The History of Nicaragua

Annalou Mack

The name Nicaragua comes from Nicarao, the name of a chief of one of the indigenous tribes that lived around Lake Nicaragua in the sixteenth century. When the Spanish arrived in the area they found several indigenous tribes. On the Pacific side were the Maribios, Mangues, Chorotegas and Nicaraguas who had settled near the lakes and volcanoes establishing villages. Theirs was an agricultural society based on the cultivation of corn and their culture was similar to that of Mexico. On the Caribbean or Atlantic side were people that may have migrated from Venezuela. These tribes were the Sumos, Miskitos and Ramas who led a more nomadic life and did not have a sophisticated political and social organization.

Captain Gil Gonzalez de Avila, in 1523, was the first Spaniard to enter Nicaragua. At first they were welcomed by the tribal chief, Nicarao, but chief Diriangen was not as friendly and attacked the group. Gonzalez was able to safely escape to his ships. A year later, in 1524, Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba succeeded in conquering the region and founding the cities of Granada and Leon. By 1542 Spanish authority was centralized and a system of taxation established to collect taxes from the local people.

For nearly three centuries the country was ruled by Spain until the Nicaraguans were able to gain their independence in 1821. For a short time they became a part of the Mexican Empire and later were a member of a federation of independent Central American provinces before becoming an independent republic in 1838.

Recently an ancient civilization was discovered, by accident, in Nicaragua. Archeologists have found evidence of an ancient town and several villages which were developed about 1,500 B.C. and existed for a thousand years. This site, near the town of Kukra Hill, close to the Caribbean coast, has been named El Cascal de Flor de Pino. Found on the site are petroglyphs, pottery, monuments and many huge columns that perhaps were used at burial sites. The society developed at this site was similar to the Mayan civilization to the north, but predates the Mayan.

The researchers found three large platforms, each from 20 to 25 feet high, surrounding a large central plaza around which are the remains of 22 other large buildings. It is not known who built the city or who its inhabitants were. Speculation is that they were ancestors of the Rama Indians, some of whom still live in the area.

It is believed that, since they lived along the coast, the people may have been fishermen and traders. This city apparently came to a violent end between 400 and 440 A. D. Radiocarbon dating of the ashes and carbon on the top archeological layer of the city and villages indicate they were burned. This may have been due to raids by the Teotihuacans or by pirates.

The Ometepe Archaeological Project, a site being studied on the island of Ometepe, the largest island on Lake Nicaragua, has been in progress for several years. They have found that the island has been inhabited continuously since about 2000 to 500 B.C.

Other important archeological sites are the Garrobo Grande Pyramid in Chontales State; El Bosque Cave where ancient human and animal remains are thought to date back more than 30,000 years; and San Rafael del Sur in Managua State where a whale fossil was found which may be between 1.5 to 5 million years old.

In the seventeenth century Nicaragua was frequently visited by pirates. Sometimes it was for trading purposes and at other times it was to pillage and plunder. Granada was a favorite target of several pirates including Captain Morgan in the 1660s. He would stop at Skull Island to take on fresh water and food then continue on to Granada where he sacked and burned the city. Other pirates who hit Granada were the famous Jamaican pirate, Jean David, in 1665. Then in 1670 it was plundered by Gallardillo. William Dampier burned the entire city in 1685. Captains Jackman and Freeman, John Morris and David Marteen also pillaged Granada.

Leon did not escape the brutality of the pirates as it was hit with surprise attacks more than once. On August 21, 1685, the French pirate, William Dampier, looted the city and burned the cathedral, a hospital, a school, several churches and homes. Bluefields became the home of Abraham Blauvelt in the mid 1600s. He had been a commander in the Dutch fleet carrying out many successful pirate raids until he was removed from service and he \"retired\" to Nicaragua.

Some speculate that there are pirate ships containing precious cargo buried in the waters around the Corn Islands since this was a popular area during the hey day of the pirates.

Both Granada on Lake Nicaragua and Leon, east of Lake Managua, were founded in 1524 by Hernandez de Cordoba as the first permanent Spanish settlements in Nicaragua. For a hundred years following Nicaraguan independence, these twin cities vied with each other for power. The stronghold of the Liberals was in the city of Leon while the Conservatives held Granada. This power struggle often led to civil war.

In 1855 the Liberals asked the American adventurer, William Walker, to join them in their struggle against the Conservatives. Walker took this a step farther and seized the presidency in 1856. He was finally ousted in 1857 when the Liberals and Conservatives joined forces to drive him out of office. The Conservatives became the ruling party for the next 30 years until General Jose Santos Zelaya was brought to power in 1893 by a Liberal revolt. After the forced resignation of Zelaya in 1909, the country was ruled by a coalition including the Liberal Juan Jose Estrada and the Conservatives Emiliano Chamorro, Luis Mena and Adolfo Diaz.

From May 1927 to January 1933, Nicaragua was occupied by a General in the Constitutionalist War named Augusto C. Sandino. He agreed to lay down his arms if the Liberals and Conservatives would commit to retaining the political and economic sovereignty of Nicaragua. The U. S. troops that had been in the country left in 1936 and the National Guard Commander Anastasio Somoza Garcia took over the presidency, quickly ordering the assassination of Sandino. Somoza remained dictator of Nicaragua until his assassination in 1956. His two sons, Luis and Anastasio succeeded him, all of whom ruled with an iron fist.

The Sandinistas, a band of leftists guerillas who took their name from Sandino, began engaging in guerilla warfare against the Somoza government in the early 1960s. In 1979 the Sandinista National Liberation Front led a massive uprising. On July 17, 1979, seven weeks after the uprising began, Somoza left the country and the Sandinistas took over power.

In 1981 the Contras overthrew the Sandinistas and in the elections held on November 4, 1984 Daniel Ortega won the presidency. This did not stop the war, however. Negotiations were entered into until finally a treaty was signed by Central American leaders in August 1987. Nationwide elections were held in February 1990 when Violeta Barrios de Chamorro was elected president, ending eleven years of Sandinista rule.

The United States began involvement with Nicaraguan politics in 1909 when it sent a detachment of Marines to back up support for the Conservative government. The Bryan-Chamorro Treaty was negotiated in 1916 giving the U. S. an option on a route for a canal and establishment of naval bases in Nicaragua. U.S. Marines were again sent to put down fighting after the 1924 elections. U. S. troops were finally withdrawn in 1933.

The United States did not interfere again in Nicaraguan politics until 1981 when aid was suspended by President Ronald Reagan because of the suspicion that Nicaragua, along with Cuba and the Soviet Union, was arming the rebels in El Salvador. Assistance was provided to the Nicaraguan resistance by the Reagan administration and an embargo on U. S.- Nicaraguan trade was imposed in 1985.

More than two billion dollars in assistance has been provided by the United States to Nicaragua since 1990. Some was for debt relief and some to support recovery operations from Hurricanes Mitch and Felix.

After 1990 Chamorro\'s government held favor for a while but dissatisfaction began to grow when it was felt that reform was not moving fast enough. The Sadinistas believed their achievements were being destroyed and threatened to again take up arms. Conservative candidate Arnoldo Aleman became president after the 1996 election. In 2002, after being defeated in the 2001 presidential elections by Enrique Bolanos, he was charged with fraud and embezzlement and sent to prison for 20 years.

The country received an enormous show of support from the international community in 2004 when the IMF and World Bank forgave $4.5 billion of Nicaragua\'s debt. In April 2006, a free-trade agreement with the U.S. (CAFTA) went into effect. In November 2006 former President Daniel Ortega won the election and took office in January 2007.