, it provides a model for upward economic--and social--mobility that is not ignored by lower
strata people. For example, it encourages non-English speaking Hondurans to also go into the
merchant marine (since this service is not exclusive to English speakers), the proof of which lies
in the number of visas issued to seamen, or seamen in transit (see Table 5 above). With added
income and acquisition of the proper symbols of higher class, a Spaniard may ultimately attain
white status through marriage into the white community, as illustrated below in the Montenegro
example. Secondly, whether individuals go into the merchant marine themselves is immaterial
insofar as benefitting from the system of stratification and the remittance economy: funds sent
home by absentee sailors often go for maintenance work, housebuilding, and other jobs (all
dictated by the sailors' positions in the social hierarchy) that directly engage day laborers.
Thus, although Spaniards might still be relatively disadvantaged socially and politically, their
economic security and basic life style are incalculably better than on the mainland, a fact that is
supported by the recent addition of 30-40 more coastal Spaniards to the island population for this
In the broadest sense of the term group, Utila's various social strata represent the most
inclusive social groupings in the island. Yet while ethnicity and all of the other factors involved
in stratification cannot help but touch many aspects of day-to-day living, not all situations and
transactions are best understood by reference to them. Also important are the various formal and
informal assemblages that develop from common residence, mutual liking, and so forth.
Formal groups in Utila are expressions of the foremost institutions in the island and help
to pinpoint some of the core values in the system. To facilitate discussion I have lumped the
formal groups under five headings and will treat with each of these separately.
1. Religious groups. Within this category fall the five Protestant Christian
denominations in Utila: Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, Pentecostal Church of God, Baptist,
and Jehovah's Witnesses. All five denominations have churches, and all have ministers or elders
to lead in various services, although the Methodists do not have a resident pastor, and the
Pentecostal and Jehovah's Witnesses congregations are led by people from the United States.
In terms of their membership figures and total importance to Utila, only the Methodist,
Adventist, and Pentecostal groups need be considered here, and from the outset of discussion it
would be helpful to think of the Methodist Church as a conservative element in Utilian society--
Establishment, in effect--as opposed to non-Establishment, in effect--as opposed to non-
Establishment (though not necessarily "progressive") Adventist and Pentecostal churches.
The Methodists claim (according to William Miller, a U.S. citizen who taught at the
Methodist College for more than a year) the largest number of church members, somewhere
around 50% of all Utilians. From my own observations and from the comments of Dolly
Cooper, one of the most active figures in the church, the majority of these members are nominal
rather than practicing Methodists. Nevertheless, according to Rose (1904:72), Wesleyan
Methodism was introduced in 1852 and rapidly garnered most of the islanders to its membership.
Although some of the early members were unquestionably fervent in their religiosity, indications
from informants are that the church actually constituted a kind of social diversion for the isolated
Utilians rather than a vehicle for advancing one brand of Christian orthodoxy. The strict,
fundamentalist tenets of Methodism (proscriptions against drinking and gambling, for example)
were honored in the breach--especially as regards drinking--but membership was no doubt
advantageous and from other than a recreational standpoint as well. An examination of the
baptismal records at Utila's Methodist Mission (dating back only to the 1920s) shows many
Spanish surname Utilians being baptized into the Protestant faith. In-as-much as most, if not all
of these one-time native Hondurans were at least nominally Roman Catholic upon their arrival in
Utila, subsequent acceptance of Methodism (or one of the other Protestant faiths) probably
counts as a part of their ultimate acceptance into white Utilian society (as just discussed above).
Relatively early in the island's history--c. 1891--the exclusivity of Methodism was challenged by
Seventh Day Adventist missionaries. In Guanaja, farthest distant of the Bay Islands, nearly the
entire population was converted to this sect, but in Utila missionaries were able to lure away
perhaps only 20% of the faithful (not all Utilians, also according to William Miller, profess some
denominational affiliation) and this figure appears to have remained stable until the present.
What particular points of dogma, or matters of style, may have attracted people away from
Methodism I do not know, but sociologically speaking it appears that Adventism is associated
with slightly lower class Utilians--either colored or white--although representatives from
founding families are also numbered in Adventist membership.
Pentacostals are a "high profile" group in Utila along with the Adventists, and with
almost as great a frequency and intensity have evangelistic programs with speakers brought in
from outside Utila (usually from the United States). The composition of the congregation again
tends to appear slightly lower in class than the Methodists, but is on a par with the Adventists
and also boasts people from founding families in the congregation. The basic observable
differences between Adventist and Pentecostal are that the latter observe Sunday as the sabbath,
but more importantly emphasize speaking in tongues as a crucial part of religious experience.
The relationships between the several denominations--neither unfriendly nor ecumenical-
-are not themselves important to this study; and, in fact, it is not for theological purposes that
discussion of Methodists and others is introduced. Rather, it is for the ancillary functions that the
churches perform--for their roles as Establishment-Non-Establishment institutions--that they
As noted, Methodism was the first faith introduced into the island and has probably
served as a vehicle for ethnic mobility for Spanish surname individuals. Like many
Establishment institutions elsewhere in the Western world, it has earned many laurels but is
currently sinking further and further into decline. The Methodist Mission in Utila maintained a
parochial school--first grammar, then secondary--off and on for at least the last 80 years. During
a significant portion of Utila's history it was the Methodist Mission that provided whatever
formal learning islanders were to receive without going to the mainland or to the United States.
It was also the Mission that solicited medical assistance for Utilians--in the absence of resident
doctors, dentists, etc.--and provided space for regular clinics.
Educational and health services were, than, auxiliary responsibilities born by the
Methodists, but these were often engineered by lay people rather than full-time resident pastors
(who have been provided by English rather than the physically closer U.S. Methodists). A
decline in attendance at services, a decline in actual membership, and abbreviated services
through lack of lay participation have all correlated, it seems, with changes in the world outside
Utila and with the problem in the last few years of finding a resident pastor who would be
sensitive to Utilian culture and could mitigate some of those changes taking place in the United
States, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. Utila's last two ministers have stayed only a relatively
short time in the island before moving to Roatan where they could oversee Methodism in all of
the Bay Islands. In a sense, Utila has been a training ground for those seeking higher positions in
the church organization. More importantly, these two ministers have run counter to local culture
by, among other things, too excessive an insistence on "brotherhood" among all peoples, white
and non-white. The last minister was a native of Costa Rica, colored, and married to a Guyanese
wife. He was labeled by several informants as being too much inclined to "civil rights" ideas
rather than to advancing Methodism. It was during his tenure in Utila that the secondary school-
-"college"--was closed (in April 1973) due to controversy surrounding two young teachers
imported from the United States. Several serious breaches of behavior are attributed to them
(improper wearing apparel such as shorts and T-shirt on the male; overly harsh discipline such as
suspension of a student for incomplete homework; charges of hypocrisy against elders given the
existence of "outside," i.e., illegitimate, children). In sum, Utilian informants pointed to the
closing of the school and the role of the minister at the time for the decline of Methodism in
Utila. My own analysis shows additional cause, however. The dogmatism of some of the older
members (e.g., in regard to gambling) appears laughable to many islanders who find little other
recreational outlet. Most important, however, is the fact that the evangelical Adventist and
Church of God denominations present a positive attraction to Utilians in two forms, one of which
is dynamic ceremony that is emotionally stimulating, the other of which is psychological
pacification by leaving the local value system alone, which the Methodist ministry is notorious
Insofar as the several denominations having direct impact on the remittance economy is
concerned, all of them certainly advocate financial responsibility, domestic fidelity, and hard
work in general for professing Christians. The educational contribution, in the form of grammar
and secondary schools, is of more tangible importance to the remittance economy, however; it is
quite clear form informants' accounts that facility with the English language and with
mathematics has given Utilians an advantage in obtaining work on ships or permission to
emigrate to the United States. If the Methodist Church no longer provides schooling for Utilian
youngsters then this service will devolve on others by default; the alternative is to leave Utila
with grammar school education alone, and this cannot prove sufficient for securing a job as
automation and more sophisticated technology demand increased expertise from sailors.
Finally, the socializing function of the church groups in Utila would seem to be of
continuing importance as long as a remittance economy prevails. No matter how many other
diversions might come to the island--and there is no indication that anything more than
television, radio, cinema, and occasional dances are going to be on hand to entertain--the
churches will probably remain to provide solace for lonely individuals, the kind of solace that
attending a dance will not provide. As the "old heads" die in Utila, and as the Methodists default
in their previously important roles, the Adventist and Pentecostal groups stand to benefit. They
too, however, will have to come to grips with advocating practices and beliefs that displease
sailors who have been working hard away from home, particularly the proscription against
drinking. The strong possibility exists that all church groups in Utila could continue a trend
currently in evidence, namely, that women and children are the primary ones to attend and
support their churches. Men do not attend because they cannot tolerate preachments against
things they hold important, and therefore they become nominal church members in increasing
2. Educational grouping. For most of its history, formal education in the island was an
offshoot of Methodist religious activity. The fact that the Methodists provided a school for
Utila's youngsters probably has more to do with the incidental presence of Richard Rose than
with the church being pro-education. Rose, who is something of a folk hero among old heads in
Utila, came to the island at the start of its Fruit Boom period via the New England states. A
Methodist minister and educator, he ran a school in Utila until his death in 1935. Approximately
three generations of Utilians were taught by Rose (including his son, Mr. Eddie, and Rev. F.
Gideon Cooper who both worked with me in this study) in the six grades of grammar school that
parallel the six standards of the British grammar school system. His policy of "spare the rod . . ."
resulted in a reputation for himself and his scholars (according to people like Rev. Cooper) of
academic excellence. Instruction was in the English language, but Rose was apparently very
sensitive to Utila being part of Honduras and made efforts (sometimes sycophantic) to bridge the
gap between British people and the Central American administration that governed them.
Sometime, apparently prior to the Second World War, the Honduran government introduced
state-financed primary education. Reportedly, the primary school system now operating in Utila
(with 191 students up to the age fourteen in the six grades) is financed by United States A.I.D.
funds and is not, therefore, a demonstration of government concern for the welfare of islanders.
Whatever the source of financing may be, a half dozen teachers (most of whom are from the
mainland) run Utila's official educational system. Through their presence they exemplify and
even reinforce the stratification aspects of Utila's social organization.
One of the male teachers married a colored Utilian and to all intents is colored at this
point (his only associates in the island are the Spaniard soldiers in the government Cuartel). Two
women teachers and one other male have married into the white population and are now white
islanders, though in a slightly marginal sense since they speak little or no English. The
contemporary Spanish school in its several classes contrasts markedly with the English language
school, and not simply because of the difference in the language of instruction. Miss Phyla
Bodden, a descendant of one of the older Utilian families, teaches fifty-three grammar school
youngsters. She considers herself a mainstay of traditional Utilian culture, and as a repository of
British-American background of the island population. Instruction at Miss Phyla's is considered
(by students, their parents, and Miss Phyla) to be superior to the Spanish public school. In public
school, instruction is given in Spanish, which is a second language to most islanders, and in
addition there are no textbooks. All lessons are given to public school children by dictation, then
the students recite their lessons until, by rote, they have mastered them. This "gab school"
technique produces a literacy level of around third grade (in the U.S.) for graduates; mathematics
are ponderous compared to private school, and no vocational training that might have practical
applications is given. The absence of a public secondary school further limits the quality of
public education in Utila, but it is not altogether the fault--by omission or commission--of the
Honduran government. Monies were provided by the government for a secondary school
building, and foundation pilings were actually poured, but the bulk of the funds were--according
to informants--misappropriated by two Utilians who subsequently migrated to the U.S.
Miss Phyla's school is allowed to operate at sufferance of the local public school head,
and could be closed at her whim (for non-compliance with unwritten standards that she alone in
Utila is allowed to interpret). With the potential threat of private school closure, Miss Phyla and
her students' parents take an embattled posture; she, during the course of a half dozen interviews,
said repeatedly that the Honduran government is jealous of the higher standard of living among
this English speaking minority and wants to "keep the Bay Islanders down."
Despite help from Standard and United Fruit in getting United States text books for use in
her school, Miss Phyla has an uphill fight to give quality education in her school (high costs,
overcrowding, lack of teaching aids, etc.). Students go to Miss Phyla's--as opposed to public
school, or even no school at all--because of their parents' wishes, not from a burning desire on
their part to be scholars or to maintain an English heritage per se. It escapes most youngsters
that the attitude fostered long ago (cf. Rose 1904:158) regarding formal education--that it really
is unnecessary--has resulted in at least one Utilian recently being denied seaman's papers on the
grounds of illiteracy.
3. Economic groups. With 588 members, the Credit Union in Utila includes on its rolls
more than half of the total main island population. This large membership, and the function that
is served in providing loans for medical care, house building, and the fares for men to take ship
in the U.S., make the Utila Credit Union one of the staunchest supports of consumerism in the
island. On the surface it is just a financial institution in the island, but given membership figures,
the kind of functions performed, and its corporate character, the Credit Union must be considered
a formal economic group as well.
As a group, the Credit Union, or its leadership at least, underscores the differential
involvement of people in the remittance economy, class gradation within social strata, and the
solidarity of strata themselves. Most important here is the variable participation in the
remittance economy in combination with the impact that the Credit Union can have.
First, although my support data are limited, it appears that anyone may join the Credit
Union (a five dollar fee to purchase one share gives full membership) but not everyone applying
for a loan could expect the same open-handedness of the Credit Union officers. Differential
treatment could be anticipated, it seems, on the basis of how good a credit risk one is (was), and
this would largely be a function of how many household or family members one has in the
remittance system to provide repayment funds. Several residents of Sandy Bay Barrio, all
colored, were pointed out to me as very poor (too poor to afford water and electric facilities
even), and this was due to the fact that they had no one to go on the ships for them. The
implication is that they would likewise be too poor to get a loan.
