Walking around Granada today and seeing the foreign visitors appear as a legion of backpackers intent on spending as little as possible for the most possible entertainment, it is hard to believe that Granada was once so wealthy that pirates lusted for her treasures. Actually, the three documented sackings of Granada were not done by pirates, but rather, by freebooters licensed and authorized by their respective governments to attack and steal the assets of whatever country the authorizing country happened to be at war with at the time. So it happened that in 1655 came for a visit, having been granted permission by the English governor of Jamaica to go privateering against the French, Dutch, or Spanish possessions in the Caribbean.
But why go to Granada, so far inland and so difficult to reach? Because it was fabulously wealthy. It was the only city at that time in the Spanish Americas that had waterborne connections with both the Atlantic and the Pacific and it acted as the source of all import to and export from the Spanish Americas. Granada carried on a direct trade with Guatemala, Honduras, and San Salvador, and with Peru, Panama, Cartagena, Columbia, and Spain. The old English Friar, Thomas Gage who coincidently visited Granada in 1665, said “there entered the city in a single day not less than eighteen hundred mules from San Salvador and Honduras alone, laden with indigo, cochineal, and hides. And in the two days thereafter, came in nine hundred more mules, one-third of which were laded with silver which was the kings tribute.” Henry Morgan first invaded Granada in 1665 by navigating the San Juan River with six twelve-meter long canoes stolen during a raid on Villahermosa in Mexico. To conceal their approach, they travelled up the Rio San Juan only at night, hiding their canoes in the bush and resting during the day. Moving under cover of darkness they managed to cross the Lake and land close to Granada where they again concealed their boats and rested. Come nightfall, they made a surprise attack on the city before the Spanish authorities had time to respond. They set fire to all the Spanish boats and made off with around half a million sterling silver pounds. Morgan went on to join forces with the local Miskito tribe, and escaped down the Coco river to the Caribbean after looting Spanish settlements on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. Having accumulated quite a fortune, Morgan left the area, but that was not the end of piracy on Lake Nicaragua.
Pirates were not content with hovering around the outlet of the Rio San Juan into the Caribbean because that risked and encounter with the formidable Spanish fleets collecting loot to take back to Spain. They had the audacity, in 1686 to land and capture the city itself. That rare old rascal De Lussan who was a member of that raiding party stated in his account of the adventure that “upon our side,” he says, “cost but four killed and eight wounded, which was, in truth, very cheap!” But for their troubles, they got little booty because the inhabitants, having been forewarned, had hidden most of the town’s treasure in various of the isletas. In spite and revenge, they burned the town, an act to be followed 170 years later by the retreating General Henningsen of William Walker’s army who, after burning the town, left a note on a spear thrust into the ground saying “here was Granada.”
The Caribbean was rife with pirates in the second half of the 17th Century. In the 1630s, Abraham Blauvelt, the Dutch pirate whose headquarters were on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, gave name to that city, now known as Bluefields. It is estimated that at least 1500 to 2000 pirates roamed the Caribbean at any time. To prevent attacks upon Granada, the Spanish in 1673 began the construction of the Fortress of the Immaculate Conception on the Rio San Juan where now exists the town of El Castillo. It failed in its first attempt because in 1685, English pirate William Dampier landed on the Pacific coast, marched overland and sacked the town again, for the last time. And just to be even handed, he sacked Leon as well on his way back to the Pacific.
El Castillo time of fame came in 1762
The Fortress of the Immaculate Conception in February 2011
Since the founding of British colonies in the West Indies, most notably Jamaica, the constant conflict between England and Spain created a haven for pirates who also served as privateers in war time. Pirates and Miskito Sambu filibusters attacked the Fortress of the Immaculate Conception repeatedly during the 18th century. Perhaps the most famous battle, The Battle of the Rio San Juan, occurred in 1762 during the Seven Years’ War. In the 1740s the British had allied themselves with the Miskito Sambus who were a mixed race of African and native American ethnicities, so when war broke out in 1762 the British and the filibusters began raiding Spanish settlements within Nicaragua for slaves, many of whom were shipped to Jamaica. Eventually a force of 2,000 Britons and Sambus sailed up the San Juan in more than fifty boats and canoes where they laid siege to about 100 Spaniards in the fortress on July 26. The garrison commander had died only recently leaving his daughter, the nineteen-year-old Rafaela Herrera and a lieutenant, to lead the defense. Herrera killed the British commander herself on the first day of the battle with a well directed blast of grapeshot and for six days afterward the two sides duelled with cannons. Occasionally the British and Sambus would charge forward for a close quarters engagement though they were beaten back every time with heavy losses. A second British expedition was launched in 1780 and it successfully captured the fort. This expedition was directed by Horatio Nelson who would later go on to fame as the hero of Trafalgar. The conquest of El Castillo had the aim of connecting the Pacific to the Atlantic for the benefit of the British Navy. It was a Pyrrhic victory. More than half of the British garrison was dead within six months from infectious diseases and Nelson was critically ill for months.
Probably most effective at terminating pirate attacks was the loss of Granada’s unique position as the trading place for both imports and exports between the old and new worlds. By the mid 18th century, several other ports had been opened and Granada was no longer as wealthy as it had been in the previous century. Now, instead of packs of mules bringing in the wealth, packs of “muchilleros” come to leave a few dollars rather than steal them as did the pirates.