Lake Nicaragua’s History of Piracy and Filibustering
Connected to the Caribbean Sea by the San Juan River, Lake Nicaragua is Central America’s largest fresh water lake offering many water sport activities such as fishing and scuba diving, along with stunning scenery and tranquility. But there was a time in Nicaraguan history – between 1665 and 1857 – when the lake was used by pirates and rogue soldiers, known as filibusters or freebooters, who enriched themselves through terrorizing and looting lakeside communities. As the main trading center on Lake Nicaragua, Granada was a primary target of marauding pirates, with Admiral Sir Henry Morgan and US journalist and lawyer William Walker earning a place in history as being among the most successful of these so-called privateers.
In an era which has been described as the Golden Age of Piracy, starting in the mid-1600s and spreading across the Caribbean, Henry Morgan first invaded Granada in 1655 by navigating the San Juan River with six twelve-meter long canoes stolen during a raid on Villahermosa in Mexico. Moving under cover of darkness they managed to cross the Lake and make a surprise attack on the city before the Spanish authorities had time to respond. They set fire to all the Spanish boats and made off with around half a million sterling silver pounds. Morgan went on to join forces with the local Miskito tribe, and continued to loot Spanish settlements on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. Having accumulated quite a fortune, Morgan left the area, but that was not the end of piracy on Lake Nicaragua.
During the latter part of the 1600s, pirates even founded their own towns in the vicinity of Lake Nicaragua, using these settlements as a base from which to invade other towns. Two of Nicaragua’s towns founded by pirates are Bluefields, founded by Dutch pirate Abraham Blauvelt, and Pueblo Viejo. In order to defend the lake and local communities from pirates, in 1673 Spanish authorities built the massive Fortress of the Immaculate Conception alongside the San Juan River. Although coming under constant attack from pirate and filibuster, the fortress had a measure of success with deterring pirates and filibusters, and is a popular tourist attraction today.