A glance at the roster of Credit Union officers for 1975 would show that the officers have
been selected almost exclusively from "old heads" (here used to signify members of the founding
white families, plus their supporters from the upper class colored stratum). Thus, the people who
determine credit policy are, in effect the dominant segment of the population; they are the ones
who have established the values of Utilian society, and can--by granting or denying loans--help
to perpetuate class distinctions within strata through the mandatory life styles that might thereby
On one hand, while Credit Union officers can--in the name of the membership--reinforce
social distinctions in Utila, they can just as easily facilitate class mobility. Lopreato describes a
situation in the Italian village of Stefanaconi that is relevant to this point when he says that
. . . mobility has been made possible by the rapid conversion of relatively large
remittances of money from emigrants into appropriate social symbols such as landed
property and 'modern' dwellings (1962:184).
Although ultimately it is, of course, remittances that allow class mobility, the Credit Union can
make lump sum loans so that individuals or households may make large purchases without
having to save up the money over an extended period of time, or themselves make installment
payments for land, furniture, and so on. In short, the Credit Union makes it unnecessary to
"delay gratification" for various wants, material or otherwise, and in this way may accelerate
mobility. Such a speed-up could conceivably have a significant effect on consumerism generally
by amplifying an attitude of "the more I get the more I want"; i.e., having already obtained some
of the goods and services associated with "the good life," Utilians can obtain even more, but it is
potentially of greatest impact on those who have had fewest of those goods and services.
The remittance economy and Credit Union taken together are certainly important in terms
of emigration that took place prior to World War II during the period when Utila's economy was
at its worst. As pointed out above in Chapter IV, emigration from Utila is likely to have taken
many of the people who formed an economic middle sector and thus left a vacuum between the
relatively wealthy and the relatively poor. Subsequent to the remittance economy, the stay-at-
home population was able to acquire the "appropriate social symbols," as Lopreato puts it, and
enjoy a life style previously attainable only by those in upper and middle economic sectors. In
this acquisition of symbols, the Credit Union has most definitely helped to recreate a middle
sector in Utila, and actually shorten the time involved in the process. It may even have made it
possible for some of the previously lower sector families to move to the top of the economic
scale, a fact that may have much to do with attitudes towards Spaniards that I discuss below.
4. Residential groups. One of the most obvious of the residential groups in Utila, the
barrio, has already been examined above in connection with social stratification. No less
important in Utilian life--practically speaking, of more importance--is the household, of which
there are approximately 240 in the island.
Caribbean social anthropology is replete with accounts (e.g., Smith 1957:66 et passim) of
how people all the way from Guatemala and British Honduras to Guyana and the Caribbean
islands accommodate to the absence of males from household units. The classic "matrifocal
family" is the accommodation referred to, and insofar as the Caribbean island of Utila is
concerned, is almost totally irrelevant. The notion that males are rather inconsequential to the
economic and emotional well-being of household units, which is my understanding of the
matrifocal family model, describes household organization for 5% or less of Utila's population4.
"Matrifocal family" is however an elusive phrase when it comes to precise definition, and the
several key authors who use it (M.G. Smith 1962 and Raymond Smith 1957 besides Solien de
Household composition was in too great a state of flux during the research period (and, I
suspect, during any given period of time) to make categorical statements about the "normal"
Utilian household (which actually tends to go through cycles described below), but it seems to be
the ideal for the household to be coterminous with a nuclear family unit. What may be confusing
to a casual observer here is the fact that, for a variety of reasons (e.g., due to the lack of nursing
homes, orphanages, and other institutions to house and care for certain categories of people), the
nuclear family/household is necessarily more elastic than its counterpart in the United States.
Thus, a Utilian household may, during that portion of the year when the males (or senior male)
are absent on board ship, be composed of a woman up to age 45-50 or so, her single daughters
(perhaps married ones as well), any grandchildren that might be around, any unmarried sons that
might still be at home (too young for sea duty or the army perhaps), and any sons-in-law or other
kin who happen to need housing. This configuration does not arise due to the purported
worthlessness of males or their transience, but is due to logistic or other considerations.
Woman operate in their respective households as if the return of any absentee male were
imminent; only by default do women perform the tasks ordinarily considered part of the male
role. It appears from my own observations that women act as stewards for absentee males, and
from both observation and interviews it can be asserted that it is the men who are ultimately
responsible for their households and women simply stand in for them in their absence.
Women are not, by this analysis, to be viewed as ghost males who are in themselves
inconsequential to Utilian society. The role of women in Utila (dealt with more fully below) is
Gonzalez already cited) leave the construct somewhat vague. The general consensus is that
matrifocality refers to female dominated matrilocal extended family households in which
unrelated adult males are transient figures with little economic importance for the unit.
crucial to the maintenance of the system and to perpetuation of the remittance economy. The
idea that women fill in for men, however, rather than supplant them, is what I wish to stress here,
and is given support (as an example) by research done by Gail Smith on the effects of male
absence from seafaring communities in Great Britain. It was her finding that "although the
wives learned to cope [with problems of running a household all alone], they found it a strain
having no one to turn to for moral support or to share these responsibilities. They gave them up
to their husbands with great relief while he was on leave" (Smith 1975:8; emphasis added).
In order to illustrate some of the configurations that Utilian households can assume, a
description of several "type" examples would be helpful (pseudonyms are used throughout). As
noted, the ideal household appears to be one that consists in a single nuclear family, a
representative of which is the household of Walter Williamson, Jr. "Wallie," not quite 50 years
old at the time of the study, lives with his wife Leann (a Cooper by birth), and their five sons--
ages six to sixteen--in a two story house in the Holland barrio. Wallie has been a fisherman all
of his life, and still fishes with his sons in order to meet household needs for seafood. His main
source of income has not been from fishing, however, but the merchant marine, which he entered
during World War II. Aside from his home and the lot it sits on, Wallie owns plantation land out
in the bush and is thus comfortably situated. He told me shortly before I left Utila that he wanted
to build a new, better house on his town property and would, therefore, sign on for another six
months at sea in order to accumulate the several thousand dollars necessary for the venture.
During his absence, Leann would watch out for their sons and continue to bake coconut bread--
her regular occupation--for sale in Utilian stores. She would receive monthly allotments from
Wallie while he was gone, use as much as she needed for living expenses, and save the
While Wallie's household would probably not be confused as a matrifocal family in his
absence, the household of Gustaf Aginuz might at first glance be taken as just such a unit due to
the prevalence of adult--or almost adult--females. During the research period, Gustaf's
household contained his wife, "Miss" Julia (age 45), and their three daughters Elaine (age
twenty), Rose (age seventeen), and Molly (age fifteen). Also present were infant Horatio
(Elaine's child) and an unidentified teenage male who helped with chores around the house.
Miss Julia maintained a general store on the ground level of her two-story house, baked fresh
coconut bread daily, and supervised the household while both her husband and son-in-law,
Horatio Nelson, were at sea. Elaine's husband, Horatio, Sr., did not yet have a house for his own
nuclear family; therefore, Elaine and son lived with Julia while her husband was on the ships--
and fishing during his leave period, to get money for a home. Before the research period was
ended Rose had married Ralph Trent, and her young bridegroom planned to ship out soon on his
first voyage (at age nineteen he was already a year beyond the minimum age for merchant
seamen) while she stayed with her mother, helping with the store and Elaine's baby, hoping to
save money for her own home.
Obviously, Miss Julia is not a matriarch in charge of a matrifocal household; the absence
of adult males to direct and participate in household operations is not permanent and is
occupationally-related, and belies actual household functioning. It is my belief that in many
societies where a remittance economy dominates, household structure may mistakenly be labeled
matrifocal while in fact it approximates the kind of household and situation just exemplified.
Quite clearly, for some household members--as in this example--continued residence after
marriage in the parental home constitutes a temporary situation, merely a function of being at a
dependent stage in life, which will hopefully be outgrown.
Household configurations that are neither the nuclear family type, nor what we might call
the female-child cluster that arises from youthful dependency plus involvement in the merchant
marine, are abundant and varied. For example, there is the incomplete nuclear family
(household) due to being widowed, as in the case of Miss Samantha Bordeen. Miss Samantha
(in her early 80s) has been widowed ten years but maintains her home with the assistance of
daughter Frances. Frances, a spinster in her late 40s, has remained with her mother to keep
house for the both of them. The other five children have long ago moved away to establish their
own households (two of them remained in Utila) but they all keep in fairly close touch by mail or
What might be called an augmented nuclear family also has representatives. In this type,
an additional family member or members (either affinal or consanguineal) is present in the
household beyond typical nuclear family individuals. The household of Homer Coppen and his
wife Helen serves to illustrate this type, wherein Helen s sister "Terri" resides along with Homer,
Helen and their daughters Virginia and Constance. Terri, in her late 20s, was a victim of polio as
a child and is also mentally retarded. Too much for her widowed mother to take care of, Terri
makes only occasional visits to her mother's home in the Cays. To the best of my knowledge,
Homer supports Terri along with the rest of his dependents and receives no assistance from other
sources, a fact that must cause a certain amount of hardship in the household since Homer is a
pensioner with relatively small income (although he does have a small salary from clerking in his
Some households in Utila bear so little resemblance to a nuclear family that they might
best be considered anomalous due to special kinds of problems. One example of this type
consists in a brother and sister residing with their maternal grandmother. The children's father
deserted them and their mother, and the mother has subsequently died. Without either father or
mother present to care for the youngsters, their grandmother (herself widowed) has taken on the
responsibility of raising them.
Finally, there are, I believe, examples of the so-called matrifocal family in Utila though
my census data do not indicate exactly how many instances exist. A preliminary estimation is,
however, that the phenomenon is restricted to Spaniards, lower class colored women (localized,
more or less, in Sandy Bay barrio) and perhaps one instance in lower class white society.
Women of the types just noted seem less scrupulous in their relationships with men, and
conversely the men who associate with them are likely to provide little support or assume much
responsibility for them or any children they might have. Whereas the other household types
discussed here are "normal" in Utila, the matrifocal type is definitely atypical or "abnormal." My
data do not indicate whether a matrifocal pattern has much antiquity in Utila, or whether it is a
relatively recent phenomenon that arose when other elements of the population were becoming
fairly well-to-do. To say that women in Utilian matrifocal households are impoverished, thereby
suggesting the existence of a "culture of poverty" adaptation (cf. Lewis 1966), is premature. At
most, it might be suggested that Spaniard and lower class colored values are more relaxed in
terms of consensual unions and casual liaisons that do not bind males as tightly to women and
families as is the case in other segments of Utilian society.
To conclude this section, it must be underscored that additional census material is needed
before categorical statements on Utilian household types can be made. At this point, however, it
appears that the 240 households in Utila fall into one of six types: nuclear, female-child cluster,
incomplete nuclear, augmented nuclear, anomalous, and matrifocal. No exact percentages for
each type could be projected over time since in the natural history of a family or group of people
in contemporary Utila individuals can find themselves evolving to--and through--several of the
types. At any given time a particular household of individuals must be viewed as a temporary
arrangement. During the research period, however, it is estimated that 40-50% of Utilian
households were of the nuclear type; and the balance of the population fell into one of the other
The presence of matrifocality in Utila is not readily explicable, as already noted, but put
another way around is an equally interesting point--namely, the actual rarity of this household
type. The relative absence of the phenomenon in Utila is perhaps due to the availability of
relatively high-paying jobs for its men. This contrasts radically with the situations described for
Guatemala, etc., where men simply are not important economic figures. Another significant
factor, also economic at base, might be that the household in Utila is not primarily the unit of
economic production and consumption. The household in Utila is fundamentally social rather
than economic in its functions; it is the group that provides companionship for individuals and
socialization of new members in the society, but though many households might have structural
similarities to the matrifocal family the nuclear family is the essential production and
5. Informal groups. In addition to more formal aspects of socialization in Utila, there are
other, less structured, elements to the social system that are generated through mutual liking and
compatibility between individuals. They are also generated in part for the purpose of pursuing a
special activity or activities. Especially important activities are various types of recreation, and
drinking is by far the most potent force for assembling an informal group--specifically of males.
In Chapter IV it was noted that during the months of September, October, November and
December most of Utila's merchant mariners attempt to be home for a rest and recreation period.
A cinema that operates erratically and a once-a-week, at most, dance are the only diversions
outside of bars and drinking. Men are therefore in a sense propelled into beer drinking and its
attendant activities (card playing, listening to a juke box, conversing) while on leave. Almost
invariably, drinking, etc., takes place with one or more companions, and Utilian men spend a
great deal of money in the friendship groups generated around drinking. Typically, a group of
men who drink together in a bar will treat one another to rounds of drinks--turn-on-turn--which
can go on for hours at a time. The structure of these groups is extremely loose, and people can
be easily brought into the groups or just as easily drop out of them. Joining is effected by being
treated to a beer by one of the men already drinking and thus is not something actively
undertaken by a man; i.e., one is invited into a circle of friends who were together beforehand.
Dropping out is effected by a man simply leaving, usually with an announcement that he has to
go home for a bath, a nap, a meal, or some other reasonable excuse for leaving, but with the idea
that he will probably be back. In size, the drinking groups range from just two or three to as
many as ten men, but the average size is around four or five. Even when groups grow as large as
ten members there will be a distinct core to the group--perhaps the two or three men who got the
group started on that occasion--who trade drinks. Late comers will not be treated, or treat, to the
same degree as the core and may form secondary (satellite) groups of two or three who will tend
to stand rounds more with one another than with the core group. Membership in these groups
tends to be situational, happenstance, most of the time, but men will arrange with one another for
a drinking session (a "spree") from time to time. Strangers, especially from the United States (as
I well know from personal experience) are very welcome to the drinking group and will be
singled out for solicitous attention beyond the friendly treatment--and care for one another's
welfare--that ordinarily is part of drinking comportment.
