Miskitos (also Mosquitos or Miskitus), a mixed indigenous—black rural population of about 150,000 persons, make up the majority population of eastern Nicaragua and Honduras (the Miskito Coast). Although they have been isolated, the history and lifestyle of the Miskito, particularly those in Nicaragua, have been inextricably meshed with European and Caribbean (Jamaican) settlers, traders, and missionaries who have frequented the region since the late seventeenth century.
During the colonial era eastern Honduras and Nicaragua remained unsettled by Hispanic populations. Instead, the predominant colonial power was Great Britain, replaced by the United States in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Reflecting colonial British sentiments, the Miskitos have long disliked Hispanic peoples while welcoming English-speakers. Protestant missionaries, most notably Moravians, have predominated. Although Miskito remains the mother tongue, Miskito men generally learn English as a second language, and many speak Spanish as well. Miskito women tend to speak only Miskito.
The Miskitos originated in the late seventeenth century, when a small indigenous population living near Cape Gracias a Dios, at the mouth of the Río Coco, which now forms the border between Nicaragua and Honduras, mixed with freed or escaped African slaves seeking refuge on the coast. The men of this racially mixed population, excellent hunters and fishermen, procured food for European pirates who raided ships in the Caribbean and utilized the isolated Miskito shore for rest and rendezvous. In return, the Miskitos received material goods, including guns and ammunition. With this weaponry the Miskitos expanded territorially north into Honduras, south along the Nicaraguan coast, and west toward the interior, subjugating other indigenous populations and becoming the dominant native group.
Miskito men continued to seek employment with Europeans, leaving home communities for extended periods to work as wage laborers in rubber tapping, lumbering, and mining enter prises or on banana plantations. Miskito women remained in their villages and continued traditional slash-and-burn agriculture, growing rice and beans as cash crops and as basic staples in addition to traditional root crops (especially manioc), plantains, and bananas as well as pejibaye palm. When wage labor was unavailable, the men hunted and fished. This dual economy, combining wage labor with traditional subsistence activities, allowed the Miskitos to survive and flourish even when periodic economic depressions afflicted the extractive European wage economy. Similarly, although traditional village life has been heavily influenced by missionary endeavors, many aspects of traditional kinship and domestic life continue.
During the 1980s the Nicaraguan Sandinista Revolution greatly affected life on the Miskito Coast; many Nicaraguan Miskitos were forced to flee to refugee settlements or to Honduras. When hostilities ceased, villages slowly were reestablished. The long-term effect of this disruption of Miskito life remains unclear. Greater Hispanization of coastal life in general is likely to occur, although the 2003 passage of Nicaraguan Law 455, a state-designed plan for demarcating indigenous territories, has the potential to support Miskito autonomy and to allow more traditional lifeways to continue.
Excellent historical background and description of twentieth-century Miskito life prior to the revolution is in Mary W. Helms, Asang: Adaptations to Culture Contact in a Miskito Community (1971), and in Bernard Nietschmann, Between Land and Water (1973). Eduard Conzemius, "Ethnographical Survey of the Miskito and Sumu Indians of Honduras and Nicaragua," Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 106 (1932), describes many traditional cultural practices. An autobiographical account of boyhood on the Miskito Coast is Charles Napier Bell, Tangweera: Life and Adventures Among Gentle Savages (1899; repr. 1989). Another description of early-nineteenth-century coast life is Orlando W. Roberts, Narrative of Voyages and Excursions on the East Coast and in the Interior of Central America (1827; repr. 1965). Historical background is in Troy S. Floyd, The Anglo-Spanish Struggle for Mosquitia (1967).
Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. La cuestión miskita en la revolucián nicaragüense. Mexico: Editorial Línea, 1986.
Jenkins-Molieri, Jorge. El desafío indígena en Nicaragua: El caso de los mískitos. Mexico: Editorial Katún, 1986.
Mary W. Helms