Some legends say that the Miskito nation originated in the Miskito Keys, then took control of the Miskito Coast of Nicaragua and Honduras, more properly known as the Mosquitia. The keys first appeared on a European map in 1630, labeled the Musquitu Islands, ‘14 leagues from Cabo de Gracias’ (today known as Cabo Gracias a Dios), where the Miskitos first made contact with pirate captain Sussex Camock in 1633.
The Miskitos quickly grasped the potential of firearms and, in return for the new technology, aided in the sacking of Spanish strongholds up and down the Río San Juan and Río Coco. In 1687, the English monarchy was pleased enough to help found the Miskito monarchy, and by the mid-1800s, most of the Caribbean territory between central Honduras and Limón, Costa Rica, was under Miskito and British control. When the crown hosted King Jeremy in England, his tutors were surprised that he looked more African than Indian.
Miskito culture has historically embraced outsiders, and not always figuratively. Many trace their African roots to a Portuguese slave ship that wrecked on the keys in 1640, though waves of escaped slaves and West Indian banana workers are almost certainly part of the mix.
The Miskitos did not submit willingly to Nicaraguan rule in 1894, and their discontent at domination by the ‘Spaniards’ in Managua was brought to a head by one of the most horrific chapters of Sandinista rule. President Somoza had been somewhat popular in the region, mainly because he left the Miskito to get on with their business. However, being off the radar meant the region was seriously neglected and did not share in the profits from the exploitation of Nicaragua's natural resources.
Thus the Miskitos’ loyalty was split, and when the revolution triumphed, some joined the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (Sandinista National Liberation Front; FSLN)–backed group Misurasata (MIskito, SUmo, RAma, SAndinista & AslaTAlanka), hoping to help with the literacy campaign. Volunteers were soon informed, however, that the Sandinista-led government had decreed Spanish the official language, which few people spoke, much less read. The FSLN then declared the Mosquitia’s natural resources to be public property, 'to be exploited efficiently and reasonably.’ Tensions simmered.
At the same time, Somoza’s Guardia Nacional regrouped in the Mosquitia. The Sandinistas got intelligence that they would be meeting in San Carlos on December 23, 1981, and sent 7000 troops to evacuate the people, burn the houses, kill the animals and destroy the wells. Every single town on the Río Coco was burned to the ground, and no one knows how many civilians died. It is remembered as Red Christmas.
Some 20,000 people became refugees, moving to Honduras, Bilwi, San José de Bocay and what’s now known as Tasba Pri ('Free Land'), the impoverished string of roadside towns that stretches from Rosita to Bilwi.
The Sandinistas backpedaled and apologies were issued, but it was too late. In 1987, the National Autonomy Law granted the RAAN and RAAS regions official independence in response to local pressure. The major international gold mine in Las Minas is not part of the autonomous zone, however, even though it is in the center of the region. Anomalies such as this have led some locals to believe that the central government legislated provisions so it could continue to exploit the region’s natural resources, and not be held responsible for providing much-needed infrastructure.
After the war, former Contras and Misurasata members formed Yapti Tasba Masraka Nanih Aslatakanka (Yatama; ‘Descendants of Mother Earth’), a political party that gets the vast majority of the indigenous vote in every election. With the return of the FSLN to power, Yatama leaders, many of whom are former Contras, divided their supporters by aligning themselves with the Sandinistas before withdrawing from the government, citing electoral fraud in the region.
In 2015, violence broke out in the region, with Miskito villagers claiming their lands were being usurped by mestizo farmers and that the agricultural frontier was advancing deep into their ancestral lands. Regular battles between mestizo colonos (colonizers) and Miskito villagers near Waspam led to deaths on both sides.
To add fuel to the fire, Yatama leader Brooklyn Rivera was stripped of his place in parliament by the Sandinista government, which claims that he was personally involved in illegal land sales. Rivera says the decision is political payback for withdrawing from the government.
With the main indigenous political party and the government once again at odds and no solution to the land disputes in sight, the pueblo Miskito remains as rebellious as ever, as evidenced by the ongoing protests throughout the region. The widespread anti-government protests of 2018 only served to further alienate people here from President Ortega's vision of Nicaragua, and you'll see hardly any red-and-black FSLN flags flying in Bilwi or anywhere in the region for that matter.
Lobster Divers of the RAAN
Lobster fishing is big business and one of main sources of income for the impoverished communities of the RAAN region. However, while in southern parts of Caribbean Nicaragua lobsters are caught using large wooden traps, off the shores of Bilwi they are collected in a far more perilous manner.
They are harvested by hand by divers using rudimentary equipment and a long steel hook. While traditionally lobsters were found around shallow reefs not too far offshore, overfishing means divers now have to go further out and dive deeper to catch their quota.
With little training and scant regard for safety procedures, young Miskito men launch themselves from wooden canoes and dive down to dangerous depths. Most go down with just an old oxygen tank – no pressure or depth gauges and no watch. And they repeat the feat again and again.
Thousands have suffered decompression sickness, scores have died and hundreds more been left disabled. But despite the risks, there is no shortage of applicants looking to get on the boats. Diving remains one of the few well-paying jobs for local residents with little formal education in a place where unemployment rates are outrageously high.