Afromestizo - The Third Root
African Heritage of Central America
By Kent C. Williams
©2001 - Kent C. Williams, Santa Rosa, California
The Atlantic coast of Nicaragua was explored by Columbus during his fourth voyage in 1502. The Spanish returned again in 1522, led by the Conquistador Gil Gonzalez de Avila. Two years latter, the governor of Panama sent out Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba and Hernando de Soto to permanently conquer the country for Spain. Cordoba established the cities of Granada and Leon in 1524. Managua did not become Nicaragua's capital until 1857.
The population of Nicaragua is highly mixed, but not so much as found in El Salvador and Honduras. The mixed "native-African-European" population known as mestizo makes up 69% of the population. This population group is concentrated in the western portion of the country where nine out of ten persons in Nicaragua live. Native Americans, who make up 5% of the population, are found mostly in the remote jungle areas of the west. African descended persons such as Afro-Antilleans, make up 9% (379,000) of the population and are found in the eastern coastal areas of the country. They live manly along the "Atlantic" or "Mosquito Coast". In recent years they have also moved to the larger cities of the country, such as Managua.
Persons of European ancestry are rather numerous at 17% of the population, and live in the larger cities and towns of the country. In addition to being of Spanish ancestry, the 19th century immigration of Germans, French, English and Italians added to Nicaragua's diverse mix of peoples. There are also small numbers of Arabic speaking persons, as well as Chinese living mostly in the cities.
As in Honduras, Nicaragua has four major groups of African descended peoples which include: Afro-mestizos, Afro-Antilleans, Garifuna and Miskitos.
Afromestizos in Nicaragua live primarily in the densely populated western regions of the country where nine-tenths of the population of Nicaragua is concentrated. Their history and way of life follows closely that which is found among the other Afromestizo peoples of Central America. During the colonial era (1524-1821) the working of large ranches and fincas was largely in the hands of African slaves. A small population of European women (probably no more then 10% of the European population of Central American during colonial times) resulted in most Spanish men taking native and African common law wives and concubines.
Shortly after the conquest, the native population found itself working in the gold mines of the Spanish conquerors . Others were rounded up and transported to Panama City where they were sold off into slavery, some being sent to work in mines as far off Bolivia. As in the other Central American colonies, the native American population was almost completely decimated within two generations. Just as in Honduras, El Salvador and parts of Guatemala, natives were replaced during the 1540's by African slaves sent out from Hispaniola, Cuba and Puerto Rico. They took the place of the natives in the fields, mines and homes of the Spanish. In and around the city of Granada large sugar, cocoa and indigo plantations were worked by large numbers of Africans. Within a few generations the amalgamation of Spanish, African and native American was well on its way in creating the Nicaraguan mestizo of today.
One example of a well known Nicaraguan Afromestizo is the poet Ruben Dario (1867-1916). As one of the greatest poets in the history of Latin-America, he played an important role as a leader in the literary movement called modernism. He became world famous for his poems Blue (1888), Profane Prose (1896) and Songs of Life and Hope (1905). Dario (Felix Ruben Garcia Sarmiento) was born in the town of Metapa of mixed native, African and European ancestry. For more information on Dario's African heritage see Sex and Race (Vol. II) by J.A. Rogers (1942). Dario was not unlike millions of Afromestizos in Central America, who simply know they are of a "mixed race" background and often have little specific knowledge of their highly diverse "blood lines".
Miskitos and Garifuna: (For more information on these ethnic groups see the section on Honduras)
The settlement of the Afro-Amerindian Miskito population of Nicaragua parallels that which is found in neighboring Honduras. In fact the Mosquito Coast extends into Nicaragua from Honduras and the Miskitos living in Nicaragua are closely linked to those on the other side of the border. Located along the "Atlantic Coast" the Miskitos are concentrated in the northeastern part of Nicaragua, as well as along the entire coast. Their population is estimated to be about 75,000. The English, and briefly the Dutch, established settlements here and mixed their blood lines with the local Afro-Amerindian population creating a new "tribe" known as Miskito.
During the late 17th and early 18th centuries escaped African slaves from the West Indies landed along the "Atlantic" (also known as the "Mosquito Coast") of eastern Nicaragua. They mixed freely with the native peoples living here and just as in Honduras, an Afro-Amerindian population developed. The region was never colonized by Spain and between 1687 and 1860 the so called "Miskito Kingdom" became a British "protectorate" which included the Nicaraguan coast as well as parts of the Honduran. From 1783 until 1816 the British were forced to abandon their "protectorate" but with the crowning of Miskito King George Frederick II in 1816 the British re-established their "protectorate". In 1860 a 7,000 sq. mi. "Miskito Reservation" was set up by the Nicaraguan government and the British relinquished all of their claims to the Coast.
The Mosquito Coast continued to maintain its autonomy from Nicaraguan authorities until 1894, when the Nicaraguan government finally took complete control over the region after one final British encroachment into its territory. American agricultural, logging and mining interests became strong in the region after the departure of the British, and from the 1890's until the 1960's North Americans played an important role in the economy the Coast. Not until the 1960s' did a sizable Spanish speaking population start to settle in the area. The English language, as well as the Protestant faith, mark this region as a cultural extension of the Afro-Anglo Caribbean. However this is changing as more Spanish speaking mestizos come to live and work here as well as the younger generations of African descent who adopt the Spanish language as the majority of Afro-Antilleans have already done.
