A History of Nicaragua from the Precolonial Period to National Independence

Iglesia de la Merced (Granada, Nicaragua) / Photo by Mat Honan, Wikimedia Commons

Throughout its history, Nicaragua has suffered from political instability, civil war, poverty, foreign intervention, and natural disasters.

By Tim Merrill

Precolonial Period

Musical and religious Chibcha culture / Creative Commons

Present-day Nicaragua is located south of the pre-Columbian culture areas of the Maya and the Aztec in Mexico and northern Central America. Although conventional wisdom states that the culture of lower Central America did not reach the levels of political or cultural development achieved in Mexico and northern Central America, recent excavations in Cuscutlatán, El Salvador may prove that assumption erroneous.

Two basic culture groups existed in precolonial Nicaragua. In the central highlands and Pacific coast regions, the native peoples were linguistically and culturally similar to the Aztec and the Maya. The oral history of the people of western Nicaragua indicates that they had migrated south from Mexico several centuries before the arrival of the Spanish, a theory supported by linguistic research. Most people of central and western Nicaragua spoke dialects of Pipil, a language closely related to Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec. The culture and food of the peoples of western Nicaragua also confirmed a link with the early inhabitants of Mexico; the staple foods of both populations were corn, beans, chili peppers, and avocados, still the most common foods in Nicaragua today. Chocolate was drunk at ceremonial occasions, and turkeys and dogs were raised for their meat.

Most of Nicaragua’s Caribbean lowlands area was inhabited by tribes that migrated north from what is now Colombia. The various dialects and languages in this area are related to Chibcha, spoken by groups in northern Colombia. Eastern Nicaragua’s population consisted of extended families or tribes. Food was obtained by hunting, fishing, and slash-and-burn agriculture. Root crops (especially cassava), plantains, and pineapples were the staple foods. The people of eastern Nicaragua appear to have traded with and been influenced by the native peoples of the Caribbean, as round thatched huts and canoes, both typical of the Caribbean, were common in eastern Nicaragua.

This Pataky ceramic type portrays a seated shaman transformed into his/her jaguar spirit companion form. / Walters Art Museum, Wikimedia Commons

When the Spanish arrived in western Nicaragua in the early 1500s, they found three principal tribes, each with a different culture and language: the Niquirano, the Chorotegano, and the Chontal. Each one of these diverse groups occupied much of Nicaragua’s territory, with independent chieftains (cacicazgos) who ruled according to each group’s laws and customs. Their weapons consisted of swords, lances, and arrows made out of wood. Monarchy was the form of government of most tribes; the supreme ruler was the chief, or cacique, who, surrounded by his princes, formed the nobility. Laws and regulations were disseminated by royal messengers who visited each township and assembled the inhabitants to give their chief’s orders.

The Chontal were culturally less advanced than the Niquirano and Chorotegano, who lived in well-established nation-states. The differences in the origin and level of civilization of these groups led to frequent violent encounters, in which one group would displace whole tribes from their territory, contributing to multiple divisions within each tribe. Occupying the territory between Lago de Nicaragua and the Pacific Coast, the Niquirano were governed by chief Nicarao, or Nicaragua, a rich ruler who lived in Nicaraocali, now the city of Rivas. The Chorotegano lived in the central region of Nicaragua. These two groups had intimate contact with the Spanish conquerors, paving the way for the racial mix of native and European stock now known as mestizos. The Chontal (the term means foreigner) occupied the central mountain region. This group was smaller than the other two, and it is not known when they first settled in Nicaragua.

In the west and highland areas where the Spanish settled, the indigenous population was almost completely wiped out by the rapid spread of new diseases, for which the native population had no immunity, and the virtual enslavement of the remainder of the indigenous people. In the east, where the Europeans did not settle, most indigenous groups survived. The English, however, did introduce guns and ammunition to one of the local peoples, the Bawihka, who lived in northeast Nicaragua. The Bawihka later intermarried with runaway slaves from Britain’s Caribbean possessions, and the resulting population, with its access to superior weapons, began to expand its territory and push other indigenous groups into the interior. This Afro-indigenous group became known to the Europeans as Miskito, and the displaced survivors of their expansionist activities were called the Sumu.

