By Carlos Thompson, edited by Johnny Pez
An earlier version of the following essay on the early history of Guatemala was posted to the soc.history.what-if newsgroup by Carlos Thompson on 29 November 2001. It is considered canonical within the For All Nails project.
Away from the centers of power, the gold and the Indian cultures, the Spanish who settled in Central America were far from the popular concept of the conquistador. Most of them just settled down to farm the land, but in the latter years of the 18th century a new crop was making its appearance: coffee. Coffee had resulted in the rise of a new aristocracy in Central America based on peonage rather than on the slavery, Indian or black, that characterized other parts of the empire.
On the other hand, the Spanish settled mainly in the western mountains and the Pacific coast. The lowlands in the Caribbean were too hot and humid for the Spanish farmers, and the Miskito Indians were never tamed. This lack of a Spanish presence had allowed the settlement of pirates, buccaneers, and other kind of settlements by the Dutch or the English, who took possession of this land to exploit the timber. The Caribbean coast of Central America changed hands several times between the Spanish and the British, who just appointed governors to rule over trees, untamed Indians and black Creoles.
The Criollos (the American-born Spanish) in the mountain ranges on the Pacific coast always saw the British in the Caribbean as a minor threat: as long as the San Juan del Norte River was free, it didn’t matter who ruled over Bluefields. Spain had accordingly reinforced the fort of San Carlos over the years. However, during the Trans-Oceanic War, the British had attacked San Carlos and threatened to close the San Juan. The garrisons in San Carlos resisted, but Britain claimed the whole Miskito Coast from Gracias a Dios to the Chagres as a compensation from Spain in the peace of 1799.
With the San Juan closed, the importance of Nicaragua had dropped. The gold of Peru would no longer travel by this route. Most of the people who depended on the gold routes just moved away to Guatemala, Mexico, or New Granada, or began to work in the coffee plantations already common in Costa Rica.
Northern Guatemala had received considerable immigration during the Trans-Oceanic War from both Spanish and British controlled Nicaragua, as well as refugees displaced from Texas by the Jeffersonian conquests there, but for the most part Central America continued to be one of the poorest places in Spanish America. This slowed the development of a large liberal class like those in New Granada and Rio de La Plata, and also discouraged the settlement of loyal landowners from noble Spanish families. When Mexico declared independence and drove out the Spanish, the Guatemalans just accepted that their new ruler was not the King of Spain but the President of Mexico.
However, with the coming of civil war to the Republic of Mexico, nationalist movements started in Central America, and soon received a new ally: the British Empire. Assisted by Great Britain and the Southern Confederation, Guatemala declared independence from Mexico in 1808. The new Republic of Guatemala recognized British control of the Miskito Coast and British Honduras, and the San Juan was opened to both British and Guatemalan traffic.
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