In July of 1854, the USS Cyane bombarded and then burned to ground the free port of Greytown at the eastern terminus of the route across the Nicaraguan isthmus from the Caribbean to the Pacific. It did this in retaliation for injuries suffered by the Accessory Transit Company, which ran a steamer service down the San Juan del Norte river along the isthmus. The Company’s injures involved a real estate dispute with Greytown’s authorities over their use of some land and the seizure of a boarding house. However, the Company rented the land disputed and had for some time refused to pay its rent. Furthermore the Company only leased its dormitory and leased it from a man who had no legal right to the land on which it sat.
Both of these disputes predate the dispatching of the Cyane but neither in itself nor both together prompted the orders that brought it to Greytown harbor. That honor goes to Solon Borland, US minister to Central America. On passing through Greytown he took it on himself to prevent, unsuccessfully, the arrest of an Accessory Transit Company captain who murdered a black pilot. Borland declared in his official explanation to his superiors in Washington that he cared not at all whether the man had killed anybody or not. He saw an American citizen accosted by a group he considered no better than pirates and deserving of nothing more than a few good bullets. they briefly arrested him, but let him go later. Borland took it on himself to lecture a group of Greytowners about their bad behavior and one of them threw a broken bottle, hitting him on the head.
Samuel Wood, writing to the Evening Post and reprinted in Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, had quite a different view of events. He defended the town’s good order and virtue, declaring that
this little community has been struggling for very life with the ingratitude, avarice, and domineering proprietors of the Nicaragua Transit Company.
Aside from the disputed lands, Wood had in mind the murder that finally brought the Cyane to Greytown.
I was sailing downt he river in the boat which followed that commanded by Captain Smith. When I arrived, the same night, I learned all the particulars about the transaction. There was no material diversity of statement. Antonio, the owner of the bungo, had his [illegible in my scan -FP], getting supper for his men-some ten or twelve men and some women who were with him. Antonio was a well known pilot on the river, and had formerly been a pilot for Captain Smith. A difficulty occurred between them at that time, and there was still bad feeling existing between them. It was supposed that for this reason Smith tried to run his steamer into the barge, for the purpose of destroying her. When Antonio saw that purpose, he threatened to shoot the captain if he ran into him. The vessel struck, but did not sink the bungo. To the passengers, who rushed to know what he was about, he said that his rudder would not work, and that the collision was an accident.
Antonio was of Spanish blood; a perfectly peaceful and quiet man, and universally respected. When his wounded body came to be seen at the station-house, the people were very much infuriated, for they looked upon it as a wanton and deliberate murder.
It certainly sounds that way. Smith had previous dispute with Antonio and apparently tried to destroy his livelihood, and possibly drown him, by sinking his boat. Nice guy for Borland to step up to defend. Leaving aside the wider political implications and the status of Greytown’s authorities, this looks like a very conventional murder. Antonio may have threatened Smith, but only after Smith tried to sink him over with his steamer. One can’t fault him for aggressive language then.
Another correspondent had still a more intimate knowledge of the conflict, but as this already runs a bit long his account will have to wait for Monday.