Nicaragua reclaims its ghost-town graveyards

Crouched down in a jungle clearing amid a tangle of vines, a Nicaraguan youngster, Norberto Leiba, scraped moss from a marble headstone to reveal the name of a British consul's wife who lived and died in the once-booming Caribbean free port of Greytown more than a century ago.

Set in deep, swampy forest a 20-minute boat ride from the coastal town of San Juan del Norte, the grave of Anne Paton is one of scores of tombs honouring long-forgotten European and American adventurers from the twilight years of the British Mosquito Coast protectorate, which have recently come to light.

Decades after Freetown was abandoned to the forest, the Nicaraguan government is seeking to reclaim the ghost town's four wrought iron-bordered and marble-strewn cemeteries from the jungle, and have them declared a heritage site as part of an ambitious Unesco-backed regional conservation programme.

To that end, the Nicaraguan Institute of Culture has ordered a thorough survey of the Anglican, American, Masonic and Catholic cemeteries, which are in a remote wildlife sanctuary in the rainforest 310 miles south-east of Managua. After the jungle was recently cleared, details from the headstones werecatalogued. An aerial survey is also planned. Alfredo Salinas, a spokesman for the institute, told The Independent: "These cemeteries are an exciting discovery as they are a very important part of our cultural heritage.The oldest graveyards in the capital date from the 18th century, but the sites that we are seeking to conserve in Greytown are far older than that."

Britain's barely remembered involvement in the swampy coastal region began in the 1670s with the establishment of an unofficial protectorate over the Mosquito Coast to safeguard logging and trading interests in Central America from Spain, and marauding Dutch and British pirates.

Over the next two centuries, the low-key colonial endeavour, which covered a sweep of seaboard stretching from Belize in the north to Nicaragua in the south, attracted a steady stream of settlers, sailors and filibusters, whose last names and fair complexions are still shared by some local residents along the Caribbean coast.

Greytown became prosperous in the late 1840s during the California gold rush. A fleet of steamships, belonging to Cornelius Vanderbilt's Accessory Transit Company, hauled more than 150,000 fortune-hunters up the nearby San Juan River to embark from Nicaragua's Pacific Coast port of San Juan del Sur for San Francisco.

Mark Twain, who passed through the town in 1866 at the height of the boom, wrote: "It is a peopled paradise rendered gorgeous by stern-wheel steamers at the waterfront. The transit business has made every other home a lodging camp and you can get a good bed anywhere for a dollar."The town continued to flourish for several decades as schemes to build a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans followed, littering the lagoon with towering dredging equipment and filling hotels with delegations of engineers and consular officials from Britain, France, Spain, the US and Germany, many of whom lay buried in the graveyard.

Accompanied by the bellow of howler monkeys, a stroll in the the Masonic Cemetery led to the tomb of the "Consul for the German Empire", Anton Louis Frommann, and a marble memorial to Florence Edith Scharsmidt, erected "as a last token of the lasting love of her broken-hearted husband Howard" in the late 1800s. Next door in the American plot stood the headstone of John Burgess, a seaman "killed by a fall from the mizzen top" of the frigate Sabine in 1859. The Anglican section contained the tombstones of Louisa Coulson, John Shepherd and Robert A Craig, a "native of Aberdeenshire", who died in 1864, "aged about 46".

After the US Senate decided to open a rival naval route through Panama in the 1890s, Greytown declined. Rotting and abandoned, it continued as a fishing village until 1983, when the last residents were driven into exile in Costa Rica by the US-sponsored Contra insurgency to unseat the Marxist Sandinista government of the day.

Since returning to nearby San Juan del Norte in 1990, recovering Greytown's rich past has become a part of residents' efforts to rebuild their community, which has no telephones, airport or roads linking it with the rest of the country.

Sitting in his timber-framed office, the mayor of Greytown, Alejandro Coulson, 56, said the town's council was planning to open a historical museum, and would like to forge civic ties with the United Kingdom.

"There is a story in the headstone of each of our English brothers, which shows their name, origin and date of death," Mr Coulson said. "We think it would be appropriate for Greytown to be twinned with an English town. We send you all an affectionate greeting, and we await you with open arms."

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