A Critical History of Nicaragua

by Reynaldo Miranda Zúñiga

The land and its history is a prelude to its people's stories.

The Apollo astronauts said Nicaragua looked from outer space like an emerald, since it forms a rough diamond shape, broad in the North where it borders Honduras, and narrow in the south along the Costa Rican border; and, since, when the skies cleared, the intense green of the thick forests that blanketed the country made it stand out from the rest of the isthmus. Alas, the forests are today extremely diminished. About the size of New York State, Nicaragua on the west is part of the Pacific Rim, and its eastern seaboard, although geographically isolated from the center of the country, is part of the Caribbean Basin. This land has shaped the views and attitudes of its people, even largely defining the Nicaraguan identity.

The latest of Nicaragua's great men of letters, Pablo Antonio Cuadra (1912-2002), used his poetic license to write that "Nicaragua emerged from the sea, like Boticelli's Venus, youthful before the rest of America, and borne upon the shoulders of that line of volcanoes..." and went on to comment upon Nicaragua as pivot for movement and union. However, the underlying reality was fantastically violent.

It is thought that until roughly fifty-million years ago the North Atlantic and the Pacific joined together where Nicaragua now is. At that time the Cocos oceanic plate in the Pacific began to subduct, that is slide under, the Caribbean continental plate. The friction, heat, and pressure at the grinding plate margins transformed them into molten rock. As the pressure built up, the lava and steam shot up to the surface, producing volcanic eruptions, at first underwater, but eventually, as volcano rose on top of volcano, above water: A chain of volcanic islands formed between Guatemala in the North and Columbia in the South, part of the Pacific Rim's Ring of Fire. Finally the volcanic eruptions filled in the landmass. Also, as the plates ground against each other, parts of the Cocos oceanic plate were scraped off and rose to form wedges of sedimentary rocks piled upon the new coasts. The new landmass welded to Guatemala and Columbia, and formed a North-South land bridge. The force of the plate collisions created great folds, depressions, and faults, making the area subject to volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, and mudslides.

The earliest evidence of human habitation in Nicaragua are the petrified foot and hoof prints at Acahualinca on the shores of Great Lake Managua. They are believed to have been left by a group of people and animals running to escape a volcanic eruption seven to ten-thousand years ago. Today 200 volcanic formations have been identified within Nicaragua. There are many active volcanoes, and many more dormant ones. The Cosegüina Volcano (859 meters/2,818 feet) has a deep blue lake in its crater, surrounded by green vegetation. Its eruption of 1835 was heard in Belize City, Veracruz, Bogota, Guyaquil, Kingston, Haiti, and Curacao. Ash shot up into the atmospheric zones of the anti-Trade winds and fell as far away as Mexico City, Jamaica, the Galapagos Islands, and almost 2,000 kilometers away into the Pacific Ocean. It is generally considered to have been the most violent volcanic explosion in the Western Hemisphere within historic time. The youngest and most active volcano, Cerro Negro, was formed only in 1850. Managua, the modern metropolis of Nicaragua, has been destroyed three times by earthquake in the last 110 years (29 April 1898; on Good Friday, 31 March 1931, 2,000 were killed of a population of 40,000; on 23 December 1972, 10,000 were killed of a population of 320,000). The town of Nindiri celebrate every 16 March as the day of "the miracle of faith," since 1772, when they carried an image in procession of Our Lord of Miracles toward the lava flow of the erupting Masaya Volcano that threatened to engulf their town, but instead inexplicably changed course into Lakes Masaya and Managua.

Yet thus, Nicaragua has a broad backbone, as it were, of highlands of long-extinct volcanoes that have since become granite. The cordilleras are widest at the Honduran border and taper down 150 kilometers to the San Juan River Basin near the Costa Rican border, sweeping over two thirds of the country, and making it very mountainous. These mountains are a southern extension of the North American Rockies and Mexico's Sierra Madre. Elevation ranges from the highest peak at the Honduran border, Pico Mogoton, at 2,438 meters/7,999 feet, to the southern foothills of Chontales. To either side of the Central Uplands, plains slope down to the coasts of the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The Eastern half of the country is covered by Caribbean weather patterns of much rain and frequent tropical storms and sometimes hurricanes. So, the Eastern lowlands are covered by tropical rain forest and swamps, that are the most extensive in the world outside of Brazil's Amazonia. This jungle is filled with awesome biodiversity, while its only regions hospitable to human inhabitants are the river banks and sea coasts. Indeed, this area, known as the Mosquito Coast, is one of the most brutal environments on Earth for humans, and is still largely terra incognita. The Central Highlands tend to break up East to West hurricanes and storms, and so protect the more temperate Pacific lowlands, and ensure the six-month-long dry season (November to April), besides the equally long wet season (May to October) in the western lowlands.

