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The Americas

Central American Colonial Settlements



Pre-Columbian Nicaragua was home to a great number of tribal groups, apparently without any solid hierarchy. Little was done in the earliest days of colonisation to settle this region, while easier pickings lay to the north and south, so documented evidence of the natives of Nicaragua is scarce until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There were up to thirty tribes evident by then, although some of these may be duplicates.

From his base at the new colonial capital of Mexico City, the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado explored and conquered territory to the south between 1523-1527. Nicaragua was created a province in 1524, under the control of New Spain. As with all the territory gained in southern Central America, it was administered more locally within the captaincy general of Guatemala. This consisted of the provinces of Chiapas, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua.


Once he is allowed to sail again after being stripped of the titles and privileges he had been granted for his explorations, Christopher Columbus, former first Spanish viceroy of the Indies at Hispaniola, skirts Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast but fails to find a passage which he can navigate.

Nicaragua's Pacific Coast
Whilst not initially possessing as great an area of Atlantic coastline as it does today, Nicaragua's Pacific coastline was and still is magnificent

1522 - 1524

The Spanish begin to colonise the region from New Spain, but only loosely and without any central controlling effort. Even missionary efforts generally fail. Much of the country is left to the natives. However, the administration does involve the creation of the province of Nicaragua in 1524. This supersedes the settlement region of Castilla de Oro that had been officially incorporated in 1513 to control territory that now forms northern Columbia and western Venezuela.


With little or no Spanish control, the Mosquito Coast along the Atlantic makes a perfect haven for Dutch and English pirates who are searching for safe bases from which to launch attacks on gold-laden Spanish shipping.

1631 - 1641

The first sustained contact with the dominant tribe or tribes on the Mosquito Coast comes when the Providence Island Company from the British Colonies of North America make contact, establishing friendly relations with the Miskito king. The company founds bases in two cays and remains in place for a decade.


The kingdom of Mosquitia is officially recognised by England.


At the conclusion of the American Revolution, Britain is forced to withdraw from the Atlantic Coast, including that of Central America and Mosquitia.

1821 - 1823

New Spain achieves independence from Spain, bringing 300 years of governance of the colonies to an end. On 3 October 1821, the captaincy general of Guatemala (Chiapas, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua) is annexed to the Mexican empire. However, just two years later the southern Central American states form their own Federal Republic of Central America.

Gabino Gainza
Former governor of Chile in 1814, Gabino Gainza became first president of the Central American Federal Republic

Modern Nicaragua
AD 1838 - Present Day

MapLocated in Central America, the modern republic of Nicaragua borders Honduras to the north, and Costa Rica to the south. The Mosquito Coast (Mosquitia) forms much of the country's Atlantic coastline, although this area is locked in a political battle to regain its independence following Nicaraguan conquest in 1894. Nicaragua's capital is Managua, but the origin of the country's name is obscure, and only theories remain to explain it. The most prevalent states that it was the Nica tribe which gained supremacy over its fellows in the Spanish administrative or political sphere and it was this name that was used for the country itself.

The provinces that now form Nicaragua initially passed after independence from the Spanish empire and its former regional administrative centre in Guatemala to the Federal Republic of Central America. When that began to disintegrate in 1838, the five provinces were given permission to become independent states in their own right on 31 May (although this was already happening anyway). Nicaragua declared its independence on 5 November 1838. Despite the failure of the federal republic, the new countries shared both a common history and the hope that reunion would eventually come, as evidenced by their many attempts over the years.

Today Nicaragua still struggles to overcome its legacy of poverty, civil war, dictatorship, and natural calamities. Traditionally relying on its agricultural exports to sustain its economy, these benefited mainly a few elite families of Spanish descent, primarily the Somoza family, which ruled the country with US backing between 1937 and the Sandinista revolution in 1979.

1842 - 1844

The attempt by General Francisco Morazan to establish the Confederation of Central America from Costa Rica leads to his death, but the confederation itself lingers on for two years.

General Francisco Morazan (Aquiles Bigot)
General Francisco Morazan's attempt to establish a unified Central American state ended in failure and his death, one of many such attempts at southern and central unity that have failed since independence from the Spanish


A second attempt to recreate a federal republic is made with the Federation of Central America. Involving El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, it is established in October, and lasts all of a month.

1855 - 1856

Civil war is raging in Nicaragua, and US soldier and adventurer, William Walker, takes advantage by landing with a mercenary force, intent on creating his own slave-owning state. He recruits over a thousand Native North Americans or Europeans who will fight to conquer Nicaragua and the other four central American nations: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. On 1 September 1855, his forces win the First Battle of Rivas. On 13 October he captures the regional capital, Granada, and on 20 May 1856 he is recognised as the legitimate ruler of the country by the US president.

1856 - 1857

William Walker

US adventurer and conqueror of Nicaragua.

1856 - 1860

The USA is persuaded by Walker's enemies to withdraw recognition of his government. In April 1856, he is defeated by Costa Rican and mercenary forces in the Second Battle of Rivas. On 1 May 1857 he surrenders and is repatriated by the US Navy. Arriving in Honduras in 1860, he falls into the hands of the authorities who execute him by firing squad. At the same time, Britain is forced to withdraw from the Atlantic Coast due to pressure from the US. As a result, Nicaragua gains control over the protectorate of the Mosquito Reserve.

