History of Honduras (from arrival of Spanish to 1838 declaration of absolute independence)

Early history

At the time of arrival of Spanish colonizers, the land of Honduras was occupied by a range of indigenous peoples, the most advanced being the Maya. Gold catalysed the Spanish conquest of the area early in the 16th century. In 1544, Gracias, the Honduran gold-mining town, became the capital of Spanish Central America. However by 1548, the Spaniards had exhausted all the gold, and Santiago (Antigua Guatemala) became the new capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala. Honduras was a province of that kingdom (audiencia) within the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Its capital was Comayagua and agriculture was the base of its economy.

A silver strike in the highlands in 1570s triggered a rush of prospectors to Honduras, leading to the rise of a significant population centre at Tegucigalpa, which competed thereafter with Comayagua, especially in the 18th century. However, agriculture, the lasting economic base of Central America, was sluggish to develop in Honduras. Development of Spanish society in the Honduras region was stalled by coastal attacks from the buccaneers and pirates endemic to the Caribbean Sea and eventually by an unwavering British effort to control the coastal regions of Central America. For long periods the Spanish employed a soft defence against the Caribbean threat, retreating to the highlands and to the Pacific coastal areas, which were largely closer to their communication and transportation network. Thus, the British attempted to control the Caribbean’s Mosquito coastal region. The Sambo-Miskito peoples along the coast were the key allies of the British in this effort. Nevertheless, in the 18th century, the Spanish Bourbon kings made an unrelenting effort to recover the Caribbean coastal areas, and their success in the Gulf of Honduras was displayed by the completion of a fort at Omoa on the gulf by 1779.

In 1821 Honduras got independence from Spain. From Mexico it got independence in 1823, when it joined in the formation of the United Provinces of Central America. Friction between Conservative and Liberal factions soon weakened the federation, however. The Liberals favoured republicanism, less government regulation, freer trade, removal of the Catholic clergy’s political and economic powers, and imitation of foreign developmental models. Conservatives vehemently defended the clergy, exhibited inclination towards monarchism, mistrusted foreign developmental models, and were more traditional and pro-Spanish in their outlook. In 1830 Francisco Morazán (a Honduran Liberal) became president of this federation. For a decade he upheld Liberal policies that reduced the traditional power and privileges of the clergy and increased agricultural exports. Conservative and popular opposition to Liberal policies caused the collapse of the federation, and Honduras affirmed its absolute independence on November 5, 1838.

The pro-church Conservatives in Honduras took control under Francisco Ferrera, who became the first constitutional president on January 1, 1841. During the mid-19th century, despite its declaration of sovereignty, Honduras supported efforts to restore the Central American union, while its real independence was severely limited by its more powerful neighbours. Conservative domination lasted until the 1870s, during which time the church regained its former position and the Honduran government signed a concordat (1861) with the Holy See in Rome.

After 1871 the ascendancy of Justo Rufino Barrios in Guatemala influenced a return to liberalism in Honduras, where Marco Aurelio Soto, a Liberal, assumed the presidency (1876). In 1880 the Liberals promulgated a new constitution that sought to undo the work of the Conservatives, and they also moved the capital from Comayagua to Tegucigalpa. Five years later, Liberals in Honduras and elsewhere proved to be nationalists first and blocked an attempt by Guatemala to unify the isthmus by force. Liberals continued to dominate the country well into the 20th century, encouraging foreign investment and economic growth, although Honduras remained the poorest state on the isthmus.

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