The small and rather remote Corn Islands are located off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. Until quite recently the inhabitants have been overwhelmingly English-speaking – mainly the descendants of black slaves from Jamaica, white British plantation owners, Caymanian turtlers and traders, and the odd European and North American. These “native” islanders considered that they had little in common with mainland Nicaragua, instead maintaining close affinities with other English-speaking islands in the western Caribbean.
The first of this series of posts explained what, back in September 2000, attracted to me to the Corn Islands – Big Corn and Little Corn – and discussed some of the pressures that the islanders were facing. Almost 15 years on, much has changed (and many of the men and women who I interviewed and photographed have since died) as tourism has come to dominate the local economy, alongside lobster fishing…and the transhipment of cocaine. I decided to devote a couple of blog posts to islanders’ memories of a way of life that has all but disappeared….
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Until the abolition of slavery in 1841, the main produce of the Corn Islands was high quality “sea island” cotton, which commanded excellent prices in England. The plantations were owned and overseen by men from England, Ireland and Scotland and were entirely reliant on slave labour, mainly imported from Jamaica – the Campbells, Downs and Quinns are some of the islands’ families who are the descendants of these slaves and their former masters. In time, members of these formerly slave-owning families would intermarry with the descendants of slaves – but some islanders I spoke with clearly recalled the disapproval of family members towards such mixing.
Following emancipation, cotton production was impossible to sustain due to the wage demands of free labour and because properties were becoming smaller and smaller with the passing of each generation. Soon the shrub was replaced by far less labour-intensive coconut trees, while fruit and vegetables were grown for home consumption and to sell to passing vessels, often destined the Cayman Islands.
Coconut production would remain central to the local economy until 1988 when the islands were struck by Hurricane Joan – the most powerful storm in Nicaragua’s history – which destroyed pretty well all the trees.
Elena Bacon Quinn (1908–2010)
All but a couple of the people I interviewed were “native” Corn Islanders – and even the most extreme nativist of islanders would consider Elena Quinn as being one of the family.
Miss Elena was born in Bluefields, on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, to James Edward Bacon and Clara Maria Cabrera. At some point in the late 19th century, James left his home in England to work in the gold mines of northeastern Nicaragua. It was there that James met Clara, a teacher, and together they had four children; he died at the age of just 36, when Elena was a baby of six months. Clara then took her children to stay with her parents in Punta Gorda, a riverside community in the southeast.
When Elena was ten years old her mother died. A half-sister in Bluefields took her in and it was there that she learnt English, still very much the dominant language of the banana and lumber-exporting town. Over 80 years on, Miss Elena spoke very clear English, almost without Creole influences, but retaining a slight accent, grammar and vocabulary influenced by the Spanish of her early years.
“I come to Corn Island in 1925 when I had 18 years. I married in 1927. I came for the Jackson’s hotel – I come with one of their daughters. That was the only hotel in Corn Island. Mrs Jackson was a native from here. She had a mother, father and sisters, all of them born right here. I used to wash because I didn’t know anything else.
After that I met my husband – Charles Gordon Quinn, born here in Corn Island. He used to farm – them times the people never used to fish lobster. The farm was on the small island. He used to go there and farm and then come here. We lived here. He farmed bananas, cassava, coconuts and different things. They used to sell the coconut. It was good money then. My husband died in 1961 – he had 59 and I had 53.”
Leopoldo Campbell (1911–2003)
While walking along the road that encircles the big island, I got chatting to someone about what had brought me there. The man told me that his 89 year old father liked to talk and it was suggested that I return the following afternoon to meet with him.
Leopoldo Campbell was born Copeland, Corn Island and always lived there. The Campbells, Leopoldo told me, originated in Ireland, but he had no idea when they came to Corn Island – presumably in the 18th century when the plantation economy was developing.
Leopoldo’s father was born on the island around 1870 and he died “a month short of 89 years old”. The birth name of Leopoldo’s mother was Clark – her father was an American, a miner in the Bonanza gold mines in northeast Nicaragua; her mother, a Campbell from Corn Island, had met him in the mining area and was “kept as a concubine”. They had two children together and she returned to the island and her family when they were infants.
Being so dependent on a single crop – coconuts – meant that life was sometimes precarious, especially as it could take as long as 12 years from the planting of a tree until the harvesting of good quality nuts. But the mines had long served a safety valve for men and women in need of work – Leopoldo remembered being told by his father that most of the islands able men were forced to seek work there following a particularly powerful hurricane of 1909.
