The Contested Maritime Mosquitia: Nicaragua, Great Britain, and the Caribbean Turtle Fishery, 1894–1905

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 1:50 PM
Columbia 7 (Washington Hilton)
Sharika D. Crawford, US Naval Academy
In 1894, Nicaraguan President José Santos Zelaya annexed the Mosquito Kingdom along the Caribbean coast. He called the act of asserting control over the autonomous region as the “reincorporation,” wrongfully suggesting that the Mosquitia formerly belonged to Nicaragua. In fact, Nicaraguan authorities had few interactions with the Miskitu prior to 1838 and limited administrative responsibilities in the region. It was British rather than Nicaraguan officials that held political sway among the Miskitu, which reflected the centuries long commercial, cultural, and political affinity that the Miskitu had toward the British. Yet the “reincorporation of 1894” signaled the creation of new governing institutions, the imposition of authority from Managua officials, and the definitive end of British political influence. Much of the existing scholarship examines Nicaraguan state efforts to benefit from the extractive economies of gold and bananas or create new state institutions. This paper, however, examines Nicaraguan efforts to regulate and thwart Caymanian turtle hunters’ use of banks, cays, reefs, and harvesting of marine resources in the adjacent Caribbean Sea. Drawing on travel memoirs, newspaper accounts, British official documents (Colonial and Foreign Offices), Nicaraguan, and Colombian government correspondence, this paper reveals how the Nicaraguan state sought to control the largely contested maritime Mosquitia and reap whatever economic benefits from tighter regulations on the exportation of sea turtles. Turtlemen strongly challenged these laws by frequently claiming a common ownership of these spaces and thus, insisting on their right to hunt turtle. In doing so, turtlemen threatened the sovereignty claims of Nicaraguan authorities who hastened to firm up maritime boundaries and state presence in these watery spaces.