The Bombardment of Greytown, Part Five

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Solon Borland (D-AR)

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, behind the scenes

George N. Hollins had his orders from Washington. He needed to make whole the Accessory Transit Company and receive some kind of apology and indemnity for Solon Borlond’s injured head. But in an era before telephones, communications satellites, or the internet, Hollins would need to take pains to get the latest news on the ground when he arrived. To that end, his orders referred him to Joseph Fabens, the American commercial agent and ex officio agent of the Accessory Transit Company. Hollins did so and his exchange with Fabens appears in the letters Horace Greeley printed on the second of August, 1854.

Fabens told Hollins that he’d posted notice that the United States wanted satisfaction twice, on June 24 and July 11. Ever the diplomat, Faben’s first notice addressed “those now or lately pretending to and exercising authority and to the people of San Juan del Norte” and

demand[ed] of you immediate restoration of the aforesaid property. I am not prepared to put an estimate upon it at this moment, or to guess the amount of damages suffered by the Transit Company in consequence of your outrageous conduct toward their agent and employees while endeavoring to retake possession of the same, and upon subsequent occasions connected therewith. It is expected that for this, as well as for their conduct in other respects toward American citizens, the people of the town will be prepared to afford redress in a satisfactory manner.

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Notice the absence of any mention of Borland’s injury. We have only wrongs done to American citizens, not to American officials or offenses against the flag. Borland caught his fateful bottle on May 16. Fabens knew very well what he omitted. He had instructions from Marcy regarding Borland dated June 9th and presumably in his hands by then. Yet the actual reason that a ship steamed for Greytown did not enter into his first proclamation. In the second, it came only after two paragraphs about the Accessory Transit Company’s grievances. Greytown owed the Company money, land, and by the way maybe they should do something to make right this little matter of an injured diplomat if they had the time.

This stands in marked contrast to Hollins’ proclamation warning of the impending bombardment, which mentioned both the commercial disputes and Borland virtually in the same breath:

whereas certain gross outrages have at sundry times been perpetrated by the “authorities” (so called) and people of San Juan del Norte upon the persons and property of American citizens at that place and vicinity; and, whereas, a serious insult and indignity has been offered to the United States in the conduct of the said authorities and people toward Mr. Borland, United States Minister to Central America, for which outrage and insult no indemnity has been given

Hollins’ report to James Cochran Dobbins, Secretary of the Navy, proceeds much in the same manner.

One can read too much into this kind of thing, but Fabens looks very much like he cares a great deal about the Accessory Transit Company and rather less about Solon Borland.

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The Bombardment of Greytown, Part Four

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

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

The Bombardment of Greytown, parts 1, 2, 3, behind the scenes

On July 13, 1854, George N. Hollins, United States Navy, ordered the shelling of Greytown, a free port on Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast, or within the United Kingdom’s Mosquito Coast protectorate, or within its own anomalous jurisdiction and outside the control of any nation. Depending on who one asked at the time, and when, any of those descriptions could apply. Setting aside the legal and direct political issues, Greytown ran itself. As a practical matter, the nations concerned recognized it as something more than property of another nation, but less than a nation of its own. Thus the United States appointed no ambassador or minister, but did dispatch a commercial agent named Joseph Fabens to look after American interests at the eastern end of the route across Nicaragua to the Pacific.

Fabens, as I’ve said before, very probably worked at least as much for the Accessory Transit Company as he did for the United States. In that capacity he sent letters back to Washington about how the local authorities seized some company property over a dispute over land use. This did not amount to a great deal of wealth, but apparently the company considered the Greytown authorities a substantial impediment to doing business as they preferred and wanted rid of them. Fabens’ dispatches on that matter failed to bring about any action on Washington’s part, but when Solon Borland intervened to save a Company captain and murderer from justice and caught a bottle to the face for his trouble, things changed.