One great fault or fold, the Central American Trench where the Cocos and Caribbean plates joined late, formed the lacustrine Nicaragua Depression, or Great Rift Valley, from Northwest to Southeast for 400 kilometers/249 miles comprising Cosegüina Peninsula, and fanning out under Great Lake Managua, Great Lake Nicaragua, and the San Juan River Basin. Lake Managua drains into the Lake Nicaragua via the Tipitapa River, Lake Nicaragua in turn drains into the Caribbean through the San Juan River and Delta. To the East of this are the Central Highlands, and to the West the Quaternary volcanic chain of 30 major volcanoes and their crater lakes and thermal springs. The western seaboard on the other side of the volcanoes is really comprised of three distinct regions: From North to South they are the León-Chinandega Plain, the Southern Upland, and the Rivas Anticline. The volcanoes and prevailing winds have covered the first two of these areas with mineral-rich and porous volcanic ash, in some places to a depth of 100 meters/329 feet. This volcanic mantle, its good drainage, the long dry season, good natural irrigation, and the breezes from the great lakes make Western Nicaragua one of the richest agricultural lands in the world, able to support large human populations, and an unusually attractive tropical lowland area. This 10% of the country’s territory has always held most of its population, both before and after Columbus. Outside of the volcanic soil mantle, there are grassland and scrub bush savannas, suitable for grazing pasturage. The natural orientation of the country is North-South. Indeed it has always served as a North-South corridor for flora, fauna, and humans. East-West it is fractured by dense, central mountains and forests, with the notable exception of the navigable San Juan River at its southern edge that drains Great Lake Nicaragua into the Caribbean Sea.

Southernmost Nicaragua holds the San Juan River that connects the Caribbean and Great Lake Nicaragua. Between the western shores of Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific Ocean is the Isthmus of Rivas Anticline, at its narrowest only 15 kilometers/9.32 miles wide. Within this narrow stretch, the continental divide lies at an elevation of 51 meters/167 feet above sea level, and 20 meters/66 feet above the level of Lake Nicaragua. An artificial East-West strait here would be the shortest and the lowest in Middle America. Furthermore, the rolling prairie land is pliable, and salubrious--without insect borne diseases such as malaria. From the first European settlement in 1524, this geography has made Nicaragua geopolitically strategic, and the overriding aspirations of its people has been the dream of a canal. Even today there are at least three competing canal projects. This passageway is the only convenient East-West corridor in the country.

In summary, the land of Nicaragua is fantastically rich, varied, and dangerous. Not only do ecosystems meet, but they clash and contrast starkly with one another. For instance, North American pines extend as far South as Nicaragua, while Caribbean pines are also present. In this relatively small territory, there are tropical rainforests, swamps, highland forests, prairies, plains, volcanoes, great lakes with bullheaaded sharks, tuna, and other large salt water fish swimming in their waters.

Pre-Columbian Epoch (-1524)

Before the Spanish colonization of Nicaragua there was no entity of Nicaragua as such. What there was, was the territory of the present country of course, populated by many distinct tribes and nations generally at war with one another. The generalist literature on pre-Columbian Nicaragua is not extensive, in part because its tribes did not enjoy advanced civilizations such as those of the Maya, Aztec, and Inca; in part because the native peoples and cultures were practically destroyed during the first few decades of colonization; in part because those who survived were transferred from province to province and were rapidly hispanicized, such that even reconstructions of pre-Columbian Nicaragua are difficult approximations that scholars continue to work at. Much of what has been pieced together concerning pre-Columbian Nicaragua has been drawn from a few, surviving reports by a few early Spanish chroniclers and administrators. Generally these are bare mentions of that which they believed they heard from a few Indian elders. Often they misunderstood the Indians, at other times they simply made mistakes in their narratives. Even then one must wonder about the veracity of many Indian statements, as the Indians sought to conceal certain things like their wealth and religion, or to play up to the Spaniards' desires.

