Displaced Minorities: The Wayuu and Miskito People

  • Christian CwikEmail author
Living reference work entry


Among the many displaced indigenous minorities in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Wayuu of northern South America and the Miskito of eastern Central America took on a specific role. On the one hand, both ethnic groups are the result of displacement triggered by the Conquista and the transatlantic slave trade, and on the other hand both kept strong ties to non-Spanish European powers such as the English, the Dutch, and the French which gave them access to alternative markets. During the so-called independence period of the early nineteenth century, the territories of the Miskito and the Wayuu remained largely autonomous because of British protection. It was not until the mid of the nineteenth century that the young Latin American nation states succeeded in invading the area in their struggle for territorial integrity but failed because the British protected them against all these attempts. The situation changed when the USA came into dispute with the UK over steamship routes, coal storages, and the establishment of interoceanic connections, although both Nicaragua and Honduras and Colombia and Venezuela finally succeeded in incorporating the still unconquered areas into their state territory at the beginning of the twentieth century and even though the two now transnational ethnic groups were able to maintain autonomous structures. Since the 1960s civil and drug wars as well as guerrilla activity in Central America and in Colombia and Venezuela increased, which again led to mass murder and displacement of Wayuu and Miskito which persist in the case of Wayuu to this day.


Genocide Maroonage Zambo Proto-states Imperialism Autonomy Displacement Sandinism Drug war 


In 1981 the so-called Contra War against the Sandinistas government in Nicaragua has reached the Miskito Coast on the Atlantic. Around the same time, the Civil War in Colombia hits the territory of the Wayuu on the Guajira Peninsula. One of the consequences of these brutal territorial penetrations by the several armed forces (military, paramilitary, police, mafia, and guerrilla) was displacement. Most of the Miskito people escaped to Honduras by crossing the Río Coco border to Honduras but remained in their traditional Miskito territory which extends to Cape Cameron. A small number of Miskito in the southern districts around the city of Bluefields escaped also to Costa Rica by crossing the Río San Juan, and some flew by boats via the Corn Islands to San Andres Island (Colombia). But also for the Wayuu, border crossing to Venezuela has been often the easiest option to escape because their ancestral territory extends far into neighboring Zulia. Another option has been the route to the Colombian interior through the Valle du Par and by boat to the Dutch island of Aruba.

But it was not only the wars that forced the groups to flee abroad but also the attempt of the central state to put an end to the uncontrollable activities of their indigenous people. Both the Miskito and the Wayuu were deeply involved in the smuggling trade and historically linked to the non-Spanish-speaking Caribbean. They used the Caribbean Sea as their trading area for short- and long-distance trade. Due to their trading activities, the two ethnic groups have been in contact with English (later British), Dutch French, and even Danish and Swedish colonies in the Caribbean for centuries. At the end of the nineteenth century, trade contacts with the USA became vital. All these economic relationships undermined the state monopoly on trade and the control of the state territory and borders. Particularly in the twentieth century, intense relations with the USA developed, often using conflicts between the central state and indigenous autonomous territories for their geopolitical interests. This is one of the reasons why the Miskito and the Wayuu remained active protagonists and many of them did not end up as defenseless victims despite persecution and displacement. Some of the Miskito refugees in Honduras joined, e.g., the so-called Contras, a CIA-backed army of Somoza loyal Ex-National Army officers and soldiers as well as mercenaries from all over and entered in their uniforms into the Nicaraguan territory to liberate it from the Sandinista government. Their fight was mainly inspired as resistance against the establishment of a centralistic state run by the Sandinistas and not so much against the leftist ideology by itself. But also among the Wayuu refugees, we can find refugees especially those who became internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Colombia who joined one of the militarized groups (not the National Army) and became part of the Civil War.

If we trace the history of the two groups back to their beginnings, we find that displacement led to the formation of the two groups during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most of them were displaced persons of different indigenous cultures and African slaves from European haciendas, farms, estancias, ranchos, plantations, mines, ships, boats, and other places of work or war refugees from the many wars of the Conquista. The above means that neither the Miskito nor the Wayuu has existed before as independent ethnic groups. For the displaced remained only the last areas of retreat, the swampy areas of the rainforest of Central America’s Atlantic Coast between Cabo Cameron and the Bay of Bluefields and the barren and desert of the Guajira Peninsula between the Río Ranchería and the Gulf of Venezuela. In addition to the common aspect of the extreme settlement areas, the Miskito and Wayuu shared the willingness to ally with British, Dutch, and French seafarers and colonists against the Spaniards, who began conquering unoccupied areas at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