The relevance of men's drinking groups to the total discussion of social organization and
Utila's remittance economy lies in a complex and tightly interwoven set of behaviors and
attitudes. To begin with, the major motivation to ship out is so that one can obtain money
necessary for a good life in Utila. A good life consists not only in material goods and so-called
creature comforts, but also in amiable people and relationships. Relaxing in the bars is part of
the latter and is also an integral part of the actual work-leisure cycle. Thus, drinking is both a
partial cause and an effect of the remittance system (drinking is something one does to
demonstrate friendliness and comaraderie, while it is also a mechanism for relaxation or at least
diversion), and drinking groups--since one does not drink alone--are an inherent part of drinking
behavior in the island.
Put differently, in drinking groups one can clearly see some of the important aspects of
being an island male (elaborated below). To the extent that males are essential to the remittance
economy, but more especially the right kind of males (i.e., ones who will behave predictably in
terms of Utila's value system which includes comradely drinking), these groupings are
significant. Male status-role, however, goes beyond the rest-and-recreation character presented
in bars; a fuller consideration of both male and female status-role is needed in order to appreciate
the dynamics of Utila's remittance economy.
Status and Role
Since there are both social and psychological dimensions to the analysis of status-role,
this section will attempt to integrate what Utilians themselves say that they do, and are, with
behavior that my wife and I observed during the research period. Of especial help were John
Sullivan (pseudonym), one the the few contemplative and introspective islanders; Eddie Rose,
whose 80 years in Utila and penchant for observation--especially minutiae--gives him
advantaged perspective of his fellow islanders; and Helen Coppen (also a pseudonym), one of
the most skillful managers and organizers of things and people in Utila. These informants not
only provided much of the basic material used here, but served as a double check against other
The special design of Utila's social system, and the operation of its peculiar economic
system, are fundamentally derived from two stereotyped and predictable sets of role behavior
associated with ethnic and sexual statuses. Many of the stereotypes in both cases go back to the
days before a remittance economy existed; others, however, derive from or have been amplified
by the remittance system.
Ethnic group status-roles have already been covered to a large extent in the discussion of
stratification where the relationship between these status-roles and the remittance economy is
made: wealth provided by the merchant marine and remittances is a means by which some
individuals may move up or down in the social hierarchy. Two propositions from that discussion
particularly merit elaboration. As was pointed out, since attaining "the good life" (again my
phrase) implies a certain amount of mobility within the society, it follows that the potential of
movement is as important a motivation to behavior in Utila as the actual acquisition of the
symbols of the good life. Further, this is doubtless one of the social features that keeps Utila
from being depopulated through migration, i.e., the hope of achievement within Utilian society,
and is thus part of Utilian sociocultural dynamic. Finally, the interesting possibility also,
therefore, exists that people who are socially disadvantaged in Utila due to wealth have a vested
interest in maintaining the stratification system as it is: they have the hope and expectation of
working their way up within it. Conversely, people who are disadvantaged due to ethnicity per
se have an interest in changing the system to better suit themselves. On the contemporary
Utilian scene, therefore, Spaniards stand to profit from maintaining the status quo while colored
people do not.
A case study that both illustrates and partially supports the foregoing points is the
wedding shower that was given for Jane Perez (a pseudonym) just before her marriage. The
shower, held at the Montenegro home (also a pseudonym), was attended by twenty to thirty
guests, both males and females, who were friends of the bride and/or the Montenegros. Most of
the guests were close in age to the bride and groom, i.e., late teenage or early twenties, and there
were both married and single individuals in the group. No colored people attended, although
Jane (who is categorically "white") and the Montenegros have colored friends. It is unknown
whether any colored friends were even invited. Significantly, there were two Spaniards present,
which is probably related to the fact that the Montenegros are considered marginal whites at this
point. Mr. Montenegro had, as a youth, spent several years in Utila where his father was trying
to establish a salt factory. Most of his adult life was subsequently spent in Guatemala where all
three of his children were born. He had only recently returned to Utila and was renting a
residence until he could buy property and build his retirement home. The Montenegros had the
reputation throughout Utila of being somewhat less than successful, even foolish, in terms of
handling their money. The rumored lack of fiscal responsibility, plus their mainland background
(Mrs. Montenegro could not speak any English after being two years in Utila), made this family
marginal according to the white Utilians. Perhaps in sympathy with their "paisanos"
(countrymen), or even in defiance of Utilian values and norms, they invited Spaniards into their
home. Inasmuch as there were no colored guests present, however, and since the Montenegro
daughter, Evita (age fifteen), was "looking a boyfriend" exclusively from among the white boys
in Utila, the family will probably be "white" very soon.
Prior to World War II it is quite clear that the status-role of all Spanish surname
individuals in Utila was closer to that of whites, and together they could be distinguished from
colored Utilians. A proof of this contention lies in the datum that all of the Spanish surname
families or individuals in the island who became, and are now, categorically white, achieved that
status-role before Utila moved to a remittance economy.
A comparison of pre- and post-remittance ethnic status-roles indicates that Utila evolved
from basically a two strata society to a three strata society due to an initial bias built into the
remittance system. English-speaking Utilians--colored or white--had definite advantage over
Hondurans of Spanish heritage in gaining entrance to the merchant marine and/or migrating to
the United States due to their language and cultural background. Prior to the Utilian
commitment to a remittance economy, everyone in the island had virtually the same economic
options (agricultural production, fishing, local shipping) and, perhaps for political or practical
considerations, Spanish surname people had a similar status-role to whites at that time. In a very
direct way, then, wealth from the remittance economy forged a significant portion of the status-
role expectations and performance found in Utila today; but, as noted, advantages have shifted
Turning to the status-roles of men and women in Utila, it has already been established
that women especially are crucial to the perpetuation of the sociocultural system. In all areas--
economic, political, religious, social--women consistently demonstrate their importance and
competence and their co-equal position with men in terms of decision making, garnering of
esteem, and so on. As Helen Coppen commented once, "Things are 50-50; they have to be"; and
Viola Moran, in the same vein, noted that, "People here are hard, especially the women [because
of men going on the ships]." Women are enduring creatures, like their men and can do hard
labor (which for them is a virtue admired by men and women alike) in the form of hand
laundering, baking, and cooking meals without benefit of pre-processed foods.
Despite perceived equality, or at least complementarity, between men and women as far
as women see it, there are many evidences that women have a secondary social position in
relationship to men. Thus, while there are examples of women going off to visit relatives on the
mainland or other of the Bay Islands while leaving their husbands at home, of women who
operate their own shops, of women in public office or in charge of civic activities, there are as
many examples of women taking a secondary position to men. One of the best examples of the
situation being described is the wedding of Rose Aginuz during which she--as guest of honor--
actually assumed the task of waitress for her father and the elder males present.
Many other situations, often having to do with home and domestic activity (such as child
watching), show male social superiority. To my knowledge, no Utilian male would stay home
with children so that his wife could have an evening out, for example, to go to a dance. The
woman would either have to take her children along with her (which is frequently the case) or
get someone--perhaps her mother--to watch them. The male, however, will spend the entire
evening, night after night, at a bar with a drinking group without having any concern over such
matters. Utilian women are not servile in their relations with men, however, far from it. The
attitude conveyed by women vis à vis men is, in fact, more an attitude of indulgence, such as one
might take toward a young child. To illustrate this point, and put the example of Rose Aginuz's
wedding into better perspective, an incident occurring between the police chief, Hester
Thompson, and one of the men home on leave is enlightening.
Sandy Fortunato (a pseudonym) had come to Utila for a visit after having been absent, in
the United States with his parents, for more than a dozen years. Although he was a U.S. citizen,
his background was Utilian (he had also taken up a typical island occupation by working on a
shrimper), and he was received back into the community as an old friend and family member.
He quickly fell into the pattern followed by most merchant mariners while home on leave, but
aside from the heavy drinking and partying he developed a passion for fried chicken and was
soon in trouble for chicken stealing. Having been fined, and warned once by the chief of police,
he was caught a second time and again brought before her. Miss Hester lectured Sandy about
stealing other people's chickens and then told him that when he got the craving for fried chicken
again he should come over to her house and she would fix him one of her own flock rather than
have him get into trouble.
Sandy was due to leave in a short time (as were a number of other men who had also had
a hand in the chicken thievery), and the strategy adopted by Miss Hester--and many other women
in a variety of situations--was to indulge (pamper?) the male for soon he would be gone, taking
the chicken stealing problem with him.
Women accept a secondary position to men apparently in order to make their short stay at
home enjoyable, acknowledging the fact that it is difficult for men to be away from home,
friends, and good times. Men accept this female attitude and resultant behavior--demand it in a
sense--as just compensation for the same rationale: women should attend to male needs and be
grateful for the money they earn and the life style they thereby provide for them and the
Speaking now of the male qua male in Utila, he typically works hard for his living (as he
will tell you in any bar room conversation) and is proud of the fact that he works hard since it
proves his capacity for endurance both physically--in doing heavy labor--and emotionally since
he must be away from home and loved ones for so much of the year. On the other hand, he does
not prize manual labor per se, especially with the land, as is evidenced by the reluctance of men
to farm in the island. As an adjunct of their "work ethic," recreation is also pursued with an eye
to demonstrating hardihood and the capacity to endure: drinking bouts of several day's duration
prove, in part, one's masculinity. During drinking sessions, however, one does not want to "get
hot" (which to Utilians connotes being drunk beyond the point where the individual can take care
of himself) since this is both unwise--one could get into a fight--and weak (i.e., is the opposite of
Hard work and hard play are traits long present in the Utilian male population and the
results are obvious: on one hand is the abiding commitment to the merchant marine, on the other,
to the "rest and recreation" mentality I noted above. The work commitment, a man will tell you,
lets him obtain the things needed for a comfortable life, but even more fundamental than this is
the ability to pay the bills and meet the responsibilities attendant upon living comfortably. The
ability to pay, then, leads directly into the "rest and recreation" phenomenon: relaxation among
Utilian males is high-cost due to the expense of alcohol; but being able to meet the cost is part of
the relaxation, part of the satisfaction of drinking--and drinking groups, where one's ability to
pay can be shown off in large scale generosity, are necessary to this facet of the male status-role.
The Utilian man is adventuresome, as demonstrated by the fact that he sails to all corners
of the world, stops in strange ports, etc., and when home on leave is ready to try all sorts of
mischief (e.g., chicken thieving). He is also ready to create a good deal of commotion short of
fighting--which appears to be looked down upon even though no Utilian would back away from
a fight--that usually means making a lot of noise with stereo, jukebox, fireworks, and so on.
Nevertheless, he is basically a homebody and enjoys domesticity. Men are attracted back to
Utila through the knowledge that there they will enjoy home and friends, and if women are
involved--mothers, wives, lovers--indulgences (though this does not mean total irresponsibility).
Men are more or less assured that the island home they left a few months--and even a few years--
ago will be the same when they get back; women and retired men who are desirous of the status
quo for economic and sentimental reasons (not to mention possible in-put from lower stratum
elements) exert conserving force on Utilian culture so that the absentee male does not have
massive changes confronting him every time he returns from shipping out.
The only exception to the preceding, i.e., males being homebodies due to the predictable
security of the household situation, would be where a man had to face infidelity in his spouse or
untrustworthiness in household members. Given the repeated and prolonged absences of Utilian
males, it is not surprising that both infidelity and untrustworthiness occur; but despite male
sentimentality (men readily weep or are morose over unrequited love and the like), the typical
male response would be a rather matter-of-fact acceptance of these conditions as occupational
hazards. (Rather early in my research I had several men tell me that "Utilian men are good at
three things: going to sea, drinking, and screwing other men's wives." This line appears to be
part of local folklore.) The number of unfaithful spouses is actually quite small--even less
common than other forms of sexual impropriety, namely common law unions and fornication
(with resultant illegitimate children), which are themselves relatively infrequent5.
Birth records for 1940-1974, for example--the period corresponding to Utila's remittance
economy--show that out of 1131 births, 177 (15.65%) were illegitimate. Broken down by social
strata these are distributed 31% white, 49% colored, and 20% Spaniard, figures that need some
additional comment. Among white and colored populations, "outside" children are an
unfortunate by-product of love affairs. Outside children among Spaniards are usually generated
in a common law union. Illegitimacy is not a reliable measure of infidelity since men may be
reluctant to disclaim their paternity of wives' children, and an increasing number of women are
reportedly taking birth control pills. A common Utilian practice, illegitimacy aside, is to identify
a child with its mother rather than its father (or both supposed parents); in reply to the question
"Who's she for?" the answer "She's for Peggy" identifies an individual as the offspring of a
The requisite adult female status-role of nurturer and conservator, is one that women
apparently handle willingly from their earliest years. From childhood they are socialized into a
"Susie Homemaker" personality that concentrates most of the female energy and interest in home
and children. While still children themselves, female offspring are enlisted as child-watchers for
any younger siblings, for incidental cousins, nephews, or whatever. They are utilized by mothers
to go to the market (from an age when they cannot even see over the top of store counters) and to
lend a hand in cleaning and cooking in the home. They are early geared to look for romantic
love with men, an orientation reinforced by radio serials such as "Portia Faces Life" received
from Radio Belize (British Honduras) and television "novelas" that are received from
Tegucigalpa in half-an-hour segments two or three evenings a week. The local laundromat has
several examples of romantic art drawn by Utilian girls: "Jim, I Love You To My Heart," and
similar phrases. From approximately age fourteen (school-leaving age) until a woman marries,
she is "looking a boyfriend," which is to say that she is receptive to serious overtures from males.
Dating situations are, admittedly, few; but the weekly cinemas offer some opportunities as do
Utilian women are not adverse to flirtations, but like to control any romantic, or
potentially romantic, situation by dictating hours and conditions of dating, for example. They
must be modest--neither being scandalous on the street (such as using foul language or being
boisterous) nor going into bars unaccompanied except for dances--decorous in dress (a bikini is
approved at the beach, but not elsewhere) and, in fact, up-to-date in terms of their wearing
particular woman: maternity cannot be denied.
apparel (polyester pant suits, shorts, and so forth are common in the island).
