1902 Encyclopedia > Nicaragua


NICARAGUA, one of the five states of Central America, between 10° 30' and 15° N. lat. and 83° 11' and 87° 40' W. long., forms an irregular equilateral triangle wedged in between Honduras and Costa Rica north and south, with base stretching for 280 miles along the Caribbean Sea from Cape Gracias it Dios southwards to the San Juan delta, and apex at the Coseguina volcano, Gulf of Fonseca, -which separates it on the Pacific side from San Salvador. The frontier towards Honduras, as laid down by the treaty of 1870, runs from the Gulf of Fonseca in a north-westerly direction along the Cordillera de Dipilto to 85° W., and thence a little north of and nearly parallel with the Rio Coco (Wanks) to the Atlantic above Cape Gracias it Dios. The still contested Costa Rica frontier may be taken as practically defined by the course of the San Juan river and the south side of Lake Nicaragua to within 14 miles of the Pacific, where it is marked by a conventional line drawn across the isthmus from the mouth of the Sapoa river to Salinas Bay on the Pacific. Within these limits, and including the Reserva Mosquita (Mosquito territory), the state comprises a total area of 58,500 square miles, with a population usually estimated at 400,000, but by the census of 1882 reduced to 275,816, and distributed over ten departments, as under : - NICARAGUA The low monotonous and swampy Mosquito Coast is broken by the two lagoons of Pearl Cay and Bluefields, and is fringed by a few cays (islets) and reefs, such as Great and Little Corn, Longreef, and Tangweera, which shelter no harbours, and serve only to obstruct the navigation. Here the only port is Greytown (San Juan del Norte), formed by the northern branch of the San Juan delta, and now nearly choked with sand. But the bold and rocky west coast, which extends for about 200 miles from Coseguina Point to Salinas Bay, although destitute of islands, presents a few convenient harbours, of which the chief are San Juan del Sur, Brito, and especially Realejo, which is designed as the terminus of Captain Bedford Pim's Transatlantic route, and which Dunlop declares to be "as good a port as any in the known world," although of somewhat difficult access.

In Nicaragua the great geographical feature is the remarkable depression stretching for about 300 miles north-west and south-east parallel with the Pacific coast, and transversely to the Central American plateau, which it almost completely interrupts. This depression, which lies at a mean elevation of scarcely 100 feet above the sea, is now flooded by the two great lakes Managua and Nicaragua (Cocibolca), which collect nearly all the drainage of the western provinces, discharging it through the desaguadero (outlet) of the Rio San Juan to the Atlantic. About midway between Lake Nicaragua and the Caribbean Sea, the San Juan entirely pierces the main chain of the Cordillera de los Andes, which here sweeps round the east side of the lacustrine basin at a mean height of 4000 or 5000 feet northwards to the Honduras highlands. Towards the lakes the descent is very precipitous ; but on the opposite side the land falls in broad terraced plateaus down to the Mosquito coast.