The works of María Cristina Navarrete, Manuel Vicente Magallanes, Weildler Guerra Curvelo, Henri Candelier, Michel Perrin, José Polo Acuña, and Christian Cwik dealt with the history of the Guajiro Natives during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Navarrete 2003; Magallanes 1975; Guerra Curvelo 1997, 2001; Candelier 1994; Perrin 1987; Polo Acuña 2000a, b, 2005; CWIK Christian 2014). Also I would like to mention the edition of documents of the Cabildo de Santa Marta between 1529 and 1640 by Antonino Vidal Ortega and Fernando Alvaro Baquero Montoya and for the history of the Wayuu during the nineteenth century again the work of José Polo Acuña (Polo Acuña 2011a, b) as well as Antonino Vidal Ortega and Baquero Montoya (2007). About the early history of the Miskitos, you find works written by Eugenia Ibarra Rojas, Karl Offen, Baron Pineda, Claudia García, Mary Helms, Michael Olien, Barbara Potthast Yuri Zapata Webb, and Christian Cwik (Ibarra Rojas 1999, 2002, 2008, 2011; Offen 2002; Pineda 2006; García 1996; Helms 1983; Olien 1983; Potthast-Jutkeit 1993; Zapata Webb 2006; CWIK Christian 2011–2012).

The Making of the Miskito and Wayuu People

Zambos are the result of the ethnic mixture between Africans and first natives. This is comparable with the genesis of the Mestizo. Where Zambo cultures emerged, large numbers of runaway slaves can be found. Runaway slaves or maroons escaped from their masters or rescued themselves from slave ships after rebellions or shipwrecks. To survive in the new and impassable surroundings, the maroons had to join Amerindian settlements (Thompson 2006). Within the settlements, their role differed from cases to case: they were enslaved, had to work as servants, intermingled with the indigenous groups, or even have been sold as slaves or into slavery. The first evidence about the existence of Zambos in maroon societies in the Americas can be found among the resistance communities of Chief Enriquillo in Santo Domingo (1519–1533), King Bayamo and President Filipinho in Panama (1532–1554), or King Miguel in Venezuela (1551–1554) (Lara 2006). But there were also white and even Asian people who have been displaced from colonial towns, fortresses, mines, plantations, farms, and ships.

Let us now take a closer look at the Wayuu on the Caribbean coast of Colombia and Venezuela and the Zambo-Miskito on the Caribbean coast of Honduras and Nicaragua – two examples of Africanized Amerindian societies in the Greater Caribbean. Both regions were never conquered by Spanish troops and therefore could develop independently. Around 1750, two centuries after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs and Incas, independent native people still controlled over a half of Iberoamerica (Weber 2002). The development of the communities as refuge for outlawed people, mainly of African origin, influenced the native societies of the two said regions heavily. The Africanization of the natives throughout the centuries transformed the allochthon societies. The new allochthon societies were based mostly on African and Amerindian and just a little bit on European heritage.

The Wayuu of the Guajira Peninsula

In 1536 the first Europeans began to settle on the Guajira Peninsula. The hidalgo Antonio de Chávez founded the first European settlement of Nuestra Señora de las Nieves in the delta of the Ranchería River by order of the German-speaking conqueror Nicolas Federmann (Muñoz Luengo 1949; Polo Acuña 2000a). First pearl exploitation started across Cabo de la Vela by the Welser, a German company from the present-day Bavarian town of Augsburg in 1537. Pearl traders from the Venezuelan island of Cubagua founded de town of Cabo de la Vela in 1538. Two of the founders, Rodrigo de Gabraleón and Juan de la Barrera, started to organize the economy and policy of the town through the decree of 27th of March 1539 (Otte Enrique 1977). The pearl (and salt) exploitation of the southern Caribbean began around 1508 in the area between the present-day Venezuelan islands of Margarita, Cubagua, and Coche and the Araya Peninsula (Bernáldez 1869). In Enrique Otte’s book Las perlas del Caribe: Nueva Cádiz de Cubagua, we can find some descriptions of the early enslavement of indigenous people and Africans as pearl divers on the island of Cubagua. After permanent attacks of Caribs from the Guianas and a heavy earthquake in 1539 which destroyed the center of Nueva Cádiz, the pearl traders and their slaves moved to Cabo de la Vela on the Guajira Peninsula.

Throughout the centuries, the different Amerindian groups of the South American coast resisted the Spanish conquerors. This was one of the reasons why the conquerors, after a period of thorough explorations of the sea- and landscapes, were only able to establish a few settlements (Turbaco 1509, Cumaná 1515, Santa Marta 1525, Coro 1526, Cartagena de Indias 1533 and Tolú 1534) before the foundation of Cabo de la Vela.

