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Athena Review   Vol.1, no.2

The Miskito Indians, described by William Dampier

The following account by William Dampier from A New Voyage Round the World (first published in London, 1697) dates from 1681, when he and his shipmates, including several Miskito Indians, landed on the south coast of Panama (then called Darien). Dampier pays high respect to the fishing and harpooning skills of the Miskito, and also provides a few observations on their social customs and farming methods. This is one of the very earliest descriptions of the Miskito Indians (called the Moskito by Dampier), a composite group of tribes and descendents of runaway slaves living along the Caribbean coastline of Honduras and Nicaragua, a region called the Miskito Coast.

 "...When we had rowed and towed against the Wind all night; we just got about Cape St. Lorenzo in the morning; and sailed about 4 miles farther to the Westward, and run into a small Creek within two Keys, or little Islands, and rowed up to the Head of the Creek, being about a Mile up, and there we landed May 1681. We got out all our Provision and Cloaths, and then sunk our Vessel. While we were landing and fixing our Snap -sacks to march, our Moskito Indians struck a plentiful Dish of Fish, which we immediately drest, and therewith satisfied our Hunger.

 " Having made mention of the Moskito Indians, it may not be amiss to conclude this Chapter with a short account of them. They are tall, well- made, raw -bon'd, lusty, strong, and nimble of Foot, long -visaged, lank black Hair, look stern, hard favour'd, and of a dark Copper- colour Complexion. They are but a small Nation or Family, and not 100 Men of them in Number, inhabiting on the Main on the North-side, near Cape Gratia Dios; between Cape Honduras and Nicaragua.

Fig.1: Map of Central America and the Caribbean by Dampier. The Miskito Coast is marked with a star (Dampier 1697, A New Voyage Round the World).]

"They are very ingenious at throwing the Lance, Fisgig, (1) Harpoon, or any manner of Dart, being bred to it from their Infancy; for the Children imitating their Parents, never go abroad without a Lance in their Hands, which they throw at any Object, till use hath made them masters of the Art. Then they learn to put by a Lance, Arrow, or Dart: The manner is thus. Two boys stand at a small distance, and dart a blunt stick at one another; each of them holding a small stick in his right hand, with which he strikes away that which was darted at him. As they grow in years they become more dexterous and courageous, and then they will stand a fair mark, to any one that will shoot Arrows at them; which they will put by with a very small stick, no bigger than the Rod (2) of a Fowling-piece; and when they are grown to be Men, they will guard themselves from Arrows, tho they come very thick at them, provided two do not happen to come at once. They have extraordinary good Eyes, and will discry a Sail at Sea farther, and see any thing, better than we.

 "Their chiefest employment in their own Country is to strike Fish, Turtle or Manatee, the manner of which I describe elsewhere, Chap. 3. For this they are esteemed and coveted by all Privateers; for one or two of them in a Ship, will maintain 100 Men: So that when we careen our Ships, we choose commonly such places, where there is plenty of Turtle or Manatee for these Moskito Men to strike; and it is very rare to find Privateers destitute of one or more of them, when the Commander, or most of the Men are English; but they do not love the French, and the Spaniards they hate mortally. When they come among Privateers they get the use of Guns, and prove very good marks Men; they behave themselves very bold in fight, and never seem to flinch nor hang back; for they think that the white Men with whom they are, know better than they do when it is best to fight, and let the disadvantage of their party be never so great, they will never yield nor give back while any of their party stand.

 "I could never perceive any Religion nor any Ceremonies, or superstitious Observations among them, being ready to imitate us in whatsoever they saw us do at any time. Only they seem to fear the Devil, whom they call Wallesaw; and they say he often appears to some among them, whom our Men commonly call their Priest, when they desire to speak with him on urgent business; but the rest know not any thing of him, nor how he appears, otherwise than as these Priests tell them. Yet they all say they must not anger him, for then he will beat them, and that sometimes he carries away these their Priests. Thus much I have heard from some of them who speak good English.

 " They marry but one Wife, with whom they live till death separates them. At their first coming together, the Man makes a very small Plantation, (3) for there is Land enough, and they may choose what spot they please. They delight to settle near the Sea, or by some River, for the sake of striking Fish, their beloved employment.