The first time we hear the term "Nicaragua" is in two letters of relations by Spaniards of the first expedition into Nicaragua in 1522. The expedition's leader Gil González Dávila wrote to the king about "Chief Nicaragua." The expedition's treasurer Andrés de Cereceda wrote of "Chief Niqueragua." The papal ambassador to Spain Pedro Mártir de Anglería collated primary accounts (from the González Dávila expedition) and wrote in his De Nove Urbe of a "Chief Nicoraguamia in his capitol of Nicoragua." There is much disagreement and uncertainty on the etymology of the word. Perhaps one of the more probable sounding origins is that the Andalusian men in that first expedition called the town on the shores of Great Lake Cocibolca, “the water of the Nicarao,"--Nicar-agua. But there is a Nahual term "Nic-Anahuac," that is variously translated. Perhaps a reconciliation of the competing translations is to view the phrase as very compact, and as allowing a range of meanings. It means, "here, [are] the Anahuac," "the Anahuac of this place," "[to] here we of Anahuac [have come]," or "here ends Anahuac." Closely related to this "Nic-Anahuac" is "Nican-atl-hua." "Nic" means "here," "atl" "water," "hua" is a possessive case ending, and "nahuac" signifies "next to." So "Nic-atl-nahuac" means "here, next to water." The Anahuac tended to settle near water . Thus, the nahuat word refers to the origin of the immigrant nation, terms that the migrating Anahuacs took with them throughout Mexico and Central America. Spaniards tended to substitute "r"s for nahuat "n"s.

The oldest inhabitants of Nicaragua at the time of the Spaniards' arrivals were South American, CircumCaribbean nations that had moved in from the South: Nations such as the Sumu, Rama, and Miskito that hunted, fished, and gathered. Perhaps as early as 3500-3000 BC, MesoAmerican sedentary agriculturalists from the North moved into Western Nicaragua, and pushed its existing inhabitants into the marginal eastern half of the country, where the earlier peoples subsisted in very small numbers on limited slash and burn agriculture with sweet manioc or cassava as their staple, a tuber well suited to wetlands and not requiring care.

Although Maya civilization did not extend as far South as present day Nicaragua, a memory of successive northern invasions and migrations has been preserved. The earliest now discernible wave were the Chorotega, speaking an Oto-Manguean language. They were related to the Otomí, Mazateca, and Chiapanec nations. They settled throughout Western Nicaragua, from the Gulf of Fonseca in Southwestern Honduras to Nicoya-Guanacaste in Northwestern Costa Rica. Then came the Maribio or Sutiaba, speaking a Hokum language, from California. They carved out an area in Northwestern Nicaragua between León-Subtiava and Chinandega for themselves. They introduced metals and established a widespread commerce. Later in the Ninth Century the Nicarao were pushed out of the central plateau of Mexico by invading Toltecs. They then settled in Soconusco, Chiapas, and Cholula, where they were oppressed by the Olmecs. So they migrated southward in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries. One of their priests told them to settle at the site of a lake with an island with two tall, round mountains, which they did on the Isthmus of Rivas at Lake Cocibolca and Ometepe Island on land granted them by the Chorotega, that they then extended by warfare. The Nicarao spoke a Nauhatlan, Uto-Aztec language. Finally, advance colonies of Aztec merchant/spies arrived just ahead of the Spaniards in the XV Century, and as late as 1508. The Nahuatlato settled upon the Cosegüina Peninsula until 1586, when they were moved to the town of El Viejo by the Spaniards, was one such trading colony. Another very remote one was found at the mouth of the San Juan River.