Throughout its entire length the depression is traversed by a remarkable volcanic chain of isolated cones, which north of the lakes takes the name of the Maribios, terminating in the extreme 'north-west with Coseguina (4000 feet), and in the extreme south-east with the low wooded archipelagos of Solentiname and Chichicaste near the head of the desaguadero. Between these two extremes the chief cones, proceeding southwards, are - the Maribios chain, comprising El Viejo (6000 feet), Santa Clara, Telica, Orota, Las Pilas, Axosco, Momotombo (7000 feet, highest point in the state), all crowded close together between the Gulf of Fonseca and Lake Managua ; Masaya or Popocatepec and Mombacho (5700 feet), near Granada ; lastly, in Lake Nicaragua the two islands of Zapatera and Ometepec with its twin peaks Ometepec (4100 feet) and Madera (4190 feet). Several of these are still active, or at least quiescent, and in 1835 Coseguina was the scene of one of the most tremendous eruptions on record. The outbreak lasted four days, during which sand fell in Jamaica, Mexico, and Bogota. After a long repose Ometepec also burst into renewed activity on June 19, 1883, when the lavas from a new crater began to overflow, and continued for seven days to spread in various directions over the whole island. The eruption was accompanied by incessant rumblings and earthquakes, in consequence of which the whole population took refuge on the mainland. Mud, ashes, lavas, and rocks now cover the mountain slopes, which had been under uninterrupted cultivation for many centuries. In the Maribios district also occur several volcanic lakelets, such as that of Masaya, besides numerous " infernillos," low craters or peaks still emitting sulphurous vapour and smoke, and at night often lighting up the whole land with bluish flames. The malpais, or barren lava-fields, here extend for miles in some directions, and no other region of equal extent probably betrays so many or so marked traces of igneous action as that portion of Nicaragua intervening between its lakes and the Pacific (Squier). Here the departments of Rivas and Granada are traversed by a low range sometimes spoken of as the Coast Range, which seldom rises above 2000 feet, and merges northwards in the magnificent plains of Leon and Conejo, that is, in the northern section of the lacustrine depression. It is crossed by three low and easy passes - at its southern extremity along the Costa Rica frontier, again between the ports of La Virgen on Lake Nicaragua and S. Juan del Sur on the Pacific, and in the north between Lake Managua near Nagarote and Tamarinds Bay, while it disappears altogether south of Leon, where the depression reaches the coast at Realejo. Four alternative routes are thus afforded for the interoceanic canal which is destined one day to connect the two seas through this great depression (see vol. iv. p. 793).

No rivers of any size flow westwards to the Pacific, the western provinces discharging, as already stated, mainly through the San Juan emissary to the Caribbean Sea. Yet Lake Managua, which lies 16 feet above Lake Nicaragua, and 150 (l) above sea-level, may now be regarded almost as a land-locked basin. Although nearly 50 miles long by 25 broad, with a mean depth of 30 feet, it seldom sends any overflow through the natural outlet of the Estero Panaloya (Tipitapa)1 down to the lower basin. It does not appear to have undergone any perceptible change of level since the conquest ; but some of its former feeders have probably been displaced by the violent earthquakes, of which this region is a chief centre. Thus the present inflow, except during high floods, is mainly carried off by evaporation. But the larger lake continues to receive the important Rio Frio from Costa Rica at its south-eastern extremity, besides numerous perennial streams, especially from the western slopes of the Cordillera de los Andes. Hence there is an abundant discharge through the Rio San Juan, a deep, sluggish stream 128 miles long, from 100 to 400 yards broad, 10 to 20 feet deep, but unfortunately obstructed by five dangerous rapids presenting insuperable obstacles to steam navigation.2 The lake itself is the largest fresh-water basin between Michigan and Titicaca, being nearly 100 miles long by 40 broad and 240 feet deep in some places, but shoaling considerably, especially towards the outlet, where it falls to 6 or 8 feet. Under the influence of the intermittent trade winds it rises and falls regularly towards the south side, whence the popular notion that it was a tidal lake. It is also exposed to the dangerous Papagayos tornadoes, caused by the prevailing north-easterly winds meeting opposite currents from the Pacific.

The little-known region of rugged plateaus and savannas occupying fully one-half of the state between the lacustrine depression and the Mosquito Coast is watered by several unnavigable streams, all draining from the Cordilleras eastwards to the Atlantic, and all distinguished by a perplexing nomenclature. The chief are, coming southwards, the Coco (Wanks or Segovia, known in its upper course as the Telpaneca), the Wama (Sisin Creek), the Rio Grande (Great River or Amaltara), the Escondida (Bluefields, Blewfields, Rio del Desastre).

