A Greytown Narrative, Part One

The Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia)

The time has more than come for a step back to organize what I’ve culled from Horace Greeley’s reprints of the documents about Greytown, Solon Borland, and the Accessory Transit Company. The documents, and thus my posts, have wandered back and forth through time, disagreed with one another, and addressed far more concerns than I expected when I took on the project. Today I aim to fit it all into a general narrative as best I can.

Greytown began, barring Indian settlements at the same spot, as San Juan del Norte, at the mouth of the San Juan river. Though technically a Spanish possession, then part of the United Provinces of Central America, and then part of Nicaragua, the entire eastern coast of modern Nicaragua and Honduras rarely felt the firm hand of national government. At various points in the past, the British had facilitated immigration from Jamaica to settle friendly sorts in the hinterlands, with an eye to how the whole area sat astride the best route for a canal across Central America and how it would best serve British interests to keep it out of the grasping hands of the United States.

The British had good reason to worry, since the United States made off with half of Mexico in 1848 and briefly considered taking the whole nation. The smaller, unstable republics of Central America would find it difficult to resist American aggression and might even fall to private adventurers who would steal them with an eye toward annexation to the United States or to building their own little empires in the tropics. To deter American expansion, the British declared a protectorate over the Mosquito Coast, essentially the entire eastern coastline of modern Nicaragua and part of Honduras. They also seized San Juan del Norte, drove its previous inhabitants out, and renamed it Greytown. For around four years, the British Empire ruled the area more or less regularly as a colonial possession.

Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore

But Democrat James K. Polk gave way to Whig Zachary Taylor, who then died and put Millard Fillmore in the White House. Neither Whig had Polk’s appetite for land. Fillmore even cracked down on filibustering. The Whigs and the British reached an agreement to commit to a neutral route across Central America and future canal, laid out in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850. With things apparently settling down and more neighborly Americans in office, the British withdrew from Greytown in 1852. The Greytown locals, a fairly international lot, established their own government with a proper constitution, elections, and the usual officials.

When Greytown convened to establish its government, the Accessory Transit Company took an interest. This American firm, founded by Cornelius Vanderbilt but lately under the control of schemers who seized it while he vacationed in Europe, ran steamer routes through Nicaragua to California and so had much invested in Greytown. Thus the company hauled all its employees in to vote and ensure the election of a friendly government. The Transit Company had rented a piece of land called Punta Arenas from the British. This land fell within the new Greytown government’s jurisdiction, which expected rent under the previous arrangement. The Transit Company declined to pay.

Cornelius Vanderbilt

Cornelius Vanderbilt

For a good six months, the Transit Company treated Greytown’s government as entirely legitimate. It sued and defended itself in Greytown courts. But the Transit Company really did not want to pay its rent and so decided after those first six months that the Greytown government had no legitimacy after all. Company policy dictated a policy of ignoring Greytown’s demands. At some point along the way, an illegal squatter set up a boarding house in Greytown that the Company began to lease for its employees.

Greytown could do little about Punta Arenas miles away, but had the boarding house right at hand. The owner had set it up illegally, after all. He didn’t own that land and had no right to its use. The Greytown authorities apparently confiscated the property and kicked the Transit Company boarders out.

The United States recognized Greytown’s government, after a fashion. Washington did not dispatch a consul or minister to handle its affairs, but the State Department did dispatch a commercial agent. That agent, Joseph Fabens, almost certainly worked for the Transit Company in addition to his official duties. Fabens sent a series of dispatches to Washington playing up how things had gone out of control and the Greytown government had it in for the Transit Company and Americans in general. Whatever Fabens’ superiors in Washington thought of those dispatches, the generated no dramatic orders or changes in policy.

All of this brings us to May of 1854, when Solon Borland came to Greytown. I’ll have much more to say about him and his doings in the next part.

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