At the end of May, 1854, the minister to Central America, Solon Borland, and the United States commercial agent at Greytown, Joseph Fabens, both wrote to the Secretary of State, William L. Marcy, about recent events in Greytown. Fabens declined to mention how he’d tried to burn the town to the ground in the wake of Borland’s alleged injury. Marcy might not have known about that until the newspapers reported it late in the summer. He did know that if anybody hit Borland with a bottle, it happened because Borland intervened to protect an accused murderer from arrest.
Borland himself declared that he cared not at all about whether or not Captain Smith, the murderer in question and an employee of the Accessory Transit Company, had killed the man. Considering Borland talked him into the killing, that took some cheek. Borland demanded justice for an injury that left not a mark upon him which he suffered in a confrontation that he initiated, based on a murder he encouraged.
Fabens, working more for the Transit Company than the United States, dealt with Borland’s injury as almost an afterthought in his letters. But the murky real estate disputes between the Transit Company and Greytown had gone on for some time. For more than a year the Company refused to recognize Greytown’s jurisdiction. All its protests and lobbying through Fabens did not bring the George N. Hollins and the USS Cyane down from New York. Borland’s injury, and Faben’s dispatches declaring that the people of Greytown tried to seize and detain the minister, did. To hear Fabens tell it, a mob of “Jamaican negroes” formed to seize Borland and the broken bottle struck him in the face, drawing blood. Borland must have been a fast healer if this really happened, as others saw an uninjured face the next day.
Whatever happened, the Navy issued orders to Hollins dated June 10. He would sail down with the Cyane and get satisfaction from Greytown. He should not spend too much time there, but should consult with Joseph Fabens to get the latest facts on the ground before acting. Whatever he did, he should try to prevent any loss of life or destruction of property. The Cyane arrived on July 11 and Fabens and Hollins conferred. Fabens shared that he’d told the Greytown authorities the Navy would soon arrive and they should have some kind of restitution for Borland’s injury and the Accessory Transit Company’s complaints ready. The Greytown government declined to give Fabens an answer. Possibly they felt less than sociable toward him due to his late plan to burn their homes and property to the ground. Furthermore, Fabens had it that the mob that injured Borland now entirely controlled the town.
The amount of restitution that Fabens suggested to Hollins, which the latter accepted, went well beyond the agreed value of the property in question for the Transit Company. It certainly exceeded any reasonable sum one could ask for Borland’s uninjured face. After repeated demands brought no answer Hollins accepted, he gave twenty-four hours’ notice that he aimed to disregard his instructions to avoid violence and destruction of property by bombarding the town. But Hollins had something of a soft touch and abided by one third of his instructions by trying to avoid killing anybody. He instead set up facilities for everyone to relocate to safety before the shooting started.
The pleas of the commander of a much smaller British warship present did nothing to move Hollins. He had it in his power to destroy Greytown and destroy it he would. That Greytown had no defenses against a naval bombardment did not enter into it. Nor did Greytown’s position in the United Kingdom’s Mosquito Coast protectorate. Nor did American commitment in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty to maintain the neutrality of any route for a canal across Central America matter. The next morning, Hollins performed an intermittent bombardment, with frequent breaks for someone from Greytown to come over with cash on hand, or at least promises to pay. No one did and over the course of a few hours Hollins fired into the town and then ordered a party ashore to burn the rest.
The United States Navy, on behalf of Solon Borland for injuries he probably did not suffer and on behalf of the Accessory Transit Company, for grievances where the facts generally stood against it, destroyed Greytown entirely. It did so over the protests of the British and wildly out of proportion to any injuries suffered. Borland might call Greytown a nest of pirates, but George N. Hollins destroyed a defenseless town because it refused to pay tribute.