Among this generation of explorers, traders, and settlers were many of Portuguese origin with experiences in West Africa and the Afro-Atlantic islands. Some of them have been transculturated (The term “Transculturation” was introduced by the Cuban Anthropologist Fernando Ortiz (ORTIZ Fernando 1987, 11963).) and changed their appearance. They adopted African customs like skin scarification marks and tattoos, wore African dresses, and talked at least two African languages (Sweet 2003; Mark 2002; Brooks 2003). These Luso-Africans of European and African origin were called Lançados, Tangomaos, Pombeiros, Baquianos, or Imbangalas (Schorsch 2008; Queirós Mattoso 1982; Elbl 1986; Zeuske 2006). Many of them had a Jewish or a Muslim background. They negotiated with the most powerful African Kingdoms and intermarried with local African merchant families. Lançados developed important trading ports and villages on the Senegambian and Guinee river systems like Rufisque, Porto de Ale, Joala, Ziguinchor, Cacheu, Bolama, Porto da Cruz, Bissau, or even the famous port of Mina (Newitt 2005; Kagan and Morgan 2009). When they came to the Caribbean, they adapted quickly and negotiated with the American Native traders. In the case of the Guajira, they purchased “Amerindian slaves” from the different Carib-speaking traders for the pearl industries and silver and gold mining. The Colombian historian María Cristina Navarrete describes these slave raids in her article about rebellion and resistance of slaves between 1570 and 1615 (Navarrete 2003).

The history of the Guajira Peninsula remained throughout the sixteenth century a history of outlaw economies. The independence of the “Guajira societies” was based on different factors. The support by several native groups guaranteed the pearl elites (Señores de Canoas) of Cabo de la Vela their independence, and in reverse the allied indigenous groups preserved their own independence as well. Intermarriage strengthened the alliances between the two groups.

Besides the slave trade with natives, the demand for African salves increased during the 1550s. The import of thousands of African slaves began. Smugglers and interlopers from Africa and Europe guaranteed this supply. One of these smugglers was the English captain Sir John Hawkins from Plymouth. His father William Hawkins already founded around 1530 a family trading enterprise mainly based on slave trade between Europe, Africa, and Brazil. John Hawkins and his cousin Francis Drake continued this business. Piloted by Luso-African Atlantic Creoles (About the Portuguese Atlantic Creoles, who worked for John Hawkins Lançados as pilots see (Kelsey 2003).), Hawkins sold African slaves to the Señores de Canoas (a small group of about 15–30 men) in Cabo de la Vela and Río de la Hacha (present-day Riohacha) during the 1560s and 1570s. In 1568 Miguel de Castellanos had bought 144 African slaves from John Hawkins (Miranda Vázquez 1976). Among the chiefs of Cabo de la Vela, we find even an Africanized Baquiano (slave hunter) named Francisco de Castellanos as treasurer. Together with first natives of the region and several maroon groups, they controlled the illicit trade in indigenous and African slaves. The indigenous slaves were mostly captured in the Sierra Nevada mountains west of the Peninsula. The Guajira alliances sold the imported African slaves to the Neogrenadian Highlands via Valledupar or used them as slaves for their own pearl, lumber, divi-divi, and salt exploitation.

The end of the pearl exploitation in the 1580s led to a strong emigration from Cabo de la Vela to Río de la Hacha. However, most of the first natives and maroons stayed north and east of the Rancheria River where they controlled almost the entire Peninsula. After 1580, craftspeople and jewelers from different regions in the Caribbean reached the town of Río de la Hacha. María Eugenio Ángeles Martínez found out that a group of approximately 20 Señores de Canoas and 600 slaves of African ancestry were living in that town (Ángeles Martínez 1992). The Spanish colonial government in Maracaibo established a military post in Río de la Hacha and founded a council (cabildo) there. The colonial influence of Maracaibo and later Santa Marta on Río de la Hacha remained weak. On the contrary, the Señores de las Canoas used their intercultural relations with the first natives and maroons to dominate the town of Río de la Hacha, and they extended their influence on Maracaibo, Santa Marta, and even Cartagena de Indias (Navarrete 2003).