During the years of the British "protectorate" several towns along the Coast were established. Bluefields (pop. 35,000) was named for the Dutch pirate Abraham Blauwveld who founded the town in 1662. It is the largest town in the area. Other major settlements along the coast include Puerto Cabezas (Bragman's Bluff) (pop. 30,000) which also has a sizable Miskito community. In 1987 the Nicaraguan government divided the Coast into two "autonomous regions": Region Autonomista Atlantico Norte (RAAN) and Region Autonomista Altantico Sur (RAAS).
Many Miskitos live in the northern department, along the Coco (Wanghi) river. Their "capital" is located at Waspam. During the early 1980's over 10,000 Miskitos living on the Nicaraguan side of the river were forced from their homes by Sandinista government troops. Fleeing across the river into neighboring Honduras, most did not return until after 1985. The Sandinistas feared the Miskitos might join the anti-Sandinista Contras in a war against them. As a "security measure" the Sandinistas evacuated the area of its Miskito population. This provoked a widespread armed revolt by the Miskitos and fighting continued off and on in the region until 1992. Other important areas of Miskito settlement include Bluefields, Prinzapolka and several villages in the Pearl Lagoon (Laguna de Perlas) area north of Bluefields.
The Garifuna community numbers around 1,500 native speakers, having migrated to Nicaragua during the 19th century from the North Coast of Honduras. They live in Bluefields as well as in Puerto Cabezas. The Garifuna village of Orinoco is located in the Pearl Lagoon area. Here a faith-healing festival called Gara-Wala is sometimes still held here.
The Afro-Antilleans of Nicaragua make up 23% of the population of the "Atlantic Coast". They also live in the Las Minas region of northeastern Nicaragua as well as on the Corn Islands and the larger urban centers of the country. Representing 9% (379,000) of the population, the Afro-Antillean community has had a strong influence on the communities in which they have settled. Many Afro-Antilleans still refer to themselves as Creoles, having arrived with the British and Dutch as slaves during 17th century. They have played an important roll in establishing the coastal areas two largest communities Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas (Bragman's Bluff).
Nicaraguan Creoles speak a variety of English called Western Caribbean Creole, a dialect closely related to Jamaican Creole. There were still 30,000 native speakers of this variety of Creole living along the Coast in 1986, up from 10,400 in 1950. Many thousands of Creoles or Costenos as they are sometimes called, speak only Spanish. The younger generations have adopted the Spanish language and much of the culture of the Hispanic mainstream. All three languages (Creole English, Spanish and Miskito) are spoken in the eastern coastal areas of Nicaragua.
Many of the Afro-Antilleans who arrived with the British during colonial times were from Jamaica. In 1740 several colonies of Afro-Jamaicans were settled by the British along the Coast around Bluefields. They provided labor for British owned plantations and lumber interests in the area, and helped to establish a stronger "British presence" in the region. Afro-Antilleans also settled in the inland region of Las Minas located in the northeastern part of Nicaragua. This was a gold mining area where there are still communities of Afro-Antilleans living in remote villages such as Bonanza, La Rosita and Siuna. Some have migrated in recent years to Puerto Cabezas.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries Afro-Antilleans from Belize, Honduras, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands arrived to work on American owned banana plantations and in the local lumber and mining industries. At the turn of the century United Fruit Company opened banana plantations inland from Puerto Cabezas and Jamaican labor was recruited and brought to the area. During the 1960's United Fruit abandoned the region after an outbreak of "Panama disease" which devastated and killed off much of the banana crop. Exports of the fruit today are small in comparison with Honduras and Costa Rica.
The towns of Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas have the largest communities of Creoles. During the last week of May a week long festival called Mayo Ya! takes place in Bluefields. Elements of the English Maypole tradition can be seen, as well as lots of Raggae music and dancing. The Afro-Antilleans of the Coast are today among the best educated and most successful persons living in the region. Many hold white-collar positions and continue to maintain a distinct economic advantage over the indigenous and mestizo communities in the area. They see themselves as being at the "top" of the regions "ethnic hierarchy" and take great pride in their West Indian background.
There are other Afro-Antillean communities up and down the Coast. In the Pearl Lagoon area there are Creole settlements. The coastal village of Greytown (San Juan del Norte) has its Creole community as well. Greytown, located on the Nicaraguan/Costa Rican border, was founded originally by the Spanish. Latter it was seized by the British (in 1848) and they named it Greytown. During the California gold rush of 1849 Greytown was used by American and European gold prospectors as a stop on their journey to the gold fields of California. Landing at Greytown, prospectors sailed up the San Juan River, crossed Lake Nicaragua and then took stagecoaches to the Pacific coast to sail on to California.
Another interesting area of Afro-Antillean settlement is on the Corn Islands (Islas del Maiz). These small islands are located about five hours east of Bluefields by boat. A community of Creole fishermen and artisans live here, and the islands continue to be a popular holiday spot for Nicaraguans.