The female version of adventuresomeness, perhaps to counterbalance the male
experience incurred by going on the ships, comes from going to the United States for a short,
usually two or three month, visit to relatives or friends. As Laura Cooper (keeper of the
laundromat) once told me, "I want to go North for my tour, and then come back to settle down."
What Laura was saying, in effect, was that once she had experienced female adventure she was
prepared to act out the typical Utilian female status-role of mother-wife, etc. Laura is very much
like most nineteen-year-old women in the island: in love with love (my phrase). Once she has
seen the outside world (New Orleans) that is enough, and beyond that she is ready for her own
Utilian females tend to dote on children, especially babies (and male offspring of
whatever age); yet despite the penchant to want children of their own, family size is small.
Census data indicate that the average family in Utila has only two or three children, which is
somewhat ironic for a number of reasons. First of all, one demonstration of maleness in Utila is
fathering children, being a real "gallo" (rooster). Likewise, a number of children are an
economic asset (they can help in one's store or in one's coconut plantation or run on the ships or
work in the United States) and are a veritable source of retirement security. Secondly, children
are a source of companionship that is extremely important to Utilians especially the women.
Perhaps as a function of men being absent so much, perhaps simply out of fondness for children
as persons in their own right, women like to have offspring around them. Helen Coppen
epitomized this point in her response to my questions about ideal family size--whether she,
speaking on behalf of Utilians, would have liked more children (she has two daughters, one of
whom is still at home, the other an airline stewardess with SAHSA airline): "I wish I had had
two more children [to make the ideal of four in a family] because I don't want to be all alone
when I get older." The implication was that this desire for three or four children was the norm.
Small family size is doubtless the result of relatively high infant mortality (of the 563
deaths recorded between 1900 and 1974, fully a third were children ten years of age or younger)
which relates to a Utilian trait that is impossible to ignore, namely a concern with health and
doctoring that--as noted in Chapter IV--consumed a third of all money ever loaned by the Credit
Union. The avidity with which doctors are sought out may well have a recreational aspect to it
(since people have to go to the mainland for medical care), but at the least it should also
demonstrate their concern for their children's and their own well-being--which may also account
for several Utilians since the turn of the century living past the age of 100.
Additional descriptive material regarding men and women in Utilian life could certainly
be provided in this discussion, but points crucial to the study have been made. In sum, male and
female status-roles in Utila today, like ethnic ones, are to a great extent connected to the
economic system found in the island. Prior to the remittance economy, women and men were
certainly complementary to one another, just as today. With the men resident in the island most
of the time, however, and household structures having males present most of the time, the
distinction between a man's occupations and privileges and a woman's were much clearer than at
present when women so often must take over for men. More importantly, differences of opinion
and various kinds of conflict could not previously be ignored in the expectation that they would
disappear with male departures. Women in earlier years appear to have been considered
genuinely inferior to men in all respects; men were frequently condescending and supercilious
towards them (cf. Rose 1905:24 et passim). Male and female status-roles in Utila would have
been excellently preadapted for the type of living conditions eventually demanded by the
remittance system, but there has been a change for women in the direction of greater
independence, and for men a qualitative shift in the attitude that what they do while home in
Utila is a direct function of hardships in the merchant mariner's life; previously the latter
legitimization did not exist and was not, perhaps, even necessary; i.e., a man did what he wanted
simply because he was a man.
Enmeshed in the discussion of social organization are major points concerning
stratification in Utila and the maintenance of the remittance system. Put succinctly, both the
socially advantaged and the socially disadvantaged have a vested interest in the system of
stratification since it serves on one hand as an aspect of Utilian life that--given an Image of
Limited Good carried over from the Coconut Oil years--must be preserved by continuing (white)
participation in the remittance economy. On the other hand, in that stratification embodies all of
the elements of the good life, mobility within strata serves as a goal to be attained--or overcome-
-especially by the colored population. In large measure, the importance of the stratification
system is historically determined through its linkage to land tenure in the island and the recent
experience of economic crisis, all of which revolve around the initial orientation toward
During Utila's earliest years--perhaps for two generations after settlement--the smallness
of its population, its few non-kin relationships, and all-white composition gave the island a
semblance of extended family structure and function. When colored and Spanish arrivals
increased the population in absolute numbers, and when these newcomers dehomogenized the
population, Utila's white population became a kind of cartel.
Resources were initially abundant, and there were few inhibitions to everyone enjoying
the good life: an image of limited good was not greatly in evidence. The coming of colored and
Spanish surname immigrants to Utila coincided with the Fruit Boom, and though parameters for
social strata were loosely laid out at the time, the system was still open. As the market for Utila's
tropical fruit disappeared, circa 1900 and was followed by the world-wide depression, there was
concomitant economic deprivation and emergence of the image of limited good: opportunities
for the good life disappeared.
Utila's Coconut Oil Years experience was one of extreme hardship for all islanders
irrespective of social stratum, kind and quantity of land owned, etc. Emigration, which siphoned
off hundreds of islanders, did nothing to help Utila's local situation. Those people who remained
had little of the good life, and what little they had they obviously intended to keep. This they
could do by totally closing the social system to any mobility between strata and by keeping
political power and authority where it then resided. These sociocultural developments were the
matrix for Utila's remittance economy that developed in the aftermath of World War II.
As in the discussion of social stratification, hypotheses concerning the remittance
economy can be developed from descriptive data on status-role. First, women more than men
have a vested interest in perpetuating the remittance economy. Women have, increasingly, been
decision-makers and managers in the absence of males, but since these decisions are usually not
major (e.g., whether or not the household should emigrate or the like), they have a relatively
greater amount of freedom (at least from their husbands if not from society at large) without
concomitant responsibilities. If a woman truly needs the presence of a male (e.g., due to
sickness) a man can be induced to remain in Utila beyond the normal two to three month leave or
he can take emergency leave from his ship. In other words, in circumstances considered by a
woman to warrant it, she can manipulate the presence or absence of a male regardless of his
usual work cycle of nine months on and three months off.
Day-to-day tasks of women are made easier through amenities provided by remittances.
A woman can, in effect, manipulate remittance expenditures in her favor (i.e., so that her work
load will be eased, her leisure time increased, and so on) simply by resort to traditional values: a
woman can, for example, appeal to a man's desire to appear successful and generous in order to
get a new electric refrigerator. If she gets bored with the island surroundings or its relative
isolation she can use remittance monies to take children to the doctor in La Ceiba, a legitimate
expenditure according to traditional values. Or, she could go north to the United States for a
visit with other islanders, also recognized as legitimate in the value system (to maintain family
ties, to assist at the time of childbirth, to do shopping for desired things not available in Utila or
Honduras, etc). Such visits are themselves beneficial to maintaining the remittance system since
they enable comparison between Utila and other places; comparison usually favors Utila as
having a slower pace of life. Likewise, visits expose women to still other amenities that
remittance monies can be used for.
The commitment of women to the remittance economy is doubly demonstrated through
the responses of children to questions about their life goals. A sample of fifteen little boys and
girls under age 12, when questioned about their objectives in life, indicated that they intended to
go to sea (if male) or stay home to care for house and family (if female). Socialization of the
next generation of Utilians, primarily in the hands of women, has already established that Utila
will (all other things being equal) have a remittance economy for a long time to come.
A second hypothesis stemming from status-role discussion is that the prospect of
retirement--rewards in the future rather than in the present--is what encourages continued male
participation in the remittance economy. Unlike women, men do not derive optimum
satisfaction from their remittance economy while still actively involved in it. Men, in contrast to
women, invariably talk about goals toward which they are working and with which they can--in
retirement--be happy and content. Women enjoy the fruits of the remittance system by
increments; men anticipate enjoyment, more or less, as a kind of lump-sum phenomenon. The
"rest and recreation" atmosphere of the community is, in the interim, a male device for coping
with the retirement goal orientation. Permissiveness of male behavior and indulgence of male
whims serve as intermittent rewards for men prior to attaining retirement. Males, then, are not
anxious to see changes on the contemporary scene: their prospects for enjoyment are posited in a
no-change culture. In order to ensure stasis, i.e., to protect their investment in the projected
retirement, there is a built-in inducement beyond personal attachments to keep men coming
home (rather than emigrating, perhaps, as they did in an earlier era) yet periodically shipping out
in order to eventually build the good life.
Male future orientation and female present orientation are largely responsible, as the final
hypothesis, for Utila's persistence in the remittance system. Though the male and female
orientations are different, they complement one another in keeping Utila from any prospect of
local economic self-sufficiency. Women want consumer items that they can use and enjoy in the
here and now. Men, however desirous of saving for retirement they might be, must also satisfy
wives (perhaps compensate them for male absence) and therefore engage in consumerism. The
"rest and recreation mentality" of men plus their own penchant for consumerism does the rest to
guarantee economic dependency on the merchant marine. Lack of investment in local ventures
(empirically, there are, in fact, few things in which to invest), and the relatively small savings
accumulated in the bank and Credit Union (see Chapter IV) attest to what is obvious to any
observer: Utilian consume most of what they earn. That they do consume rather than invest has
kept the island in a dependent status; and the prospects, given the lack of in-island opportunities,
are that this situation will not change. Economic dependency and its relationship to the
remittance economy will be dealt with still more fully in Chapter VI.
REMITTANCE SYSTEM INTERRELATIONSHIPS: POLITICAL ORGANIZATION
The aim of this study has been to examine the interface between the economic and non-
economic aspects of Utila's overall sociocultural system. From that examination we may better
understand what conditions and institutions are actually preadapted to a remittance economy, and
beyond that the dynamics between preadaptation and subsequent accommodation. In the
example of Utila we may also better understand the nature of the accommodations themselves.
Chapter V describes a major component of that interface, but the social arrangement of Utila's
personnel obviously entails more than stratification patterns, particular status-roles, and the other
phenomena discussed in connection with these.
We are told (e.g., by Bennett and Tumin 1964) that all sociocultural systems must
provide for the maintenance of internal and external order; i.e., there must be some way whereby
"politics" is effected. Following Fried (1967:20-21):
Political organization comprises those portions of social organization that specifically
relate to the individuals or groups that manage the affairs of public policy or seek to
control the appointment or action of those individuals or groups.
In the case of Utila, there are two levels at which political organization operates: the local level
as such, focusing on the internal affairs of the island, and the level of national government that
binds Utila to the Honduran state.
The pages that follow will direct attention first of all to the local level of Utilian political
organization. From that emerges a model of what could be called orthodox anarchy: a basically
conformist and conservative population that maintains the status quo in an atmosphere of
individual and household autonomy and therefore without intracommunity cooperation.
To examine Utila's larger political involvements--not only with the government of
Honduras but with foreign individuals--I concentrate especially on the separateness of Utilians
based in their minority status and island location. Separateness, a sense of their own superiority
to mainlanders, suspicion of others' motives, and numerous negative experiences at the hands of
state government and outsiders generally, reinforce individualism and a limited good image in
the island and the necessity of maintaining the remittance system. It is in the political sector of
Utilian experience that the strongest impetus for return of sojourning islanders can be found;
through relationships with the outside world Utila's model of the good life is constantly
compared with that of others, and its preferability reinforced in the island population.
Local Level Politics
Insofar as in-island politics are concerned, the "old heads" are the collective body of
policy formulators and behavior enforcers. These males and females of the long-established
families (both white and colored) employ a mixture of English Common Law (carried over from
Utila's term as a British colony), Honduran statute law, Biblical morality (as interpreted from
their Protestant viewpoint), and local custom to define the parameters of socially accepted
In numbers there are no more than two score "old heads" as such, but their influence and
control are extended through at least two hundred white and upper class colored adults aged 35
and up, approximately one-fourth of the main island population, which means that there is a
sizeable core of like-minded people to exercise power and authority in the island. Yet despite
the large support force, few individuals are willing to take personal responsibility in matters that
are at all ambiguous: if resort can be made to law or well-known custom there is no problem;
otherwise a decision may be put off until a given situation is past (and therefore needs no action)
or until someone is forced, by default, to act.
There is also a tendency on the part of those who are willing to take personal
responsibility to act quickly and without counsel. As a consequence, there is periodic loss of
face among the politically active, which serves not only to undercut their own position but to
reinforce the attitude that one should not stand solely responsible for a political decision: at the
least it may make one look foolish. Out of a total population of 1200 (counting the Cays) there
are less than a dozen people who could be called activists at all. From time to time, as special
situations arise, others also emerge to make political decisions in Utila; but unlike the individuals
just noted, they blend back into society at large and work--as do most of the old heads--through
the so-called activists. As in many small communities, the range of political decisions necessary
to the normal operation of Utila is small and has little impact upon the everyday lives of ordinary
inhabitants. Marriages and divorces, land sales and other commercial transactions are executed
according to Honduran law, the application of which is more or less mechanical and allowed to
proceed without local interference. An alcalde, or mayor, is appointed by Tegucigalpa (as an
extension of Government organization) in order to enforce Honduran law and to act as
spokesman for the municipality. A Judge of Letters is also appointed to act as a hearing
officer/arbitrator in contract types of disputes (for adjudication in criminal cases or for appeals,
Utilians have to go to the courts established in Roatan as the capital of the Bay Islands). Both
the alcalde and the Judge of Letters are local people and are supporters of the National ("Blue")
Party, which has determined Honduran politics for more than a generation. Their appointments,
like those of police chief and local party head, are recognized in Utila as rewards for party
support though there is little financial gain obtained from them since pay is no more than $30-
$50 a month for any municipal office holder.
When torts, or delicts, arise in Utila the impact of the old heads is felt more directly.