r. From the general relief of the land, as above set forth, its geological constitution is sufficiently obvious. In the west we have the lavas, tufas, sulphurs, pumice, and other recent volcanic formations of the Maribios system. These are succeeded east of the lacustrine basin by andesite rocks, trachytes, greenstone, and metalliferous porphyries of the Cordilleras, abounding in auriferous and argentiferous quartz, especially in Chontales and the uplands of northwest Segovia. Then come the older plutonic upheavals, crystallized schists, dolerites, &c., apparently stretching down to the Mosquito Coast region, where they appear to underlie the comparatively modern sedimentary formations and alluvia of the streams flowing eastwards to the Caribbean Sea. The Chontales gold mines, which have been intermittently worked for many years past, lie about midway between the Atlantic and Pacific between 11° and 13° N. lat. and 85° and 86° W. long., and the mining industry is centred chiefly about Libertad, capital of Chontales, and Santo Domingo in the Matagalpa district.

but the total annual yield of the precious metals seldom exceeds £40,000.

Lying at a mean elevation of 2000 to 3000 feet above sea-level, the Chontales and Segovian uplands enjoy a distinctly tropical, with two seasons - wet from May to November, dry throughout the winter months - and a mean annual temperature of about 80° Fahr., falling to 70° at night and rising to 90° at noon in summer. Nicaragua exhalations from the stagnant waters of the coast lagoons, is very malarious, and the fever here endemic is especially fatal to Europeans.

In the volcanic western provinces the soil is extremely fertile, yielding, where cultivated and irrigated, magnificent crops of sugar, cotton, rice, tobacco, coffee, cocoa, and maize. Much indigo was produced here formerly from an indigenous variety, the Indigofera disperma, L., but this industry has been neglected since the revolution. Sugar yields two or three crops, and maize as many as four, this cereal supplying a chief staple of food. Plantains, bananas, beans, tomatoes, yams, arrowroot, pine-apples, guavas, citrons, and many other tropical fruits are also cultivated, while the extensive primeval forests of the central provinces abound in mahogany, cedars, rosewood, ironwood, caoutchouc (ute), gum copal, vanilla, sarsaparilla, logwood, and many other dye-woods, medicinal plants, and valuable timbers. Conspicuous amongst the forest trees is the splendid Coyol palm (Cocos butyracea, L.), with feathery leaves 15 to 20 feet long and golden flowers 3 feet, and yielding a sap which when fermented produces the intoxicating dacha or vino de Coyol. In Chontales occurs the remarkable Herraatia purpurca, a " chocolate tree," whose seeds yield a finer-flavoured chocolate than the cocoa itself. The forest growths are on the whole inferior in size to those of corresponding latitudes in the eastern hemisphere ; the tropical vegetation, especially about Nindiri and elsewhere in the west, is unsurpassed for beauty, exuberance, and variety.

The Nicaraguan fauna differs in few respects from that of the other Central-American states. Here the jaguar, puma, and ocelot still infest all the wooded districts, alligators swarm in the lakes and in the San Juan and other rivers, while the vulture, buzzard, toucans, humming birds, and howling monkeys are almost every• where familiar sights. Amongst the endless species of reptiles occur the harmless boba or "chicken snake," python, and black snake, the venomous corali, taboba, culebra de sangre, and rattlesnake, iguanas of great size, scorpions, edible lizards, and others said to be poisonous (Boyle). Of useful animals by far the most important are the horned cattle, large herds of which arc bred on the savannas of the central and northern provinces. Their hides form one of the staples of the export trade, the other chief items of which are gold and silver bullion, coffee, and gums, amounting to a yearly sum of about £400,000, against £300,000 imports, mainly European and United States manufactured goods.3 From the numerous sepulchral mounds, monumental ruins, and other remains thickly strewn over Chontales and all the western provinces, as well as from the direct statements of the early Spanish writers, it appears that most of Nicaragua was densely peopled at the time of the conquest. In many districts colossal monolithic statues of men and gods, crumbling temples, cairns, and tombs of all sizes are met in every direction, and in some places the inhabitants still supply themselves with pottery from the vast quantities of fictile vessels preserved below the surface, or piled up in heaps like that of Monte Testaccio near Rome. One explorer speaks of "mountains of earthenware," and another tells us that " around Libertad the tombs are in thousands, offering every possible variety of form, size, and thickness." Monuments of this sort have been found ranging from 20 to over 170 feet in length and 120 in breadth, built of huge stones piled. np 5 feet in thickness, which must have been brought from great distances. Managua appears to have had a population of 40,000; mention is made of other cities four miles in extent ; and when Gil Gonzalez penetrated into the country in 1522 he found in one district a cluster of six considerable towns all less than two leagues apart. But "a few years of Spanish rule sufficed to turn whole tracts of flourishing country into uninhabited wilds" (H. H. Bancroft), and, after making every allowance for the defective character of the last census returns, the present population of the whole state cannot be estimated at more than 400,000. A calculation based on the partial census of 1846 gave 300,000, of whom about 100,000 were pure-blood Indians, 150,000 half-castes (Mestizoes, Zambos, &c.), 20,000 Negroes, and 30,000 whites. Throughout the present century the whites appear to have shown a general tendency to diminish, and the indigenous element is by some now estimated at fully one half of the whole population.

