History@Portsmouth

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The enemy of my enemy is my friend: An examination of the relationship between the Miskito and the British.

“Abigail based her study on engagement with, and critical examination of, a wide range of sources, from secondary ones to printed Calendars of government records and original Treasury Papers which revealed expenses for gifts to the Miskito to ensure a positive relationship. Extant artefact and pictorial evidence, though scant, was also employed. There was adept use of cartography and consideration of the three Miskito rulers brought to England – ‘The Prince’ brought to England at some point in the 1630s by Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick, ‘Oldman’ here in 1655 and George, in England c. 1774 –November 1776, before becoming King of the Miskito. Written in a clear, confident and crisp manner, this study sheds remarkable light on an Indian tribe who remained autonomous and independent in a relationship with Britain on the margins of the European imperial world during a period of both crucial significance and not insubstantial change.” – Dr James Thomas, Abigail’s dissertation supervisor.

Image taken from Phillip Dennis and Michael Olien, “Kingship among the Miskito,” American Ethnologist, Vol 11, (1984) p.719.

 

The narrative of early modern European imperialism is one that sees historians neglecting the influences of indigenous peoples and the autonomy they held. This topic gripped my interest, and throughout each academic year I found myself choosing units that complimented and furthered my interest. During my second year I read an article discussing the Miskito Indians, a group of indigenous Native Americans in Honduras and Nicaragua, operating along the Miskito Coast.

The article itself focused on how the British manipulated the Miskito in order to further their own colonial and imperial ventures in the area. When it came to choosing a topic for my dissertation, I immediately knew I wanted to delve deeper into the story of the Miskito in the hope of uncovering the reality of their relationship with the British, as many historians painted them as subordinates to British rule, only focusing on Anglo primary sources and not considering the Miskito perspective.

My dissertation analysed the relationship between the Miskito and the British by looking at different elements of their relationship. First, it was important to look at how the relationship was formed, and whether or not this was controlled and orchestrated by the British, or was one of negotiations and cooperation. Through looking at the initial encounters of British buccaneers, and the people of Providence Island, it was clear that despite the historical narrative of overarching British control and of European superiority, and a quest to enlighten ‘savages’, the Miskito had full control over whether or not they wished to work with the British. The Miskito assisted British buccaneers, helping them navigate the rocking coasts and wild inland, while also benefitting from the relationship by receiving goods for their services such as guns, which led them to become the dominant tribe along the Miskito Coast. Miskito autonomy was also clear in British attempts from Providence Island to evangelise the Miskito. British missionaries claimed the Miskito desired for a Christian schoolmaster to properly educate their children. However, in reality, when looking at requests from Miskito King Edward I in full, it is clear that this request was a political one, as he also requested supplies, arms, and governor status, demonstrating Miskito manipulation of British values. The pinnacle of Miskito autonomy can also be clearly seen when looking at the War of Jenkin’s Ear, a war between Britain and Spain over mercantile and colonial control in the area. The Miskito worked with the British, not out of duty, but out of their own deep hatred for the Spanish after cruelty experienced during early Spanish attempts at colonisation. The Miskito were in control, and fully cognisant of their ability to manipulate their relationship with the British for their own gain.

However, working on a dissertation that focuses on the perspective of people ignored by the historical narrative did indeed come with many difficulties. Finding primary sources from the Miskito point of view proved impossible, forcing a reliance on sources from a British perspectives and an ability to read between the lines to look at Miskito motivations and actions. Furthermore, many sources were written in Spanish, and often untranslated, requiring attempts at translation in order provide a view from the Spanish. Finding sources relevant to the study also proved difficult, as the topic itself is one that has been neglected by historians and history itself. Despite investigation in the National Archives, Lambeth Palace and Portsmouth History Centre, many source leads led to dead ends. For example, in attempts to discover the name anonymous author ‘M.W’, and attempts to discover the background of Superintendent Robert Hodgson, no sources could be uncovered. However, this does reveal the need to investigate topics such as the Miskito, as it reveals a lack of historiography around the histories and perspective of minority ethnic groups.

Material sources also proved a dead end in looking at the Miskito. The only remaining material artefact from the Miskito during this period is a hand axe held by The British Museum, highlighting how many traded items have either not been catalogued, or haven’t survived the harshness of time.

Despite the difficulty in finding original source work from the Miskito themselves, or even material history, I am incredibly happy and fulfilled by researching the Miskito as my dissertation topic, so much so that I wish to pursue the topic further in the future. As a result of my topic, I was given the opportunity by Dr James Thomas to deliver a talk to the Historical Association, which gave me a chance to share the story of the Miskito, which is something I’d love to look into more. Writing a dissertation gives you the opportunity to delve into a topic that you are passionate about, all while revealing a piece of history that is under researched. By doing this dissertation, I hope to have shed a light on the need for historians to question the approved Anglo-historical narrative, and look into the stories and experiences of those people who played a large, but hidden role.

 

Abigail Jeffrey is a BA History student at the University of Portsmouth. Her dissertation won the Stephens Prize for best dissertation on imperial and maritime history of early modern Europe. The prize is named after Thomas Stephens (1549-1619), Wiltshireman and Jesuit. He was the first Englishman to sail round the Cape of Good Hope and take up permanent residence in India in 1579, where he lived for the remainder of his life.

 

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