Rather than statute law, the local Common Law, etc., is applied through one of several
mechanisms. Typically, the breach of legal norms in Utila is brought before the chief of police
where the circumstances of that breach are heard. When arguments are finished--and these can
become shouting matches--the chief of police then has the authority (from Government as well
as old heads) to jail and/or fine an individual. This is true in cases of interpersonal conflict, such
as a saloon fight, to where the community at large has been offended as in breach of the peace.
The most common infraction of legal norms in Utila is fighting. Usually fights_which
may be between men, men and women, or between women alone--are the direct result of
excessive drinking although drunkenness itself seldom results in jail or a fine. The same people
tend to be recurrent offenders in this area (there are a few--but only a few--town drunks, and a
like number of disreputable women). They also tend to be guilty of Utila's second most frequent
offense, namely, "scandal." Scandal refers to verbal fights or to the use of foul language, verbal
fights usually entailing a good deal of profanity. The record of fines imposed by Miss Hester as
Chief of Police during January to October 1973 supports the preceding generalizations. Of 118
fines total, 29 were for profanity or scandal and 56 were for fighting (i.e., these two categories
accounted for 71% of all fines).
In applying fines or jail sentences (a serious fight might draw two or three days in Utila's
two-cell jail), Miss Hester works from the precedent established in other cases, and operates
according to a pattern known to all. For example, Miss Hester is famous for her "five limp
words." This refers to the fact that for certain specified profanities--and even youngsters know
what these are--she will automatically set a fine of five lempiras ($2.50).
Since Utila's legal norms are uncodified there is ample opportunity for Miss Hester,
acting on behalf of Utilians (or at least the old heads), to innovate in maintaining internal order.
An example of creative maintenance of internal order took place in 1971. A group of amateur
marine archaeologists from California were working just off the Utila Cays and staying in a
rented house at East Harbor. They habitually appeared on Utila's streets wearing only swim
trunks, and this practice offended many Utilians as being improper if not lewd. Miss Hester
arrested two or three of the offenders, placing them in jail for "appearing shirtless in public."
Ultimately, after the regulation had been noised abroad by the Americans with much ridicule of
it and Miss Hester (it got as far as New Orleans), the offenders were freed and the regulation
disappeared. The old heads still supported her, but it is rumored that she could not and would
not stand the personal attacks (The "no shirt law" is interesting since Utilian girls commonly
wear very brief bikinis while swimming or sunbathing.)
While the "no shirt law" may have actually been a matter of personal whim, it illustrates
also the point about quick and uncounseled decision-making. Better still, however, is an episode
involving a cholera epidemic supposedly sweeping the Bay Islands during October 1973. Street
talk (gossip) brought word to the cabildo one afternoon that cholera had killed two people in
Guanaja, and several other people were ill. Miss Hester, concerned with the possibility that Utila
would soon be struck with the disease, sent a telegram to the mainland asking for a nursing team
to come over immediately and inoculate the islanders. This action, which had to be rescinded the
next day, was taken after merely talking with two of the other municipal employees then working
in the cabildo. When I queried Miss Hester about the epidemic, she explained that it had all been
a mistake. (Rumor, which is itself an epidemic phenomenon in Utila, had been started when a
Utilian male working on a shrimp boat heard about sickness in Guanaja, escalated it to deaths,
and spread it to his wife, who in turn--without verification--passed it on.)
Another way the old heads make themselves felt politically is as a kind of ad hoc
vigilante committee. Examples of this have already been presented in Chapter V in the incidents
where the culprit in the Olimpia massacre was lynched, and where the two female tourists were
expelled from the island. Street talk is an important element in activating what I have called here
a vigilante committee-type politics, but the examples cited are admittedly extreme cases, and
social control or social pressure usually stops short at the verbal level. In addition to whispering
campaigns and rumor mongering, written admonitions are also given to people who have fallen
into social disfavor (i.e., have displeased the old heads). The anonymous note, called a "squib"
according to one informant, is dropped in a person's yard and in straightforward language advises
a return to acceptable behavior.
Few cases, aside from those already cited, arose during the research period that involved
making or enforcing public policy. Examples of political activity beyond mere enforcement of
civil law did, however, occur; and one such example leads into the discussion of Utila's larger
political involvements. Shortly before my wife and I were due to leave Utila, two entrepreneurs
came to the island from Tegucigalpa in order to buy the two lagoons. Having drained the
lagoons, they would turn the reclaimed land into housing projects for retired people from the
United States. Negotiations between these two men and the alcalde, speaking on behalf of Utila,
resulted in the sale of the lagoons for a rumored $40,000. The alcalde, informally advised by
Miss Hester and some of the other old heads, believed that the islanders had really outwitted the
purchasers. Whether the mainlanders were duped, or the islanders, or whether the transaction
even went any further than the on-paper stage is unimportant at this point. The alcalde and an
informal, unelected, unappointed council effected the economic decision. From all informants'
accounts, this is typical of political procedures in Utila; and there is no formal appeal from a
decision that does not please everyone (or any one specifically).
Self-help measures do exist for people displeased with political decisions, and these
follow the pattern--albeit broader in scope--outlined above in connection with maintenance of
internal order: ridicule and scorn. The "no shirt" episode is a case in point, where the
decisionmaker was apparently made to feel silly in public and backed down from the decision.
Sensitivity to social pressure is obviously necessary for this procedure to operate, and people of
lower class standing in spite of aspiring to the same good life as upper class islanders do not
respond to social pressure in the same degree.
Supporting this contention regarding lower class Utilians is the continued presence and
operation of the "Bucket of Blood" saloon. Already noted for its unsavory character (interethnic
dance particularly, but also women drinking there with men), "The Bucket" defies Utila's
leadership, though not to the point where the establishment is closed down. The fact that the
owner, a colored Utilian, is a brother of a Methodist lay preacher may have something to do with
leaders' permissiveness. It is also possible that the lack of cooperative, concerted effort by the
old heads simply lets the saloon stay open by default. Still another alternative explanation (the
most likely) is that the dominant segment of Utilian society actually comprehends the possibility
that the lower class clientele associated with the bar need this social outlet; without it there could
be other problems of a more serious nature to cope with; i.e., there is a positive trade-off
involved. Leadership pragmatism is supported by an episode that I witnessed one day in the
cabildo when Spekeman (a pseudonym) came in to protest having to pay a fee for playing the
jukebox in his saloon after 10 p.m. He claimed that people in the neighborhood of "The Bucket"
often complained about its jukebox being played after hours and keeping them awake; Spekeman
argued that there was favoritism being shown here if they (the owners of "The Bucket") had not
had to pay the standard fee each of those occasions. Miss Hester claimed that no favoritism was
being shown; everyone playing a jukebox after 10 p.m. was levied the same fee, and Spekeman
had no option but to pay his fine. Unfortunately, no detailed records of the after-hours fees could
be found; but Spekeman was very specific about who could support his allegations (and specific
dates were also mentioned) which leads me to believe him. It seems that somewhat unorthodox
behavior can be ignored if social benefit is actually seen by political leaders to lie in the non-
Where sensitivity to social pressure becomes a major consideration, unlike cases
involving lower class islanders, is in dealings with outsiders, a number of whom are ever-present
in Utila. The lagoon sale is too ambiguous to serve as a supportive illustration, but the case of
the fish plant/utilities company is well suited to this discussion.
As originally constituted, the fish plant/utilities company was to be privately owned and
operated by its U.S. builders. For the utilities concession in the island, the municipality was to
receive a $100 a month consideration, but would have no involvement in plant operation (which
includes the fixing of rate schedules). In January 1973, the rates for utilities were increased by
as much as 50% over the preceding month. Managers at the plant claimed that an almost
doubling in the price of diesel fuel--from 19¢ to 37¢ a gallon--made the increase necessary. For
several days street talk centered on the unfair cost of utilities, how individual households could
not afford the luxury of water and lights, and how something should be done to lower the rates.
Nothing was done to lower rates and no political action was mounted by the community or its
leadership. Rather, one angry islander wrote anonymous letters to government figures in
Tegucigalpa and to the radio station in La Ceiba decrying the company action. After an
additional two or three days of street talk that stemmed from the bad publicity the entire matter
died, islanders accepting the new situation as undesirable but immutable. No formal recourse
could be sought, and a mechanism that is more or less effective on islanders had no impact on
Utila's Larger Political Involvements
Utila's political inclusion in the Honduran state has, since the Wyke-Cruz Treaty, been
largely a nominal thing: political party structure, the impact of political governors, the strict
enforcement of Honduran law, and so on have been attenuated or refracted in Utila by a number
of factors. The primary reason for weak political ties between Utila and greater Honduras lies
mainly in the weakness of the central government. Honduras is the proverbial vest-pocket-
government notorious throughout Central America; its leaders govern largely as a function of
military backing, and coups are the regular means of changing leadership. For this reason there
has been little genuine opportunity to extend political control as far as Utila. The additional
factors of mutual disparagement (islanders vs. mainlanders) and Utilian individualism have
precluded any but rather superficial connections of island and mainland. There are, however,
two impingements from outside Utila that must be discussed for their effects in the island
system: the organized political parties of Honduras and the military establishment, both locally
present in Utila but with varying degrees of importance in everyday life.
The two major political parties in Honduras, the National ("Blue") and the Liberal
("Red"), each have members in Utila. Although voter registrations were not available for
verification, it appears that the majority of the old heads in Utila--possibly of the entire adult
population--supports the National party and has done so for a very long time. The ideological
implications of this support are not great. The Nationals have been the most powerful political
force in Honduras since the last century, and Utilians as a group are very "practical." The
population of Utila has found it to be easier for islanders, in terms of maintaining a good deal of
local autonomy and local culture, to support the most powerful political element in the country
(note the appointment of various local people to leadership positions). In years past, so I am told
by informants, there was an active cultivation of islander support through periodic presidential
visits. Such visits appear to be rarer now (probably due to the junta or dictatorial forms of
government that have been in existence since 1972), but there is nevertheless a limited mutual
supportiveness of mainland and island party members, and there are some concrete personal
benefits of party membership even if under the current dictators there are no real party politics.
During the spring of 1973 Whalen Tree (a pseudonym), head of the National Party in
Utila, came to me in a highly agitated state for some advice. His teenage son was going to be
arrested, on a charge of smoking marijuana, by the Seguridad (Honduran military men who are
stationed in most communities of any size to act as a civil guard). Warning of the arrest was
given to Whalen, in consideration of his party position, so that he could work out some course of
action to keep his son out of jail. At my suggestion, he sent the lad to the United States where he
could wait until he had his next birthday and then, at eighteen, join the merchant marine. Inside
information of importance to individual and family fortunes is often, apparently, a function of
Political parties also account, in a tortuous way, for at least a part of Utilian disinterest in
local economic investment. Earlier in this chapter reference was made, for example, to the
purchase of the lagoons. The episode, a tie-in of politico-economics, merits expansion here for
The brother-in-law of the (then) president of Honduras was one of the two outsiders who
had insinuated himself into the island with the promises of a large sum of money. Local
leadership was convinced that they could use the funds for municipal projects (paving streets,
building bridges, erecting a meat market on Main Street, and so forth), which helped to sell them
on the transaction. Aside from the monetary attraction, there was also the implication (from
conversations with four or five of the leaders, who must remain anonymous) that speculation
with lagoon land was acceptable for two other reasons, one of which I have already alluded to:
first, it was so improbable that the lagoons could be drained and turned into houselots that
islanders risked nothing by the sale; and second, to refuse the request of the brother-in-law of the
president was to court retribution (of unspecified type) at some future date, despite the potential
problems (with water supply at the least) that Utila would face if the venture were successful. It
was clear in the preceding example that the Utilians with whom I talked were responding
according to a pattern typical of islanders: capitalize on outsiders and outside investment as long
as Utila and its people provide nothing themselves. Eddie Rose put this into perspective by
relating several anecdotes in island history. According to him, for many years now--at least
since the demise of the agricultural economy--any major economic changes proposed in Utila
have been by outsiders. Invariably these have been presented as projects that would greatly
benefit the island as well as the outsider, as in the case cited above. Also invariably, the
islanders have given these projects their support and ultimately been duped, which has led to
general distrust of all so-called development schemes. He gave as an example a papaya-growing
scheme proposed several years ago by a man from the United States. The American came to
Utila with the idea that he could grow papayas there, process them in a plant he would build, and
export the canned papaya back to the United States. According to this man, however, the variety
of papaya already growing in Utila was not suitable for his plans (the color of the flesh would not
appeal to people in the United States) and Utilians would have to plant a different variety. He
would guarantee purchase of all the papayas harvested, but islanders would have to assume the
cost of the new papaya plants themselves. According to Mr. Eddie, thousands of already bearing
plants were destroyed in order to make room for the new variety; and then, just before the first
harvest from them, the American left Utila and has not contacted islanders since.
The importance of the preceding example, besides showing a contributory source of
islander distrust of outsiders, is that genuine outside investment must go through the Honduran
government which intimately involves political party favorites in order for licenses, concessions,
and other business arrangements to be effected. (The purchase of land, necessary to so many
prospective operations, must be in the name of a Honduran citizen; this requirement has,
apparently, produced some extra-legal, if not illegal, maneuvers that also could involve political
figures). It seems probable that the papaya entrepreneur could not--from the start--have been
legitimate; working through "proper" channels: he would have had to involve the Honduran
government. Such an involvement would not, all things being equal (i.e., unless covert
arrangements were made) allow sudden departure of someone who had obtained so great a
commitment of effort and money from an entire community, and support from government,
without proper compensation. The now three-year-old fish and utilities plant, noted several
times above, required (throughout my stay) periodic trips to Tegucigalpa by its operators in
order, according to rumor, to keep the plant going. During the course of my research in Utila,
three or four different sets of owner-managers were reported for the plant (none of which could
be reliably confirmed) and the last of these supposedly involved high ranking government
officials. The reason given by islanders for the rumored changes in ownership was to guarantee
non-interference in basic plant management by extending partnerships (contingent upon returns
from the fish processing part of the factory) to politicians. Since there was no effective fish
processing throughout the entire span of the research period, it is my own speculation, as well as
that of many Utilians to whom I talked, that plant owners offered inducement in order to offset
islander complaints (which had as noted above even been aired over the radio station in La
Ceiba) about rate hikes in the utilities and overall poor service provided by the plant.