During the personal union between Spain and Portugal (1580–1640), the influence of Portuguese traders in the Americas grew fast. The establishment of an Inquisition Tribunal in Cartagena de Indias after 1610 was a reaction of the “old elites” against the economic activities of the Portuguese traders. From then on, all Portuguese were suspected as “Crypto Jews.” Inquisition documents of 1627 tell us the story of two Portuguese traders who dominated the pearl trade between Cartagena and Río de la Hacha: Gramaxo was suspected to be a Secret Jew (Ventura 2001). At the end of the sixteenth century, the Gramaxo family established an Atlantic network of slave trade between Angola, the Cape Verdean islands, the rivers of Guinea, Brazil, and Lisbon (Vila Vilar 1977). Antonio Núñez Gramajo was one of the pioneers in the contraband in pearls, slaves, salt, and Brazil wood between Río de la Hacha and the nearby island of Curacao, where the Dutch founded a colony in 1634. After the conquest of the islands of Curacao, Aruba, and Bonaire between 1634 and 1636, the independent Guajira became an important point of commercial interest for the Dutch West Indian Company which established on the island of Curacao a center of slave trade in the mid-seventeenth century.

At the same time, the Guajira Peninsula was still an area which had never been controlled by the Spaniards. Different maroon groups of Africanized indigenous people dominated the area of the Central Guajira around Maicao and blocked the main connections between Santa Marta, Río de la Hacha, and Valledupar with Maracaibo (Vidal Ortega and Baquero Montoya 2007). The less Africanized Amerindian clans controlled the entire Upper Guajira. Dutch traders from Curacao and English traders from Jamaica intensified their business with the independent groups and supported their war against the Spaniards. In the national archive in Willemstad on the island of Curacao, several documents about Jewish and New Christians merchants are demonstrating the trade networks between Curacao and the Guajira Peninsula as well as the Mosquito Coast and the isthmus of Darién (Langebaeck 2006). All of them were independent territories under the control of indigenous and Zambos.

The WIC government sent its cultural brokers to the Guajira Peninsula to trade with the indigenous chiefs and maroon captains as well as with outlawed European merchants. The close relations to the Dutch increased the economic situation for the “outlaw societies” and the possibilities to expand the so-called contraband economy. The illegal trade in firearms was the most successful business, not only from an economic point of view but also considering the possibilities of self-defense against attacks of Spanish troops.

Since the beginning of the eighteenth century, Great Britain intensified its colonial interest in the Americas. One part of British policy was the support of independent first natives and maroons in their war against Spanish colonialism, like the Dutch did too. This selective armament of Indigenous and maroons of the Guajira Peninsula promoted the process of alliances between the different indigenous groups and maroons. This development culminated in the birth of a new ethnic group: the Wayuu. We do find the notion Wayuu for the first time around 1750 (CWIK Christian, Muth Verena, Polo Acuña José, and Zeuske Michael, 2009). Before that time, only the name “Guajiros” existed in colonial maps and documents. In 1727, more than 2000 Guajiros attacked the troops of the Viceroyalty of New Granada. Other attacks followed in 1741, 1757, 1761, and 1768 (Barrera, Internet source). On the 2nd of May 1769, the Wayuu set the Spanish town of El Rincon afire, burning down the church and two Spaniards who had taken refuge in it. Supported by the English and Dutch, the Wayuu defended their independence and regained their territory.

Wayuu are organized in clans following matrilineal structures. Some of the clans are more “indigenous” than other clans which are more “African” or even “Europeans.” There are still distinct local and regional differences. Before slavery was abolished in the Dutch colonies in 1863, slaves escaped from Curacao, Bonaire, and Aruba to the South American coasts where these displaced individuals and groups joined the Wayuu. Despite the high percentage of intermingling with Afro-Caribbean and white European people, the Wayuu describe themselves as genuine first natives and as descendants of the Caribs. To this day most of Wayuu people deny any racial mixture with people of African descent.

The Miskito on the Mosquito Coast

Spanish colonialism failed completely on the Caribbean coast of Central America. At least until the end of the nineteenth century, not a single Spanish settlement could be established between Trujillo in present-day Honduras and the Chagres River in Panama. As part of the western Caribbean, the Caribbean coast of Central America is a region of intense Jamaican-British influence and a high degree of African-Amerindian mixture. Since the second half of the seventeenth century, these groups of Afro-Amerindian descent appear in different documents as “Zambos,” “mosquitos,” “moscos,” “zambo-mosquitos,” and “Zambos del Mosquito” (Rogers 2002). From an ethnohistorical point of view, Mary Wallace Helms had already discussed the question “Negro or Indian” in 1977 (Helms 1977; Ibarra Rojas 2007).

