The Murder and the Arsonist

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

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

The Bombardment of Greytown: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, behind the scenes

The Dealings of the Accessory Transit Company: parts 1, 2

The Murder at Greytown: parts 1, 2

The USS Cyane came down, shelled, and burned the free port of Greytown on Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast or the British Mosquito Coast protectorate. Her captain, George N. Hollins, came with orders to get satisfaction in two related disputes between the Accessory Transit Company and the town government and on the matter of American Minister Solon Borland’s face, injured by a thrown bottle when he stopped town authorities from arresting a Transit Company captain who murdered a black pilot.

That murder, it appears, took place because Borland egged the captain on. Horace Greeley printed two letters with substantially the same account of that. The second, under the heading “The Murder Defended by Messrs. Borland and Marcy,” came from Captain William H. Rogers of the Martha Clark. Rogers served on the coroner’s jury that ruled Captain Smith’s murder of Antonio worthy of arrest and adds to the story that Joseph Fabens, the American Commercial Agent in Greytown, attended the hearing and gave his agreement with the charges.

Rogers agrees that Borland talked Smith into shooting Antonio, writing that he had it from people present at the time, and shares the same story about Borland telling off the police and the mob approaching Fabens’ house under the belief that Smith hid inside. Then he adds more news.

The Mayor Mr. Sigand, then came up, and said that the acts of the crowd were unauthorized by the authorities and apologized to Mr. Borland. I then went on board my bessel, and about ten minutes afterward dMr. Fabens and three others came aboard and asked me if I had any arms and ammunition on board, that Mr. Borland had his head cut open, and that he, Fabens, was going on board the steamships to get the Californians to burn the town, and tried to induce my mate to go with him.

One supposes that Fabens had a novel understanding of commerce that included arson in his assignment. Rogers didn’t throw himself at the opportunity, but did agree to take Fabens around to the other ships. There Fabens told his story that

Mr. Borland had been seriously injured by a parcel of rebels and pirates, and niggers in the town, and appealed to them as Americans, if they would suffer their Minister to be insulted, and called for volunteers to go and burn the town.

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Solon Borland (D-AR)

It looks very much like Fabens decided he had the perfect chance to serve his unofficial employers at the Transit Company and resolve their disputes with the town by eliminating the town, even before he had the United States Navy to help. The Americans answered Fabens’ plea that they would of course oblige, if things really went as he said. They sent out men to discover as much.

These persons, with Fabens and others, numbering eleven in all, were not permitted to land, the people having got wind of the intention to burn the town keeping guard along the beach. They however told Fabens that he might land, but not the others, as they feared danger for the town.

All of this was during the night, and Borland remained ashore at the Commercial Agency, and there was no guard around the house and no restraint on Borland. The only guard was along the beach, to prevent parties landing, and burning the town as threatened by Fabens. The next morning, Borland went on board the steamship at about 6 o’clock, and there were no marks on his head, as represented by Fabens to the passengers.

According to Rogers, Borland suffered only injury to his pride. Everybody else I’ve read takes the claim of a real cut or something seriously. But then I’ve read accounts that insist Borland got arrested too and nothing like that seems to have happened. At most, Joseph Fabens seems to have had his movements obstructed on the reasonable grounds that he planned arson and had gathered men to help.

George N. Hollins

George N. Hollins

With regard to Fabens’ ties to the Transit Company, his behavior speaks for itself. He acts like a man doing their bidding. We have a bit more than that to go on, however. Allen Nevins quotes a letter published by the National Intelligencer from the Transit Company’s president to the commercial agent, dated June 16, as Hollins departed for the Mosquito Coast:

“you will see from his instructions that much discretion is given to you”; that “it is to be hoped that it will not be so exercised as to show any mercy to the town or people”; that “if the scoundrels are soundly punished, we can take possession, and built it up as a business place, put in our own officers, transfer the jurisdiction, and you know the rest.”

I wish I could get a copy of that letter, but the only Intelligencer scans I found are paywalled. Sorry.

Nevins concludes that

The company, in short, had deliberately picked a quarrel, and Fabens had then gulled the State Department and Navy into destroying the place for the benefit of the notorious sharpers who wished to build their own well-controlled port on its ruins.

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