Colonial Period, 1522-1820

Drawing of Gil González Dávila, 1526 / Wikimedia Commons

Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast was first seen by Spanish explorers in 1508. It was not until 1522, however, that a formal military expedition, under Gil González Dávila, led to the Spanish conquest of Nicaraguan territory. González launched an expedition from Panama, arriving in Nicaragua through Costa Rica. After suffering both illness and torrential rains, he reached the land governed by the powerful chief Nicoya, who gave González and his men a warm welcome. Soon thereafter, Nicoya and 6,000 of his people embraced the Roman Catholic faith. González continued his exploration and arrived in the next settlement, which was governed by a chief named Nicaragua, or Nicarao, after whom the country was named. Chief Nicaragua received González as a friend and gave him large quantities of gold. Perhaps to placate the Spanish, Nicaragua also converted to Roman Catholicism, as did more than 9,000 members of his tribe. All were baptized within eight days. Confident of further success, González moved on to the interior, where he encountered resistance from an army of 3,000 Niquiranos, led by their chief, Diriagén. González retreated and traveled south to the coast, returning to Panama with large quantities of gold and pearls.

In 1523 the governor of Panama, Pedro Arias Dávila (Pedrarias), appointed Francisco Hernández de Córdoba to lead the Nicaraguan conquest effort. Hernández de Córdoba led an expedition in 1524 that succeeded in establishing the first permanent Spanish settlement in Nicaragua. He quickly overcame the resistance of the native peoples and named the land Nicaragua. To deny González’s claims of settlement rights and prevent his eventual control of the region, Hernández de Córdoba founded the cities of León and Granada, which later became the centers of colonial Nicaragua. From León, he launched expeditions to explore other parts of the territory. While the rivalry between Hernández de Córdoba and González raged, Pedrarias charged Hernández de Córdoba with mismanagement and sentenced him to death. González died soon thereafter, and the Spanish crown awarded Pedrarias the governorship of Nicaragua in 1528. Pedrarias stayed in Nicaragua until his death in July 1531.

Spain showed little interest in Nicaragua throughout this period, mostly because it was more interested in exploiting the vast riches found in Mexico and Peru. By 1531 many Spanish settlers in Nicaragua had left for South America to join Francisco Pizarro’s efforts to conquer the wealthy regions of the Inca Empire. Native Nicaraguans settlements also decreased in size because the indigenous inhabitants were exported to work in Peruvian mines; an estimated 200,000 native Nicaraguans were exported as slaves to South America from 1528 to 1540. Many Spanish towns founded in Nicaragua during the first years of the conquest disappeared. By the end of the 1500s, Nicaragua was reduced to the cities of León, located west of Lago de León (today Lago de Managua), and Granada, located on Lago de Nicaragua.

Colonial Rule

Map of the Viceroyalty of New Spain in 1800. Not including the viceroyalty’s overseas territories in the Pacific Ocean / Giggette, Wikimedia Commons

Although Nicaragua had been part of the audiencia (audience or court) of Panama, established in 1538, it was transferred to the Viceroyalty of New Spain when Spain divided its empire into two viceroyalties in 1543. The following year, the new audiencia of Guatemala, a subdivision of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, was created. This audiencia extended from southern Mexico through Panama and had its capital first at Gracias, Honduras, and then at Antigua, Guatemala after 1549. In 1570 the audiencia was reorganized and reduced in size, losing the territory of present-day Panama, the Yucatán, and the Mexican state of Tabasco.

The five-man audiencia, or court, was the highest governmental authority in the territory. During most of the colonial period, the president of the audiencia held the additional titles of governor and captain general (hence, the alternative name of Captaincy General of Guatemala) and was charged with administrative, judicial, and military authority. The governor, or captain general, was appointed by the Spanish king and was responsible to him; in fact, the colony was sometimes referred to as the Kingdom of Guatemala.

The audiencia was divided into provinces for administrative purposes, and the leading official in each province was generally called an alcalde mayor, or governor. León was the capital of the Province of Nicaragua, housing the local governor, the Roman Catholic bishop, and other important appointees. An elite of creole (individuals of Spanish descent born in the New World) merchants controlled the economic and political life of each province. Because of the great distance between the centers of Spanish rule, political power was centered with the local government, the town council or ayuntamiento, which ignored most official orders from the Spanish crown.

Throughout the seventeenth century, trade restrictions imposed by Spain, natural disasters, and foreign attacks devastated the economy of the Captaincy General of Guatemala. The local government neglected agricultural production, powerful earthquakes in 1648, 1651, and 1663, caused massive destruction in the Province of Nicaragua, and from 1651 to 1689, Nicaragua was subjected to bloody incursions from English, French, and Dutch pirates. In 1668 and 1670, these buccaneers captured and destroyed the city of Granada, center of the province’s agricultural wealth. The Captaincy General of Guatemala was generally neglected by Spain. Within the captaincy general, the Province of Nicaragua remained weak and unstable, ruled by persons with little interest in the welfare of its people.

