Small town, big Hell

Leon Viejo

At first sight it doesn´t look as much, Leon Viejo (Old Leon), Nicaragua´s first capital, founded in 1528 and given up only 82 years later.

A lovely village, a row of old foundations in an old pasture, under the cool shade of tall trees, a small hill, under which the little town fort lay buried until hurricane “Mitch” washed the bricks free of the soil in 1998), and a nice view over Lake Managua and the four surrounding volcanoes.

The view and the trees, the sense of the history of the place, and the indignation shown by our guide over what kind of people founded her country; these are the main attractions of the place.

The low brick foundations mark the little town, the main street running 500 meters in each direction from the central square. Along it, the cathedral and the churches, the cloisters, the inn, the gold smith, the merchant.

The town brand

– In Nicaragua we have a saying: Small town, big Hell.

This was what the guide said when Maggan´s sister Marita (whose visit is the reason for this day as tourists) wondered how it would have been to walk these streets 400 years ago.

To illustrate her point, the guide shows us the royal gold smithy, whose strong box filled with gold bars and whose branding iron with the royal seal, made it the first National Bank in the country.

The smithy is also where the Indian slaves were branded before they were led to the ships waiting in the docks of El Realejo. The slave export to the gold and silver mines of Peru, and to the portage trails across Panama, was Nicaragua´s first and largest export article in the time the Spaniards ruled the country from Leon Viejo.

Hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans died in Panama during the 40 years it took for the Spaniards to breed mules that were tough enough to take over the job of freighting gold from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean golden fleet.

Next, the guide shows us the square where twelve local Chorotega worriers were killed by Spanish war dogs, as entertainment for the 200 conquistadores living in this small town.

Murder, disease sickness, and slavery meant that only a few decades later all Indians had vanished from the area surrounding the town, and the source of income and of workers for the Spanish properties disappeared.

In the same square, in 1528, the governor, and enthusiastic killer, Pedrarios Avila, had the founder of the town, Francisco de Cordova, killed by decapitation. Later, the two men lay side by side in the Church crypt for hundreds of years – one of them without a head.

– So here Pedrarios lies, and has to listen to his victim asking the same question over and over again: “Where is my head?”-, says the guide.

God’s punishment

The Spanish Conquistadores, priests, monks, traders, and their households, no more than two hundred or so in all – that inhabited the town lived in constant quarrel with each other. Three different monastic orders built churches and cloisters in the little town, but even all this piety failed to keep the town at peace. Maybe because the monks were too busy chasing the Indian women – again according to our guide, who clearly feels more solidarity with her Indian ancestry than her Spanish.

When the first bishop of the town (and of the country) was assassinated by his own neighbours, the residents thought that maybe they had gone too far, and began wondering if this was the beginning of the end for the town. They felt that it was only a matter of time before God’s punishment hit them.

In 1609, the volcano Monotombo buried the town in ashes, and in 1610 an earthquake devastated most of it´s adobe houses. For the Spanish residents, this was the sign they had been waiting for, and they all left. They built a new town out on the plain by the Pacific Ocean, where today´s Leon still lies. Here they also happened to find a healthy, thriving Chorotega community, now the barrio of Sutiava, pemitting them to continue their parasitic existence.

(First posted in Danish March 21, 2007) 

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One thought on “Small town, big Hell

  1. Hej Sven og Maggan, Ja, sikken en start og retfærdig straf og ende på det gamle Leon. Men er vi meget bedre i vore dage?
    Kan I have en dejlig påske! Hejs også fra Ole, Ruth.

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