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley’s New York Daily Tribune printed correspondence about Greytown on August 2 and 3, 1854. He had it because Congress demanded the documents from Franklin Pierce and Pierce obliged. Those documents include two letters from William L. Marcy, Secretary of State, to Fabens. The first mentions only the Transit Company’s difficulties but promises fuller instructions on a later ship. The second letter invokes both the Company’s dispute:

notify the people of San Juan to repair the injury they have caused to the Accessory Transit Company by withholding from it the property which had been stolen and taken to San Juan, and by protecting the persons who were guilty of the felony.

and the matter that finally got a warship moving, Solon Borland’s injury:

Mr. Borland, our Minister to Central America, has represented to this Government that, while recently in San Juan, he was insulted by the authorities or people of that place. An indignity offered to the nation, as well as to him individually, cannot be permitted to pass unnoticed. If done by order of the authorities of the place, they must answer for it in their assumed political character. Nothing short of an apology for the outrage will save the place from the infliction that such an act justly merits. It is expected that this apology will be promptly made, and satisfactory assurance given to Commander Hollins of future good conduct toward the United States and public functionaries who may in future be at that place.

The orders that James Cochran Dobbins, Secretary of the Navy, gave Hollins repeat both concerns:

The property of the American citizens interested in the Accessory Transit Company, it is said, has been unlawfully detained by persons residing in Greytown. Apprehension is felt that further outrages will be committed. Our Minister, Mr. Borland, has been treated with rudeness and disrespect.

Maybe Washington wouldn’t send a ship just to settle things up for the Transit Company, but it would settle things for the Transit Company once it arrived to get some kind of reckoning for the attack on Borland. Thus the Transit Company’s dispute with Greytown and Solon Borland’s injured face come together as the USS Cyane arrives in Greytown’s harbor. The Company men must have smiled when they heard the news.

The Bombardment of Greytown, Part Three

George N. Hollins

George N. Hollins

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

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

The Bombardment of Greytown, parts 1, 2, behind the scenes

Horace Greeley concluded his July 26, 1854 article on the destruction of Greytown with a demand for reparations, apologies, and the expectation that neither would come from the Pierce administration. That that situation, he advised, would find its best remedy in properly informed voting come November. Along the way, he added his voice to the congressional demand for the papers relating to the affair. When Pierce had not coughed up the papers by July 29th, Greeley presented his take on events again and took the silence as admission of guilt in an affair so notorious that

We cannot recall any other public question with regard to which there has been such unity of opinion. Journals habitually opposed on every other subject representing every shade of party feeling, every divergence of interest, and every antagonism of nationality concur to declare the destruction of San Juan a needless, unjustifiable, inhuman exercise of warlike force. Conservatives and radicals, Whigs and Democrats, Americans and Foreigners all agree in this one thing-all express the same horror and disgust. Indeed, among all the papers which have yet spoken, we know of but one, and that an obscure and scurrilous sheet in this City, which has attempted to find an excuse for the measure.

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

One can call Greeley a partisan hack, but one does not make that strong of a claim about the writing of other papers lightly if one expects to maintain one’s credibility. Allen Nevins quotes the passage as evidence of a broad revulsion at George N. Hollins’ destruction of the town and given the previous, I take him at his word. However openly partisan, Greeley took his paper seriously and saw it taken seriously by others. Inventing a broad disapproval where none existed would have undermined his credibility as surely as reporting that he had the moon in his pocket and just kindly let it out every night for exercise.

But Pierce did eventually oblige Congress by giving up the correspondence on Greytown. Greeley dutifully printed the lot on the third of August. They did not much help the administration’s case, as Greeley saw it. He devotes most of two columns on the second to repeating his account of the affair and, with good reason, declaring himself vindicated:

They [the documents] contain nothing that in the least relieves the enormity of the transaction, nor anything that removes the responsibility of it from the Administration. It is plain, from the orders of the Secretary of the Navy to Commander Hollins that the extremity of destroying the place was contemplated by those sending the Cyane on her mission.

James Cochran Dobbin, Secretary of the Navy

James Cochran Dobbin, Secretary of the Navy

Greeley does allow that the orders ask Hollins to tread lightly:

“It is, however,” says the Secretary, “very much to be hoped that you can effect the purpose of your visit without resort to violence and destruction of property and loss of life.

But note, as Greeley did, the language used. The Secretary of the Navy hopes that Hollins can complete his mission without working violence or ruin on anything or anyone. He hopes, but does not require. From this, Greeley takes that Washington foresaw the possibility of violence and counted it an acceptable, if not the preferred or ideal, outcome. James Dobbin could have written more pacific orders, specifying the use of force only in certain circumstances. He settled for a vague hope.