With the exception of some wild tribes in the interior of Mosquitia, nearly all the natives are now in a more or less civilized state, and have generally adopted the Spanish language. At the time of the conquest Herrera tells us that five distinct languages were current in Nicaragua : - the Caribisi (Carib) on the east coast, now represented by the Rama, Toaca, Poya, and Waikna (Mosco); the Chontal of Chontales, Segovia, and parts of West Honduras and Salvador, now represented by the Woolwa in Chontales and Mosquitia; the Chorotegan (Dirian), mainly between Lake Managua and the Pacific and thence north to IIonduras, now extinct ; the Orotilian between Lake Nicaragua and the Pacific (department of Rivas) and thence south to the Gulf of Nicoya, Costa Rica, also extinct; the Cholutec (Niquiran), a pure Aztec dialect spoken in the large islands of Lake Nicaragua, and about Masaya, Granada, and other districts, especially along the north-west side of the lake, where it still survives among a few scattered. communities. The presence of Aztec settlements in this region, and at one time even amongst the Chontales of the opposite side of the lake, is abundantly established by this survival, by the archaeological remains found in the islands and adjacent mainland, and especially by the Aztec geographical nomenclature widely diffused throughout the whole of West Nicaragua ; e.g., Popogatepec =Popocatepetl, the local name of the Masaya volcano ; Ometepec or Ometepet = Ometepetl, i.e., " Two Peaks," the largest of the islands in Lake Nicaragua ; the ending galpa, common in Chontales (Juigalpa, Matagalpa, &c.), which is tie Aztec calpa, group of houses, town, from mill, house. The euphonic changes e or t for final tl, g for c, &c., occur even in Mexico itself, and are important as showing that the Cholutecs are comparatively recent intruders from the Anahuac plateau, not the original stock of the Aztec nation, as has been suggested by some ethnologists.' Besides the Caribisi, or continental Caribs of Herrera, the Mosquito Coast is occupied by other Carib communities, which are descended from the Caribs removed thither from the island of St Vincent by the English in 1796. To these alone the name of Carib is now applied., although they are not pure-blood Indians, but Zambos, in whom the Negro features greatly predominate. The Woolwas of the interior of Mosquitia and Chontales are divided into a great number of tribes collectively known as Bravos, that is, wild or uncivilized, who live chiefly on hunting and fishing, and are practically independent of the Nicaraguan Government. The term Bravo itself is the exact Spanish equivalent of the Aztec Chonta], Chondal, that is, " barbarian," which at the time of the discovery was applied by the Cholutecs to all the tribes dwelling east of the great lakes and on the Cordillera de los Andes as far north as Honduras and San Salvador. Here they seem to have supplanted a still more ancient race, who had attained a high state of civilization, as attested by the already-mentioned monuments and stone sculptures of Chontales, which are of a different type both from the Aztec and the Maya-Quiche remains of Yucatan and Guatemala.