The name “Miskito” as notion for a tribe or a special indigenous group didn’t exist until the beginning of the seventeenth century. Some scholars like Barbara Potthast, Germán Romero, and Karl H. Offen doubted that the name Miskito refers to a river named “Moschitos,” “Moscomitos,” or “Mesquitos” located in the south of the Cape Gracias a Dios. We can find this name in Spanish maps of the years 1536, 1562, 1587, and 1600 as well as in Dutch maps of 1595 and 1613 (Potthast 1988; Romero Vargas 1995; Offen 2007). According to English sources from the Colonial Office, the term Miskito derived from the weapon musket. Therefore they called the indigenous people around the Cape Gracias a Dios “muskeetos” or “Indiens de Moustique (PRO CO 124/1f. 2 (Kew/London).). Missionaries like Fray Pedro de la Concepción called the first natives, who traded in firearms and other weapons with the English, “Guaianes.” In his dictionary “Español-Sumo, Sumo-Español,” the linguist Götz von Houwald determined the same group as “Wayah” (Von Houwald 1980).

Miskito chiefs were able to communicate in English and traveled with English buccaneers as sailors to places all over the world. In 1633 or 1634, the Puritans of the island of Old Providence invited the successor of the Miskito chief to London, where he spent 3 years (Ibarra Rojas 2011). Almost the entire well known “piracy literature” concerning the Mosquito Coast contains similar information like the writings of Pedro de la Concepción. The “pirate” M.W. who traded with the Miskito around 1695–1705 Olien (1983) mentioned in his report “The Mosquito Indian and his Gold River” that the Miskito chief Oldman who governed probably the region of Cape Gracias a Dios between 1655 and 1686 was fluent in English language and traveled even until Jamaica (M.W. 1732). The indigenous groups of the “mosquitos,” “Guaianes,” and “wayah” (we are talking about one or probably more tribes as ancestors of the later Miskitos) as well as other first native cultures (Carey 2002; Ibarra Rojas 2011) like the Hicacas, Panamcas, Towacas, Cackeras, Ulvas, Jicaques, Payas, Sumos, Cucras, Caribes, and Ramas together populated the region between Cape Cameron, San Juan River, and the Segovia mountains. We can conclude that the population of this region was not homogenous.

Some Dutch merchants who traded with the indigenous people of the Mosquito Coast were of Sephardic Jewish origin. One example is the famous “buccaneer” (Knight 2000) Abraham Blauvelt (alias Bluefield) who visited the Mosquito Coast several times between 1625 and 1640. With the conquest of Curacao in 1634, the Dutch West Indian Company (DWIC) developed the island as home base for all their activities in the western and southern Caribbean. To smuggle African slaves to Trujillo, Campeche, Veracruz, or even Cuba, Dutch ships had to pass the Central American shores where they often shipwrecked because of the shallow waters.

Long before slaves from Dutch and English slave ships survived the shipwrecks of the seventeenth century, the Spanish Crown had already imported some thousands African slaves to the silver mining areas of Honduras as well as to the plains of the Pacific Nicaraguan coast between 1530 and 1600. African slave labor was important in the Honduran mountains since the beginning of colonial economy. Any form of slavery produced maroonage. Also in the mining areas of Honduras thus find references to maroon groups close to Trujillo around 1540. (Conversation with Dra. Rina Caceres, History Professor at the University of Cost Rica during her visit to Cartagena in May 2010.) To survive in the inhospitable areas of the Mosquito Coast, the black runaways needed the support of local native groups. One of the results was of course ethnic mixture. This new Zambo-Miskito population produced changes in the demographic, social, and political structure of the first native cultures and affected the economic relations between the different Amerindian groups. Some first natives did not allow the runaways to settle among them; they even killed or enslaved some of them. Enslaved Africans intermingled with indigenous people, but this happened not before the next generation because slavery was not inheritable.

The rise of the slave trade during the seventeenth century influenced the African population everywhere in the Americas. Small trading companies and new groups of colonizers of Spanish and non-Spanish origin increased the importation of African slaves to the western Caribbean like to the mostly uninhabited Bay and Corn islands as well the island of Old Providence. In 1633 the Puritan settlers of Old Providence (Providence) established commercial relations with the indigenous people in the surroundings of the Cape Gracias a Dios (Ordahl Kupperman 1993). With the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Spanish colonial government of Guatemala, which dominated the Pacific coast of Nicaragua, supported the development of a well-developed plantation system. For a better management of the slave importation to Nicaragua, the Spanish extended the port of Trujillo. Maroon groups, mostly from Dutch ships, populated the mountains of the Río Dulce and the neighboring islands of Guanaja, Roatan, Hog, and Utila (AGCA A1. 4060.31537 (1645)). Despite a permanent process of intermingling during the first two centuries of European invasion, the Miskito still believe in myths of shipwrecking slave ships.