The Bombardment of Greytown, Part Two

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

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

The Bombardment of Greytown, part 1, behind the scenes

Horace Greeley took to the pages of his New York Tribune to excoriate Solon Borland and condemn the destruction of Greytown by the USS Cyane on July 13, 1854. Borland meddled in an ordinary arrest of a man for murder, something well outside his official duties. His obnoxious personality only made things worse. Thus the people of Greytown quite reasonably assembled an angry mob interested in righting the wrongs he had done to them. If the American minister could save a murderer from prosecution, Americans might very well murder with impunity thereafter.

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Solon Borland (D-AR)

But Greeley had not finished with Borland. He would not, in fact, finish at least until August 3 when he concluded publishing the official correspondence on the affair. Thanks, Horace. I’ll find use for those documents.

But even admitting that the insult to Borland was grave and needed reparation, there is nobody who can pretend that it called for so extreme a measure as the destruction of the town. Including the warehouses of unoffending merchants and the official residences of Consuls. Indeed the disproportion of the punishment to the offense seems quite unparalleled in civilized history; and were the event not one of loss and ruin to many innocent persons, and of disgrace and shame to the country, it would be [ludicrous?]. Why burn a whole city for the fault of a few of the residents? Why bombard and destroy the property of men who had no hand in any part of the offensive proceedings? Why not confine the act of vengeance to the public offices of the place, [leaving?] private residents uninjured? And why destroy goods lying there temporarily on the way to market and belonging to distant owners, citizens of Nicaragua, the United States, or other countries? Or why, after firing two hundred cannonballs through the buildings land a squad of pillagers to lay the whole in flames, and leave the houses and places of business of a thousand people nothing but ashes?

Look at the act in whatever light you will, it can inspire no other feeling than one of shame and disgust at such wanton barbarity. It was nothing less than an assault on the civilization and the American institutions that had been successfully planted in that remote and undeveloped region.

George N. Hollins

George N. Hollins

Bombardment alone would exceed any punishment warranted. Bombardment and burning? Greeley lays it on a bit thick about how Greytown had developed. At most maybe five hundred lived there. But they lost their homes and businesses all the same.

Greeley also speaks from that patronizing nineteenth century missionary view of America. The Nicaraguans suffer injury not just in having a town ruined and the loss of property. They’ve also now taken a bad example from the Americans, from whom they had presumably learned their arts of self-government. The bombardment made Americans into hypocrites and undermined all the good work they did as the shining city on the hill for the benighted lands south of the border. Way to go, America.

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.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection, Part Four

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

Solon Borland, Southern radical and American minister to Central America, took a bottle to the face from an angry mob for his trouble intervening to prevent the arrest of a murderous American captain working for the Accessory Transit Company in Nicaragua. The attack happened in Greytown, a town that the British founded but had operated for some years as a free port answerable only to itself. Now some people there had attacked and injured an American diplomat, who rushed off to Washington to tell his story.

Though never much of an enthusiast for the theatrical, reckless side of diplomacy, Secretary of State William L. Marcy saw far too much in Borland’s story to just let it blow over. Pierre Soulé brought a duel upon himself and won no sympathy for it. Borland acted, at least in principle, entirely within his normal capacity as an American diplomat. Someone had to answer for this, and Marcy knew very well that Nicaragua did not hold any blame for an attack within the Mosquito Coast that it did not control. Nor could he quite pin the blame on the United Kingdom, which had only a sketchy protectorate over the area in question. However much that might have appealed given the friction over its violation of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty by expanding into the Bay Islands of Honduras.

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Who could the American government hold responsible? The people of Greytown attacked Solon Borland, so the people of Greytown could pay. The USS Cyane made her way to the free port. Commander George N. Hollins, a Marylander who went South in 1861, had orders to teach Greytown a lesson but that he should avoid destruction of property or loss of life in so doing. He should also consult with a commercial agent on the ground, Joseph W. Fabens. Fabens had close ties to the Accessory Transit Company, which almost surely flowed from their payroll to his pocket. Fabens encouraged Hollins to demand $24,000, a sum completely out of proportion to the offense, and an apology.

