Little Corn Island: a “paradise” almost lost?

Almost fifteen years ago – in September 2000 – I visited Nicaragua’s small and remote Corn Islands. I thought about the islands again when a friend, Grant Peeples (who, with his wife Cathy, owned and ran a wonderful little hotel in Little Corn, the smallest and prettiest of the two islands), told me that I now wouldn’t recognise the place. I then looked at travellers’ on-line reviews of the islands and much of what I read seemed to confirm this.

Back in 2000 Little Corn Island had only around 700 inhabitants, but now the population is probably over twice that number. Fifteen years ago there were just four places to stay on the island, offering a total of no more than a couple of dozen beds; today, in contrast, there are well over 20 hotels and guest houses. Now Little Corn is often reported to feel overrun by tourists, with most shops, restaurants and hotels owned and managed by foreigners, entirely for foreigners. One consequence of the changes is that there are now few possibilities for visitors to interact with native islanders.

A turtle butcher in the big island.
A turtle butcher in the big island.

During my stay I divided my time between Corn Island (or simply “the big island”, as it’s often called – despite an area of just ten square kilometres) and Little Corn (which is barely three square kilometres). My main reason for visiting was to explore the issue of turtle fishing, past and present.

For centuries green and hawksbill turtles have been hunted in Nicaraguan waters by indigenous Miskitos of the mainland and visiting fisherman from the Cayman Islands. The tender flesh and translucent shell of turtles were valuable exports, ending up on dinner tables and workshops in Europe and the United States.

Although the international trade in turtle products is now illegal, in coastal Nicaragua the green turtle is still in great demand, with the meat as important to the local diet as beef is in much of the rest of the country. One Monday I hired a boat to take me to the nearby tiny Pearl Cays where turtlers (mainly Miskito men) maintain rudimentary encampments. Neither turtles nor their hunters could be found and instead I made do with talking to lobster fishermen. I later wrote an article about turtles and lobsters for The Geographical magazine (which can be accessed here) and a travel piece on Little Corn Island for the newspaper The Independent (which can be found here).

A lobster fishermen’s encampment in the Pearl Cays.

In both Corn islands, I concentrated on seeking out older residents who could tell me about the heyday of Nicaragua’s turtle trade, though I also asked questions about family history and everyday life. I recently listened to the tape recordings and looked at my slides and realised that by now most of my interviewees will have died. What I heard were descriptions of a way of life and culture that has either entirely vanished or is fast disappearing. I decided to transcribe sections of the interviews and produce a couple of blog posts. Some of this material will appear in future posts….but first a little background…..

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Located some 80 kilometres off Nicaragua’s east coast, since the 17th century Corn Island and Little Corn Island have had far more in common with the Anglo Caribbean than with Hispanic Central America – indeed until the mid-19th century, the islanders bore allegiance to the British crown. The “native islanders”, as the English-speaking Creole portion of the inhabitants refer to themselves, are mainly of mixed African and European origin – the descendants of black slaves introduced from Jamaica, white land (and slave) owners, traders and turtle hunters from the Cayman Islands, as well as a sprinkling of European seafarers and beachcombers.

Sea island cotton was Corn Island’s main cash crop until soon after the abolition of slavery in 1841. Far less labour intensive coconuts replaced cotton as the islands’ key export, with coconuts either processed locally into oil for shipment to the distant interior of Nicaragua or shipped as copra to the United States for processing. In addition, visiting boats from the Cayman Islands, some 800 kilometres to the north, often stopped off in the Corn Islands to purchase turtles to sell in Jamaica or in Florida’s Key West and to buy fresh provisions and even livestock to transport home.

Island life change drastically from the 1960s when the spiny lobster from the nearby reefs started to be exploited on a commercial basis. This brought a great deal of cash to some of the lobster catchers, and  considerable wealth to owners of a few local processing companies. (I recall an especially successful Corn Island family serving me a glass of imported Tropicana orange juice, the windows and doors of their lavish Greek revival style home kept wide open while the airconditioner was on full-blast). Hardly any of these valuable crustaceans were sold in Nicaragua, with instead most being exported to the United States, the main purchaser being the Red Lobster chain of restaurants.

Little Corn Island – Otto’s Beach.

Lobster catching was – and is – a dangerous activity. Most are speared by scuba divers, or collected from traps positioned on the reefs, by young Miskito men who often swim too deep, remain submerged for too long, and surface too quickly. Countless divers have fallen victim to decompression illness, leading to paralysis or death. (People were a bit more reluctant to talk about the wealth generated from cocaine, the islands being handy transhipment points, with the drug being brought by high-speed skiffs from San Andrés, the Colombian island 150 kilometres to the east.)

Attracted by the lobster boom, many people from the mainland moved to the islands, and by 2000 incomers had outnumbered native islanders. Even so, Creole culture remained dominant, in part because many of the mainlanders hadn’t really established roots on the islands (they were often only temporary residents, there simply to work to maintain homes and families elsewhere), but also because the migrants came from varied ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

In addition to English-speaking Creoles from around Bluefields (Nicaragua’s main eastern port), migrants included Miskitos from Puerto Cabezas and elsewhere along the mainland coast, members of the mixed Antillean-Indian Garifuna community from Pearl Lagoon and “Spaniards” – the term that native islanders often use for Spanish-speaking people from Nicaragua’s interior and Pacific coast.

As well as bringing different languages, the migrants introduced new churches, notably the Roman Catholic Church of the “Spaniards” and the Moravian Church to which Miskitos traditionally adhere to; in contrast native islanders have long been members of the Anglican or Baptist churches – membership basically depending on which half of the big island someone comes from.

The Baptist Church, Little Corn Island.
The Baptist Church, Little Corn Island.

Older islanders typically described the islands as having been little short of a utopia – indeed the words “paradise” and “we were like one family” were repeatedly used. A few railed against immigrants (as they considered non-native islanders) for what they claimed were their thieving and generally immoral ways. Others mourned the loss self-sufficiency since the lobster boom, criticised Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolutionary government (1979–90) for imposing “Spaniards” to administer the islands and draft young men and boys into the army, and talked of the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Joan in 1988 – the most powerful storm in Nicaragua’s history – which destroyed pretty-well all the coconut palms and fruit trees, making the islands all the more dependent on lobster. Some were resigned to (or even supportive of) the inevitability of change.

Otto Carlson (1923–2013)

One of the first people who I interviewed was Otto Carlson, a grandson of Swedish sailor Gustav Carlson who in the late 19th century chose Corn Island as a place to settle – to fish, farm and raise a family. “We used to grow all kinds of things,” said Otto, who was 77 years old when we met.

Otto was born on the big island in 1923 but, when he was 18, he moved to Little Corn to work on his father’s and uncle’s land located by the stunningly beautiful north shore. “We had a lot of plantain, banana, cassava,” reminisced Otto, “we sold a little, ate a little. We had eight cows and we’d make real good butter. But most of all we’d grow coconuts, make oil and send it up to Managua to be turned into soap. It’s different now. In them days we used to strike one or two lobster when we needed them, but now it’s all lobster, lobster, lobster. The lobster is gettin’ smaller and so’s the catch. But when lobster stops, people who’ve come from off island will have to go for there’ll be nothing to do.”

Apparently lobsters haven’t yet been wiped out – though perhaps traditional ways have.

Part 2 of this series of memories of Corn Islanders is available here.
Part 3 of this series of memories of Corn Islanders is available here.