I Found It at the JCB

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April 2010


Mapping the Mosquito Shore


[Robert Hodgson], "A Draught of the Country near Blewfield's Bluff on Mosquito Shore," [1770]. 

[Robert Hodgson], "A Plan of Blewfields Harbour on the Mosketo Shore," [1770],
Original in the John Carter Brown Library.

Mapping Land Politics on the Mosquito Shore
Karl Offen

As a geographer interested in the ways that maps shape and reflect the human imagination, I knew I was in the right place at the John Carter Brown Library.  During my first week here, Susan Danforth, the George S. Parker Curator of Maps and Prints, was preparing her wonderful exhibition “Map Talk” in the main reading room.  As the exhibit makes clear, maps are graphic representations of space that organize, re-present, and communicate spatial information visually.  Maps also reflect the cultural concerns, values, and technologies of the society that produced them and, like all cultural products, they can influence social processes in turn.

Two of the more interesting maps that I found for my research on the history of the Mosquito Shore, a portion of eastern Central America spanning Nicaragua and Honduras, are two eighteenth-century manuscript originals mounted on a single sheet.  Despite the copious amounts of informative text accompanying the different views of what is today Bluefields Bay in eastern Nicaragua, the maps are unauthored and undated.  The small-scale map showing the larger area on the right-hand side is titled (on the reverse) “A Draught of the Country near Blewfield's Bluff on Mosquito Shore,” while the large-scale map showing a smaller area on the left-hand side, and oriented with east up, is titled “A Plan of Blewfields Harbour on the Mosketo Shore.” 

One hint of the maps’ purpose is the notice that the land was called Small Hopes, and was “purchas'd of the King & Governor of the Mosquito Indians in Council met by Lieut. R. Hodgson & register'd in Jamaica. 1757.”  This text is located upon the site of today’s Bluefields, a city of 50,000 people and one of the largest cities in Caribbean Central America.  When these maps were drawn, however, only a single “Indian Habitation” is noted anywhere in the bay.  The remaining text on the two maps refers to the rich availability of deer, iguanas, green turtle, oysters, fish, and manatee.  Other concerns highlight sailing needs, including depths at different tides, channels across the shallow lagoon, and specific landing sites.  Defensive locations are noted, as are soil qualities, and available natural resources, particularly timber.  In short, important eighteenth-century concerns to promote colonial settlement, generate crown support, or to leverage the land deed. 

As with other texts, to make sense of these maps we need to locate them in their time and place.  The Mosquito Shore had been governed by a British Superintendent in alliance with the Mosquito Indians since 1749.  The first Superintendent was Captain Robert Hodgson, the father of the above-noted Lieut. R. Hodgson, also named Robert.  Young Hodgson Jr. had joined his father on the Shore in 1749, cutting short his studies at the Woolwich Academy at Greenwich where he studied mathematics, surveying, and cartography.  In 1767, Robert Hodgson Jr., now a Captain himself, was named superintendent for the Mosquito Shore. 

Hodgson’s tenure as superintendent (1767-1776) was marked by strong opposition from leading British settlers.  Among the most egregious of his governing innovations was to regulate the acquisition of land grants from the Mosquito King and other leading Mosquito men.  Indeed, in a decree of April 5, 1770, Hodgson set out to review all existing land grants and to verify their validity.  One such grant he reviewed was held by an Isle of Man trader named Henry Corrin.  Corrin lived at Bluefields Bluff with some 60 African and Indian slaves from 1752 until his death in 1769.  A trader by profession, Corrin oversaw an important smuggling network that connected Jamaican merchants with Spanish officials in Nicaragua up the Bluefields River.  Upon his death, a series of incompetent relatives attempted to oversee Corrin’s estate.  This was Hodgson’s opportunity to acquire Bluefields for himself. 

Records held in the National Archives in London and in Belize (where all extant Mosquito Shore documents were transferred following the forced British evacuation of the Mosquito Shore in 1786) show that both Corrin and Lieutenant Hodgson had received titles to different areas around Bluefields in 1757.  With Corrin dead and his estate in disarray, Hodgson took a trip to Bluefields in 1770 ostensibly to quell Spanish overtures of peace to leading Mosquito men on the windward, or Nicaraguan, coast.  While visiting with Mosquito leaders, Hodgson surveyed Bluefields Bay and sketched the coast.  Thus, Captain Robert Hodgson Jr. drew these maps in 1770, two bits of information that can now be added to the JCBL catalog record.  Hodgson no doubt created these maps to shore up his overlapping claim to lands held, but no longer occupied, by Corrin’s heirs. 

The JCBL manuscript originals are the only known copies of these maps.  That said, thirteen of Hodgson’s other maps of the region were captured by the Spanish at the tail end of the Anglo-Spanish war of 1779-83.  Today, exact copies of them reside at the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain, and confirm Hodgson’s cartographic style.  These captured maps were so detailed and covered areas extending to the Pacific Ocean that they startled the Viceroy of New Granada, Antonio Caballero y Górgona when he first received them.  Always a survivor, Hodgson transferred his services to the Spanish Crown and was allowed to return to the Mosquito Shore where he convinced key of the Mosquito leaders to travel to Cartagena to meet with Caballero y Górgona.  But, internal Mosquito disputes over political control created by the British evacuation eventually forced Hodgson to flee his residence at Bluefields to Guatemala City in 1790.  He died there the following year. 

It would not be an exaggeration to claim that Hodgson was the most important British settler on the Mosquito Shore in the eighteenth century.  These two JCBL maps do not prove this point but they are the earliest known surveys of eastern Nicaragua’s most important bay and provide a graphic window onto British and Mosquito Indian land politics in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Karl Offen, University of Oklahoma, was a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the John Carter Brown Library  during the winter and spring of 2010.

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