Of the many ethnicities in Jamaica, there’s one group few Jamaicans are aware of. It is highly likely there are descendants of Indians from Central America on the island, largely due to the Miskito, corruptively referred to as Mosquitoes.
The Miskito are mostly from the “Mosquito Coast” or “Mosquito Shore” in what is now Nicaragua. They were among the few groups not conquered by the Spanish. Richard Brookes wrote in 1812, “The Mosquito Indians are so situated between morasses and inaccessible mountains, and a coast full of rocks and shoals, that no attempts against them by the Spaniards, could ever succeed.”
The Miskito forged mutually beneficial alliances with the English, both wanting to thwart the Spanish. Jamaica, the most important British possession in the Caribbean, played a central role. David Brooks, writing in the Marine Corps Gazette in 1996, stated:
Unlike other Central American Indian groups, the Miskito successfully resisted Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Later, in the 1600s they made common cause with British buccaneers who found them useful allies in raids against the Spanish for their canoeing and maritime skills. This de facto Indian-English alliance would receive official expression in 1687 when British naval officers in Jamaica crowned the Miskitos’ most prominent chief, Jeremy I. King of the Mosquito.
In 1828, the Papers Related to the Slave Trade, noted:
[T]he first establishment of the British on the Mosquito Shore…appears to have taken place at an early period, first by the buccaneers, and afterwards men employed in the contraband trade carried on between Jamaica and the Spanish Main. Afterwards the Mosquito Indians asserting that they were never conquered by the Spanish, made, under the Duke of Albemarle’s government over Jamaica, a formal cession of their territory to the King of England.
Richard Brookes recounted in 1812:
[T]he Duke of Albemarle was governor of Jamaica, and the king of the Mosquitoes received a commission from his grace, under the seal of that island…. When the king died, the male heir went to Jamaica, to certify that he was next in blood, and received a commission in form from the governor of Jamaica, to be king of the Mosquitoes; till which, he could not be acknowledged as such by his countrymen.
The Miskito ran an active slave trade between the Mosquito Shore to Jamaica and elsewhere. A 1741 Jamaican law referenced “Indian slaves.” The 1828 Papers Related to the Slave Trade suggested this referred to prisoners of war sold into slavery by the Miskito:
Wars, it appears, frequently appears between those (Miskito) Indians, and between the various neighbouring tribes of Indians; and the prisoners made in those wars were frequently sold to the English; and it seems a considerable number of Indians, either from this (Mosquito) coast, or from some other quarter, must have been sent to Jamaica for sale in that island.
Starting in the 1740s, the British, through Jamaica, established a more permanent foothold in Central America by appointing a superintendent over the Mosquito Coast who reported to the governor of Jamaica.
In the 1770s, there were attempts to register the number of Central American Indians in Jamaica by age, sex, and ownership, etc. Several pieces of legislation – August and December 1776, and February 1777 – were passed by Jamaican authorities penalizing those who trafficked Indians from Central America.
Though enforcement of these laws was difficult, it appeared there was success in curbing the trafficking of Indians into slavery. In May 1777, the superintended of the Mosquito Shore wrote to Jamaica, “The infamous practice of selling the Indians of the neighboring nations as slaves is now entirely at an end, but there still remains a number of slaves among the Mosquito men, who were in their possession previous to the late regulations.”
In 1787, The British evacuated the Mosquito Coast after surrendering it by treaty to the Spanish the previous year. While Indians enslaved by the British were freed, it appears some were still held illegally under bondage. This was the subject of an 1821 investigation and subsequent adjudications by Jamaica’s attorney general.
Richard Brookes said, “the Mosquito men being excellent marksmen, the English employ them in striking the maratee (sic) fish, etc., and many of the Mosquito Indians come to Jamaica, and sail with the English in their voyages.”
With their marksmanship, experience in fighting wars in difficult terrain and tracking skills, Miskito fighters assisted the English in the ongoing Maroon War in Jamaica. The bulk of the Maroons were descendants of formerly enslaved Africans who escaped into the Jamaican hills when the British took the island by force from Spain in 1655. They were regularly joined by Africans who escaped enslavement under the British. There were long running battles between the British and the Maroons.
The Miskito were first utilized in tracking enslaved Africans who had escaped British bondage. The World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, noted that “in 1720 the British signed a treaty with the King of the Miskito Coast of Nicaragua to provide 50 able-bodied men to assist the Jamaican plantation owners in their struggle against runaway slaves.”
As the Maroon menace continued, colonial Jamaica grew more desperate. Miskito Indians helped the British reach Nanny Town, Portland, in 1734, sacking and leveling the settlement high up in the Blue Mountain range.
According to a December 17, 1865 article in The New York Times, 200 Miskito Indians were recruited in a final, desperate attempt to defeat the Maroons in other parts of the island:
Resort was then had to the Mosquito Indians, who, it was thought, would be more than a match for the Maroons in bush-fighting. Two hundred of those people were accordingly imported into Jamaica, and employed against the dreaded enemy. But the Maroons baffled the Indians, and continued to bid defiance to the colonists, who, in their extremity, were compelled to advise Governor Trelawney, in 1738, to propose overtures of peace to the chiefs. These overtures were accepted; articles of pacification were signed; and certain lands in the island, amounting in the whole to several thousand acres, were assigned to the Maroons in perpetuity.
The Jamaican war against the maroons was not only long, it proved expensive, costing at least £240,000 or more than £14 million in today’s money, the equivalent nearly US$20 million.
The Miskito received compensation for their failed efforts against the Maroons. Thomas Southey in the 1827 edition of Volume 2 of Chronological History of the West Indies, said, “The Mosquito Indians were well rewarded for the conduct, and sent back to their country.” Other sources, however, suggest that some Miskito remained in Jamaica and settled in the southern part of the parish of St. Elizabeth.
It is likely there are persons in that region of the country, as well as those descended from other Central American Indians sold into slavery in Jamaica by the Miskito, who are unaware of that part of their heritage.
Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel