Mosquitoes, alcohol and violence

A Catalan children’s song remembered by Francesc Candel; early rave culture on Central America’s eastern seaboard.

From Les meves escoles, a song recalled by Francesc Candel from pre-war infancy spread between the old port of what is now the Zona Franca, the Casas Baratas on the fringes of Montjuich, Vallvidrera and Sant Hilari de Sacalm:

Ja és de nit
i el mosquit
ara canta, ara canta,
ja és de nit
i el mosquit
ara canta la zit-zit.
Tot tocant el violí:
nyigo nyí.
De la bóta,
de la bóta del racó,
del racó,
que no és plena
de vi bo.
A llavors
se’n va a caçar
i pujant pel finestró
al primer que veu dormint
li fa un cop de violí:
nyigo, nyigo, nyigo, nyigo,
nyigo, nyigo, nyigo, nyigo.
I d’un cop
molt ben donat
el mosquit ha rebentat.

It’s harder than it sounds.

Apart from several years spent in a porcine-odoured Dutch convent in a lusty swamp overwhelmed by the creatures, my interest in mosquitos was born of what turned out to be a portrait of the genesis of a cacique written years ago at the request of Dani Ortega’s European fanclub and received with characteristic socialist ingratitude. One of the places the Sandinistas screwed up big time was Nicaragua’s Miskito/Mosquito coast, although to be fair any interventionist incompetency would have had problems there. Overwhelmed by falsified agricultural statistics, I never quite got around to looking at the origins of the settlements and people, but I recently submitted Samuel A Bard’s Waikna, or, Adventures on the Mosquito Shore (1855) to the embers of Central American memory and found in the appendices the following amusing, if quite possibly grossly inaccurate, version of the coast’s early history:


The general physical characteristics, and the climate and productions of the Mosquito Shore, have probably been sufficiently indicated in the foregoing rapid narrative. Nevertheless, to supply any deficiencies which may exist in these respects, as well as to illustrate the history of this coast, to which recent political events have given some degree of interest, I have here brought together a variety of facts derived from original sources, or such as are not easily accessible to the general reader.

The designation “Mosquito Shore” can only properly be understood in a geographical sense, as applying to that portion of the eastern coast of Central America lying between Cape Gracias à Dios and Bluefields Lagoon, or between the twelfth and fifteenth degrees of north latitude, a distance of about two hundred miles. The attempts which have been made to apply this name to a greater extent of shore, have had their origin in strictly political considerations.

This coast was discovered by Columbus, in his fourth voyage, in 1502. He sailed along its entire length, stopping at various points, to investigate the country, and ascertain the character of its inhabitants. He gave it the name Cariay, and it was accurately characterized by one of his companions, Porras, as “una tierra muy baja,” a very low land. Columbus himself, in his letter to the Spanish sovereigns, describes the inhabitants as fishers, and “as great sorcerers, very terrible.” His son, Fernando Columbus, is more explicit. He says, they were “almost negroes in color, bestial, going naked; in all respects very rude, eating human flesh, and devouring their fish raw, as they happened to catch them.” The language of the chroniclers warrant us in believing that these descriptions applied only to the Indians of the sea-coast, and that those of the interior, whose language then was different, were a distinct people.

The great incentive to Spanish enterprise in America, and which led to the rapid conquest and settlement of the continent, was the acquisition of the precious metals. But little of these was to be found on the Mosquito Shore, and, as a consequence, the tide of Spanish adventure swept by, heedless of the miserable savages who sought a precarious subsistence among its lagoons and forests. It is true, a grant of the entire coast, from Cape Gracias to the Gulf of Darien, was made to Diego de Nicuessa, for purposes of colonization, within ten years after its discovery, but the expedition which he fitted out to carry it into effect, was wrecked at the mouth of the Cape, or Wanks [sic] river, which, in consequence bore, for many years, the name of Rio de los Perdidos.

From that time forward, the attention of Spain was too much absorbed with the other parts of her immense empire in America, to enable her to devote much care to this comparatively unattractive shore. Her missionaries, inspired with religious zeal, nevertheless penetrated among its people, and feeble attempts were made to found establishments at Cape Gracias, and probably at other points on the coast. But the resources of the country were too few to sustain the latter, and the Indians themselves too debased and savage to comprehend the instructions of the former.

The coast, therefore, remained in its primitive condition, until the advent of the buccaneers in the sea of the Antilles, which was about the middle of the seventeenth century. Its intricate bays and unknown rivers, furnished admirable places of refuge and concealment, for the small and swift vessels in which they roved the seas. They made permanent stations at Cape Gracias and Bluefields, from which they darted out like hawks on the galleons that sailed from Nombre de Dios and Carthagena, laden with the riches of Peru. Indeed Bluefields, the present seat of Mosquito royalty, derives its name from Bleevelt, a noted Dutch pirate, who had his rendezvous in the bay of the same name.