Still other examples of outsider activities in Utila help to illustrate the island's larger
political involvements. A good case here would be that of Mr. Phelps (a pseudonym) from the
United States who wished to establish a tourist industry in Utila. His objective, he said, was to
offer Americans an alternative vacation spot to other Caribbean islands, such as Bermuda and
Jamaica, where prices were high and ethnic relations strained. A parcel of land was selected for
bungalows, and legalities were being attended to when Mr. Phelps turned over some $20,000-
$30,000 to the third-party Utilian required in Honduran law to validate the land sale.
Subsequently, legal difficulties arose, so that Mr. Phelps did not obtain title to the land he
thought he was buying and he likewise lost the entire sum of money to the islander; there was no
legal recourse for him in order to recover the funds, but he continued on with his plans for
Mr. Phelps is an object lesson to Utilians, as at least a half a dozen of my informants
implied, because he foolishly lost money through lack of knowledge concerning politics and law;
the Utilian man involved is credited not so much with being sly as he was astute in treating with
Phelps: he simply knew how to operate within the system. Mr. Phelps also epitomizes the
outsider who, if islanders wait long enough, will come along to provide desired services so that
they themselves do not have to take risks. The fish-utilities plant is itself the best example of the
Prior to the opening of the present utilities operation, at least six different generating
plants, privately owned and basically for the benefit of the households possessing them, provided
electrification in Utila. One of the old heads decided that this was wasteful, an inefficient
duplication of efforts. Likewise, not everyone who wanted electricity could be serviced by the
privately owned plants, and, finally, that a municipality-wide plant could actually be run at a
profit. He was about to take on this venture himself--after much deliberation--but the group who
ultimately founded the present utilities plant short-circuited his plans; they had gone to
government figures in Tegucigalpa, offered the municipal government a fixed fee for the
privilege of the utility plant operation, and so on. The lack of a secondary school in the island, of
a medical or dental clinic, of an airfield suitable for larger craft than DC-3s, and much more,
about which islanders frequently talk and complain, is further evidence that Utilians are not a
risk-taking, cooperative population. (Rose [1904:64,] provides an historical footnote here in his
discussion of the Utila Cays of his time. The lack of a bridge between the two inhabited cays
was apparently recognized as inconvenient by all the people involved, but they did nothing about
it. Rose points out that all it would have taken was all the men working together for a month to
build a stone bridge. The lack of cooperation is the important point.)
The military establishment impinges on Utilian life in two different ways, both of which,
as I had noted at the beginning of this section, are stressful to islanders. The first of these two
ways is through the Seguridad.
Three to five soldiers of the Honduran army are regularly stationed in Utila, one of whom
acts as harbor master (collecting fees and inspecting ships' papers) while the others operate as a
police force. Technically, the soldiers are obliged to respond to requests for assistance from the
Chief of Police, but they are also a semi-autonomous unit with their own commander. This
commandant is empowered by the central government to initiate policing actions on his own, and
also to levy fines (usually twice as high as Miss Hester imposes). The semi-independence of
Seguridad soldiers--all of them Spaniards--plus an undercurrent of dislike for Utilians, plus the
wealth of islanders countered by the graft of bureaucrats, leads to conflict between islanders and
soldiery. Commandants are legendary for their "shake down" (my term) activities in Utila, and a
newly appointed commandant (April 1973) was reported to be imposing fines as high as $35.
Islanders were quickly infuriated by this most recent exercise in extortion, and appealed to the
governor of the Bay Islands who immediately punished the commandant and made it clear no
further "mordida" (bite) was to be put on local people.
The other manifestation of the military establishment is only a variation of what has just
been described. Periodically, and without warning, a contingent of soldiers appears in Utila and
forcibly recruits any male who looks old enough into military service. Reminiscent of British
naval press gangs, the Honduran recruiting units are supposed to obtain a quota of men from
each place they visit, though they are not supposed to take anyone under age eighteen. Ignoring
birth certificates or parents' protests that sons are too young, recruiting units force recruits to go
with them and will not release the underaged males until as much as $500 has been handed over
by a boy's family. In this situation, and in the shakedown operations of a commandant, it is the
remittance economy that puts islanders in a position to be victimized and directly accounts for
the quality of political involvement that Utila has with outside elements. The only way to avoid
extortion on one hand is to hide in the swamps when a recruiting unit makes one of its surprise
visits, or go into the merchant marine and physically absent oneself from the army threat. Kirk
Rivers, shop owner and retired merchant mariner, took his son to New York a few months before
the boy's eighteenth birthday (Mrs. Rivers later explained to me) so that the boy's entrance into
the merchant marine would be smoothed and the possibilities of being caught by recruiters
eliminated. Kirk waited with his son until the boy could ship out and then himself went back on
In the case of an avaricious commandant the only defense is swift action from a powerful
outside source who is physically close enough at hand to be of aid to islanders. Their wealth
makes Utilians a target for exploitation, and this is so for the other Bay Islanders as well.
A review of the sections on local level politics and larger political involvements shows a
number of traits common in Utila that have a great deal of significance for the remittance
economy. Reiterated in their simplest form these traits are:
(1) Political power and authority are broadly vested with the old heads of Utila
(2) With diffuse power and authority in the community there are few individuals as such
who are willing to take the responsibility of decision-making
(a) When decisions are forced through the immediacy of a situation or cannot be
defaulted, action is precipitous and often ill-considered
(b) Decisions can bring loss of face where local conditions or local individuals
are not involved
(c) If there is an option not to make a decision, Utilians take a "wait and see"
(3) Individuals from outside, or impingements from non-island sources are suspect
(a) Non-Utilians are welcome to shoulder civic responsibilities that involve
financial or other risk
(b) Outsiders, or outside influences, are instrumental in any major changes that
occur in Utila.
The foregoing traits, empirically derived, are internally consistent with one another, and they
also point toward a sociocultural consistency that pervades economic, social, and political
organization in the island. The source of the consistency throughout Utilian culture is, to
reiterate findings in Chapters IV and V, the individualism of island people that is closely related
to an image of limited good that developed during Utila's economic depression.
Individualism in the political organization of the island has led to an atomistic kind of
situation where few will lead and none will follow. Yet, Utila is not a crime-plagued community
on the verge of self-destruction. The lack of overt cooperation obscures the fact that since goals
are shared among the population there may be, at any one time, numbers of people working
toward the same end (as in the case of the electrification system). Efficiency of effort, or
duplication of effort, is not at issue here; rather, the fact of commonness of purpose preserves the
island system without strong or elaborate political organization. That commonness of purpose--
achieving the good life--is well served by an atomistic system that allows many people to be
absent from the system at a given time, and yet have the system continue to function in only
slightly altered ways.. Orthodox anarchy, where consensus without heavy-handed political
control characterizes the system, typifies Utilian political organization.
The mutual support between the remittance-based economy and the polity is
unquestionable, and perhaps the single most concrete feature of politics in Utila is its
reinforcement of the "rest and recreation mentality"; it is this that is critical in attracting
sojourners back to their island home.
In Chapter VII following, the results of this study will be further discussed and
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
Having touched now on the various aspects of Utila society and culture, providing both
descriptive material and analysis, it is necessary to interpret the findings of this study in terms of
the aims set forth in Chapter I.
One goal of this study was to provide ethnographic material on small island communities
of English-speaking peoples in the Caribbean. Chapters II through VI accomplish this end as
More specific goals were to look at Utilian materials for illumination of several areas in
Caribbean economic studies that Brown and Brewster (1974) consider to have been neglected.
Secondly, following Manners (1965:185), it was my intent to demonstrate that the dependency
relationship between Utila and the United States is a function of Utila's remittance economy.
Thirdly, in connection with remittances and necessary male absenteeism, I wished to examine
Utilian institutions in order to identify any preadaptive characteristics in the system, as well as to
discover the dynamics of continuing accommodation to this type of economy. Finally, as an
outgrowth of point three, I was particularly concerned with understanding the "rest and
recreation mentality" in Utila vis à vis Utilian desires for progress and the "good life."
Each of the specific goals will be treated in turn throughout the following pages, but the
emphasis is on the integrated nature of the findings given the integrated sociocultural system
upon which they are based.
Economic Studies in the Caribbean
Initially, I noted the general importance to this study of four hypothesis-generating areas
discussed by Brown and Brewster (1974:52-53) in their review of economic studies that have
been done in the Caribbean. Paraphrasing the original quotations, these hypotheses are that
external factors control the local level of economic activity; diverging production-consumption
patterns provide a continuing basis for economic dependency, especially through technological
factors; the level of saving is determined by things other than the size of disposable incomes;
domestic prices are determined from outside the system, primarily due to import prices and the
income-domestic supply relationship.
Clearly, the least controversial finding of this study is that Utila's economy is an external
one. There is virtually no economic activity in Utila that does not derive ultimately from the
merchant marines and remittances sent home by those in its service. To say that Utila is an
economic dependent of the United States, even more than Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands,
is entirely appropriate. United States (and to a lesser extent Scandinavian) shipping provides the
billets, payroll deductions, pensions, insurances, and all other things needed to give a continual
flow of income, hence economic security, to Utilians. As long as there are Utilian males to sell
their labor power (and as long as they continue to qualify to sell that labor power in terms of
literacy and other school-related skills), or individuals willing to violate the terms of visitors'
visas, the remittance system should be able to continue indefinitely. That continuance, however,
would still leave Utila in a dependent position. On one hand there is the obvious dependency
created through job availability itself (and being able to obtain visas to pursue those jobs), but
there is another dimension to dependency in Utila which speaks to the second hypothesis.
Utilians are so firmly committed to consumer buying that they are captivated in a never
ending cycle of working away from the island, then returning to consume their income, then
returning again to work. Utilians, for more than a generation, have made little capital investment
in their island, and even the propensity to buy land is a consumer practice since land is a
commodity, not a mechanism for generating more (and regular) income. Thus, there is little or
no alternative to working in the merchant marine if the standard of living is to be maintained.
Consumerism among islanders is an expanding phenomenon; i.e. islander wants and needs
continually grow, and the potential of consumerism is infinite. In contrast, individual or
household income is finite, depending altogether on the number of people who are available to
go off and work, how much they can earn (and how much they can therefore remit) and their
regularity of employment. In balance, infinite wants but finite resources, given the method of
income production, keeps Utilians in a dependent position.
Robert Manners' point about dependency in the Caribbean being tied, in many cases, to
remittances (1965:185) is appropriate here. Manners says that if the flow of remittance income
were to be cut off "some [islanders] would move from a position of relative adequacy to
marginality; others would plunge from marginality to inadequacy, extreme poverty and crisis."
What would be Utila's situation if the island were suddenly forced to be economically
independent? What could be expected if islanders were to voluntarily seek economic
independence? Whether forced or not, island economic independence would require one of two
logical alterations in the present system.
One alteration would be to develop an alternate source of income for the island by some
kind of internal development. Without getting into economic development theory, such as the
role that capital investment might play, and so on, it is necessary to look at empirical data and
conclude simply: Utila cannot internally develop. Neither industry, agriculture, nor tourism are
viable in Utila. True though it is that islanders currently garner a considerable amount of wealth
through their wage labor, the island itself is circumscribed from every dimension conceivable.
Logistically, it is difficult of access by would-be tourists, and poses a problem to islanders
themselves in making physical connection with the outside world. Its territory is small and the
land a coral-volcanic jumble. Waters surrounding the island would not support commercial
fishing ventures. No other brighter possibilities appear to exist.
The other alternative would be for islanders to break their consumer addiction, settling
for a life style that is considerably more modest than at present and return to subsistence
agriculture and limited fishing. Two closely related realities preclude this, however, the first of
which is the experience--still vivid in most adult islander memories--of the years of economic
depression and want. Poverty is too real to the majority of Utilians for them to tolerate very
much scaling down of the good life that they have now been able to reach: an image of limited
good still prevails. Secondly, islanders have had sufficient exposure to the United States model
of life than any gross perversion of that model--such as would be necessary by a return to
agriculture--would be likely to cause a terminal migration. In other words, Utilian perception
added to the realities of island existence spell continued dependence or no island population at
all. From the standpoint of islander goals in life, remittance economics make sense, and the
question of economic development in the island is only academic. In any case it seems dubious
at best that the island could support its present population by such means.
The third hypothesis referred to above, that continued economic dependency is fostered
by technological factors, is true in Utila by way of technology's inclusion in consumerism. The
good life is a "progressive" one; that is, it includes the various amenities that grace middle class
homes in the United States. Many of the things that demonstrate the good life are mechanical
appliances, and an obvious point here is that electrification is crucial to their operation, hence to
the good life. The utilities plant in Utila is an excellent example of how islanders are tied to a
larger system in a dependent relationship. Although they may have had the option to open a
municipal utilities plant themselves (discussed in Chapter VI) it was ultimately outsiders who did
so. And by and large it continues to be outsiders who service the machinery to keep the plant
going. Petroleum to fuel the generators also has to come from outside. As Utilians have
purchased more and more things dependent upon electricity (noted in Chapter IV), the
population itself has become more and more dependent. Most island homes still keep kerosene
lamps on hand for when there is a power failure, but when an island household decides to buy a
refrigerator it is usually an electric one; the same for a clothes washer, and so on. In other words,
with greater commitment to the gadgets and appliances islanders lose the capacity to go
backward and use items employed in the past, and if the power plant should fail they would
suffer great inconvenience if not outright hardship.
