my contributions to round 18 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme.
The word filibuster is usually used to refer to someone obstructs a legislative assembly by talking too much, but it has an earlier meaning – a person engaging in unauthorized warfare against a foreign state.
And the greatest filibuster of them all by this definition was the American, William Walker, regarded by some as a hero, for others he is a symbol of American imperialism.
Walker was born in Nashville in 1824 and was a bright child, graduating with a degree in medicine from the University of Pennsylvania when he was only nineteen. But he was a restless soul and travelled extensively to Europe and back again, eventually taking to journalism as editor of the New Orleans Crescent.
In 1849, he found himself in San Francisco in the early days of the California Gold Rush, but it was also a time of US expansionism into Latin America. The Texans had rebelled and seceded from Mexico and the Mexican War of 1846 had resulted in America absorbing a third of Mexican land. This urge for expansion became known as ‘Manifest Destiny’, a contradictory desire to bring democracy to the military regimes of Latin America on the one hand, open to open up more territory open to slavery on the other.
It was the age of the filibuster, adventurers who launched freelance invasions of foreign countries with aim of annexing them to the US and in 1853, Walker joined their number when he invaded Mexico with just a handful of men. This first foray ended in abject failure with Walker barely escaping with his life, only to find himself arrested and tried by government for violating the neutrality act, which prohibited private citizens from warring against foreign nations.
But a jury in San Francisco exonerated him, turning Walker into something of a hero. Emboldened, he turned his attention to Nicaragua which had endured almost continuous civil war since gaining its independence twenty years earlier. When the Liberals of Léon yet again rebelled against the Conservatives of Granada, Walker was drafted in to fight on their side.
Nicaragua was important to the US because, before the building of the Panama Canal, it was one two routes between the east and west coast of America and in 1855 Walker sailed south from San Francisco to join the rebel forces. Although he spoke no Spanish, he demanded an independent command and launched yet another ill-conceived attack that he was lucky to survive.
But he was to rise through the line of command for the simple reason that both the Liberal chief executive and commanding general both died soon after he landed, leaving Walker as the de facto commander-in-chief. Perhaps it was this sudden authority that led him to his one inspired military manoeuvre when he took his men by steamboat to Granada’s rear, capturing the city and taking the Conservative leaders hostage.
General Corral who commanded the opposition forces sought terms and Walker installed a puppet president, made himself officially the commander-in-chief of the army, then had Corral put on and trial for treason and publicly executed. He had effectively made Nicaragua his personal regime.
Unsurprisingly, the neighbouring countries were alarmed by events across the border and began to ready themselves for war. Whether Walker would survive or not depended on getting filibuster reinforcements from America, and for that he relied on he needed the support of both businessmen and politicians which he got and Central America descended into war.
In April 1856, Costa Rica invaded Nicaragua, taking the city of Rivas. Walker responded with a typically direct frontal assault and was soundly beaten for his pains and was only saved by an outbreak of cholera that forced the Costa Ricans to retreat. And all the while, more and more filibusters arrived from America.
The Nicaraguan puppet president, Patricio Rivas, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, denounced Walker and fled the country. Arrogant as ever, Walker hastily arranged a rigged election that saw him installed as the new president. He declared English as the official language and issued an edict legalising slavery.
But the war clouds were gathering. An alliance of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala invaded from the north and occupied León, while Costa Rica pushed from the south. Walker was forced to retreat to the west to protect his reinforcement routes, razing the city of Grenada as he fled.
However, Walker had an opponent back home in business magnate, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was determined to thwart Walker’s plans by negotiating an alliance with Costa Rica. He sent a special agent with $40,000 to cover Costa Rica’s expenses and take charge of a commando force that took control of forts along the San Juan river.
Walker was isolated and though he was able to hold out in the besieged city of Rivas, he was finally forced to surrender to an American naval officer on 1 May 1857 and he and his filibusters were escorted out of the country.
Vanderbilt’s motives in opposing Walker was to reopen and protect his country’s trade routes with Central America, but in that respect, he failed. Nicaragua was determined never again to allow large numbers of Americans across its border. As President Buchanan wrote:
That man has done more injury to the commercial and political interests of the United States than any man living
Not that the American government did anything to convict Walker or prevent any further expeditions. Perhaps it was because Walker was a popular figure still and in 1860, he made one final attempt to seize Nicaragua, landing at Greytown with 270 fellow filibusters. But this time the British intervened, capturing Walker and handing him over to the Hondurans, and on 12 September 1860, he was executed by firing squad.
Walker is a shadowy figure in American history, but there is little doubt that his actions reflected the tensions in the country that was to lead to the Civil War. His direct action appealed to Southern hopes to expand slavery into Central America.
But if he is largely forgotten in the United States, Walker was the most dangerous international criminal of the 19th century and he remains a potent symbol of imperialism in Central America to this day.