Journey Latin America’s Jim Ashworth takes a look at the peculiar history of British rule and influence in Latin America, focusing particularly on the Rio San Juan area in Nicaragua: once the stage for a tale of an unlikely colony shaped by skirmishes, piracy and the Californian gold rush.
Before you have delved into any history books about Latin America or visited the region yourself, you could be forgiven for thinking of it as an area whose history has been influenced only by Latin peoples, as the name would suggest. This is on the whole predominately true, with the Spanish and Portuguese having held similar sway over the area as the British did over India and Australia or the French over sections of West Africa. But much like how Goa in India was in fact Portuguese, there are pockets of Latin America that were, and still are (the Falklands Islands obviously being a rather touchy case in point) very anglicised or which for a time supported a community of Brits in what was then a very foreign land.
From the tip of Tierra del Fuego to the steamy jungles of Central America, spheres of British influence have emerged over the past 500 years. Some have thrived like the Welsh in Patagonia, where names like Trelew and Puerto Madryn still conjure images of the Valleys, or like Guyana and Belize where English is still the first language. In the mid 1980s it was thought that there were over 100,000 Anglo-Argentines living in Argentina, and, despite the fact that sadly the Brazilians are now far more renowned for their football than poor old Blighty, team names like Corinthians show from where these teams originally sprang.
But for every success story there is a failure, a story of hardy Brits pitting their wits against the elements but ultimately failing to survive and being banished to the annals of history. I remember a while back reading about the Darien Scheme. This was a wonderfully unsuccessful attempt at trying to create a colony called ‘Caledonia’ in modern day Panama by the Scottish way back in the 1690s. By 1700 poor planning, disease and angry mobs of Spanish settlers had put the kibosh on these grand plans, and today nothing is left of this ambitious project.
A little further up the isthmus of Central America, in what is now Nicaragua, there is a similar story of enterprising folk. This is a story of the Americans as well as the British and a community that for a brief period flourished in the most extreme of environments, where today a few small traces still remain of the people that once called it home. The Mosquito Coast, as the name suggests, is a wet, rainforest-covered region stretching from Honduras down to the southern reaches of Nicaragua. It is a scantily populated area dominated by lagoons, deltas and river mouths. One of the rivers that flows out into the Caribbean along this 541km of coastline is the Rio San Juan, a river that forms a natural border between Nicaragua in the north and its neighbour Costa Rica in the south.
The river flows east from vast Lake Nicaragua, cutting swathes through wildlife-heavy rainforest as it winds its way into the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea, and, because it cuts Central America nearly in two, it was the easiest and most natural way of getting from the Atlantic to the Pacific long before Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Panama Canal arrived on the scene. As the New World was conquered, vast wealth in the shape of gold, silver and even slaves arrived on the Pacific coast from Peru or into the colonial strong points of León and Granada and was then shipped down the river for the passage back to Spain. With the riches and trade routes came the pirates and many fierce battles took place on these waters and in the town of El Castillo, which lies on a strategic bend in the river. It was here in 1780 that a British force briefly held the besieged fort, before being forced into retreat. Amongst their number was a young Horatio Nelson.
In fact, the coastal area where the river pours out into the sea was in fact a British protectorate from as early as 1740. Despite ongoing wrangling with the Spanish over who owned the area, it was the British who built the first large-scale settlement on this part of the Caribbean coast at the point where the Spanish had had their original garrison, at San Juan de la Cruz – swiftly renamed to the more English-sounding Greytown in 1848, in honour of the then Jamaican Governor Charles Edward Grey. Greytown today is little more than a few graves peeking through the undergrowth, but these stones bear testament to the British and Americans who over a period of time called the place home. But why did they come here; why would they leave their families and friends to travel thousands of miles to the edge of an impenetrable rainforest? The answer isn’t really romantic; like most of these odd little towns that spring up anywhere from the outback of Australia to the wastes of Siberia, financial motives were behind the town’s fleeting population boom. Not long after the British and a handful of indigenous Miskitos had finally got their hands on Greytown did the Americans arrive, and with them came grand plans and lots of new wealth. The Spanish may have stopped using the river to transport their goods back to Europe, but now the Americans had a new cargo, one which would travel the other way towards the Pacific. The cargo was people, specifically American people desperate to leave the east coast of America and join the gold rush which was taking place in California. In the late 1840s and early 1850s, crossing what is now the USA was no mean feat, and people wanted an alternative route without the risk of getting eaten by bears or chased by native Americans wielding tomahawks. The answer lay with Cornelius Vanderbilt, Greytown and the Rio San Juan.
Without the option of the Panama Canal – still over 60 years away from completion – Vanderbilt recognised that the quickest way to cross the continent was to use a readymade natural path and he turned his attention to Nicaragua. By shipping the prospectors down the eastern seaboard he could drop them at Greytown, from where small boats would take them upstream into Lake Nicaragua and on to Rivas. From Rivas there was only 20km to be covered by mule and cart before the Pacific Ocean, and steamers ready to take those in search of riches to the ports of California. As a result Greytown boomed and US capitalists and British entrepreneurs flocked into the town to make money from the travellers. In the first three years of Vanderbilt’s operation over 52,000 Americans made the trip along the San Juan River, and all of these had to pass through Greytown.
But, like all good things, it had to come to an end. The first nail in the town’s coffin occurred as early as 1854 when, after confrontations between the Americans and the inhabitants over trade routes and tariffs, the USS Cyane burned the town to the ground. Squabbles followed as the town was rebuilt and although Vanderbilt eventually seized back control in 1857, by the late 1850s he had agreed to cease his trading in return for a large payoff from the steamship companies. The town struggled on with a few thousand inhabitants as it became fully integrated into Nicaragua, but in 1984 the remains were once and for all struck off the map during the Sandinista-Contra conflict.
A new town was built a few kilometres northwest of the original settlement and goes by the name of San Juan del Norte – or as I prefer New Greytown – and it may not be the last we have heard of this sleepy backwater. The Nicaraguan government has just built a new £10million airport close to where the original Greytown was located and has also signed a contract with two Dutch companies as plans to revive a rival to the Panama Canal are again drawn up. Vanderbilt’s dream is alive, and whether or not Greytown again flourishes, the region offers a fascinating glimpse into the colourful history of the region and its historical ties.
You can sail along the Rio San Juan and into Lake Nicaragua as part of our new Motmot Discovery Journey or as part of a tailor-made holiday to Nicaragua.