The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection: part 1
The United States and the United Kingdom both had intense and conflicting interests in Central America, particularly in Nicaragua where a route down the San Juan river, across Lake Nicaragua, and only a few miles by stagecoach connected the Caribbean and Pacific and thus the American East and Gulf Coasts with the West Coast. That route served the same purposes, with all the same strategic implications, as the Panama Canal would in later decades. Anglo-American relations in the middle of the nineteenth century ran generally cool, with occasional bouts of paranoid hostility on the part of the Americans.
But when the United States did not swallow Mexico whole in 1848, British fears eased somewhat. Overheated rhetoric aside, the Americans did not particularly relish the prospect of war with the United Kingdom. The British felt much the same way about the United States. Thus, as responsible nations do, both parties sat down and negotiated a treaty to settle matters to their mutual satisfaction. The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 provided that:
neither the one nor the other will ever obtain or maintain for itself any exclusive control over the said ship canal; agreeing that neither will ever erect or maintain any fortifications commanding the same or in the vicinity thereof, or occupy, or fortify, or colonize, or assume or exercise any dominion over Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Mosquito coast, or any part of Central America; nor will either make use of any protection which either affords or may afford, or any alliance which either teas or may have, to or with any State or people, for the purpose of erecting or maintaining any such fortifications, or of occupying, fortifying, or colonizing Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Mosquito coast, or any part of Central America, or of assuming or exercising dominion over the same
Both nations saw a canal in Nicaragua’s future and agreed not to seize control of it, either directly or by conniving in with local governments to the same end. The United States had long wanted a neutral canal and the British had little reason to object, since a neutral canal would suit their shipping just fine. But just to make sure, the treaty also provided
Vessels of the United States or Great Britain traversing the said canal shall, in case of war between the contracting parties, be exempted from blockade, detention, or capture by either of the belligerents; and this provision shall extend to such a distance from the two ends of the said canal as may hereafter be found expedient to establish.
Further guarantees went out that neither nation would try to seize the canal, or any operations engaged in constructing one. They would support ports at either end. They intended the treaty as a statement of general principles as well as one specific to the Nicaragua route. They agreed to encourage other nations to sign on to similar guarantees and promised to give them the same privileges that American and British shipping would enjoy.
The British had seized part of the Mosquito Coast in 1848, but once the Americans contented themselves with only half of Mexico, they pulled back. The UK claimed a vague protectorate over the Mosquito Coast and its Miskito Indians, but in reality the port at the Caribbean terminus of the Nicaragua route, Greytown, governed itself. That status quo suited the Americans and their interpretation of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty well enough.
The British took a turn at the expansionist role by establishing a crown colony over some islands in the Bay of Honduras in 1852. This aggravated prior disagreement over the Mosquito Coast protectorate. The Americans thought the treaty required the British to withdraw entirely and at once. The British read it as requiring withdraw if and when someone started building a canal and regardless of that viewed the Bay Islands as an extension of Belize. The United States accepted the British claim to Belize, as British Honduras, after all. Here London at least pushed against the status quo and the United States found itself defending more or less the existing order. The aggressor over Cuba became the defender on the other side of the Caribbean.