When we use the term “ugly American,” most of us think of stereotypes of insensitive American tourists blundering their way through highly choreographed, eight country, seven-day tours across Europe. The stereotype may be unfair, but, unfortunately, the worst visitors to any country make the strongest impressions.
Long before middle-aged American retirees flew to Paris to board those European torture tour buses, one American set a standard for “unwelcome tourist” that has yet to be surpassed by the loudest American visitors to European Art Museums or the drunkest American college students on Caribbean beaches.
In 1853, five years after the end of the Mexican-American War, a young lawyer from Tennessee named William Walker decided he liked northwestern Mexico. He liked it so much that he decided it would be a nice place to set up a kingdom.
Walker traveled to Guaymas, Mexico and patiently explained to the Mexican government that it would be a great idea for him to establish a “buffer zone” in northern Mexico. Walker would rule the area in order to protect the US from raids by indigenous peoples who operated from bases in that region. The Mexicans failed to see the beauty of Walker’s plan and declined his generous offer. Walker was undeterred.
He returned to the US and recruited roughly 45 devout members of the Church of Manifest Destiny. No such church existed, but that did nothing to dissuade the obviously faithful members of that adventurous religion.
In October 1853, Walker and his followers traveled to Baja, California to set up a base for their conquest of the Mexican states of Baja California and Sonora.
On October 15, Walker captured La Paz in Baja California. To the few sleepy villagers who might have heard, Walker proudly proclaimed himself President of Lower California and Sonora. He declared that the region would forthwith follow the legal system of Louisiana. This, according to Walker and his band of lunatics, made slavery legal in the region. Few people got the news, and no one outside Walker’s party agreed.
In what must have been a rare moment of lucidity, Walker realized he was a long way from the US and moved his “capital” further north to Ensenada, Mexico. A few weeks later, enough Mexican authorities became aware of Walker’s presence in Baja California that they organized a response. Upon realizing that the Mexican government would muster a force of men consisting of something more than 45, Walker retreated to the US. Unfortunately for both us and them, Walker made good his escape.
Once the US government became aware of Walker’s invasion of Mexico, he was arrested and put on trial in California. However, in the political climate of the time, the jurors thought that Walker’s invasion of Mexico was reasonable, and, to the dismay of the federal prosecutor and the judge, he was acquitted within a few minutes of jury deliberation. As is often the case, politics trumped law.
About now, any reasonable reader would expect me to finish the story with an explanation of how Walker counted his blessings and settled down in California to farm kumquats or lettuce. But no, the story actually takes a turn for the worse.
In 1854, a civil war broke out in Nicaragua between some not very liberal “liberals” called “Democrats” and some not very conservative conservatives called “Legitimists.” Back then, Nicaragua mattered to the US. There was no Panama Canal, and the US congress had not yet sold its collective small and dingy soul to the railroad companies for the building of a transcontinental railroad. The easiest route from the US eastern seaboard to California was by way of ship to Nicaragua, up to Lake Nicaragua, followed by a stagecoach ride to the Pacific coast with another sailing ship journey to San Francisco.
Not one to avoid trouble, Walker quickly insinuated himself into the crisis. The liberal Democratic president of Nicaragua, Francisco Castellon, signed an agreement with Walker that allowed him to bring 300 “colonists” from the US. These 300 “colonists” would then join the fight and rescue Castellon from the evil clutches of the Legitimists.
Walker had difficulty finding enough idiots willing to place their lives in his not-very-God-like hands, and he showed up in Nicaragua with 60 mercenaries. The Democrats gave him an additional force of nearly 300 men. On September 4, 1855, Walker defeated an equally-poorly-led Legitimist force at the Battle of La Virgen.
On December 13, 1855, Walker captured the Legitimist Capitol at Granada, Nicaragua. He kept control of the Nicaraguan Army, such as it was, and ruled the country through a puppet president by the name of Patricio Rivas.
Walker began to preach a sort of “slavery theology” and explained that he was going to liberate neighboring Central Americans from their ignorant, non-slave-trading governments. It turned out that most of the locals had no interest in receiving any political blessings from him, and Central America began to organize itself to oust him from Nicaragua. Walker appealed to wealthy slave owners in the southern US and received financial support from them.
In March of 1856, Walker sent an army to Costa Rica, which was promptly defeated by Costa Rica.
In July of 1856, after a quick, Chicago-style election, Walker was inaugurated as the President of Nicaragua. He instituted an “Americanization” plan. He declared English the official language, repealed the emancipation law, and arranged for the massive migration of Americans to Nicaragua for the eventual “reorganization” of Central America as a slave plantation zone. Central Americans were not altogether certain as to who would be the slaves and who would be the slave owners, and they decided that they did not wish to have the region converted to a giant, Louisiana-style slave plantation.
On December 14, 1856, besieged by four thousand Guatemalans and Salvadorans, Walker and his followers set fire to the old capital of Granada and managed to escape to Lake Nicaragua. He surrendered to a US Navy commander who forgot to throw him overboard in the dark of night before he was repatriated to New York City.
Upon his arrival in New York City, Walker published a book that explained why the US Navy was responsible for his defeat in Nicaragua. The fact that the US Navy had not been involved in the fighting apparently didn’t influence his version of history.
Now you are likely hoping that I tell you Walker dies from a falling piano, chokes on a bagel, or quietly settles down as a tailor on Delancey Street and is never heard from again. Sorry, the story isn’t over yet.
In 1860, Walker accepted an invitation from some sleazy British land owners in Honduras to help them take over Honduras. Fortunately for Honduras and everyone else, the British Navy was informed of Walker’s plans. Captain Neville Salmon of the British Navy led forces which captured Walker and promptly turned him over to the Honduran government. The Hondurans did what I wish someone would have done to Walker on his eighteenth birthday. They shot him.
As strange as Walker’s misadventures sound to us today, he was not completely unusual for his time. The word “filibuster” originally referred not to a congressman using delaying tactics to block legislation, but to adventurous Americans from Southern slave states who wanted to set up new slave states south of the US Border all the way to Argentina. The admission of Texas to the Union is, in fact, an example of the “filibuster” philosophy.
While William Walker and his pals are, for the most part, unknown to people north of the Rio Grande River, many Central Americans remember him as an example of American aggression. Even though he acted against the wishes of the US government, and he was clearly part of a small minority, his actions and the support of his fellow filibusters helped form Central America’s view of the US.
If any of you should have occasion to visit Latin America, in the interest of good international relations, please be polite and resist any temptation to declare yourself president of any republics that you happen to be visiting.