The Bombardment of Greytown, Part One

The Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia). Greytown sat at the mouth of the San Juan river.

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection: parts 1, 2, 3, 4

I’ve decided that I wish to delve into the bombardment of Greytown in greater detail and this seems an ideal time to do so. The matter will eventually work back into the connection with Cuban filibustering, but the change of topic calls for a change of title as well.

Commander George N. Hollins, United States Navy, gave the free port of Greytown within Nicaragua’s or the United Kingdom’s Mosquito Coast (depending on who one asked) twenty-four hours notice and then bombarded the place with his ship’s guns in retaliation for the wounding of American minister to Nicaragua Solon Borland. Borland put himself in a position to catch the bottle to his face by intervening to protect a captain of the Accessory Transit Company who had murdered a black pilot. The Greytown authorities, answerable to neither Nicaragua nor the United Kingdom, came to arrest the captain and Borland got in the way with gun in hand.

George N. Hollins

George N. Hollins

That offense could not go unpunished and thence came Hollins to Greytown. He came, however, with orders to avoid loss of life or destruction of property. Getting it half right did not please William L. Marcy, who sent him down with those orders. Marcy wanted some financial reparations and an apology, nothing more. Nor did displeasure over the shelling and burning of Greytown confine itself to the rarefied circles of the American diplomatic establishment or Washington society. In New York, Horace Greeley laid into the Pierce administration in the pages of his New York Daily Tribune beginning on July 26, 1854.

The more this memorable act, ordered by President Pierce and executed by Commodore Hollins, is examined, the more unaccountable, unjustifiable and base does it appear. And apart from the fact that the town had no means of resistance, and that its overthrow could yield no other glory than may be reaped by any big bully who will beset and beat a defenseless woman or little child, the origin of the whole difficulty is one which gives to the final event a disreputable and monstrous character. 

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Borland had, after all, intervened to protect a man accused of murder. While a diplomat might protect citizens of the mother country in times of civil unrest, this did go beyond that. Greeley goes on to comment on Borland’s character:

It is true that Mr. Solon Borland, an Arkansas man of notorious pugilistic propensities, clothed by the American Government with the character of an Envoy Extraordinary was accidentally present and undertook to use his diplomatic prerogatives to protect the alleged murderer from arrest; it is also true that when Borland went ashore at San Juan and made foolish and abusive speeches concerning the town, some natural indignation was felt by the people at so gross and outrageous an interruption of the regular course of justice, and that they gathered around the house where he was, using disrespectful language in turn perhaps and that some person unknown event went so far as to fling a bottle at his head which did him no injury. And even this assemblage around the house took place as respectable citizens of the town aver from the impression that the alleged murderer was there, under Borland’s protection, and might still be arrested for trial. But these things, we say, are of comparatively little moment; the bitter, the blasting fact is that San Juan has been burned, and hundreds of innocent persons stripped and ruined in consequence of her endeavor the execute a necessary law and bring an accused murderer to justice!

His denial of Borland’s injury aside, Greeley takes the side of sanity and proportion. Borland behaved at least very questionably and that alone makes the bombardment and burning of Greytown a dubious act of retaliation. But Greeley presses on:

But we shall perhaps be told that the insult to Mr. Embassador Borland was ground enough for this terrible stretch of vengeance. As if such a blackguard as Borland, a man whose only other official acts the Government has disclaimed and consigned to merited oblivion could by any possibility be insulted up to that point? We apprehend that the common sense of the American people will not be deluded into the idea that the acts of seeming incivility offered to this traveling embassador, who with rifle in hand stands up to protect homicides against lawful arrest, were of a stature to require even an apology.

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

In other words, Borland got what he had coming. What, Greeley argued, would Americans say if the British ambassador went out in New York with a big knife and pistol and stopped the police from arresting a murderer or burglar? Would New Yorkers really take that laying down, or would they form a mob and protest at the very least? And would Washington compose apologies and offer reparations?

By no means. They would not only refuse all apologies, but would give him his passports and pack him out of the country the very next day.This City of San Juan could not do in the case of Borland; but if the officer whose warrant he nullified had shot him down on the spot nothing improper would have been done, and there is not a journal in the country, save perhaps The Union, which would not have said he had got his deserts. Certainly he got a great deal less than his deserts when only an empty bottle was hurled at him, but did not hit him even on the nose.

The Washington Union served as the Pierce administration’s mouthpiece, essentially the same role that Greeley cast himself in for the Republicans.

Greeley might have oversold his point in implying that the American papers would take the killing of one of an American diplomat as entirely proper under any circumstances, but Borland very far exceeded his authority and essentially created the incident that led to his catching a bottle to the face.

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