1894 - 1895

The Atlantic Coast territory of the Mosquito Reserve is forcibly incorporated into Nicaragua by President Jose Santos Zelaya in 1894. While Robert Henry Clarence remains the accepted chief of the Miskito, the Nicaraguans attempt to remove even his title by appointing their own claimant. They chose Andrew Hendy, their established puppet of 1888 who had already been forced to abdicate by his own people after about a year in office. Now, on 20 November 1894, he is formally re-installed in office at the government palace at Bluefields. Miskito rebellions against his presence in 1896 and 1899-1900 do nothing to change the situation.

In the same year, General Rafael Antonio Gutiérrez overthrows General Carlos Ezeta, dictator of El Salvador, in a coup on 9 June 1894. He is assisted by Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and fellow countryman and close friend General Tomás Regalado. The coup becomes known as the Revolution of the 44. Rafael is a supporter of a Central American union, and he moves El Salvador towards such an achievement during 1895.

1896 - 1898

The Pact of Amapala, signed on 20 June 1895, heralds a new attempt at creating a union between El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. The build-up to the Greater Republic of Central America takes two years. When its constitution comes into effect in 1898 it is rechristened the United States of Central America, but it doesn't survive a military coup in El Salvador in the same year.


Following an insurrection in the country, the US asks the president to ensure that all its citizens are protected, something that he is unable to guarantee. As a result, US Marines occupy the country and remain there until 1933, apart from a nine month period in 1925.

US Marines in Nicaragua
US Marines were sent to occupy Nicaragua in 1912 and remained until 1933, ostensibly to protect US citizens there during the country's period of instability


Rather late in the day, its May 1918 before Nicaragua declares for the allies in the First World War against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire. However the country takes no active part in the conflict.

1921 - 1922

One more attempt is made at creating the Greater Republic of Central America between El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. A provisional federal council is formed, made up of delegates from each state, but that is as far as the project goes.

1927 - 1937

The government faces a sustained guerrilla war which is led by General Augusto Sandino. When the US Marines in the country become involved, they bear the brunt of the attacks. When a new, liberal government is installed in the country in 1933, the US finally withdraws its troops. The following year, the new head of the combined police and military force, Anastasio Somoza Garcia, has Sandino assassinated, along with hundreds of men, women, and children, using the US-created National Guard. In 1937 Somoza deposes the president and takes control in a fraudulent election.

1937 - 1956

Anastasio Somoza Garcia

Dictator. Assassinated.

1941 - 1945

Nicaragua joins the Second World War as an ally of the USA and Great Britain on 8 December 1941, against Japan, Germany and Italy.


Somoza is assassinated by a liberal poet. His son is 'elected' as his replacement, but he dies soon afterwards following a heart attack. His replacement is generally viewed as being a puppet, with Anastasio Somoza Debayle pulling the strings.

1956 - 1963

Luis Somoza Debayle

Son and 'moderate' dictator. Died after a heart attack.

1963 - 1966

Rene Schick Gutierrez

Generally viewed as a puppet of the Somoza dynasty.

1967 - 1972

Anastasio Somoza Debayle

Brother of Luis Somoza.


Somoza is forced to step down as president, although he remains head of the military. Good fortune comes his way in the same year, when a massive earthquake strikes the capital city and martial law is declared, putting Somoza back in charge of the country after the 1974 'elections'.

1974 - 1979

Anastasio Somoza Debayle

Second term.

1979 - 1984

The USA withdraws its support for the Somoza family, and Anastasio Somoza Debayle is forced to flee the country. Denied admission into the USA, he ends up in Paraguay, where he is assassinated in 1980. The Marxist-Leninist Sandinistas take control of Nicaragua in July, headed by its best-known member, Daniel Ortega, creating the Council of National Reconstruction. Various elements in the country begin a standoff that is made worse in 1981 when the US starts to support the 'Contras', anti-Sandinista and Communist units. The Contras operate as guerrillas, hiding in camps inside neighbouring Honduras and Costa Rica, until what is termed by some as free and fair elections in 1984 return the Sandinistas to legitimate power.

Daniel Ortega
Daniel Ortega's Sandinistas began an ill-starred spell in control of Nicaragua in 1979 which came to an end in 1990 when they were defeated in relatively fair elections


With the country exhausted by years of war, the Sandinistas are defeated in multi-party elections. The fighting finally ends when the Contras sign a ceasefire with the new US-backed president, Violeta Chamorro, the first woman president in Nicaragua's history.


Daniel Ortega leads the Sandinistas back into power in elections, although he is much more moderate in his Communist beliefs after so many years in opposition.


On 19 April a group of Miskito elders declare the independence of their people from Nicaragua. Their territory is still isolated - a ninety minute flight from Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, or a twenty-hour road trip. Now they announce they will not pay any heed to the government in Managua, and will not pay any taxes to it. Instead their loyalty is to the 'Community Nation of Moskitia'. A flag is unveiled and a national anthem composed, but international recognition is entirely lacking.