The already mentioned English slave trader M.W. wrote in 1699 about a group of runaway slaves rescued from a slave ship from Guinea which shipwrecked in 1639 on the coast close to the Río Coco (M.W. 1732). M.W. dated a second shipwreck in 1649. Lic. Ambrosio Tomás Santaella Melgarejo, an officer of the Audiencia of Guatemala, described the shipwreck of a slave ship in 1652. It is possible that the owner of this ship was the Portuguese Jewish slave trader Lorenzo Gramajo from Curacao, a son of the mentioned Antonio Núñez Gramaxo (or Gramajo). Pedro de Rivera reported in 1742 that the ship shipwrecked on the Mosquito Coast in 1652 (CWIK Christian 2011–2012). According to the text of Robert Hodgson senior, at least two Dutch slave ships shipwrecked on the southern section of the Mosquito Coast before he became Superintendent between 1749 and 1759 (Hodgson 1779). Also Barbara Potthast mentioned a Dutch slave ship, wrecked in 1710 (Potthast 1988). Probably the most famous slave shipwrecking was the one of 1641. In this year English buccaneers took over a Portuguese slave ship and left the booty on the Mosquito Coast close to the banks of the Río San Juan (Potthast-Jutkeit 1993). The Nicaraguan bishop Garret y Arlovi described in 1711 the “famous ship wreck” of 1641 as the birth of the Zambo-Miskito culture. He refers to a black man named Juan Ramón who told him the story. Ramón reported that about one third of the slaves who survived the shipwreck escaped and founded their own “state” of palenques (runaway slave communities). Further he told him about the several armed conflicts between the Amerindian groups and the African maroons belonging to the “state.” Bishop Garret y Arlovi described these Amerindian groups as “Caribs” (Peralta 1898). Finally the Africans defeated the indigenous tribes, and they escaped to the mountains of Segovia and Chontales. The Africans kidnapped Amerindian women, reproduced by intermarriage, and thus built the fundament for the Zambo-Miskito culture (Ibarra Rojas 2011).

Currently most of the Miskito of Nicaragua are regarding the shipwreck of 1641 as the birth of their nation. But not all Miskito are feeling like Zambo-Miskito due to their different decrees of intermingling with Africans as well as with white people. The Miskito who almost did not mix with the African maroons of the Coast were often called Tawira. Despite the physical differences, both groups shared a lot of similarities like famous Olaudah Equiano recorded already in 1773. Although the Miskito are practicing several African traditions (often without any knowledge that those traditions originally came from Africa), the Amerindian traditions predominate. The strongest feature of their shared identity until the present day is their language Miskito.

The degree of intermingling depended mainly on two factors: (1) the areas where, because of the shallow waters, most slave ships shipwrecked and (2) the intensity of Amerindian resistance against Africanization. We can establish the main areas of Zambo-Miskito population around Cape Gracias a Dios and Sandy Bay in the northern section and around the Pearl Lagoon in the southern section of the Mosquito Coast. According to the French buccaneer Raveneau de Lussan who visited the Mosquito Coast in 1688 the Zambo-Miskito settled largely in the valley of the Wanks River (modern Río Coco) (CWIK Christian 2011–2012). Also M.W. located their settlements on the banks of the mentioned river.

Due to the lack of census in the Mosquito Coast, we know neither how many Miskito lived there nor how big was the group of Zambo-Miskito. It is difficult to study the number of inhabitants of the regions outside of Spanish control like the Mosquito Coast, the Darién and the Talamanca mountains, the Petén, or the Guajira Peninsula. Even though it is difficult to study the number of inhabitants due to a lack of reliable data, it is not impossible (Muth 2012). Robert Hodgson who lived as Superintendent in Bluefields estimated in 1757 about 10–11,000 Miskito (Ibarra Rojas 2011). Exact data is only available for the British colony of Black River and its vicinity where around the year 1766, approximately 450 white men (mostly English settlers and soldiers), 4.400 African, and c. hundred native slaves as well as 10.000 Zambos and Miskito lived (Dawson 1983).

By the end of the seventeenth century, the leader of the Zambo-Miskito held titles like “General” and “Captain.” A known Zambo-Captain was Captain Kit who lived in the delta of the Coco River, where he controlled the river navigation (M.W. 1732) Author Eugenia Ibarra Rojas created a map of the Miskito settlements at the Coco River based on the information of M.W. (Ibarra Rojas 2011). Under the rule of the mulatto King Jeremy I. between 1687 and c. 1720, the term “mulatto” was used by M.W.; the Miskito developed Sandy Bay as their capital and held the title of “King” (M.W. 1732); Olien 1983). Within the political union of all Miskito, the Tawira held the titles of “Governor” and “Admiral.” During the eighteenth century, the Zambo-Miskito became more and more dominant. From the first decade until the official end of the Miskito kingdom in 1894, the function of the king was held by the Zambo-Miskito.

