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History, Pre-Columbian and Colonial Periods

Sir Richard Hawkins, Viceroyalty of New Spain, Spanish ports, Francisco Fernandez, Spanish colonies

At the end of the 15th century, western Nicaragua was inhabited by several indigenous peoples related by culture and language to those of central Mexico. They were primarily farmers who lived in towns, organized into small kingdoms. In eastern Nicaragua, a much smaller group of Native Americans that had migrated from Colombia and Panama lived a less sedentary life based on hunting and gathering.

Italian Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus sighted Nicaragua in 1502, but the first Spanish expedition, headed by Gil Gonzalez Davila, did not arrive until 20 years later. The conquest he began was completed from 1523 to 1524 by Francisco Fernandez de Cordoba, who founded the cities of Granada and Leon. The conquest proved disastrous for the native population. Many died from diseases carried to the region by Europeans, such as measles, to which they had no immunity. Many of the survivors were enslaved; an estimated 200,000 were shipped off to labor in the mines of Peru and other parts of Spain’s empire. Of an estimated 1 million indigenous people before the conquest, a 1548 census found only 11,137 Native Americans left in western Nicaragua.

For most of the colonial period Nicaragua was part of the Captaincy General, or Kingdom, of Guatemala. The kingdom was largely autonomous but was technically part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, the huge Spanish territory based in Mexico. Far from the regional center in Guatemala, Nicaragua became a colonial backwater that exported small amounts of indigo and cacao. Its potential as a transit route between the Pacific and Atlantic brought some trade, but it also attracted the attention of English buccaneers such as Sir Richard Hawkins, who plundered Nicaragua and other Spanish colonies in the 1590s.

The British began to extend their influence over the inhabitants of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast as early as 1633. In 1655 a British expedition sacked Granada, and 30 years later another looted Granada and Leon. The failure of a military expedition in 1780 ended British efforts to expand into western Nicaragua, but they retained control over the Miskito native peoples along the Caribbean coast, even creating a puppet Mosquitia Kingdom in 1687. British influence did not end until 1893.

In the mid-18th century Spain introduced commercial reforms into its American colonies. In an effort to expand trade, it allowed colonies to trade more freely with Spanish ports and one another, and this expanding trade promoted production of export crops. These policies, combined with a growing desire among colonists to control their own affairs, divided upper-class Nicaraguans into two factions: those favoring such reforms, including merchants centered around Leon and known as Liberals, and those opposed, called Conservatives, who were concentrated near Granada and included large landowners. This rivalry was a dominant element of Nicaraguan politics well into the 20th century.

Article key phrases:

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