Faster, bigger, more sophisticated air and watercraft also constitute dependency-
generating technology in Utila's economy. The air and water links to the mainland, which are
never sufficiently strong for islanders needs and wants, provide the means for men to get to the
outside world and take ship. These aforementioned links are what keep Utilian households
supplied with staple and luxury items alike, and provide the means for obtaining medical
services and whatever ancillary recreation the necessary trip to the mainland might afford. If
these technological items were to disappear, islanders would be faced with a crisis situation.
Finally, it is the contact with the United States by air that allows remitting to take place at all.
Were it not for the international airmail service the planning that surrounds a man's shipping out
would have to be altered radically; rather than monthly allotments, people would have to depend
on lump-sum savings entirely, interim credit buying, and so on. It was noted above that even an
overdue money order was enough to throw a household into frenzy as it attempted to readjust its
The ultimate dependency-rendering technology in Utila is, of course, the merchant
marine itself. The merchant marine, that allows the comforts of the good life, demands that men
ship out regularly and sell their labor for wages. Previously, the means of production centered
on land and plantation agriculture. Subsequently, going into the merchant marine and selling
one's labor has become the technique for obtaining a living, and the tie that this represents for
Utilians has already been underscored.
The hypothesis dealing with savings as a function of things other than size of disposable
income is certainly borne out in Utila. A comparison of various figures in Chapter IV shows that
an inconsequential amount of the total earnings per year (let alone since remitting was started) is
put into savings. One must conclude that past experience (e.g., during the Coconut Oil Years)
has not resulted in saving (or hoarding) in order to protect oneself against chance economic crisis
in the future. Apparently Utilians are primarily present-oriented, except for concern with leaves
and retirement, and rarely worry about future financial security. Likewise, they place a great
deal of faith in future generations of friends and family to keep remittances coming in for their
support and in the future of maritime shipping.
The fourth hypothesis, that domestic prices are determined from outside the system, is
also supported by Utilian evidence. Virtually everything necessary to life--and the good life as
well--must come from some other locales since the island no longer even produces its own
agricultural staples. The taste cultivated by Utilians in U.S. and other imported products (which
has always been the case as attested in Chapter IV) means that islanders experience a double
control on their prices; first is the control exercised by mainland suppliers, who can set import
duties and retail costs, and second is the price setting that takes place in the United States itself.
Utilians have little or no capacity to affect price levels either by boycott, seeking better prices in
a competitive market place, or other means. The only way that Utilians have any control on
prices is by opting not to buy certain things. As is evident throughout this study, many of the
strictures of Utilian society are genuinely self-imposed through their conception of the good life.
The trade-off is, however, that wanting to afford the prices of things, as a goal in itself aside
from ownership of things, is a motivation for participating in the remittance economy. If prices
were not imposed from the outside and as high as they are perhaps the remittance system would
not work as well; lessened goals might be set since the symbols of the good life could be readily
obtained (perhaps too involving less frequent shipping out by the men).
The Interface Between Economy, Society, and Polity
In the closing section of Chapter VI a form of "image of limited good" was postulated as
one of the single most significant features in Utilian culture. This modification of Foster's
model, the Image of Limited Good, was deemed significant because through its use one can trace
preadaptations in Utila that facilitated both the inception of the remittance economy circa World
War II, and its perpetuation since that time.
An integral part of the postulated image is individualism within the Utilian population,
which is both cause and effect of the way in which islanders behave by means of a commercial
orientation. A bridge between generalized individualism and its more specific expressions in
consumerism and atomism is that commercial orientation apparently brought by island settlers
when they first arrived. Munch (1975), writing about the population of Tristan de Cunha, also
emphasizes the importance of commercialism to social atomism. For historical reasons
unimportant to analysis of Utila, Tristans developed a sociocultural system characterized by
selective reciprocal relationships in joint ownerships (e.g., of boats) and cooperative or mutual
aid ventures. Overall, however, the island manifests what Munch calls "atomistic integrity"
(1975:5), i.e., a lack of society-wide cooperation. Selective reciprocity in Utila is difficult to
discover, but commercialism has definitely been evident throughout island history. This
orientation (i.e., commercialism) most certainly expresses the Utilian practices of individual
economic effort (even in depression times) and sociopolitical non-cooperation.
Thus, individualism as a cause results in Utilians assessing economic, social, and political
phenomena in terms of personal or familial advancement, i.e., how it might help or hinder
attainment of the good life. As effect, individualism results in little or no community-
mindedness, lack of cooperation among themselves, and political organization that is virtually
Applying the model and its central feature of individualism to various components of
Utila's past and present, it can be seen that land, originally a factor of production but more
recently another consumer commodity, has been viewed as a limited and limiting phenomenon in
Utila. As a factor of production, choice properties were finite in number, and this had direct
bearing on how well or ill one fared in agriculture and shipping. As a commodity closely tied to
the stratification system, it is a symbol demonstrating the degree to which one has attained the
good life in Utila. The remittance system, which is a mere variant of individual agricultural
production (since it is individual labor that is sold in the merchant marine) is basic to this new
value in land.
Individually earned money can be turned into individually owned land in a present-day
attempt to buy prestige and security with this commodity. Since money earned in the merchant
marine enables anyone with sufficient funds to buy a prime parcel of land, this is tantamount to
saying that anyone can buy his or her way into the controlling sector of Utilian society, i.e., the
old heads. In fact, however, this is not possible; the system of strata, once partially open, has
been strictly closed since the depression years. The stratification system has been open for the
bulk of Utila's history, a fact that most adult Utilians can recall; this encourages disadvantaged
individuals to strive--via remittances, land purchases, and the like--to be mobile within the
system. For those advantaged Utilians, who effectively control the island system, stratification is
an inducement--also via remittances and the position they or their families previously purchased-
-to maintain their place as decision-makers. In either case, the remittance economy that Utila
now has is an intimate part of individual attempts to maneuver politically and socially.
Emphasizing individualism in the image of limited good, at the level of family/household
and status-roles still further important conclusions emerge from this study. The "normal" type of
household structure in Utila (unlike that which might have been anticipated from Solien De
Gonzalez [1961:1278]) is the nuclear family household. This is both the usual ideal and the most
common numerically. Other household configurations also exist in Utila as the result of or in
response to special situations that must be met, but the household as such is not economically an
important unit: it is not a unit of production nor, necessarily, consumption, but tends to have
more social and psychological significance in providing companionship and amicable
The functioning of the nuclear family household is individualistic, rather than collectivist,
with each unit striving to attain the good life symbolized by ownership of land, other consumer
goods, and activities that demonstrate one's wealth and social position. Nuclear family striving
dates to the founding of the island settlement--when individual farming was initiated--and helps
to inhibit effectively the growth of corporate kin groups, such as an extended family household,
and--as already noted--intracommunity cooperation. Limited good operates at this level through
the land-individual cultivation relationship already discussed in connection with stratification:
good plantations are the result of individual effort certainly (which is limited by the size of the
family work force) and the quality of the land being worked (prime pieces being limited).
In the absence of a tradition of collective work effort, or any rationale on the
contemporary scene for generating corporate groups, the nuclear family household persists to
reinforce individualism reflected at the level of the solitary person. Each nuclear family
household has the potential, and the array of complementary status-roles, to be a self-sustained--
and self-serving--unit. Thus, there is no impetus to move from well established social and
economic structure and function to some new configuration, such as the matrifocal family. Even
in a community characterized by a great deal of intermarriage, as Utila demonstrably is, there is
little sense of solidarity beyond the nuclear family household--no lineages, no clans. Each unit is
essentially responsible to itself, and either rises, falls, or remains at the same level relative to all
others (in social, economic or political position) on the basis of its own achievements. There is
no record in my field data of one branch of a family (e.g., the Coopers) helping another because
of kin relationship; financial aid, or other kinds of assistance, would be extended--or withheld--
equally to any Utilian.
Status-roles in Utila reflect individualism and a limited good image in several ways.
Males, following from their farming and fishing activities in earlier years, continue to work
independently of one another in the sale of their individual labor and subsequent individual
expenditure of earnings. Allocation of merchant marine derived earnings is the prerogative of a
man--who is ultimately responsible for his family's welfare--and this allocation is typically
divided (though not in even shares) between consumer goods that will benefit himself and
family, and recreation. A source of pride is the single individual's hard work that demonstrates
one's ability to endure the regimen of sea duty, willingness to assume familial responsibility and
success in achieving the good life while thwarting poverty and want. The tendency to consume
entirely one's income, neglecting savings or capital investment, is evidence of an image of
limited good: islanders, in order to get as much as possible of the good life denied to them for
several generations, channel their physical energies and monetary resources solely toward
consumerism. Unlike Foster's peasants, Utilians desire an audience to witness their success in
achieving the good life at both the individual person level and at the level of the family
household. Envy and jealousy of others success in peasant societies may lead, for example, to
accusations of witchcraft or to enforced participation in ritual activities of the community, which
would siphon off one's excess wealth. Consequently, peasants are secretive about their wealth
and attempt to present a facade, of sameness with other members of the community; to be
outstanding is dangerous. The reverse situation obtains in Utila, where affirmation of one's
achievements requires an audience of friends and non-family members of the community. The
fulfillment of hard work lies, in large part, in being able to show it off and receive recognition.
Recognition itself is not necessarily verbal, and in many cases probably derives from being
copied--the island version of "keeping up with the Joneses." Sprees also provide a place to,
again, demonstrate one's individual ability to endure, and to work hard (in this case to work hard
at having a good time). Drinking activity is a way of asserting the fiction of male independence
of females: a man will come and go at drinking sessions ostensibly as he pleases, and this is
done in front of the other men of the island. The drinking session provides an opportunity to
trade banter between males, and provides the ultimate forum for proving individual capacities
since it is here that fights are most likely to occur--fights from which one should not back down.
Female Utilians demonstrate their individualism primarily through successful operation
of their households, especially in the absence of men. Running their respective households,
women fulfill the traditional role of domestic managers, but reap the rewards of greater freedom
from male interference (since men are gone most of the year) and additional conveniences (a part
of the good life) that make domestic work less onerous. Women are well served by the
remittance system since they can secure greater amounts of leisure and less burdensome tasks by
appealing to male self-image as good providers; a sign of being self-sufficient--a good provider--
is in the comforts a man can supply his family. The trade-off for greater freedom from male
interference and added amenities is the increased share of immediate responsibility for family
welfare that must be assumed by the woman. Here again, however, is opportunity for the woman
to show her capabilities, her own hardness, by handling affairs on the home front until the return
of her husband.
Rewards provided to males and females by the remittance system reinforce their
commitment to that system. Self esteem, peer group approval, and social position all work to the
end that individual striving for the good life can be satisfied by the remittance system. Material
rewards for females tend to be more immediate, i.e., received soon after there is means to afford
them; likewise, they are incremental since they are periodically augmented as time goes along.
Male rewards, because of the absenteeism factor, are set in the future to be received and enjoyed
after serving one's term in the merchant marine. Both men and women have a deeply vested
interest in continuing the remittance economy; with it they can aspire to a life style far beyond
subsistence level, and markedly superior to the poverty and economic crisis of a generation ago.
Yet, while they seem to voluntarily involve themselves in the remittance economy, the reality is
that islanders have made themselves dependents of that system. Once they committed
themselves to the merchant marine, etc., there was no turning back from it; and now they are
captivated by the United States and the larger powers that operate merchant shipping. This
dependence is largely self-imposed by the islander conception of the good life, but an alternate to
that image is both inconceivable and--supposing that it centers on an in-island economy--
The "rest and recreation mentality" that was one of the special features of Utilian culture
to be examined, fits in with discussion of rewards accruing to those active in the remittance
economy. As noted, males tend to be future-oriented in terms of rewards for their shipping out,
remitting, and so on. The "rest and recreation mentality" represents a kind of intermittent reward
(variable reward schedule in psychological parlance) to keep them active in the system until they
can truly enjoy the fruits of their labors at retirement. Each return to Utila on leave, with the
accompanying drinking sprees, raucous behavior, pampering by females, and so on is a positive
occasion, one that inclines a male not only to continue going on the ships, but also to continue
sending money home and later to return himself. Anthropologically speaking, the "rest and
recreation mentality" reflects a rite of intensification attendant upon each return of a sailor: good
feelings toward family, friends, the community in general, are regularly rekindled by the
reception afforded a sailor. The full significance of sailors leave periods and the rest and
recreation mentality can only be appreciated however when the other end of the remittance
economy is considered, namely, the shipboard context where men work. Quoting Aubert,
Gaffney (1975:7) says that roles on shipboard are highly formalized, as is the assignment of
the formalization makes it possible for a new man to come on board a ship and find his
cabin and his place at the dining table practically without guidance. The structure
probably has developed as an answer to the demand that a ship must be able to emerge as
a cooperative unit in an instant and without precious preparation.
Life on shipboard for a Utilian male would appear to be the exact opposite of life in the
island where individualism and non-cooperation prevail. The very work experience for men in
the remittance system serves to reinforce island values: while on shipboard they must operate
according to an alien set of rules that can only be (totally) refuted once they return to Utila. The
intensity of drinking and partying during leave periods is therefore a direct confirmation, and a
direct measure, of traditional island values that actually account, in large part, for continued
return of men to the island.
Another important aspect of the structured shipboard life is that entrance into it
constitutes an unqualified rite of passage for Utilian young men. Similar to the Out Island
Bahamas situation studied by Rodgers and Long (1968), cited in Chapter I, going to sea for the
first time represents a sharp break from the kind and amount of influence that a young man has
previously enjoyed. In other words, novice sailors are subjected to a concentrated dosage of
male contact and tutoring that makes up for any lack of male images a young boy may have had
due to an absentee father. The rigors of life at sea, the alien structure and cooperation, all work
to impress young men with their maleness, and--as with their elders--reinforces the fact that it is
a Utilian maleness.
The trade-off between life on shipboard and the rest and recreation atmosphere in Utila is
more than it at first seems. Men are not simply "blowing off steam" (my phrase), nor are they
just giving themselves intermittent rewards, nor are they just engaging in conspicuous
consumption when they go on leave. By their actions they are genuinely underwriting and
rejuvenating the remittance system.