The establishment at Cape Gracias, however, seems to have been not only the principal one on this coast, but in the whole Caribbean Sea. It is mentioned in nearly every chapter of the narratives, which the pirates have left us, of their wild and bloody adventures. Here they met to divide their spoil, and to decide upon new expeditions. The relations which they maintained with the natives are well described by old Jo. Esquemeling, a Dutch pirate, who wrote about 1670:—

“We directed our course toward Gracias à Dios, for thither resort many pirates who have friendly correspondence with the Indians there. The custom is, that when any pirates arrive, every one has the liberty to buy himself an Indian woman, at the price of a knife, an old axe, wood-bill or hatchet. By this contract the woman is obliged to stay with the pirate all the time he remains there. She serves him. meanwhile, with victuals of all sorts that the country affords. The pirate has also liberty to go and hunt and fish where he pleases. Through this frequent converse with the pirates, the Indians sometimes go to sea with them for whole years, so that many of them can speak English.” (Buccaneers of America, London, 1704, p. 165.)

He also adds that they were extremely indolent, “wandering up and down, without knowing or caring so much as to keep their bodies from the rain, except by a few palm- leaves,” with “no other clothes than an apron tied around their middle,” and armed with spears “pointed with the teeth of crocodiles,” and living chiefly on bananas, wild fruits and fish.

We have a later account of them by De Lussan, another member of the fraternity of freebooters:

“The Capo has long been inhabited by mulasters (mulattos) and negroes, both men and women, who have greatly multiplied since a Spanish ship, bound from Guinea, freighted with their fathers, was lost here. Those who escaped from the wreck were courteously received by the Mousticks [Spanish Moscos, English Mosquitos) who live hereabout. These Indians assigned their guests a place to grub up, and intermixed with them.

“The ancient Mousticks live ten or a dozen leagues to the windward, at a place called Sanitey (Sandy Bay). They are very slothful, and neither plant or sow but very little; their wives performing all the labor. As for their clothing, it is neither larger or more sumptuous than that of the mulasters of the Cape. There are but few among them who have a fixed abode, most of them being vagabonds, and wandering along the river side, with no other shelter than the latarien-leaf (palm-leaf), which they manage so that when the wind drives the rain on one side, they turn their leaf against it, behind which they lie. When they are inclined to sleep, they dig a hole in the sand, in which they put themselves.” (De Lussan’s Narrative, London, 1704, p. 177.)

The negroes wrecked from the Spanish slave-ship were augmented in number by the cimaranes, or runaway slaves of the Spanish settlements in the interior; and, intermingling with the Indians, originated the mongrel race which now predominates on the Mosquito Shore. Still later, when the English planters from Jamaica attempted to establish themselves on the coast, they brought their slaves with them, who also contributed to increase the negro element. What are called Mosquito Indians, therefore, are a mixed race, combining the blood of negroes, Indians, pirates, and Jamaica traders.

Many of the pirates were Englishmen, and all had relations more or less intimate with the early governors of Jamaica, who often shared their profits, in return for such indulgences as they were able to afford. Indeed, it is alleged that they were often partners in the enterprises of the buccaneers. But when the protracted wars with Spain, which favored this state of things, were brought to a close, it became no longer prudent to connive at freebooting; and, as a kind of intelligence had sprung up with the Mosquito Shore, they conceived the idea of obtaining possession of it, on behalf of the British crown. Various plans to this end, drawn up by various individuals, were at this period presented to the royal government, and by them, it would seem, referred to the governors of Jamaica.

But the governors of that island had already taken the initiative. As early as 1687 one of the Mosquito chiefs had been taken to Jamaica, for the purpose of having him place his country under the protection of England. Sir Hans Sloane has left an account of how, having escaped from his keepers, “he pulled off the European clothes his friends had put on, and climbed to the top of a tree!”

It seems, nevertheless, that he received “a cocked hat, and a ridiculous piece of writing,” which, according to Jeffreys, was a commission as king, “given by his Grace, the Duke of Albemarle, under the seal of the island!”

It was not, however, until 1740, that an attempt was made to obtain a cession of the coast, from the extraordinary monarch thus created by the Duke of Albemarle. In that year Governor Trelawney wrote to the Duke of Newcastle, suggesting the expediency of rousing the Mosquito Indians against the Spaniards, with whom the English were at war, and purposing an absolute occupation of their country. He represented that there were about one hundred Englishmen there, “mostly such as could live nowhere else” who might be brought together, reenforced, and, by the help of the Mosquitos, finally induce the other Indians to revolt, ” and thus spread the insurrection from one part to another, till it should become general over the Indies, and drive the Spaniards entirely out.”

In pursuance of this scheme, Governor Trelawney commissioned one Robert Hodgson, to proceed to the Mosquito Shore, fully provided with every thing necessary to enable him to tamper with the Indians. The manner in which he executed his instructions is naively told by Hodgson himself, in a letter addressed to the Governor. The following extracts are from the original letter, now in the possession 01 Colonel Peter Force, of Washington.

Sandy Bay, April 8th, 1740.

