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Living Between Empires: Diplomacy and Politics in the Late Eighteenth-Century Mosquitia

From: The Americas
Volume 70, Number 2, October 2013
pp. 237-268 | 10.1353/tam.2013.0116

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In June 1787, Lieutenant Colonel Gabriel de Hervías, on behalf of the Spanish crown, took possession from Major James Lawrie of the small British settlement of Black River (Río Tinto), marking the formal end of three decades of diplomatic wrangling over the existence of the British Superintendency over the Mosquito Shore (1748 to 1787). Within three years of Lawrie’s departure, along with that of 537 British settlers and 1,677 slaves, the narrow stretch of territory extending along the Atlantic coasts of Honduras and Nicaragua and known to the Spanish as costa de mosquitos was engulfed in violent conflicts between leaders of the Miskitu peoples and their followers. The first outbreak of intra-Miskitu hostilities pitted the Indian governor Colville Briton against other prominent chiefs, including his nephew Admiral Alparis Dilson; a second pitted Admiral Dilson and his brother Major Hewlett against the Afro-Indian or “Zambo” King George II. By the time the conflicts had come to an end, both Briton and Dilson had been executed, Hewlett had escaped the region for the safety of the Panamanian coast, and George had asserted his ascendancy over rival chiefs and their people. An uneasy peace returned to the region in late 1791, but it was broken in 1792 by a brief but unsuccessful attempt on the part of Major Hewlett to extract revenge on the Zambo perpetrators of his brother’s death. King George emerged from this second wave of hostilities with his prominence enhanced, and by 1800, when he led an assault on Río Tinto and brought Spain’s colonial ambitions in the region to an end, he had established his authority as principal chief of the ethnically diverse and politically divided Miskitu nation.

The bitter internal divisions provoked by the resolution of a long-standing Anglo-Spanish contest for sovereignty over the territory were understood by the Miskitu to be of momentous importance. A century later the conflicts would be remembered as a “civil war” that had marked the beginning of a process resulting in the subordination of the Indian or Tawira Miskitu to the Zambo or “Sambo” Miskitu. The latter were terms used by both groups to differentiate the peoples who emerged from the encounter between Africans and indigenous Americans in this part of Central America, from the predominantly indigenous Miskitu, competitors, by the early 1700s, for control of people and resources. Pivotal in the history of the Miskitu, the events that unfolded in the region in the early 1790s are also of significance to scholars concerned with understanding the complex character of intercultural relations in those parts of the Americas where powerful, independent indigenous populations negotiated with more than one European nation during the centuries of colonial expansion.

Conceptualized as middle grounds, borderlands, frontiers, strategic frontiers, native grounds, or Indian homelands, these regions occupied a distinctive place in the emerging Atlantic world, and the societies forged there have been equally and variously defined as having been based on compromise, negotiation, accommodation, incorporation, or entanglement. The late eighteenth-century Mosquitia opens a window onto one such region, strategically located between Spanish and British empires in Central America and the Caribbean, and vital to both. Marked as the period was by political upheaval and change, it provides us with an opportunity to interweave and juxtapose, to borrow John Elliott’s terms, British and Spanish approaches and interactions with the region’s native inhabitants. It also enables us to examine the consequences for the Miskitu of their long engagement with Europeans, and thus to bring to the center of analysis the experiences and perspectives of a peoples who, while not themselves colonized, were nonetheless implicated in and affected by the broader processes that brought the Atlantic world into existence.

The extant scholarship on the region—whether focused on the period of British influence to 1787, or that of Spanish involvement to 1800—has touched only superficially on the conflict that factionalized the Miskitu leadership class, attributing it primarily to hostility toward Spanish colonizing (and evangelizing) aims and methods or attachment to British political and cultural values, or degrees of both. Given the brevity of Spain’s colonizing endeavor, and the fact that Colville Briton, a Spanish...



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