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Empire, Ethnicity, and the Exotic on the Mosquito Coast
York University, Toronto
The Mosquito Coast belongs to what is now Atlantic Nicaragua, a jagged coastline of four hundred miles stretching from Cape Gracias a Dios in the north to the San Juan River in Costa Rica. In the eighteenth century it was under the jurisdiction of imperial Spain, although in practice the Spanish exercised a fragile sovereignty over the region, barely extending their control beyond Omoa and Trujillo. In the sixteenth century a few conquistadors ventured into the area. Diego de Nicuessa went there around 1512, but his expedition was wrecked at the mouth of the river Wanks (Rio Coco), near Cape Gracias a Dios. 1 Others confronted the resistance of the various indigenous people and the inhospitable terrain of mangrove swamps and sandbars along the coast. They also had to contend with torrential rains, and with mosquitoes and sand flies that so abounded, Nathaniel Uring later remarked, "that neither Mouth, Nose, Eyes or any part of us was free of them; and whenever they could come at our Skin, they bit and stung us most intolerably." 2 Consequently the Mosquito Coast or "Shore," as it was sometimes called, was only nominally part of Spain's American empire. Unlike the Pacific region, where the Spanish subjugated the indigenous peoples and either enslaved or exacted tributes from them, the [End Page 117] Atlantic coast became a borderland, open to the predatory actions of buccaneers. In due course it was the location of informal British presence at various lagoons and islands along the Shore and the neighboring Northern Honduran coast.
The dominant influence on the Shore were the Miskito Indians, a subgroup of the Sumu Indians who originally hailed from South America. 3 For much of the century their fortunes were linked with those of the British, with whom they shared an intense animosity of the Spanish. It is this interaction between the Miskito and the British buccaneers, settlers, or officials with whom they came into contact that is the subject of this essay. At one level I am interested in how the Miskito negotiated some social space for themselves in the great power struggles of the eighteenth-century Caribbean, and how this negotiation shaped their own ethnic identity and their relations with other aboriginal peoples in Atlantic Central America. At another level I am interested in how their encounters with the British were interpreted in a century that was both fascinated and repelled by the exotic aboriginal and was anxious to stereotype or classify that "other" within evolving discourses of race and civilization.
The first Europeans to encounter the Miskito were Christopher Columbus and his son during the explorer's third voyage in 1502. Columbus believed them to be "great sorcerers" and "very terrible." His son, Fernando, described them as "almost Negroes in color, bestial, going naked; in all respects very rude, eating human flesh, and devouring their fish raw, as they happened to catch them" (Squier, 336). However fanciful, this view of the monstrous savage was not replicated by the British in their initial contact. When the Puritans sought to establish a colony and piratical lair on Providence Island over a century later, John Pym instructed the captain of the expedition, Sussex Cammock, to venture to Cape Gracias a Dios to "endear yourselves with the Indians and their commanders," and to establish a "good Correspondence" with them. 4 This encounter appears to have been successful. It was very probably not the first contact that the Miskito had with English corsairs, and it was no doubt facilitated by Cammock's disinclination to proselytize despite Pym's instructions to the contrary (Newton, 44-45). This was fortunate, because a few years previously the Miskito had killed a couple of friars from Guatemala for attempting to spread the gospel among them. 5 Cordial relations between the English and the Miskito were also encouraged by the relative informality of the encounter, which was concerned with trade rather than conquest...