Displacement During the Long Twentieth Century

The quasi-independence of the Wayuu and Miskito opposed the still young republics in their efforts at territorial integrity. The governments of Nicaragua and Honduras as well as of Colombia and Venezuela failed in their individual attempts to bring these indigenous territories under state control, similar to the situation of the Spaniards before. During the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, the USA and its companies (in the first place the United Fruit and the Standard Fruit Company) initially invaded the areas previously dominated by the British. In doing so, they helped the Latin American states in conquering territories. In the case of the Miskito Coast, these companies forced the immigration of English-speaking West Indians most of whom have been Afro-Jamaicans. The areas of Bluefields and Pearl Lagoon especially became populated by West Indians. This led to the displacement of the native population during the first two decades. Also in Honduras the two already mentioned big US corporations have imported English speaking West Indians but their plantations where not established on Miskito territory. In the case of Honduras, the Black Caribs better known as Garifuna who settled northwest of the port city of Trujillo were displaced. Between 1880 and 1920, hundreds of Garifunas from Honduras immigrated mostly to the area of Pearl Lagoon, south of Sandy Bay Sirpi.

Richard M. Juang and Noelle Morrissette are claiming that the first Garifunas under the leadership of Joseph Sambola had already come to Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast in 1882 and probable founded the community of St. Vincent (Square Point). However, they mentioned no evidence for this thesis (Davidson 1980; Juang and Morrissette 2008). It is unclear whether this was a colonization project of a certain Joseph Sambola (the name refers to the denotation Zambo) or this group of Garifunas had escaped from Honduras because of internal wars. The main region for the immigrants was the Honduran coast east of Trujillo. The most important and largest Garifuna community of today is the town of Orinoco founded on the shores of the Pearl Lagoon in 1907. In an interview with Kensy Sambola in 2003 made by the author, Mrs. Sambola said that all Garifunas came to work for the Americans and were employed in cutting mahogany and working on sugar and banana plantations as well as saw mills. In contrast to the imported black West Indians, who became the majority population of the South of the Miskito Coast and became the “Black Creoles” of this coast, Garifunas and Miskitos had already lived in the immediate vicinity for centuries. A direct displacement by the Garifuna thus did not take place, because among other things immigration remained numerically low. Houses were typically of lumber and thatch, in the style of modem Miskito dwellings (Davidson 1980).

Immigration and the brutal method of territorial incorporation by the Nicaraguan military under the presidency of José Santos Zelaya finally led to the end of the autonomous kingdom in 1894. The last Miskito King Robert Henry Clarence abdicated in 1908 after the kingdom had been conquered bit by bit by 1894. The former Mosquito Coast was established as the Nicaraguan department of Zelaya and led to the displacement of many Miskito. In the first two decades after the abdication of King Robert Henry Clarence, Miskitos left the coastal areas and settled in the hinterland. The Jinotega Department in the north, where Miskitos had already settled before the mentioned displacement, became a refuge for many Miskitos from the coast. During the conflict in 1927–1933 between Augusto Sandino and the USA over the US occupation of Nicaragua, some Miskitos in the Jinotega region joined Sandino’s liberation army. After Sandino’s assassination in 1934, Miskitos became victims of Somoza’s National Guard purges. The regime established a harsh type of administration on the Miskito Coast that concerned itself mainly with law and order. In order to exploit the gold, silver, and platinum mines of the region, the regime promoted the migration of the Mestizo population of the Pacific coast to the east. Between 1945 and 1975, over hundred thousand moved into the mining areas of the “Atlantic Coast” (Sollis 1989).

All these developments produced new displacement among the Miskitos and Sumos of the region. A new problem for the Miskito population arose in 1960 when the International Court of Justice ruled in favor of Honduras in a border dispute between Honduras and Nicaragua by awarding it a portion of Nicaraguan territory north of the River. The loss of traditional lands along the River Coco became a major issue for the Miskitos. Subsistence food production was negatively affected, and malnutrition and hunger became a major problem during the 1960s. The crises of this period led to the displacement of about 5000 Miskitos who were forced to relocate in Nicaragua and to take Nicaraguan citizenship (Sollis 1989). During the 1970s, the conflict between the Spanish-speaking migrants from the Pacific and the Miskito escalated and resulted in some deaths prior to 1979. This conflict continued after the triumph of the Sandinista revolution in 1979 but hardly had to do with the ideological orientation of the socialist revolution led by the FSLN.