According to the electoral law of 1858 Nicaragua forms a democratic republic modelled on that of the United States, with a legislative assembly of eleven members, a senate of ten, and a president elected for four years and assisted by a cabinet of four ministers. The seat of government, formerly Granada and Leon, has since 1858 been Managua on the south-west side of Lake Managua. Although Roman Catholicism is still recognized as the state religion, the free exercise of all others is guaranteed, together with freedom of the press and of education. Public instruction, which is provided for by one university, three colleges, two hundred schools, and an annual grant of £10,000, is still in a very backward state. The total attendance at the national schools in 1882 was 5000, or less than 8 per cent. of the whole population. The criminal charges in the same year were 1938, or 5 per 1000, showing a slight improvement on previous years. There are no railways, and very few good roads even between the large towns and seaports. But the tele- T graph system (800 miles) was completed in 1882, and in the same g year Nicaragua joined the Universal Postal Union. The telegraph despatches forwarded through twenty-six offices numbered 81,000; letters and packages of all sorts, 1,119,000.2 First discovered and coasted by Columbus during his fourth and E last voyage in 1502, Nicaragua was not regularly explored till 1522, when Gil Gonzalez Davila penetrated from the Gulf of Nicoya to the western provinces and sent his lieutenant Cordova to circumnavigate the great lake. The country takes its name from Nicaragua (also written Micaragua), a powerful Cholutee chief, ruling over most of the land. between the lakes and the Pacific, who received Davila in a friendly spirit, and accepted baptism at his hands. Nicaragua's capital seems to have occupied the site of the present town of Rivas over against Ometepec, and soon afterwards the Spaniards overran the country with great rapidity, both from this centre northwards, and southwards from the Honduras coast. The occupation began with sanguinary conflicts between the two contending waves of intrusion, and down to the present day this region has had little respite from external attack and internal convulsions. Granada was founded in 1524 on the isthmus between the two lakes as the capital of a separate government, which, however, was soon attached as a special intendence to the general captaincy of Guatemala, comprising the whole of Central America and the present Mexican state of Chiapas. Hence, during the Spanish tenure, the history of Nicaragua is merged in that of the surrounding region. Of its five earliest rulers " the first had been a murderer, the second a murderer and rebel, the third murdered the second, the fourth was a forger, the fifth a murderer and rebel" (Boyle). Then came the hopeless revolts of the Indians against intolerable oppression, the abortive rebellions of Hernandez de Contreras and John Bermejo (Bermudez) against the mother country (1550), the foundation of Leon, future rival of Granada, in 1610, and its sack by Dampier in 1685, and, lastly, the declaration of independence (1821), not definitively acknowledged by Spain till 1850.

In 1823 Nicaragua joined the Federal Union of the five Central American states, which was finally dissolved in 1833. While it lasted Nicaragua was the scene of continual bloodshed, caused partly by its attempts to secede from the confederacy, partly by its wars with Costa Rica for the possession of the disputed territory of Guanacaste between the great lake and the Gulf of Nicoya, partly also by the bitter rivalries of the cities of Leon and Granada, respective headquarters of the Liberal and Conservative parties. During the brief existence of the Federal Union "no fewer than three hundred and ninety-six persons exercised the supreme power of the republic and the different states " (Dunlop's Report). Since then the independent government of Nicaragua has been distinguished almost beyond all other Spanish-American states by an uninterrupted series of military pronunciamieutos, popular revolts, partial or general revolutions, by which the land has been wasted, its former industries destroyed, and the whole people reduced to a state of moral debasement scarcely elsewhere paralleled in Christendom. Conspicuous amongst the episodes of this sanguinary drama was the filibustering expedition of General Walker, who was at first invited by the democrats of Leon to assist them against the aristocrats of Granada, and who after seizing the supreme power in 1856, was expelled by the combined forces of the neighbouring states, and on venturing to return was shot at Truxillo on September 25, 1860. A truce to these internecine troubles has been recently brought about by mutual exhaustion; and, should any of the schemes of interoceanic canalization be carried out, it may be hoped that a national revival will take place under more favourable prospects for the future.

