group of small islands of northern Honduras. They have an area of 101 square miles (261 square km) and lie about 35 miles (56 km) offshore in the Caribbean Sea. The main islands were first sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1502 and were settled in 1642 by English buccaneers. Between 1650 and 1850 Spain, Honduras, and England intermittently contested the islands, and Carib Indians from St. Vincent in the Leeward Islands were deported to a penal colony on Roatan. The islands were annexed to Great Britain in 1852 but were ceded to Honduras in 1859. Roatan, the chief settlement, is located on Roatan island. The chief activities are raising bananas, cassava, coconuts, sweet potatoes, and livestock and fishing. English-speaking Protestants constituted the majority of the islands' population until the late 20th century, when Spanish-speaking mainland Hondurans began settling there in sizable numbers. Tourism, with emphasis on underwater diving, became increasingly important in the late 1990s. The islands were severely damaged by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, but Roatan, the centre of the tourist trade, was less damaged than the others. Pop. (2001) 31,552.
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