William Walker, King of the Filibusters

The history of US interventions in Central America is a long one, as the self-styled champion of freedom and democracy has conspired against, invaded, and occupied just about every country in the region, from declaring war with Mexico in 1846 to invading Panama in 1989. It’s also overthrown numerous democratically-elected governments (because apparently, foreign democracy looks a lot like Communism!). While many Americans might think that all the immigrants from places like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are a bunch of job-stealing illegal aliens, many of those people are fleeing problems in their own countries that have been caused (or exacerbated) by previous US governments. From arming paramilitary death squads to supporting some of history’s worst dictators, the USA’s blood-stained fingerprints are all over Central America.

But in amongst all the dubiously-motivated invasions and CIA-sponsored coups, there are a few individual (and often larger-than-life) characters who’ve gone all lone wolf in this part of the world. And one of them was William Walker.

Many years ago, I watched a movie about the man, called Walker, directed by the British filmmaker Alex Cox (who also made Repo Man and Sid & Nancy). It’s not a great film, full of intentional anachronisms and questionable historical accuracy (although it does have a musical score by Joe Strummer of The Clash), and I forgot about it soon after. But years later, and I’m wandering aimlessly in the cemetery of the sleepy, end-of-the-road Honduran coastal town of Trujillo, and there’s the grave of the man himself, having been executed by firing squad not far away, over 150 years ago.

Walker was possessed by a burning desire to govern as much of the Americas as he could. During his lifetime, he gave various reasons for it, including continuing slavery (he was from Tennessee), and inciting revolutions in foreign countries (this was a practice known at the time as filibustering, not to be confused with the modern definition, where politicians talk for hours). But mainly, he seems to have been driven by a slightly crazy, almost messianic fervour.

In 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe was signed between Mexico and the USA, ceding half of Mexico to the States, and leaving the other half dangling temptingly for any would-be filibuster. Walker quickly jettisoned his previously-liberal opinions and headed south. He invaded Mexico in 1853, where he captured the town of La Paz, the capital of Baja California, which he then declared to be “the Republic of Lower California” (with himself as President, of course). But Mexican resistance to his 40-man army finally sent him back across the border, where he was arrested, tried, and acquitted of conducting an illegal war.

So he set his sights on Nicaragua, which, in the days before the building of the Panama Canal, was the country that took the majority of the shipping through Central America. Walker not only invaded the country (with financial and logistical help from billionaire shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, and local assistance from the government in León), but actually managed to become President, ruling it from1855-1857. Having based himself in León’s rival town of Granada, Walker refused to give Granada to the Leónese, and stayed as President, confiscating huge amounts of land and launching an unsuccessful invasion of Costa Rica. Promoting English as the country’s only official language and reinstating slavery didn’t exactly endear him to the locals either, and in doing so he accomplished the previously impossible task of unifying Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica in a common goal – namely, getting rid of the bastard gringo.

After losing a series of bloody battles and then surrendering to the US Navy (pausing just long enough to burn Granada to the ground), Walker was sent back to the States, receiving a hero’s welcome in New Orleans. But despite constantly losing wars in foreign countries, he remained convinced of his destiny to rule Central America, and set out to conquer Nicaragua again.

Walker landed on the Honduran island of Roatán in 1860. But unfortunately for him, Honduras’s Bay Islands were controlled by the British at the time (the British also had colonies in Nicaragua, which they eventually gave up and retreated to British Honduras, which is now Belize). And the British were only slightly less keen on Walker than the locals. After being chased around the coast for five days, and fighting off both the British and the Hondurans, Walker finally surrendered to the British in Trujillo. He probably figured he’d be sent back to the States in shame; but the British immediately handed him over the Hondurans, who executed him by firing squad on September 12th, 1860. “The grey-eyed man of destiny”, as he was called in his day, is now buried in a simple grave in Trujillo’s peaceful cementerio viejo, along with a decrepit assortment of other funerary monuments from the last 300 years of local history. While I’m there, the only other living occupants are a couple of canoodling teenagers and a stray dog.

I doubt that Walker is very well-known in the USA today, except perhaps in his native Nashville. But many Hondurans that I’ve spoken to know his name, possibly as a synonym for Yankee imperialism. It’s difficult today to understand the situation that could’ve created (and encouraged) a man like William Walker. During the 1800s, the USA was spreading out in every direction, taking land from Mexico, and anywhere else it could find it, as well as buying the vast Louisiana Territory from France. Central America now beckoned, as did Hawaii and the Caribbean. Many Americans (including Walker) believed that it was Manifest Destiny – God’s will that the USA eventually owned the entire continent. And I suspect that many Americans believed that, even if men like Walker were distasteful, what they were doing was ultimately in the best interests of everyone, including the natives of the countries they attacked and invaded, because they would eventually be better off with the “democratic and noble” US government in charge. So actually, looking at recent history, and the USA’s involvement in various foreign nations (not to mention American politicians’ justifications for such “operations”), maybe it isn’t so hard to understand the situation that created Walker, maybe it’s a similar situation today. And as for Walker himself, if he’d succeeded in successfully conquering Baja California, Nicaragua, or Honduras, who knows how Central American history would’ve played out?

Sadly, Walker and his mercenaries aren’t the only foreigners who’ve taken advantage of Honduras and its people over the years. With its mountainous topography and lack of fertile, volcanic soil, the country remained a nation of small-scale farmers and never grew a large, upper class based on cattle or coffee or tobacco, like its neighbours. Lacking any wealthy, powerful landowners, and with a weak central government, Honduras was an easy target for everyone from mining outfits (who made their American owners and major shareholders very wealthy) to banana companies (who effectively took over the country, turning Honduras into a virtual US colony). More recently, huge, foreign-owned maquilas (clothes factories) have been set up across the country, employing thousands of Hondurans in conditions that could be described as modern-day slavery. The task that Walker spectacularly failed at has been expertly finished off by Tommy Hilfiger and The Man From Del Monte ;-).

William Walker

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