“May it please Your Excellency,—

“I arrived at St. Andrews on the 4th of March, and sailed for Sandy Bay on the 8th, where I arrived on the llth, but was prevented by a Norther from going ashore till the 13th,

“King Edward being informed of my arrival, sent me word that he would see me next day, which he did, attended by several of his captains. I read to him Tour Excellency’s letter, and my own commission, and when I had explained them by an interpreter, I told them my errand, and recommended to them to seek all opportunities of cultivating friendship and union with the neighboring Indian nations, and especially such as were under subjection to the Spaniards, and of helping them to recover their freedom. They approved every thing I said, and appointed the 16th to meet the Governor, John Briton, and his captains at the same place, to hear what I had further to say.

” On the 16th they all came, except Admiral Dilly and Colonel Morgan, who were, like General Hobby and his captains, at too great a distance to be sent for, but their presence not being material, I proceeded to explain to them that, as they had long acknowledged themselves subjects of Great Britain, the Governor of Jamaica had sent me to take possession of their country in His Majesty’s name–then asked if they had any thing to object. They answered, they had nothing to say against it, but were very glad I had come for that purpose; so I immediately set up the standard, and reducing what I had said into articles, I asked them both jointly and separately, if they approved, and would abide by them. They unanimously declared they would. I had them then read over again, in solemn manner, under the colors, and, at the end of every article fired a gun, and concluded by cutting up a turf, and promising to defend their country, and procure for them all assistance from England in my power.

“The formality with which all this was done seems to have had a good effect upon them.

“The articles I enclose, and hope Your Excellency will excuse so much ceremony; for, as I had no certain information whether the country was ever taken possession of before, or ever claimed otherwise than by sending them down commissions, I thought the moro voluntary and clear the cession was the better. * * * The king is very young, I believe not twenty, and is not much observed; but were he to be in England or Jamaica a while, ’tis thought he would make a hopeful monarch enough.

“On the 18th the king, with his captains, came of their own accord to consult about a proper plan to attack (the Spaniards), but hearing that Captain Jumper was expected from the other side of the Cape, and neither the Governor, Admiral Dilly, nor Colonel Morgan being present, I thought it best to defer it till they were summoned. The king brought his mother, and the captains their wives. I entertained them as usual, but there always comes such a train that I should have had three or four, instead of one puncheon of rum.” * * *

Hodgson then goes on to describe the appearance of one Andrew Stewart, a pirate, to whom the Indians had made a promise of assistance, from which he endeavored to dissuade them, in order to accompany him; but the Indians finally agreed to attack the river Cocelijo to oblige Stewart, and San Juan de Veragua to oblige Hodgson. He continues:—

* * * “They intoxicate themselves with a liquor made of honey, pine-apple, and cassava, and, if they avoid quarrels, which often happen, they are sure to have fine promiscuous doings among the girls. The old women, I am told, have the liberty of chewing the cassava, before it is put in, that they may have a chance in the general rape as well as the young ones.

“I fell into one of their drunken-bouts by accident yesterday, when I found Admiral Dilly and Colonel Morgan retailing my advice to them to little effect, for most of them were too drunk to mind it, and so hideously painted that I quickly left them to avoid being daubed all over, which is the compliment they usually pay visitors on such occasions.

* * * “Their resentment of adultery has lost its edge too much among them, which I have no doubt they are obliged to us for, as also for the breach of promise in their bargains. * * * They will loll in their hammocks until they are almost starved, then start up, and go a turtling in a pet; and if they have not immediate success, and their happens to be many boats together, they form a design upon some Spanish or Indian town. * * * *

” The country is fine, and produces good cotton, better than Jamaica. * * * Those Indians, on this side, do not appear so averse to government as I supposed, and those on the other are tractable enough. * * * I don’t take their number to be so many as the author of the project makes them out.

(Signed) “Robert Hodgson.”

Good to be reminded that the Indians were the authors, as well as the victims, of orgiastic frenzies. My other source says that they were already whooping it up in the fleshpots of Algiers in the 16th century:

There is not a nation of Christians on this earth without renegades in Algiers. Beginning in the remote provinces of Europe, we find in Algiers renegade Moscovites, roxos [Russians?], rojaianos [sic], Vlachs, Bulgarians, Poles, Hungarians, Bohemians, Germans, Danes and Norwegians, Scots, English, Irish, Flemish, Burgundians, Navarrans, Biscayans, Castilians, Galicians, Portuguese, Andalusians, Valencians, Aragonese, Catalans, Mallorcans, Sardinians, Corsicans, Sicilians, Calabrians, Neapolitans, Romans, Tuscans, Genoans, Savoyans, Piedmontese, Lombards, Venetians, Slavonians, Albanians, Bosnians, Arnauts, Greeks, Candians, Cypriots, Surians, and Egyptians, as well as Prester John’s Abyssinians and Indians from the Portuguese, Brazilian and New Spanish Indies.

I haven’t read Paul Theroux’s The mosquito coast, but people in the ¡no! tell me that the setting is Graham Greene generic tropical and decadent. If someone gifts me it from my wishlist I’ll report back anon and in grateful mode. Otherwise I’ll probably stick with Greene.

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