The Cuyamel caves, located on the inland slopes of Mounts Capira and Calentura have yielded numerous and varied articles which indicate human occupation of the area by at least the Early Pre-classic and into the Middle Pre-classic Period (around 1200-600B.C.). There, many clay vessels of monochrome brownish-red or gray and one of bi-chrome red-stripe on coffee-brown as well as more complex bottle forms which included fluting, have been found. Anthropomorphic effigies, double bottles, composite bottles and flat-bottomed open bowls have also been documented. Stone artifacts and black polished and excised cylinder vases have been found. (“The Cuyamel Caves: Pre-classic Sites in Northeast Honduras,” by Paul F. Healy American Antiquity, Vol. 39, Number 3 July, 1974.)
Christopher Columbus, on August 14, 1502, on his fourth and last voyage to the New World, landed for the first time on the American mainland at the point of the Bay of Trujillo. It was there that he said the first mass ever on the American continent. After marveling at the beauty of the bay and its lagoon and mountains, Columbus continued southward down the Caribbean coast of Central America searching for a passage to the west.
When Cortez , the conqueror of the Aztecs, had established himself in Mexico City he sent Cristóbal de Olid to found a city in the area of Honduras and in1524 Olid landed in an area to the east of Puerto de Los Caballos which he called Triunfo de la Cruz. However by this time Olid had no intention of being subordinate to Cortez, and proceeded to explore and occupy the area as his own conquest. When Cortez got wind of Olid’s intentions, he formed a second force under his relative by marriage, Francisco de las Casas. The new force arrived off of Triunfo de la Cruz, much to the consternation of Olid.
After much of las Casas’ forces were destroyed in a storm, and after battles with other rival Spanish forces arriving from further south from Nicaragua, and after internecine disputes among themselves, las Casas gained the upper hand and Cortez’ authority was accepted by the colonists.
Since the harbor of Triunfo de la Cruz was inadequate it was decided to move the town and rename it Trujillo. But las Casas was by this time eager to return to New Spain and so he named Juan Lopez de Aguirre as his lieutenant and empowered him to effect the transfer of the town to a healthier location. Aguirre and half his men went by sea to Trujillo Bay ,but before the others could arrive by land, he sailed away not to return. The other half of the party traveling overland founded Trujillo and in May 1525, selected as their leader a municipal officer of justice named Medina. It was thus that Trujillo was founded. (The Conquest and Colonization of Honduras 1502-1550), Robert S Chamberlain, pp 12-15 (1966).
Meanwhile Cortez was becoming worried over the fighting among the Spaniards, and determined to go overland across the unknown lands between Mexico City and Honduras. Eventually through an almost
unbelievably heroic march Cortez arrived in Honduras and Trujillo. He set about placing Trujillo and the rest of the land on a more secure footing and sent ships to Cuba and Jamaica for domestic animals, plants for cultivation and other provisions. Cortez remained in Trujillo for quite some time and sent subordinates inland to subordinate a number of the caciques (native chiefs), bringing a degree of security and stability to the city.
In August, 1545 Pedraza returned to the colony he had helped conquer and arrived in Trujillo as the first bishop of Honduras-Higueres. The bishopric remained in Trujillo until it was transferred to Comayagua in 1560 (The Conquest and Colonization of Honduras 1502-1550), Robert S Chamberlain, pp 243-244, (1966).
Later in its history, as a shipment point for silver and gold mined in the interior, Trujillo, due to its relatively sparse population and remoteness, became a favorite target of pirates. Although the fortaleza, which in part still exists on the bluff of the city, provided some security, it was not enough to defend the citizens from determined attack from the sea.
The true date of the construction of the fort is still in doubt. There is evidence that in 1550 the Ingeniero Militar Juan Bautista Antonelli, famous for his designs of forts, finished a study for the construction of a fort in Trujillo. Other sources report that a fort was constructed in Trujillo during the years 1607-1629. But it is certain that once constructed, the fort faced a series of pirate attacks.
Trujillo was attacked by the Dutch in 1632, the French in 1633, and the English in 1672 and 1689. The city was burned by the French in 1633, by the Dutch in 1634, and by others in 1786, 1794, and 1797. Proyecto de Restauracion y Consolidacion de Forteleza de Santa Barbara de Trujillo, Instituto Hondureno de Antropologia E Historia,1994. In the late 17th century both Guanaja and especially Roatan became premier hangouts for pirates. In The Lost Fleet, Barry Clifford points to a convocation of pirates on Roatan in the year 1683 as “one of those extraordinary events in pirate history.” Almost all of the most feared pirates of the age were there---including the Chevalier de Grammont, Laurens de Graff, Nikkolaas Van Hoorn, Yankey Willems, Michiel Andrieszoon, Pierre Bot, and Jean Foccard. It was one of the largest gatherings of buccaneers ever, and clearly shows that the Spanish in Trujillo were in an untenable situation. Certainly getting any significant shipping past almost 1000 pirates less than 50 miles away was impossible. The famous pirate sack of Vera Cruz was the upshot of the pirate convention on Roatan---Trujillo was too small to need such a great pirate fleet to defeat it.
Suffice it to say that today we see only about 50% of the original fort. From 1920-1959 the fort was used as a prison. Today it still commands a magnificent vista of the bay, and from atop its many cannons one can still imagine the anxiety residents must have felt upon spying distant sails entering the bay.
Finally the toll of the constant attacks led the Spanish to abandon the city in the eighteenth century----, and until the Central American countries gained their independence in the 1820’s the town was practically defunct. But in the 19th century Trujillo made a comeback, and again prospered. The evidence of economic revival is seen in the second stories of many buildings in the central business district which were renovated in a French colonial style at that time. The hybrid Spanish\French Colonial appearance of these buildings gives Trujillo its own pleasing architectural distinction.
Later in the 19th century , however, one more chapter in its history had to be played out. The last of the pirate\adventurers, William Walker, stepped on the stage in Trujillo. After seizing the government in Nicaragua, and trying to do the same in Costa Rica and Honduras, William Walker was finally captured in Trujillo, shot by firing squad in 1860 and buried. His tomb and the spot where he was executed may be visited. The old cemetery, which is currently being maintained by some interested ex-pats, is delightful to visit.
As the nineteenth century draws to a close, William Sydney Porter, better known as O’Henry, fled from embezzlement charges in Texas and in 1896 landed in Trujillo and Roatan. His later portrayal of characters in Cabbages and Kings accurately captures the picture of Trujillo as a sleepy backwater. O’Henry supposedly captioned the term “banana republic” for the first time. I am told that he stayed in an apartment in a house just across from and a little above the hospital, but there are no markers. Grab a copy of Cabbages & Kings to read in the hammock while you drink rum and wait for the sunset to fall beyond where the coastal mountain range drops into the sea.