The Miskito Kingdom: The third power in Central America

While it is easy to see colonial American history as the straightforward clash of European Empires, fighting over land and resources, indigenous Americans often played pivotal roles and none more so than the Miskito in Central America. As Britain and Spain vied for dominance, the Miskito exploited imperial rivalries for their own benefit and emerged as a power that could make or break the fortunes of either power in Central America during the 18th century.

This strength was based on the Miskito’s military prowess. The Miskito frequently outnumbered local European forces (they could field up to around 2000 fighters), they had an intricate knowledge of local terrain, they were exceptional fighters and were resistant to the tropical diseases that so commonly decimated European soldiers sent to the tropics. They were also feared for their skill at navigating the various rivers that criss-crossed Central America, crossing rapids and rivers deemed impassable by Europeans. This allowed them to strike and withdraw with incredible speed and unpredictability.

A modern picture of the San Juan river in Nicaragua, one of the largest water routes in 18th century Central America. Source: Audley travel.com

With these assets they initially became firm allies of the pirates that cruised around the Caribbean in the 17th century and later the British in general, bonding over the plunder gained from raiding Spanish settlements. When the British set up a contraband trade in central America they depended on the Miskito to defend their settlements from Spanish assaults. The Miskito also maintained their established raiding practices taking indigo, beef, chocolate and precious metals and trading them with for European goods such as guns, machetes and rum. The most valuable prize of all were human captives, which the Miskito would then sell to the British to be used as slaves in Jamaica.

These military and commercial contracts had a profound impact on the Miskito, affecting their culture and political organisation. Miskito leaders began to accept commissions from the British and their leaders began to use European titles as markers of their authority, as well as adopting British names. It was common to find Miskito with names like Isaac, George and William, as well as using titles such as captain and colonel. They also valued European clothing and other finery, such as handkerchiefs, using their appearance as way to denote leadership.

An 18th century British musket, commonly known as ‘Brown Bess’. The British traded such weapons to the Miskito who in turn used them to cement their military dominance. Source: Missouri History Museum

Access to these new goods improved Miskito military strength and led to the concentration of political power into fewer individuals. Eventually four major leaders with European titles emerged: the King, General, Governor and Admiral of the Miskito. These four leaders theoretically governed the entire Miskito nation with the king at the top and formed what has been called by contemporaries and historians ‘The Miskito Kingdom’. While not resembling a kingdom that would be recognised in Europe, the first crown was apparently a ‘Laced hat’ and the four leaders though frequently allies were largely independent of each other,  it helped the Miskito organise larger groups and gave them an air of legitimacy in international politics.

The British role in creating the Miskito Kingdom had led some to claim that they were simply British puppets. The British crowned Miskito Kings, initially in Jamaica and then in Belize, and gave commissions for the various leadership positions. Most importantly they also sent yearly presents to the Miskito, distributed by their Superintendent specially appointed to the task. These factors can present an image of a leadership structure being imposed on the Miskito who were essentially being paid in guns, rum and other items to do the bidding of the British.

A map showing the rough extent of the ‘Miskito Kingdom’ and the territories of its principal leaders around 1760. By Michael D. Olien Source: ‘General, Governor and Admiral: Three Miskito Lines of Succession’, Ethnohistory, vol. 45 No. 2 (1998).

This, however, was far from the case as the Miskito proved very capable of pursuing their own interests. The Miskito threatened the contraband trade through their raiding of the Spanish and other indigenous groups who were integral to moving goods. Sometimes they would then demand tribute in return for allowing it to continue or would pressure the British for more gifts in order to get them to stop. Similarly, the Miskito would often raid Spanish towns when Britain and Spain were at peace, ignoring British protestations unless, of course, the British offered even more gifts. They also fought on their own terms, even against the Spanish. The Miskito were known to abandon their British allies if badly treated or if they thought the campaign was going to fail. British failure to properly accommodate their indigenous allies scuppered several of their campaigns.

The Miskitu Indians’ Raid upon Chiriqui,” in John Cockburn’s The Unfortunate Englishmen; or, A Faithful Narrative of the Distresses and Adventures of John Cockburn and Five other English Mariners (London, 1740). Source: John Carter Brown Library, The Americas on fire exhibition

The British liked to portray their alliance with the Miskito as nigh-unbreakable but this was often far from the case, and the Spanish knew it. Even when superintendents were liked by the Miskito, they were careful not to pressure them for fear of upsetting them and disrupting their alliance. The Spanish were fully aware of these weaknesses and occasionally tried to win Miskito leaders over to their side. Such instances were met with panic by the British who got other Miskito leaders to reign in anyone thinking of switching sides.

The Miskito held the balance of power in Central America, they were the only thing stopping the Spanish from ejecting the British by force and if they had sided with the Spanish there would be little the British could have done to stop them. That imperial ambitions in Central America were subject to the will of a people that the British and Spanish considered barbarians did not sit well with the Europeans. The British could not control them, and the Spanish could not defeat them, and this would only change in the late nineteenth century in a vastly different world. This has been a brief survey of a deep and complex history, but it is worth considering how smaller groups in history have disproportionate to their means; sometimes through little more than sheer grit and belligerence.

By Dr Ben Fuggle

After an unusual set of life events that led to him living in Latin America and the Caribbean for a year as a child, his fascination with that part of the world never quite left him. As a result, when given a free choice of what to study he immediately returned to Latin America and now does his best to study Latin America, the Caribbean and their connections with the UK and Spain. It all might just be an elaborate excuse to study pirates constantly.