“My father and mother they grew up here. Then you got married when you’re 20, 21. In those days you had to prepare your house, you had to be engaged, and they had to get married when everything was in order. The family land of my father’s father was 88 acres of land – my father got 16 acres, everybody [in the family] had to get a share.
Right here now I’ve got nine children therefore when I die they’ll all come down and get a smaller share. When I was growing up everyone was living a domestic life. Plantation of coconut, plantain, banana and they used to ship that out – and everybody had a cow, a milking cow, and had chicken they didn’t have nobody to molest, nobody used to steal your things. We were one family, in other words. We go from place to place, we eat at plenty dining table, and everything was in order.
Coconut was really the produce. We sold to the Franklin Baker Company. Marvin Wright’s father was the agent – a travelling agent. Tyler Welcome’s father was the agent present here on the island. Cayman people came here to live when I was very much a boy. I know Tyler Welcome came here as an agent for the Franklin Baker Company and then he brought here his children, his son-in-laws, – Gus Miller and Lawrence McCoy, shipwrights. At that time there were plenty of hurricanes in Cayman. His son-in-laws built a big barge here for to put the coconut. You had other small buyers with little storehouses on different part of the island to collect the coconut until the ship come. I think the first ship [of the Franklin Baker Company] came when I was a big boy, 16, [around 1927].
At Brigg Bay was the chief storehouse. To get the coconut from here to Brigg Bay you’d have canoes – big canoes that take 5,000 – with big sails made out of flour sacks. No one had an engine. And we’d use plenty of horses and mules to transport coconuts to the storehouse. Everyone was gathering every three months crop – we had lots of work around, in coconut time. You’d store the coconut by tarring the eye, to preserve it.
They used to call all the boys and we used to store the coconut in the ship. There all the island men, when the ship come down all, the island people come down and load the ship and everybody worked on the ship. There was some big cooking and meeting on the beach, they feed the labourers, it would take three, four days. The ship would come every nine months, sometimes six months. The ship would come from San Andrés – and there she’d load and go to Honduras. And the ship would take it to Hoboken. That coconut used to go to the States and we’d get it back as biscuits, made from the coconut!
The Franklin Baker Company was here quite a while, then they pulled out and they gone to the Philippine Islands. I was still a young man. Before, we didn’t have any direct price for coconut. Some big schooners used to come and take the coco to Colón [in Panama]. Boats used run here, run around, take the coconut. Then Franklin Baker came, who paid a better price and monopolised it. That was in my days.”
Rose Britton Downs (1934–2014)
One Saturday I stopped by Rose Britton’s house on Little Corn Island, catching her before church – she was a Seventh Day Adventist, like quite a few islanders. Our conversation roamed on all kinds of topics including family history, farming, traditional bush medicine, how best to cook turtle and current problems.
Miss Rose was born on Corn Island and moved to Little Corn in 1952, at the age of 18. Her father came from the island of Providence (or Providencia) which forms part of Colombia along with the neighbouring island of San Andrés. I was told that the grandfather of Miss Rose’s father came from Sweden; Amos Augustus Britton was presumably a former sailor, like Otto Carlson’s Swedish grandfather.
Miss Rose’s grandfather owned a boat and carried freight between Colón (in Panama), Bluefields, Providence and Corn Island where he purchased land and built a house. In 1917 he brought over from Providence his large family, with Rose’s father being six years old at the time. Miss Rose said that people always used to come and go between Corn Island, Providence and San Andrés – “practically the same people you find here, you find them family up there”.
Miss Rose also spoke with passion about recent events in her life and how the islands were changing – for the worse, in her view. She told me how in 1984 her family fled Nicaragua when it was ruled by the revolutionary Sandinista government. So that her sons would avoid conscription, the family sailed in a little boat south to Limón, in Costa Rica, where they would spend three years housed in a refugee camp. One son was resettled in Vancouver and some family members moved to Miami. Miss Rose and other children moved to San Andrés, an island to which she felt they belonged due to close family and cultural ties. They returned home in 1991. “It was real different when we come back,” she told me.
Miss Rose expressed a mix of anger and dismay with respect to the demographic changes that her islands were undergoing. Specifically, she pointed to the arrival of Miskitos, Garifunas and “Spaniards” who she blamed for what she alarmingly saw as “a crack epidemic” and for overfishing lobster, views that seemed to be widely held amongst the older generation of “native” islanders. She lived to see Little Corn Island’s tourism boom – I wonder how she felt about the tourist arrivals….
“When I come out here first I had 18 years old – my mother come out here with the man that she was along with. The first time I come here it was a no engine boat. In them days there were just sailing boats and paddling canoes.
