Mosquito warriors and fighters

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.”

British alliance

“Miskito Indian girls at wooden mortar,” part of a series of postcards from Nicaragua entitled “Memories of Bluefields,” issued 1900-1910 (courtesy of www.historyfiles.co.uk)

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.

Maroon War

Maroons in New Nanny Town, Jamaica,  1908-1909 . The original Nanny Town was sacked by British and Miskito forces in 1734 (photo by Harry Johnston; courtesy of Royal Geographical Society).

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

Jamaica in Nicaragua

On a recent trip to the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, we met a couple who look and speak like any Jamaican. It is as if they are from Westmoreland or St. Ann or Portland or any other parish on the island.

They live in Bluefields, capital of the South Caribbean Autonomous Region in Nicaragua. The city, which lies on the Caribbean Sea coast of the Central American country, has had a long and interesting history.

An early photo of Bluefields on the Caribbean coast in Nicaragua

It was once a playground of pirates who were hostile to Spain. The first known Africans arrived there when a Portuguese ship carrying enslaved persons was wrecked off the coast in 1641. British subjects started arriving there in the 1630s and by the mid-1660s had a significant presence. Eventually an alliance was formed between the British and one of the indigenous groups in the area, the Miskito. Sometime in the 1740s the area fell under the administration of Jamaica’s colonial authorities.

The first set of Jamaican blacks known to live in what became Nicaragua were enslaved persons whose masters moved to the area. In 1796 the British recognized Spain’s sovereignty over the region, known as the Mosquito Coast. It became an alternative destination for Jamaicans who escaped enslavement on the island.

Kayomi Wada of the University of Washington in the United States notes that “Nicaragua has the largest population of African descent in Central America and approximately two-thirds of that group resides in and around Bluefields.”

The area has had an uneasy and sometimes troubled relationship with Nicaragua. “As history unfolded, Bluefields became a forgotten city, cut off from the rest of the country by a vast jungle and different culture,” an NPR report states.

“Historically Bluefields has been politically isolated from the rest of Nicaragua,” Wada writes. “It was originally part of the British Protectorate of Mosquitia and ruled by the British-supported Miskitu Indians until 1894.”

Wada says “English-speaking Creoles, as the persons of African descent now called themselves, had established an English language educational system distinct from Nicaragua’s Spanish language schooling.”

There was a tit for tat tussle among these English-speaking Creoles and the Mestizos for control of Bluefields and surrounding areas. While it was under British protection and influence, blacks in Nicaragua gained relatively high levels of influence in the region.

“In 1893, the Mosquito Coast was incorporated into the Nicaraguan state,” writes Carole Boyce Davies in Volume 1 of Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture. “Mestizos ousted Creoles from government and administration, Spanish replaced English as the region’s official language, and teaching in other languages was forbidden.”

Some 100 years later, “Bluefields would regain some of its historic autonomy from Nicaragua,” while remaining part of the country.

Bluefields became capital of the South Atlantic Autonomous Region in May 1990. “In this new role as a regional capital some of Bluefields’ Creoles have again risen to positions of economic and political prominence,” declares Wada.

For lovers of cricket and baseball, Peter Bjarkman provides an interesting aside. “Nicaragua owns a proud baseball tradition,” he writes in Diamonds Around the Globe: The Encyclopedia of International Baseball. “The game came to the country late in the nineteenth century (1889), when an American businessman, Albert Adlesberg, was horrified to see the British tradition of cricket putting down roots in the coastal city of Bluefields.”

Corn Islands
The Mosquito Coast (there are various spellings of the area) is closely related to the Corn Islands, also part of Nicaraguan territory. The two islands, Big Corn Island and Little Corn Island, about 70 kilometers or 40 miles from the Nicaraguan mainland, are also part of the Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region. Like Bluefields, the Corn Islands were part of the British protectorate from 1655 to 1860.

Aerial photo of Big Corn Island, overlooking the airport runway

The two islands, little in size and small in population, have never been fully integrated into Nicaraguan life, culture and politics, partly because of their geographic remoteness from the Nicaraguan mainland, their history and culture.

“British settlers from Jamaica began moving to the Corn Islands in the 18th century, bringing their African slaves with them,” writes Diane Wedner of the Los Angeles Times. “Most of the islanders today are descendants of those settlers and speak English.”

Greg Henry says the Corn Islands have “a totally separate experience from mainland Nicaragua” and “have more in common with Jamaica than Nicaragua.” Rather than Spanish, “English is the primary language and the native people are of African descent.”

For the better part of 100 years, beginning in 1894, the Corn Islands, though remaining part of Nicaragua, were leased to the United States, which lost the lease in 1970.

In The History of English: An Introduction, Stephan Gramley, writes, “Jamaican influence can still be seen along the coast of Central America, where laborers (were) moved to exploit natural resources such as wood in Bluefields, the Corn Islands and Belize. These people, who were speakers of Jamaican Creole were often slaves in the early period, but were later free laborers.”

A Jamaican, W.B. Morgan, opened a school in the Corn Islands in about 1880, the first such school to be recognized by the government, though another school had previously existed for roughly 30 years.

Hard times
Bluefields is currently facing hard times. Unemployment is high. It is at the epicenter of the drug trade between South America, especially Colombia, and North America. The Corn Islands remain largely undeveloped, though Little Corn Island has seen some tourism activity. Electricity and Internet services on the islands are in short supply, spotty and expensive.

A horrendous fire did much damage to Bluefields in 1970. The agricultural base of Bluefields and the Corn Islands were devastated by various storms, especially Hurricane Joan in 1988, which, at category four, was the most powerful in Nicaragua history up to that time. The L.A. Times reported that Joan “razed the Corn Islands and slammed ashore in the Caribbean port of Bluefields with 135-m.p.h. winds.” Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and Hurricane Otto in November 2016 caused further devastation.

While in Nicaragua a few weeks ago, we were told of a sliver of hope for Bluefields residents. The Nicaraguan economy is strong, the country is relatively peaceful, and it is attracting investments. BPO (Business process outsourcing) companies, more commonly known as call centers, are opening operations in Managua, the capital.

Because the demand for English speaking workers is high, hundreds of young people are being recruited from Bluefields to go work in Managua at above average wages for the country. There is even talk of opening call centers in the city.

Eron Henry’s article, Broadening the mind, freeing the spirit, is under consideration for the 2017 NUHA Foundation Blogging Prize. He is author of Reverend Mother, a novel.