From the standpoint of the community and the individuals left behind, the rest and
recreation mentality also serves a positive function since through it the remittance economy is
ensured. Problems that arise between men on leave, or friction between a man and his family,
can be ignored because men will soon be off again, taking the problems along with them. The
political atomism of Utila is particularly adaptive in this regard too since the community is
regularly geared to acting without a full complement of personnel and can therefore carry on
day-to-day activities with or without the merchant mariner population.
In sum, the people of Utila were preadapted to engage in a remittance economy; the
decision to move to this type of economy was the most reasonable choice of alternatives
available to islanders, and the remittance economy continues to this day as a viable support of
Utilians and their sociocultural system. Preadaptation lay in individualism and the realization of
the limits to opportunity on the island, the nuclear family household suited to independent action,
political atomism that allowed community functioning without cooperation on the part of men
who would, in fact, be absent most of the time, the local history of shipping and fishing, and a
social organization that reinforced individual striving in order to achieve merit and position as
part of the good life.
The decision to move to the remittance economy was, based on the traditional life style of
Utilians and the natural limitation of the island (in size, accessibility, and so on), the logical and
reasonable decision that islanders could have made; its reasonability is partly demonstrated
simply by the fact that the remittance economy is still strong after a generation.
The viability of the remittance economy in Utila is reflected in numerous ways, one of
the most important being commitment to that system by youngsters who have yet to enter it.
Socialization of boys and girls has effectively recruited the next generation of merchant mariners
and their wives. Another evidence lies in the continued pattern of consumer consumption, lack
of savings, little or no investment of earnings and other traditional patterns of income
expenditure: Utilians have not altered the habits of thinking and behaving that preadapted them
to the remittance economy--the good life today is the same as 140 years ago, and this binds
Utilians to the remittance economy. Finally, social and political organization are well suited to
the needs of a population such as Utila's; there is motivation on one hand to participate in the
remittance system due to the challenge of the stratification system. On the other hand, the
flexibility of island governance, based in traditional lack of cooperative activity, allows men to
come and go without causing trauma to the community, and regularly exports any troubles it may
have with the departure of the merchant mariners.
In the best of all possible worlds, the remittance economy in Utila would appear to have
evolved purposefully to satisfy today the needs and wants that first brought settlers to the island.
Utilians could fare much worse.
Contributions of the Study
The results of research in Utila tend to confirm many of the observations about
remittance societies that were outlined in Chapter I. Utila would for example support the
contention that the dependency--engendering remittances are capable of becoming the major
source of income in a system (cf. Frucht 1967, Philpott 1973, Van Velsen 1960, Watson 1974) or
at least a very important source of income (cf. Freeman 1958, Lopreato 1962, Palmer 1974) for
prolonged periods of time; i.e., a remittance economy is a viable alternative for many people vis
à vis some form of internal economic development.
Utilian data do not, however, show dire results to social and political systems that are
suggested in writings by Lowenthal and Comitas (1962), Arensberg and Kimball (1940:106-107
and 1968:144-145), or Freeman (1958); i.e., there is no massive change in family or community
relations, no marked alteration in the system of social prestige and political power, and--most
especially--no tendency for the sojourning part of the population to permanently emigrate.
What the model of Utila shows us, which has predictive value in analysis of other
sociocultural systems, can be summarized in three points:
(1) A system that emphasizes individualism--in economic production, social striving,
political organization--is preadapted for remittance economics.
(2) Successful accommodation to a remittance economy constitutes amplification of
traditional patterns of thinking and acting. Particularly important are tendencies toward
consumer spending, and male occupations that may take them away periodically.
(3) The singular attribute that is of most immediate importance to maintaining a
remittance economy is the rest and recreation mentality.
Preadaptation, and amplification of traditional patterns, are factors clearly crucial in Utila
for its particular success. When coupled with a mechanism for attracting sojourners back to their
home community, there is a powerful combination of elements to perpetuate the remittance
economy. As the gap between under-developed and over-developed countries widens, the
remittance economy, reflected in the model of Utila, may be the best solution to local needs and
to maintenance of world economic order.
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(Translated from Monografia del Departamento de las Islas de la Bahia, by Abel Valladares, pp.
"Treaty Celebrated Between Her Britannic Majesty and the Government of Honduras"
Victoria, by the Grace of God Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,
Defender of the Faith &.&.&.--To all and Singular to whom these Presents shall come Greeting!.
WHEREAS a Treaty between Us and the Republic of Honduras was concluded and signed at
"Comayagua" on the Twenty Eighth day of November, in the Year of Our Lord One Thousand
Eight Hundred and Fifty Nine, by the Plenipotentiaries of Us and of the said Republic duly and
respectively authorized for that purpose, which Treaty is, word for word as follows:
Treaty Between Her Majesty and The Republic of Honduras
Her Majesty, the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the
Republic of Honduras, being desirous of settling in an amiable manner certain questions in
which they are mutually interested, have resolved to conclude a treaty with such a purpose and
have named as their plenipotentiaries, namely:
Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, through
Charles Lennox Wyke, Squire, Officer of the very honorable Order of the Bath, Envoy
Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of Her Majesty on a special mission to the Republics
of Central America, and His Excellency; the President of the Republic through Don Francisco
Cruz, Political Chief of the Department of Comayagua: who, having communicated their
respective plenary powers and finding them in good and appropriate form, have agreed to and
celebrated the following articles:
Article 1--Taking into consideration the peculiar geographic position of Honduras and in
order to assure the neutrality of its adjacent islands, with reference to any railroad or other line of
interoceanic communication that could be constructed across the mainland territory of Honduras,
Her Britannic Majesty agrees to recognize the islands Ruatan Guanaja, Elena, Utila, Barbareta
and Morat, known as the "Bay Islands," and situated in the Bay of Honduras, as a part of the
Republic of Honduras. The inhabitants of the aforementioned islands will not be molested in the
possession of whatever property they have acquired, and they will retain complete freedom of
belief and religious worship in public and private, but they will remain in all other areas subject
to the laws of the Republic. If some of them should desire to leave the aforementioned islands,
they will be completely free to do so, (and) to dispose of their real estate or whatever other
(property) as they believe profitable, and to take with them the wealth they realize (therefrom).
The Republic of Honduras promises not to cede the aforementioned islands, or any one of
them, or the right of sovereignty over said islands or any one of them, nor part of the
aforementioned sovereignty, to any nation or state whatsoever.
Article II--Her Britannic Majesty promises to adhere (without reservation) to the
conditions and specific promises of the present treaty, and without any prejudicial question of
boundaries between the Republic of Honduras and Nicaragua, to recognize as belonging to and
under the sovereignty of the Republic of Honduras, the territory until now occupied and
possessed by the Mosquito Indians inside the border of the Republic, whatever the
aforementioned boundaries may be.
The British Protectorate of that part of the Mosquito territory will cease three months
after the exchange of ratifications of the present treaty so that the Government of Her Majesty
can give the necessary instructions in order to fulfill the stipulations of the present treaty.
Article III--The Mosquito Indians in the district acknowledged (in) Article II of this
treaty as belonging to and under the sovereignty of the Republic of Honduras, will have freedom
to move with their property outside the territory of the Republic with their property (to
wheresoever they will), and all those Mosquito Indians that remain within the aforementioned
district will not be hindered in the possession of whatever lands and other property they have and
occupy, and they will enjoy as natives of the Republic of Honduras all the privileges that the
natives of the Republic generally enjoy.
The Republic of Honduras, with the desire of educating all Mosquito Indians and
bettering their social condition in the district occupied by them, will grant an annual sum of five
thousand pesos in gold or silver, during the next ten years, paid to the principal of the
Mosquitoes in that district, the aforesaid payment guaranteed through a mortgage on all woods
and other natural products (whatsoever they may be) of the uncultivated lands in the Bay Islands
and Mosquito Territory.
These payments will be made semiannually (in the amount of) 2500 pesos each, the first
of which payments will be made six months after the exchange of ratifications of the present
Article IV--Having in mind that the British subjects may already have obtained from the
Mosquito Indians through grant, lease, or other manner interests in various lands situated within
the district mentioned in the preceding article, the Republic of Honduras promises to respect and
sustain the possession of such interests: and agrees besides that her Britannic Majesty and the
Republic of Honduras will name two commissioners within twelve months from the exchange of
the ratifications of the present treaty, one for each party, in order to investigate the titles of
British subjects (so) that they can have issuance from such grants, leases, or otherwise (held
interests); and all British subjects whose titles are declared by the commissioners (to be) well
founded and valid will remain peacefully in possession of their respective interests in the
Article V--It is also agreed between the contracting parties that the commissioners
specified in the preceding article will examine and decide on whatever British claims may be
made to the Government of Honduras that may be presented besides those specified in the article
and that are found pending: and the Republic of Honduras agrees to comply with the stipulations
made up until now on British claims that have not been carried to an end.
Article VI--The commissioners specified in the preceding articles will reconvene in
Guatemala as soon as they conveniently can after they have been named and before proceeding
to other tasks, they will make and sign a solemn declaration of impartiality and carefulness (and
that) they will examine and decide according to their best understanding and according to justice
and equity, without fear, favor or bias toward their own country, all the business that (may) be
referred to their decision, and such declaration ought to be registered in the protocols of their
The commissioners ought after and before proceeding to any other negotiation, to name
some third (party) that (can) function as arbitrator or judge in the case or cases where there is
disagreement in opinion.
If by chance there is no agreement in the election of some person, the commissioners,
each one for his part, will name a person and on each occasion the commissioners disagree in
opinion touching the decision they have to give, it will be determined by chance which of the
two persons thus named will be arbitrator or judge in that particular case. The person or persons
thus chosen, before they can function, will make and sign a solemn declaration, in a form similar
to that which has already been made and signed by the commissioners, which declaration will
also be put down in writing in the protocols of their proceedings.
In case of death, absence or incapacity of such person or persons, or that they omit,
decline or cease functioning as arbitrators or judges, another person or persons will be named (as
already prescribed) so that they function in place of that one or those (defaulting) and they will
make and sign a declaration (of the type already noted).
Her Britannic Majesty and the Republic of Honduras promise to consider the decision of
the comnissioners of (man-comun) or of arbitrator or judge according to what the case may be,
as final and conclusive on the matters that are referred to their decision, and in addition promise
to give it immediate compliance.
Article VII--The commissioners and the arbitrator or judge will execute an exact protocol
and correct notes of all their operations together with their dates and they will name and employ
a secretary and other persons who can assist them in the transaction of the business that is
presented to them.
The salaries of the commissioners will be paid by their respective governments. The
incidental bills of the commission including the salary of the arbitrator or judge and the secretary
will be paid in equal parts by both governments.
Article VIII--The present treaty will be ratified and the ratifications will be exchanged in
Comayagua as soon as possible within six months, counting from this date.
In testimony of which the respective plenipotentiaries have signed the present and put
their respective seals.
In Comayagua, the 28th day of November in the Year of Our Lord One Thousand Eight
Hundred and Fifty-nine.
(Ratified by Great Britain 3 February, 1960 and by Honduras the 15th February, 1960)
Decree in which the Bay-Islands and territory of the Mosquitia are declared to be under the
Dominion and Sovereignty of the Republic.
S.E. the Captain General, President of the State, Whereas: In recognition of the Treaty
which is ratified and in force with Her Britannic Majesty's Government through which the Bay
Islands and the Territory of the Mosquitia are given back to the State it is expedient to enact the
Art.1--The Bay Islands and Mosquitia Territory in Honduras are from henceforth forever
under the dominion and Sovereignty of the Republic.
Art.2--The inhabitants of the places in reference are to be subject to the Government of
the State and as subjects are to enjoy satisfactory protection in their persons, properties and
Art.3--Lawyer Rafael Padilla Duran, the Commandant of the Port of Trujillo and Mr.
Francisco Cruz are to have the faculty as representatives of the Government to take possession of
the territories in reference and that they establish in the diverse Departments of the Government
the regime most in conformity with the needs and interest of those inhabitants. Consequently,
the Civil Authorities, Military and Finance of the Department of Yoro, shall punctually assist the
aforesaid gentlemen in every thing regarding their mission.
Art.4--A knowledge of the present Decree is to be given to S.C.L. urging him to proclaim
the laws whereby the Islands and Mosquitia Territories are to be definitely governed.
Given at the Government House, in Comayagua, this twenty-second day of April of the
(s) SANTOS GUARDIOLA
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Government
POBLICION DE LA REPUBLICA DE HONDURAS, SEGUN CENSOS LEVANTADOS: ISLAS DE LA BAHIA*
Year of Census 1881 1887 1910 1961 1926 1930 1935 1940 1945
Pop. Total 1834 2825 4893 5599 5631 5480 6315 7025 7314 8058
*Annuario Estadistico 1970, p. 31--Secretaria de Economia Direccion General de Estadistica
y Censos Tegucigalpa, D.C., Honduras, C.H.
POPULATION FIGURES FOR THE ISLAND OF UTILA
Year 1958* 1867# 1889% 1897$ 1935@ 1961¢ 1974$
Population Total 101 177 500 600 1056
Rose, op. cit., p. 11 (based on his own census)
Rose, op. cit., p. 56 (based on a census done by Rev. Edward Webb, visiting Methodist missionary to Utila)
Rose, op. cit., p. 60 (based on interpolation of death figures given, viz., one death represented one-fifth of one percent
of the population)
Valladares, op. cit., p. 22 (drawn from Resumen del Censo General del Departamento de Islas de la Bahia levantado el 30
de Junio de 1935, con los aumentos posteriores)
Poblacion y Vivienda, April 1961, p. 102--Secretaria de Economia y Hacienda, Tegucigalpa, D.C., Honduras, C.H.,
Marzo de 1963
Figure provided by Alcalde Handford Bodden, based on March 1974 national census data
MAP OF UTILA