Around the same time, as in Nicaragua, namely, in 1893, the government of Colombia conquered the Wayuu territory but has been less successful (Paz Reverol 2000), because of the decentralized political structure of the 14 clans (Aapushana, Epieyu, Iguana, Jayaliyuu, Jusayuu, Pausayuu, Sapuana, Tijuana, Uliana, Uliyuu, Uraliyuu, Ulewana, Walepushana, and Walapuana) and their semi-nomadism (in particular, during periods of drought, the Wayuu have to move their animals to areas where they can get water stored in wells.) Officially the Guajira became an intendancy in 1898 and a commissary in 1911. A survey made by Coronel Rafael E. Benítez in 1874 calculated 38.000 inhabitants (included only 10 clans) on the Guajira Peninsula (Benítez 1957). In addition to territorial control over the peninsula, the governments of Colombia and Venezuela promoted the takeover of the successful trading network of the Wayuu which they criminalized by calling it contraband trade. Simultaneously with the efforts of national governments, the Catholic Church sought to be at influence, in the “civilization process” of the Wayuu. In 1887 Capuchin friars under Reverend Brother José María de Valdeviejas returned, and in 1905, Pope Pius X created the Vicariate of La Guajira to “civilize” the Wayuu.

In 1935 the government founded a square circular around the population of Uribia, in the center of the indigenous territory, which allowed them to control the interior of the peninsula and nearby ports. The declared aim was an advance for the colonization of the north of the Guajira Peninsula, but finally they failed. Nevertheless, the settlement area of Wayuu was severely restricted due to these measures.

During the 1960s, the cultivation of marijuana in the neighboring Sierra Nevada increased, and the Guajira Peninsula became the most important transportation corridor for the illegal trade. Especially knowledge of the landscape terrestrial and maritime had been in demand by the drug mafia; hence some Wayuu became popular collaborators. This did not change after the drug mafia switched to cocaine production and trade in the 1970s. As a result, the Guajira Peninsula developed into a battlefield of the anti-drug war, and displacement was the consequence.

Despite displacement, and according to a 1997 census in Colombia, the Wayuu population numbered approximately 144,003 and represented 20% of Colombia’s total Amerindian population and 48% of the population of the Department of La Guajira. This demonstrates their power of endurance. One of the reasons for this is the enormous maritime mobility of the Wayuu. Wayuu are using maritime routes to Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, San Andres, Providencia, Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire, and we can trace their tracks even to the Dominican Republic. The migration is often temporarily limited and depends not only on currents and winds but also on their economic ties and sometimes even their family relation. When the civil wars in Colombia broke out in the 1960s, these destinations became a temporarily refuge for the Wayuu.


Miskito and Wayuu per se are the result of displacement due to the Spanish Conquista from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries and the subsequent war of the nation states for territorial control and unrestricted exploitation of natural resources. As enemies of the colonial Spanish Government and later the National Government, they became partners of the enemies of the Spanish Colonial powers, namely, the English, French, and Dutch. Another feature of both groups is the high degree of mingling with other people persecuted by wars, conflicts, and trafficking in human beings, many of whom were escaping African slaves. Through cooperation with the abovementioned European players, they were able to defend their territory until the twentieth century. However, the maritime orientation of both groups also made them useful partners, even for the hostile colonial power of Spain and its successor states. Their territories remained largely independent and remained autonomous regions even after the formal conquest in the twentieth century.

After very slow military progress, the national and regional governments tried to force aggressive settlement policies in the twentieth century which produced a high grade of displacement. With the help of missionaries, both Catholic (Wayuu) and Moravian (Miskito), they tried to break the defense of groups which were not willing to integrate into the system as citizens. But ultimately even this strategy did not lead to success. Both groups remained ultimately resistant and open to cooperation with the enemy regardless of whether they were rebels like Augusto Sandino or counterrevolutionaries such as the Contras or are guerrillas like the ELN or the Colombian drug mafia.

In the case of the Miskito, the Sandinista Government of Nicaragua has seen no other way out than to legalize the already existing autonomy and therefore founded in 1985/1986 two autonomous regions: the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) today’s North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACN) and Autonomous Region of the South Atlantic (RAAS) today’s South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACS). Political autonomy such as the Miskitos have guaranteed whether by Venezuela nor Colombia, although autonomy is lived politically, legally and culturally due to their internal political organization.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of HistoryThe University of the West IndiesSt AugustineTrinidad and Tobago

Section editors and affiliations

  • Sérgio Luiz Cruz Aguilar
    • 1
  1. 1.Faculdade de Filosofia e CiênciasSao Paulo State UniversityMaríliaBrazil

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