Nicaragua’s Corn Islands are much more than a beautiful paradise. The Caribbean islands have a colorful and varied history dating back to Nicaragua’s pirate days.
According to the 400-year-old tome The Buccaneers of America by the Dutch pirate Alexander Olivier Esquemeling, the author claims to be one of the first to “discover” the Corn Islands. He described the occupants at that time as short and stout with black hair, round faces, small eyes, eyebrows that fell across their eyes, flat foreheads, wide noses, thick lips and sinking jaws. They pierced their lower lips and ears and wore shells as facial adornments. He also describes the girls as having their feet bound from when they were young. The English pirate William Dampier describes them after his visit to the islands in 1681 as bare-footed, copper-colored and naked except for a loin cloth tied around their waist.
Now we know these indigenous as the Kukra Indians, a group that lived not only in the Corn Islands but also from south of Bluefields up to Pearl Lagoon. They have left behind a few treasures which can be seen in the Culture House on the Big island; small clay animal heads which are thought to be either feet or handles for cooking pots. They were a simple group of indigenous who practiced subsistence farming and fishing, a passive people who lacked a complicated social structure.
So what happened to the Kukras? Their name is still found in landmarks along the coast, but the warrior Miskito indians wiped them out through war and slave trading to the colonists along the coast.
The next wave of Corn Island settlement began about 1700 by British bringing their slaves from Jamaica. The boat’s captain was named Gil Patrick Quinn and had sailors on board named Sammy Downs, Obidiah Campbell, Herbert Campbell and Mr. Hunter. Nearly all of the people on the island carry the surnames of at least one of these men.
Captain Quinn chose to live on the hill that bears his name because it gave him a good vantage of Southwest Bay’s harbor.
By the late 1700s the entire coast was well under British rule except for a few pockets of Miskito-led violence here and there. The islands were pretty stable, and in 1775 the superintendent of the Miskito Coast, Robert Hodgson Jr, gifted the islands to his son, William Hodgson. Those living on the island today that don’t carry the surname Quinn, Downs, Campbell and Hunter usually carry the name Hodgson.
In the following decades the land was split up and sold off to immigrants from Belize to the Caymans to San Andres. Farms and cotton plantations were set up and became the major source of income in the islands’ slave economy. The best cotton was sent to Liverpool, England, where it was sold. Anything they couldn’t make was imported, such as flour, salt, textiles, furniture and so on.
On the 27th of August, 1841, Colonel Alexander McDonald, superintendent of what was then British Honduras (known as Belize today), landed his warship in the Southwest Bay harbor. He rounded up all of the slave owners and proclaimed that all of the slaves on the islands where thereby free men, as decreed by the Miskito King Robert Charles Fredricks and Queen Victoria of England.
Since the slaves had no possessions, they celebrated by gathering crabs from the swamp and boiling up a big soup mixed with yams, plantains, breadfruit and such and partied for days. The tradition is still in full swing, with Corn Island celebrating Crab Soup festival to mark the emancipation of the slaves on the 27th of August. It wasn’t until about two days later than someone realized that news hadn’t reached the little island and went to inform them, and that’s why the festival is celebrated on the 29th on that side.
The first makeshift school opened up in late 1850s (?) thanks to the Reverend Edward Kelly, the son of a freed slave from British Honduras. In 1880, WB Morgan from Jamaica opened up the first school recognized by the government.
The economic foundation changed with the emancipation slavery. Cotton was phased out and coconut harvesting became the cash crop for the islanders. It is much less labor intensive than cotton and provided a good income for the locals.
In the early years there was little health care for the islanders. They relied on bush medicine and home remedies. Babies were birthed by midwives and the mothers were kept inside and bathed with warm water for 9 days to avoid catching a cold. On occasion a British man-of-war ship would visit the island and tend to the seriously ill. The first island doctor was John Quinn who lived on Quinn Hill. He had been given some medical books by the ship’s doctor and he and his son studied as much as they could. When John died, his son, Michael, became the island doctor and would make house calls on horseback. Uncle Mike, as he was known, died in 1938 and others took up the practice.
On the Quinn hill side of the island you can find one of the old wells that was supposedly built by slaves. Some say that at night you can still hear the slaves dragging their chains around the area.
There have been many, but these stand out in the oral history of the island.
15 October, 1776, a hurricane blew down the few trees and houses on the islands.
19 October, 1865, a very powerful storm washed away the plantations and destroyed the village faster than anyone could have expected.
2 October, 1876, there was a strong storm the the locals weathered, fearfully.
10 October, 1906, a hurricane caused much damage to the island.
22 October, 1988, Category 4 – 5 hurricane Joan wreaked havoc on the island, a storm that most people still remember well (Bluefields was destroyed).
Between years there have been many storms and hurricanes, but most paled in comparison to these memorable events.
This information was taken from various sources, but we would like to thank the BICU and all those involved in writing the book, The Richness of our Identity and Tradition, Oral History of Corn Island. Much of this information was found there, and the book itself can be found in the Culture House in Big Corn Island.