In them days only some people used to be here. Up on the point there used to be a lady Miss Shogreen and her husband and children. And coming further down another home – the Watts family. A little further down was Augustín Gomez. And you never find the next house till you come here to the Nixon family. Leaving here you go down the side there was a man named Victor Downs and his family. Then in the back was the Pereira family – the name was Spanish but they was Creole, they spoke English. And you never find the next house ’til you get to the other side of the island. It was an old lady named Rosaline – we used to call her Aunty Rose. And you never find another house ’til you get to the farthest end – that was Cleveland Carlson, Otto Carlson’s the nephew.
Everything was coconut, making coconut oil. They used to make copra out of the coconut. Some people used to chip the coconut, cut it and put it into like a tray and they have what they call a drier, push fire in the bottom. And then they have where they put the tray in, an oven like where you bake the bread in, and there they dry it. And they shipped it to San Andrés. There they had a company that used to buy it and make the oil. And they used to have coconut meal. They chipped the coconut and they put them coconuts in a box that worked with an engine with a belt that go around, somebody was there pressing the coconut and dropped it in a box. Then they take that out wash it in a drum, then skin that off the next day. They used to ship that oil to Managua to make soap – first to Bluefields then down to Rama, go through there to the lake and go to Granada.”
Marvin Wright (1931–2008)
One afternoon I stopped off to visit Marvin Wright on the big island. He knew surprisingly little about the background of his parents, but as we wandered around his 33-acre property (large by local standards), he talked about coconuts, the economic and social changes during his lifetime and his concerns for the future of his island.
Marvin’s father, Fred, was American and his mother (a Jackson) was born in Corn Island, but from a Caymanian family. They met and married in Jamaica and Marvin thought that they moved to Corn Island in the late 1920s. Fred served as a travelling agent for the Franklin Baker Company which purchased most of Corn Island’s coconuts and transported them to the United States for processing.
As a young man Marvin travelled to the United States where for a time he studied at the University of California-Berkeley. He returned to Corn Island and for a short period (1962-63) served as the mayor. Like many islanders, Marvin left the country during the period of Sandinista rule, opting to live in Florida where, at the time of our meeting, his wife and family still lived.
“Before the hurricane of ’88, this property produced coconuts. Everything was coconuts, practically. We had three processing plants on the island. One was Brigg Bay for Hooker, one was up here for Nicholson, and we had another that belonged to some Chinese, that later on was sold to the Bustamante family. We used to take out, by the drums, by the hundred a month. They’d go to Managua where they’d be processed to make soap.
You could live quite well – and that’s what we used to live on until they came here and showed us how to fish lobster…and what was the price of lobster. In ’88 when the hurricane came, the coconut business was declining.
Even before the hurricane we couldn’t get workers. It would just be a friend of mine – I would say, ‘let’s go, I need a couple of thousand coconuts’. We’d each gather together half a load and I’d carry them to Rama. Also we used to sell the whole coconut in Rama. And from Rama they’d take it to Managua because they was knowing there, and in the Pacific, how to cook with the coconut.
After ’88 everything changed. We just had to make it out one way or another. I went into the boat business, transportation. I never did go much for the lobster. I worked with the beer company – the Victoria beer company – transporting beer from Managua to Rama, and from Rama I would take it to Puerto Cabezas. Also Pepsi. I used to make a living of that. It was quite a difficult change but you have to make the best out of the worst.
Now a guy by the time he gets 14, 15 – strong enough to go out and haul those lobster pots – they’re gone to sea. And they can make good money. You see agriculture, even when we had coconuts, it could not compete against the lobsters. Because a guy can go out there easily make 50 to 100 dollars in a few hours, meanwhile here with the coconuts when we had it before the hurricane, what would they make, maybe 50 córdobas [then about US$4] – not 50 dollars!
Now to clean this place, we used to pay, say around 35 or 40 córdobas – they want up to 100 dollars. So why should I clean this place if I’m not going to use it? That’s why you can see this whole thing’s a forest, practically. Because it’s no use – it’s no sense of cleaning. Can you imagine I investing 30-odd 100 dollars? For what? For what?
We had here a little paradise. We knew each other. This was like sort of a family. But now we’re invaded – we’re the minority right now. It’s just something incredible! But they don’t want to work on the land – just with lobsters – and to steal – and bringing drugs.
I am disappointed because I see in the very near future we’ll have to get people as mayor, and different things, from Bluefields or Managua or the Pacific because these guys here aren’t studying. We’re having to deal with crack, you know? Drugs. My way of looking at it is that lobster will soon be finished, will soon be extinguished, and I think tourism will be a help to this island. And for that we need hotels.”