Mosquito (Miskito) tribe / Wikimedia Commons

In the late 1600s, the Miskito, who lived in Nicaragua’s Caribbean lowlands, began to be exploited by English “filibusters” (irregular military adventurers) intent on encroaching on Spanish landowners. In 1687 the English governor of Jamaica named a Miskito who was one of his prisoners, “King of the Mosquitia Nation,” and declared the region to be under the protection of the English crown. This event marked the beginning of a long rivalry between Spanish (and later Nicaraguan) and British authorities over the sovereignty of the Caribbean coast, which effectively remained under British control until the end of the nineteenth century.

After more than a century of exploiting the mineral wealth of the New World, the Spanish realized that activities other than mining could be profitable. The Province of Nicaragua then began to experience economic growth based on export agriculture. By the early 1700s, a powerful elite was well established in the cities of León, Granada, and, to a lesser extent, Rivas.

Events in Spain in the early 1700s were to have long-lasting repercussions in Nicaragua. The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14) resulted in the Bourbons replacing the Hapsburgs on the Spanish throne. The Hapsburgs had supported strict trade monopolies, especially in the Spanish colonies. The Bourbons were proponents of more liberal free-trade policies. Throughout the captaincy general, groups were hurt or helped by these changes; the factions supporting changes in trading policy came to be known as liberals while those who had profited under the old rules were known as conservatives. Liberals generally consisted of growers with new crops to sell, merchants, or export interests. Conservatives were generally composed of landowners who had profited under the old protectionism and who resisted new competition. In time, conservatism also became associated with support for the Roman Catholic Church; the liberals took a more anticlerical stand.

Throughout the captaincy general, cities came to be associated with one or the other of these political factions, depending on the basis of the economy of each. Typically, each of the five provinces of the captaincy general had one city that championed the liberal cause and another that spoke for the conservatives. In Nicaragua, León was primarily involved in exporting animal products such as leather and tallow and soon became the center for free-trading liberalism. The conservative elite in Granada, however, had made their fortunes under the old protectionist system and resisted change. Competition between the two cities over influence on colonial policy became violent at times, and each city supported armed groups to defend itself and its ideas. In time, the hatred and violence between the two cities and the two factions became institutionalized, and often the original ideological difference was forgotten. Independence in the next century only exacerbated the struggle as it eliminated Spain as a referee. The violent rivalry between liberals and conservatives was one of the most important and destructive aspects of Nicaraguan history, a characteristic that would last until well into the twentieth century. Politicians frequently chose party loyalty over national interest, and, particularly in the 1800s, the nation was often the loser in interparty strife.

Liberal-conservative rivalry was not only a domestic issue but also an international one. The other provinces in the captaincy general, and later the successor nations, had similar liberal and conservative factions. Each faction did not hesitate to support its compatriots, often with armed force, in another province. After independence, the intercountry interference continued unabated; conservatives or liberals in each of the five successor states frequently sent troops to support like factions in its neighboring countries. This constant intervention and involvement in its neighbors’ affairs was a second and equally pernicious characteristic of Nicaraguan politics throughout its independent existence.

National Independence, 1821-1857

Wikimedia Commons

Spain’s control over its colonies in the New World was threatened in the early 1800s by the struggle for national independence throughout the entire region. Weakened by the French invasion in 1794 and internal upheaval, Spain tried to hold onto its richest colonies, which led to even further neglect of its poorer Central American territories. Resentment toward the Spanish-born elite (peninsulares–those born in Spain and the only persons allowed to administer Spanish colonies) grew among Nicaraguan creoles. The first local movements against Spanish rule in Central America occurred in 1811, when the Province of El Salvador staged a revolt. Peninsular authorities were deposed and replaced by creoles, who demanded less repressive laws. Although the Province of Nicaragua officially refused to join the rebellion, a popular uprising soon broke out. Violence and political rivalry prevailed in all of the Central American colonies during the ensuing decade.

Establishment of an independent Nicaragua came in stages. The first stage occurred in 1821 when the Captaincy General of Guatemala formally declared its independence from Spain on September 15, which is still celebrated as independence day. At first the captaincy general was part of the Mexican Empire under General Agustín de Iturbide, but efforts by Mexico to control the region were resisted all over Central America. Separatist feelings throughout the isthmus grew, however, and five of the United Provinces of Central America–Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, andd Nicaragua–declared their independence from Mexico in July 1823. The sixth province, Chiapas, opted to remain with Mexico. Under a weak federal government, each province created its own independent internal administration. Inadequate communication and internal conflicts, however, overshadowed efforts to institutionalize the federation for the next decade and a half. Efforts to centralize power led to civil war between 1826 and 1829. The federation finally dissolved in 1837, and a Constituent Assembly formally declared Nicaragua’s independence from the United Provinces of Central America on April 30, 1838.

Originally published by the U.S. Library of Congress, Nicaragua: A Country Study (1993), under an open public domain license.