In April 1666, being the province of Nueva Cartago and Costarrica being the poorest of Spain in the Indies, the first threat to the Spaniards in what is now Costa Rica occurred. The thieves, rapists, rustlers and murderers, Edward Mansfelt and Henry Morgan, with a huge armed front of more than a thousand men, entered the province through the mouth of the Matina River at midnight on the 9th of April 1666 and marched towards Cartago, ready to plunder the city and everything in their path.
The noble governor Don Juan Lopez de la Flor, a Spaniard of enormous gallantry, is not easily daunted by the threat that is about to destroy the entire province. Determined to take up his arquebus and sword and go to fight the filibusters themselves, he sends Captain Alonso de Bonilla to go ahead as a lookout. Using his poise and intelligence, and with only thirty or so men, he managed to corner the thousand invaders and make them flee from Turrialba, where they were already enjoying women and liquor. In their flight, they set fire to the city, and kill a few villagers. On the 16th of April, Don Juan López de la Flor, together with 120 men, inspected the place from where they had fled, and only managed to catch two filibusters who had straggled; while the bulk of the invaders ran in panic towards Matina and then towards Portete to embark and leave for the island of Jamaica. All this with only two hundred brave men, ready to give their lives to defend what they already loved as much as their Spain. Two hundred men were able to put an end to the plans of robbery and barbarism of a thousand outlaws, who already considered the triumph and plunder they would carry out in Cartago a fait accompli.
Ruins of the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Concepción de Ujarrás still standing today, dating from the early 17th century. Photograph. Homer Dávila for Geografía de Costa Rica.
The daring of these filibusters had reached such a point that they claimed that when they arrived and took the city of Carthage, they would drink chocolate with the governor. Their excitement grew even louder when the informer, Roque Jacinto de la Fuente alias the “Beautiful”, answered in the affirmative to the question of whether the women and courtesans of Cartago were beautiful. This historical fact was what made the image of Nuestra Señora de la Concepción de Ujarrás famous, as many inhabitants of Cartago and the rest of the province could not believe that with only thirty or so men, such an enterprise could have been won against those ruthless thieves who called themselves pirates, who had already plundered other large cities in Panama and in Hispaniola.
For this reason, they gave part of the credits to the virgin of Ujarrás. To history’s misfortune, the white image of the virgin of Ujarrás was thrown into oblivion by a new image carved in a black stone, which years later would be called the Patron Saint of Costa Rica.
In 1684, again the criminals John Cook, John Eaton, Edward Davis, Ambrosius Cowley, William Dampier and Lionel Wafer tried to invade the Mayor’s Office of Nicoya and were repelled and beaten by Don Diego de Pantoja, mayor of Nicoya, who managed to put together an improvised defence corps, composed of Spanish civilians, Creoles, Chorotega Indians and black slaves; who, without any training in military techniques, put an end to the plans of these English outlaws.
Sir Henry Morgan (Llanrumney, Wales, Kingdom of England, c. 1635 – Lawrencefield, Jamaica, 25 August 1688). Knighted by the English crown for his criminal activities on behalf of the British Empire.
History and the men who write it, as well as those who make the decisions, would not be fair to these and other gallant Spaniards and Costa Ricans. To reward the filibusters, different places in Costa Rica are baptised with the names and surnames of these outlaws. Wafer Bay, Chatan Bay, Cape Dampier, Cape Lionel and Colnett Peninsula on Cocos Island and Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula.
Perhaps it is out of pettiness, or resentment towards all things Spanish, that things like this have happened in Costa Rica. If we add the element of premeditated “ignorance”, it is possible to understand why things happen.
The case of the Virgen de Nuestra Señora de la Concepción de Ujarrás is probably the clearest example; it was displaced by a black image that replaced the value of the white and the Spanish. This is yet another reason why it is not so true to say that throughout history, Costa Ricans have wanted to ignore the indigenoid mixture and richness. The anti-Spanish sentiment is a fact that has been brewing for centuries and which came to be consummated in fictional books such as the comic book Asalto al paraíso by Costa Rican Tatiana Lobo or in the pamphlet Las venas abiertas de América Latina by Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano.
Sketch of Cocos Island. Most of the island’s place names are in “honour” of the English pirates.
Another episode takes place in 1856 and 1857 when Costa Ricans march into Nicaragua with the main objective of expelling the filibustering armies commanded by the American William Walker, who has already been declared president of Nicaragua.
The Costa Rican people respond to the call to war made by the hero Juan Rafael Mora Porras. With basic instruction in the art of war, the Costa Rican national army won victories, allowing them to control extensive territories that had fallen to Walker: Rivas, Granada, Lake Nicaragua, San Juan del Norte, San Juan del Sur, Río San Juan.
As shown in documentary sources, from 1857 Costa Rica could have annexed all these territories at will, as it had won them in battle. However, it did not do so, because under threat of going to war against the USA, it was decided to return those territories and the brave soldiers who had managed to survive returned.
The mansion of the Hacienda Santa Rosa is witness to how Costa Ricans are capable of such bravery to the point of glory. Photo: J. Salazar for Geografía de Costa Rica. 2011.
This is how we were forced to sign a treaty that harmed our pacifist spirit, because contrary to what custom and science dictate, where the border line is marked by the midpoint of the river’s talweg, Nicaragua is granted the supreme empire of a river that has life, thanks to the fact that 78% of the water comes from Costa Rica.
By January 1955, an armed aggression from Nicaragua against Costa Rica was once again in the making. On the morning of 11 January 1955, Teodoro Picado Lara (son of former President Teodoro Picado Mischalsky) and an armed group of Nicaraguan, Costa Rican, Cuban, Guatemalan, Dominican and Venezuelan mercenaries invaded Costa Rica. They receive military support from Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela. Ideological support was provided by resentment over the 1948 defeat of Dr. Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia. It is therefore more of a fratricidal war than an ideological war.
January 1955. Improvised army with Costa Rican volunteers who respond to the call of President José Figueres Ferrer and march to the battle front. Photograph by Rodolfo Carrillo Arias.
Even without an army, our president, the one they call the “fearless” José Figueres Ferrer, managed to repel and crush the invaders. A hard blow for those who had thought of overthrowing a democratic government and installing political puppets to perpetuate themselves in power. Once again the invaders were defeated by a people who seemed to be asleep, but who were fierce when the situation called for it.
Another harsh episode happens again during the Sandinista Revolution, where hundreds of Costa Ricans fight on the front lines, shoulder to shoulder against the National Guard of the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza de Debayle and supported by the CIA-sponsored Contras. Many Ticos had to give their lives for an ideal. Who remembers this other sacrifice for the liberation of a people like Nicaragua?
It would be unfair to overlook what the Costa Rican Miguel Acuña has written in his work El 55 te mataron hermano:
…friendship in the sense that this word can be understood between human beings, does not exist between nations. At most we can speak of currents of sympathy; but these currents change course when convenience appears
Very well expressed by Billo Zeledon when he wrote:
In the tenacious struggle of fruitful labour
that reddens man’s face,
your children -simple Labriegos- have conquered
eternal prestige, esteem and honour.
Hail, O gentle land!
Hail, O mother of love!
When anyone seeks to tarnish your glory
you will see your people, brave and virile,
the coarse tool into a weapon.