Lorraine Bodden (b. 1950)
I met Lorraine in the offices of the local branch of the Movimiento Comunal Nicaragüense, an organization promoting grassroots empowerment by offering legal advice and assistance with basic education and supporting campaigns against corruption and for the protection of the environment.
Lorraine’s paternal grandparents came to Corn Island from the Cayman Islands. Lorraine was very young when they died and she knew nothing about them apart from the fact that they had been farmers. She said that she wanted to look into her family’s history, but it was clear to me that issues of the present were of far greater significance to her than those of the past.
In January 1978 Lorraine was living in Waspam, on the border with Honduras, training to be a teacher, when opposition journalist Pedro Joaquín Chamorro was murdered in Managua. This event became the spark igniting the revolution against Nicaragua’s ruthless dictator, Anastasio Somoza.
As opposition to Somoza mounted, Lorraine was expelled from her college and she returned with her two children to Corn Island. “We wouldn’t have survived in Waspam”, explained Lorraine, who unwittingly predicted that this border region would become a battleground between revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces. In contrast, in Corn Island “we could live off the land, get fish from the sea.”
Unlike many islanders, Lorraine was happy working with the Sandinistas (1979–90) – though she never joined the party, she thought that they had good ideas, though their implementation of these could be clumsy.
Despite not being a Sandinista, for six months she worked in the local government’s finance department but she resigned because of plans to confiscate properties belong to people deemed as being pro-Somoza. “But Corn Island didn’t have any Somozistas”, insisted Lorraine. “We didn’t see them as Somozistas – we saw them as local people.”
Lorraine would be the first to admit that she has always been a controversial figure in Corn Island . Since the defeat in 1990 of the Sandinista revolutionary government she continued to voice her opinions, whether concerning local and national government, shady business interests, local drug dealers or the churches. Her sheer charm, however, is such that she has the ability to forge what are at times surprising alliances.
“My father was a farmer – he had a processing plant – and he bought coconuts from the other farmers and processed them to make oil – shred the coconut. He had between thirty and forty acres of land, a lot for the island.
Yes, I remember the processing plant. There was a terrible experience with a lady that went to work with really long hair and she got caught into that mill and it pulled it right out. She survived but with horrible scars. It was unbelievable. It was awful!
Coconut oil processing stopped after the hurricane of 1988. The hurricane was really horrible. I remember waking up after the hurricane and feeling like nothing would grow again. The island was totally devastated – there was nothing was left standing. Literally no trees – well, the one that were left were completely stripped bare.
The morning when I got up and looked outside I simply thought I wouldn’t see grass again on this island. It was really bad. But there is an incredible degree of solidarity between the Nicaraguans, especially in disaster – and I think that that’s what helped the situation. They might be knocking against each other in good times, but in disaster things change.
After the hurricane a few people left. But a lot had fled before, during the Sandinista regime, because of military service that the Sandinistas had imposed. It was a difficult time in all the senses – from the revolution and because of the hurricane. This island had always been abandoned. Here is where Anastasio Somoza used to come when things were hell in Managua. He’d come with his yacht and forget about Nicaragua and the problems. He’d anchor and spend days here. This was his refuge.
This was always a peaceful, a quiet island. It was different. You see, we had something like an anarchist government. People govern themselves. There’s never been police here until now. One little policeman would be here. This island is unusual inside the country. The people don’t have a warring spirit. The people in the interior and the Pacific have a different culture from the Atlantic coast.
The Sandinistas, they were the ones that really started treating us like we were Nicaraguans. This was not any longer just a little island all by itself. It’s hard to know what the people here really like because they want something but they don’t want change.
At the moment, we want to be recognized by the government and we want them to do more – but we also want our autonomy. We are really open and hospitable – people from all over come here and become part of here. But we have lost the freedom, the quiet, the tranquility that we have had on this island. I remember we never lock a door. So I can understand the feeling of distrust to people coming to the island. That is a reality. That is not nostalgia.
The fruits that we could have, we can’t have them any more. There’s a papaya tree here that I have nurtured: people from here would come and say I want a papaya – and I have no problem in sharing; but people who are not from here just walk and take a stick and take one. And the same thing happens with the things you have got on your farm. That’s the biggest reason why people don’t grow any more. When you plant you don’t get anything – all you get is the work and what they leave. Sometimes you have to take the things that are not even ready. It’s sad. It’s really, really sad. But this is a mysterious island. There’s always something here that people can live from. They’ll always be something else.”