One source of serious embarrassment has been removed by the settlement of the Mosquito reserve question. This territory, which stretches along the Caribbean coast from the Sisin Creek to the Rama river (from 10° 30' to 13° N. lat.) and for about 40 miles inland, had enjoyed a semi-independent position under the nominal protection of Great Britain from 1655 to 1850. By the ClaytonBulwer treaty of 1850, England resigned all claims to the Mosquito Coast, and by the treaty of Managua in 1860 ceded the protectorate absolutely to Nicaragua. The local chief was induced to accept this arrangement on the condition of retaining his administrative functions and receiving a yearly subvention of £1000 from the suzerain state for the ten years ending in 1870. But he died in 1864, and Nicaragua has never recognized his successor. Nevertheless the reserve continues to be ruled by a chief elected by the natives, and assisted by an administrative council, which assembles at Bluefields, capital of the territory.

Bibliography. - Memoria del Ministro de to Gobernacion at Soberano Congreso de la RepUblica de Nicaragua, Managua, 1SS3; Josh Maria Cieeres, Geografia de Centro-America, Paris, 1880; 11. W. Bates, Central and South America, with ethnological appendix by A. H. Keane (Stanford series), London, 1878; Fr. Boyle, Wanderings through Nicaragua and Costa Rica, London, 1868; J. W. Bodham Whetham, Across Central America, London, 1877 ; Dr J. E. Wappiins, Mittel- u. Slid-America, Leipsle, 1870; E. G. Seiner, Notes on Central America (London, 18,56), and Nicaragua, its People, Scenery, Monuments, and the Proposed Inter-oceanic Canal (London, 1852); T11. Belt, The Naturalist in Nicaragua, London, 1873; Karl von Schemer, Wanderungen durch Nicaragua, Honduras, and San Salvador, Brunswick 1857; A. von Billow, Der Freistaat Nicaragua, Berlin, 1949; J. Keller, be Canal de Nicaragua, Paris, 1S59; Consul Gollan's "Report on the Trade and Commerce of Nicaragua," in Reports from II.M.'s Consuls, part v., 1977 ; Memoria historica sabre el Canal de Nicaragua, Guatemala, 1845 ; S. Levy, Notas geograficas y economical sobre la Repalica de Nicaragua, Paris, 1973; W. Grimm, Die Staaten Central-Amerikas, Berlin, 1871; W. Walker, The War in Nicaragua, Mobile, 1860; 11. 11. Bancroft, History of the Pacific Slates, &c., Central America, vol. 1., San Francisco, 1882; Thomas Gage, Journey from Mexico through Guaxaca, sic.. with his return through Nicaragua, &c., London, 1655; A. von Humboldt, " Znstand des Freistaats von Central-Amerika," in Berghaus's Bertha, 1826, vi.; J. Bally, Central America, London, 1850; R. G. Dunlop, Travels in Central America, London, 1847; J. L. Stephens, Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, London, 1842 ; Brasseur de Bourbourg, Bistoire des Nations Civilisees du Mexique et de l'Ame'rigue Centrale, Paris, 1857-59 ; W. Childs, Report on an Interoceanic Ship Canal, tire., New York, 1852; Th. Strange-ways, Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, ,tc., Edinburgh, 1822; S. A, Bard, Waikna, Adventures on the Mosquito Shore, London, 1855 ; Correspondence respecting the Mosquito Territory, presented to the House of Commons, July 3, 1848 ; " Das Mosquito-Gebict," ,bc., in Petermann's Millheilungen, 1956 ; A. J. Cotheel, "Language of the Mosquito Indians," in Transactions of the American Ethnological Society, 1846, vol. ii. (A. II, K.)

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries