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.