" Far within land there are other Indians, with whom they are always at War [4]. After the Man hath cleared a spot of Land, and hath planted it, he seldom minds it afterward, but leaves the managing of it to his Wife, and he goes out a striking. Sometimes he seeks only for Fish, at other times for Turtle, or Manatee, and whatever he gets he brings home to his Wife, and never stirs out to seek for more till it is all eaten. When hunger begins to bite, he either takes his Canoa and seeks for more game at Sea, or walks out into the Woods and hunts about for Peccary, [5] Waree, (6) each a sort of wild Hogs, or Deer; and seldom returns empty handed, nor seeks for any more so long as any of it lasts.

[Fig.2: Map of the Miskito Coast, showing tribal regions (after BAE Bull 143, vol.4, map 5; Athena Review).]

 " Their Plantations are so small, that they cannot subsist with what they produce: for their largest Plantations have not above 20 or 30 Plantain Trees, (7) a bed of Yams (8) and Potatoes, (9) a bush of Indian Pepper (10), and a small spot of Pine-apples(11) ; which last fruit is a main thing they delight in, for with these they make a sort of drink which our men call Pine-drink, much esteemed by these Moskito's, and to which they invite each other to be merry, providing Fish and Flesh also. Whoever of them makes of this Liquor treats his Neighbours, making a little Canoa full at a time, and so enough to make them all drunk; and it is seldom that such Feasts are made, but the party that makes them hath some design, either to be revenged for some injury done him, or to debate of such differences as have happened between him and his Neighbours, and to examine into the truth of such matters. Yet before they are warmed with drink, they never speak one word of their grievances: and the women,. who commonly know their Husbands designs, prevent them from doing any injury to each other by hiding their Lances, Harpoons, Bows and Arrows, or any other weapon that they have.

 " These Moskito's are in general very civil and kind to the English, of whom they receive a great deal of respect, both when they are aboard their Ships, and also ashore either in Jamaica, or elsewhere, whither they often come with the Seamen. We always humour them, letting them go any whither as they will, and return to their country in any Vessel bound that way, if they please. They will have the management of themselves in their striking, and will go in their own little Canoa, which our men could not go in without danger of oversetting; nor will they then let any white man come in their Canoa, but will go a striking in it just as they please: All which we allow them. For should we cross them, tho' they should see shoals of Fish, or Turtle, or the like, they will purposely strike their Harpoons and Turtle-irons aside, or so glance them as to kill nothing. They have no form of Government among them, and acknowledge the King of England for their sovereign: They learn our language, and take the Governour of Jamaica to be one of the greatest princes in the world..."

Notes: (based partly on Masefield's 1906 edition)

1. Fisgig, fishgig, or visgee, now generally called the grains, a harpoon with three or more barbed heads.

2. The ramrod.

3. Lionel Wafer (the surgeon on this voyage, who published his own account in 1699) tells us that the plantation was cleared for the newly married couple by the men of the Mosquito tribe.

4. Such outside tribes were collectively called the Sumo by the Miskito (see fig.2).  A typical Miskito village held between 100 and 500 inhabitants. Sumo villages were apparently much smaller. (For more information on the Sumo and Miskito cultures, see Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE), Bull.143,v4 [1948], pp. 219-229.)

5. Peccary (Dicotyles torquatus). A gregarious wild hog. "'Tis black, and has little short legs, yet is pretty nimble."

6. Warree (Dicotyles labiatus). "A very good sort of a wild beast, which is much like unto our English Hog ." I t has tusks and bristles like the European wild boar. It is much more savage than the peccary.

7. Plantain (Musa sapientum). A large variety of banana, originally imported from the Old World.

8. Yam (Discorea alata), imported from Africa. The word comes via Portuguese inhame, probably from Bantu nyama ("meat") or Bambara nyana ("wild yam").

9. Sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), a New World domesticate originally from the Andean region.

10. Indian Pepper: any of several species of Capsicum , all of which are New World domesticates.

11. Pineapple (Ananas comosus). Another New World domesticate.

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