Greytown (San Juan del Norte)

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Greytown (San Juan del Norte)

Greytown (San Juan del Norte), a small trading settlement in Nicaragua where the San Juan River enters the Caribbean. The port has served various nations—Spain, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Great Britain, and the United States—for trade and transit since the sixteenth century. In the late colonial era, San Juan del Norte, as it originally was named, became an outlet for Costa Rican gold and other contraband goods that were exchanged for trade goods from Jamaica. The British and the Mosquito Indians claimed the port in 1841, but the British sent a naval force to drive away the Nicaraguan authorities in February 1848. They renamed the village Greytown, in honor of Charles Grey, governor of Jamaica.

Great competition for power made Greytown a place of considerable activity from 1848 until the 1880s. In 1848, the Royal West India Mail Steam Packet Company initiated monthly service between San Juan and Southampton, England. From 1849 to 1869, Cornelius Vanderbilt's Accessory Transit Company exercised transit rights up the San Juan River and across Lake Nicaragua with steamer connection to California. During the 1850s, Greytown served as a lifeline for reinforcements and supplies during U.S. filibustering. In mid-1854, the competition between Britain and the United States heated up to the point that the U.S.S. Cyane destroyed the town.

In 1860, Great Britain and Nicaragua signed a treaty that made San Juan del Norte a free port. In the 1860s, silting created sandbars in the estuary of the river that rendered the port of little use for ocean vessels. The British moved their commercial operations north to Bluefields, but U.S. promoters of a Nicaraguan canal attempted to keep the port as one terminal of the canal until bankruptcy ended the canal project during the depression of the 1890s. Since the 1890s, San Juan del Norte has shriveled into an isolated village of several hundred people, surrounded by decaying buildings and rusting equipment.

See alsoPanama Canal .


Mario Rodríguez, A Palmerstonian Diplomat in Central America, Frederick Chatfield, Esq. (1964).

Murdo Mac Leod, Spanish Central America: A Socioeconomic History, 1520–1720 (1973).

Craig L. Dozier, Nicaragua's Mosquito Shore (1985).

Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr., Central America: A Nation Divided (1985).

Additional Bibliography

Incer Barquero, Jaime. Piratas y aventureros en las costas de Nicaragua: Crónicas de fuentes originales. Managua: Fundación VIDA, 2003.

Romero Vargas, Germán. Las sociedades del Atlántico de Nicaragua en los siglos XVII y XVIII. Managua: Fondo de Promoción Cultural-Banic, 1995.

                                    Thomas Schoonover