The prize of the Aztec trade in Nicaragua was South American emeralds, while, according to their policy, they prepared the new ground for eventual annexation to their empire. Part of their strategy was to establish local client-patron relations, and, in Nicaragua, the Nicarao were only too happy to oblige. The two nations were related by language, religion, customs, and place of origin. The Nicarao had always been a patriarchal, militaristic, and feudal nation of hereditary chiefs, nobles, and priests, bound by vassalage, and supported by tributes from commoners, and by slaves. Nicarao women couldn’t enter their temples. Their chiefs and high priests practiced the "jus primae noctis" with newly wed maidens. Their goldsmithery was excellent and highly regarded. They had upon their arrival introduced and monopolized cacao cultivation, using the cacao bean as their currency of exchange. When the Aztecs arrived, the Nicarao guaranteed Aztec interests in the country, while the Aztecs supplied the Nicarao with weapons, military training, luxury goods such as court dress, and a high culture and language--all of which the Nicarao aristocracy imitated. The Chorotegans, on the other hand, popularly elected a council of elders called "güegües," who in turn appointed chiefs for fixed terms of office; a draft board of elders called "Monexica," that apportioned military service during their four month term; and, for each town, two market officers who were charged with keeping the peace, ensuring standards of measurement, welcoming foreign visitors, and encouraging people to purchase. The Council of Güegües retained the power to apportion tributes, set boundaries, keep tribal records, and overrule chiefs upon appeal. The warriors elected their own war chiefs. During wars both the chief and war chief led, with the chief taking command upon the death of the war chief. Only women could trade in the markets. The only others allowed in the markets were virgin boys and foreign visitors, while the men kept house. Notable Chorotega products were woven textiles, pottery, especially the jet-black pottery of the Island of Chirra that is still produced and exported, a great variety of beans and fruit, and tobacco cigars. To the East of the far lake shores in the Central Highlands, lived the "chontali," meaning "strangers," or "hostiles"--homologous to our "barbarians." An early and influential chronicler, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, misrecords those nations generically as "Indios Chondales," and the name Chontales stuck in the postcolumbian society. We know of at least two nations, the Ulva in the South and the Matagalpa in the North, both related to the Lenca language tribes of Central Honduras. Except in the case of educated Nicarao and the Aztecs, none of these groups could understand the languages of the others.

In the early 1520s, unlike most other areas of MesoAmerica, Nicaragua was a land of plenty supporting a large population nucleus of probably 1,600,000, of whom 70% lived in the Western regions of the country. The Indians were fractured and fought each other. Imperial Mexico (the Aztecs) was the center and patron-state of the Nicaraguan client-aristocracy.

Post-Columbian Epoch (1492-)

Meanwhile in Spain, after six years of Columbus' pleading and Isabel Queen of Castile's prevarication, Isabel finally sponsored Columbus' first great voyage, when her private treasurer pointed out that the sum required was less than the cost of entertaining a royal visitor. No one in Europe, not Columbus or his detractors, ever imagined that there was a continental land mass across the Ocean between themselves and the rich Indies and Cathay. After four voyages, Columbus was always able to believe that he had reached his object, rather than discovered a New World. Not until Balboa saw the Pacific Ocean in 1513, and Ferdinand Magellan circled and mapped the globe in 1522 could Europeans begin to know the extent of the Western Hemisphere. Not only was the Spanish monarchy wholly unprepared for the conquest of America, that was many times its size, but Charles I (1516-56), at least, was most reluctant to commit to such a conquest, and with good reason: At home, he was pressed by the Turks; by Francis I of France; by the Protestant Reformation; by the overwhelming challenge of ruling his feudal empire that included what are now Italy, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Burgundy, besides Portugal, Spain, Andorra, and Southwestern France; Spanish unification itself was far from complete; and all of this cost enormous amounts of money, and effort. Finally let us not forget the time in which they lived, the only transport was water borne in small, wooden, square rigged ships and boats or by oar; or, overland by horse or mule back depending on the terrain--in either case subject to weathers and great dangers. There was no communication save by uncertain and slow, private courier. Hence the Spanish conquest of America in the early XVI C. was very different from later colonizations such as those of France and Britain.

To cross the North Atlantic was to risk one's life and health. If successful one arrived at a frontier, very far from Europe and the Canary Islands. In such a fluid environment, great ambitions were unbound and hardly bounded by Church or State. Men like Hernán Cortés could leave Spain as obscure gentlemen, conquer a great empire, and return heroes, wealthy, influential, ennobled. Likewise on a lesser scale for so many followers. In short, no European country in the XVI C. had the technical wherewithal to undertake a well-ordered and well-directed overseas conquest and colonization on a continental scale. It was as if today the US sent a mission to Mars and found it teeming with an unknown, extraterrestrial race, that later turned out to be a lost tribe of humans. The US government could not effectively command and control a speedy conquest and colonization of Mars, no matter how hard it might try. Other agencies, such as transnational corporations, media, entrepreneurs, political parties and factions, would come to bear on such an unlikely and messy enterprise. The conquerors of America tended to be gentlemen-adventurers, the venture capitalists and entrepreneurs of their day, searching for greater wealth and position for themselves. The character of the first great conqueror, then, greatly influenced postcolumbian society. Some conquerors were great men of genius--Christopher Columbus, Hernán Cortés, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and many others. But, naturally, more were at best mediocre--Francisco de Pizarro, Pedro Arias de Avila, Rodrigo de Contreras.

To be continued: The conquest from Tierra Firme paradise to no mans land (1513-1685)