Spanish rule was imposed on all the Indians who had not died from the Old World diseases which the "conquistadors" had brought with them or who had not been carried away as slaves. It is estimated that in western Nicaragua alone, what had been a population of over one million Indians was crushed to a few tens of thousands by the end of the Spanish conquest. Also, historical research indicates that as many as half a million native Nicaraguans may have been exported as slaves to Panama and Peru. Most of these unfortunate souls died en-route to their destination or after a year or two in slavery as a result of the deplorable conditions. However, although vast quantities were annihilated, some Indians did survive the onslaught.
This drastic reduction in population was not the only major change that the Spanish brought to the region. Before the conquest, labor-intensive agriculture was commonplace because the Indians grew corn, beans, peppers, and squash as assigned to them by their caciques. (Caciques were the Indian chiefs whom the Spanish manipulated by way of bribes and alliances to extract gold and slaves.) Although the common Indian had to give a certain portion of their crops to their cacique as a kind of tax, they could keep the rest to eat or sell in the market. However, because of the drastic reduction in population, there were not enough farmers left to till the earth and much of the agricultural land reverted to jungle and became unusable to the future inhabitants. Also, the Spanish forced the people to produce goods such as gold, silver, timber, and cattle which could be exported to Spain or traded with the other colonies instead of the basic bread-basket foods which they had been growing for centuries. The Indians, even though they were far more numerous than their Spanish masters, provided the labor to fund this export- based economy. This in itself was not so terribly bad; what was terrible about this situation was the fact that most of the wealth which was produced flowed into the hands of the tiny white minority and very little trickled down into the hands of the common people.
As the conquistadors tried to impose their religion, language, and customs on the conquered people, many cultural aspects where altered drastically as well. However, nowhere was the transition complete. Many items and cities retain their native Nicaraguan names and Indian customs are still in evidence. By and large, however, Nicaragua was hispanicized: Spanish became the language of the people and Catholicism became the almost universal religion. All the new cities such as Granada and Leon were built following the typical Spanish system of plazas, city markets, cathedrals, and public buildings.
The conquest also revolutionized the social system by establishing brand new class patterns. The pre-Columbian societies of Central America operated on the basis of a hierarchical system, and it was this fact which facilitated the superimposition of the Spanish on the system. What changed, however, was the fact that social classes came to be determined by race. Two highly unequal classes emerged with the Spanish as the obvious superiors. Those who were Spanish by birth or descent became the ruling class and everybody else became the poor and seemingly worthless lower class. Within this lower class, a system of classification developed based on the amount of Spanish blood flowing through each individual's veins. A group of people called the mestizos, the off-spring of Spanish men and Indian women, were at the top of this sub-system with the pure-blooded, indigenous Nicaraguans at the very bottom.
From 1526 to 1821, Nicaragua was governed by Spain and was considered to be one of her colonies.
Colonial Nicaragua enjoyed comparative peace and prosperity, although freebooters like the
English navigators Sir Francis Drake and Sir Richard Hawkins continually disrupted that
prosperity by raiding and destroying coastal settlements. During the 1700s, the British
managed to ally themselves with the Miskito, a Native American group of people intermarried
with blacks, and they began to severely challenge Spanish control. For a period during and after
the middle of the century the Mosquito Coast was considered a British dependency. However, The
Battle of Nicaragua which lasted from 1775 to 1783, the time period of the American
Revolution, ended Britain's attempts to win a permanent foothold in Nicaragua.
At first, the union seemed like a great idea and everyone was excited about the possibilities. They reasoned that Central America would be politically and economically stronger as one unit instead of five small pieces. However, from the very beginning, powerful forces worked to destroy the fragile relationship. First of all, the resentment that most of the nations held for Guatemala grew even larger when Guatemala received eighteen of the forty-five seats in the congress and therefore dominated policymaking. Second, the Constitution of 1824 declared each state to be "free and independent" in their internal affairs. However, the Constitution also contained contradictory features which supported nationalist and centralist ideas and these ideas tended to hamper the freedom which each country sought in their "internal affairs." Finally, two parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, began to emerge out of the ruling elite and their rivalry threatened the union. Liberals and Conservatives not only disputed within their own provinces, but also across borders. As a result, meddling in neighbor's affairs has become a common practice of Central American leaders. These three factors worked together to create tension and resurgent civil war. Everything just blew up in 1838 as first Nicaragua and then the other members seceded. Several more attempts were made to reunify the countries, but none were ever successful.
Leon went on to become the center of the Liberals (Los Liberales), and Granada became the
In 1893, the Liberals brought about a successful revolution which placed
their leader Jose Santos Zelaya in power. Zelaya remained president for the next 16 years,
ruling as a dictator. He was forced out in 1909, after Adolfo Diaz was elected provisional
Diaz requested United States military to maintain order after a revolt in 1912, and
US marines landed a few years later. According to the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty of 1916, the US
paid $3 million dollars to Nicaragua for the right to build a canal across the country from the
Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, to lease the Great and Little Corn Islands, and to establish a
naval base in the Gulf of Fonseca. The agreement was extremely unpopular with many elements
and it aroused anti-American guerrilla warfare in Nicaragua as well as protests from other
Central American countries. When the American marines left in 1925, rebellions began and the
marine force returned to quell the disturbances just a year after its departure. Under American supervision, an election was
held in 1928, and General Jose Moncada, a Liberal, was chosen. One Liberal leader, however,
Augusto Cesar Sandino, engaged the US forces in guerrilla warfare for many years.. The U.S.
Government withdrew the marines in 1933, leaving
Anastasio Somoza commander of the
National Guard. Somoza purportedly had Sandino assassinated and was elected president in
1937. Thus began the Somoza dynasty which ruled Nicaragua as a dictatorship for the next 43
In August 1971, the legislature abrogated the constitution and dissolved itself, and in February 1972, Somoza's Liberal party won in a landslide. In May, Somoza stepped down to the post of chief of the armed forces; political control was assumed by a trio of two Liberals and one Conservative.
The forces of nature struck and devastated Nicaragua on December 23, 1972 when a massive
earthquake virtually leveled the city of Managua. T
he earthquake left 6,000 dead and 20,000
injured in its wake. Martial law was declared, and Somoza in effect became chief executive
again. Sadly, however, Somoza did not use the international aid which he received to rebuild
country in a prudent manner and the opposition to his regime grew even stronger. He formally
became president again with his re-election in 1974.
Control of the country was shifted to a junta of five people, one of which was Violeta Chamorro, and this junta ruled Nicaragua from 1980 to 1985. The junta began to lean more and more toward left-wing policies, and Chamorro resigned in disgust and turned her late husband's newspaper into an opposition voice to these policies. Around this time, a group of opponents to the Sandinistas sprang up and became known as contras. In 1981, the US began to fund the contras in their guerrilla war against the Sandinistas in order to continue the US foreign policy of suppressing communism. Facing enormous economic difficulties, the junta made an agreement with the former USSR for an aid package. Of course the US became even more desperate, fearing that another Cuba was in the making.
Daniel Ortega, the FSLN's presidential
candidate, took office and declared a state of national emergency, suspending civil rights. At
this time, what has become known as the Iran-Contra Affair occurred, an operation in which
funds were secretly channeled to the contras, directly violating the Boland Amendment.
By 1988, the country was a social and economic disaster zone as a result of the civil war and
Hurricane Hugo so President Ortega agreed to the first peace talks with the contras and a
temporary truce was achieved in March. In 1990, the moderate
Violeta Chamorro became
President of Nicaragua as a result of the free elections and she was able to maintain peace in the
land throughout her term of office and improve relations with the US.