Pirates of the Rio San Juan
By Alex Egerton
As early as 1665, pirates ruled Nicaragua’s waterways, sacking Spanish colonial towns and founding new ones. These buccaneers played an integral role in Nicaragua’s colorful history, and relics from their travels are still being uncovered today.
European pirates were some of the first tourists to the region that we now know as Nicaragua. They were often encouraged by their mother countries to wreak havoc on Spanish communities for political gain in the New World. Privateers set up headquarters in the secluded lagoons of the Atlantic Coast and on the tranquil beaches offshore, where they could divide their plunder, repair their boats and relax after some serious pillaging. Henry Morgan (c. 1635-1688), arguably the most infamous marauder of them all, was said to be particularly fond of both Pearl Lagoon and the Corn Islands.
Local legend has it that pirates buried vast quantities of treasure on these islands, and that various sunken ships – like the wreckage of the 400 year-old Spanish Galleon just off Waula Point - still remain undiscovered in the shallow, crystal-clear waters nearby. However, material wealth seems trivial when compared to the precious chronicles of Nicaragua’s past, which is perhaps the area’s most significant treasure of all.
HENRY MORGAN AND THE SACKING OF GRANADA
Without a doubt, one of the most significant city ever to be seized by pirates was the wealthy trading hub of Granada. Back in the 17th century, Granada was the most important and prosperous city in Central America; it was a place of grand architecture and even grander gold reserves waiting to be shipped back to Europe. Moreover, the town’s strategic position on Lake Nicaragua made it vitally important to the Spanish Empire – and an irresistible target for pirates.
One of the first major raids on Granada was planned and executed by Captain Morgan in 1665. Morgan had set sail 18 months earlier from Port Royal, Jamaica with four other captains on a gold seeking mission along the Spanish Main. The group first attacked Villa Hermosa in Mexico and Trujillo in Honduras before setting their sights on the biggest prize of all: Granada.
Morgan and the other captains sailed into the mouth of the San Juan River, where they hid their large ships and headed up the river in pilfered wooden canoes. In order to avoid contact with the Spanish, they paddled upriver through the dark hours of the night and rested during the day.
Once Morgan and his crew reached Lake Nicaragua (Lago Cocibolca), they continued across the sweeping inland waterway to take Granada completely by surprise. They remained in the city for less than a day before setting it ablaze and retreating all the way back to the Caribbean, purportedly with roughly 500,000 sterling silver pounds in their possession.
WILLIAM DAMPIER AND THE MISKITOS
Another pirate to make history in the area was legendary British buccaneer William Dampier (1652-1715). He was an expert cartographer and one of the first explorers to make accurate maps of Nicaragua and the Caribbean. An anthropologist at heart, Dampier was also one of the first to describe the indigenous Miskito population for history books. In A New Voyage Round the World (first published in 1697), he wrote:
“They are tall, well- made, raw -bon'd, lusty, strong, and nimble of Foot, long - visaged, lank black Hair, look stern, hard favour'd, and of a dark Copper- colour Complexion. They are but a small Nation or Family, and not 100 Men of them in Number, inhabiting on the Main on the North-side, near Cape Gratia Dios; between Cape Honduras and Nicaragua.”
The Miskitos greatly impressed the pirate captain with their hunting, fishing and fighting skills, and Dampier decided that these locals would make handy allies in raids along the Spanish Main. In 1681, he brought aboard a number of local Miskito men in preparation for his successful attacks on Spanish settlements in Panama.
Over the years groups of Miskito men joined the crews of other European vessels that traveled throughout the region and beyond. This early alliance between marauders and the Miskito communities would eventually lead to the establishment of a formal British protectorate over the entire Caribbean region of present-day Nicaragua and Honduras.
DEFENDING THE RIO SAN JUAN
In the years that followed, pirates continued to attack Granada, repeatedly destroying its infrastructure and making off with large amounts of gold. Even the inhabitants of Ometepe Island were affected when pirates stopped there en route to Granada, stealing food and abducting local women.
Faced with the repeated destruction of their towns, in 1673 the Spanish began construction of a castle above the wildest rapids on the Rio San Juan. By the time the impressive structure, El Castillo de La Immaculada Concepción, was finished two years later, it was defended by dozens of cannons and around 10,000 weapons. Along with other strongholds constructed along the river, El Castillo effectively suppressed pirate forays on Lake Nicaragua. It remained under Spanish control for more than a century until British naval forces finally captured the facility.
But the construction of El Castillo couldn’t stop pirate attacks on Nicaragua's colonial towns altogether. In 1685, a group of French and British pirates made a landfall on the Pacific coast and marched on Granada, sacking the city and burning it to the ground yet again. A couple months later they landed further up the coastline and marched on Nicaragua’s other important colonial center, León, which they raided and also left in flames.
Pirates were eventually run out of Nicaragua waters, but even today evidence of their legacy remains all over the country. No matter where you stray in your travels, there is a fair chance you will be following in the footsteps of some rather famous – or more accurately, infamous – company.