George N. Hollins

George N. Hollins

Greytown did not oblige. Hollins, under orders to avoid death and destruction, hewed to the former and ignored the latter. He gave twenty-four hours’ notice and provided help for the evacuation of the town in that time. Hollins aimed to bombard the place. The British naval officer on the scene protested that Hollins would destroy the property and homes of innocents. The Greytowners pled and then fled. Unmoved, Hollins opened fire on July 13, 1854. The New York Times carried the report of a Greytown resident on July 26th:

on the morning of the 13th inst., at 9 A. M., he opened his battery on the town, and after discharging one hundred and thirty shot and shell into the town, landed a party of marines and sailors and set fire to the town.

[…]

I think now that the nest of land pirates, which were located at San Juan, is now broken up, and they will also learn that American citizens must and will be protected.

No one died, but the United States had destroyed a free port with reckless disregard for the property of both the locals and foreign citizens alike for the actions, at most, of a mob under the control of neither foreign agents nor the local authorities.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection, Part Three

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

The British and Americans agreed that neither power should dominate Central America or any future Nicaraguan canal. Instead, they foresaw a neutral canal where both nations could enjoy the flow of commerce without troubling one another. The British could have their British Honduras, now Belize, but no more. So they agreed in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty.

To hear the Americans tell it, Britain’s expanding into islands in the Bay of Honduras violated that understanding. They had Belize and should settle for that. To the British, the Bay Islands formed no more than an extension of Belize, to which the United States had already consented by accepting the presence of British Honduras. Furthermore, the Americans had it wrong regardless as the treaty looked forward, coming fully into effect only when someone set to building the Nicaragua canal.

Here London proved the equal of any dissembling American diplomat. The British had, at absolute minimum, expanded British Honduras by establishing their control over the Bay Islands. Though the British had past dealings with and attempted settlements upon the islands, they went to the United Provinces of Central America on that nation’s independence. The Hondurans inherited the islands on their independence. They protested when British settlers came squatting, but had no means to evict them at the time. When those settlers asked for British protection, the British obliged and then set up the crown colony. All of this looks, in the broad strokes, very like the kind of thing that the Americans wanted to do to Cuba and had done, over a longer time, to Mexican Texas.

Cornelius Vanderbilt

Cornelius Vanderbilt

Matters might have remained in that state, a cause of some tension but otherwise an interesting footnote at best. But Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Accessory Transit Company ran the steamers over the Nicaragua route, linking the American East to the new American Far West. Vanderbilt went off to Europe and with him safely gone, two unscrupulous businessmen stole the company out from under him. When he returned, Vanderbilt resolved to ruin the men and threw his cash behind a route across the isthmus of Panama.

Meanwhile, in Greytown at the eastern end of the Nicaragua route, the Accessory Transit Company took charge of some land by the harbor. The free port’s officials wanted that land turned into a quarantine station. The company refused. The officials might have made off with some company property during the dispute. With things heating up, an American agent with close ties to the Company, Joseph W. Fabens, sent off dispatches to Washington about how out of control things had become.  Along the way, a Company captain brutally murdered a black pilot.

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Solon Borland (D-AR)

You can get away with a lot in a free port, but blatant murder asked too much latitude of Greytown’s government. They sent a man to arrest the captain. Here the American captain’s story comes together with another American in extreme southeastern Nicaragua, Arkansan Solon Borland. A former senator who physically attacked Henry S. Foote back in 1850, Borland had a radical pedigree a bit too hot for Arkansas. He resigned in 1853 and ended up posted to Managua as the American minister. There he won friends and influenced people by lobbying for the United States to take up the Honduran side in the Bay Islands dispute and giving a public speech about how he hoped to see Nicaragua soon annexed to the United States. He’d have done better to wait a year until William Walker (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) ran the nation.

Passing through Greytown in May of 1854, Borland stepped up with gun in hand to stop the arrest. Instead he got arrested. Protesting his arrest got Borland a broken bottle tossed in his face by the unfriendly crowd. His diplomatic immunity got Borland freed and he returned to Washington to tell his story. If this kind of thing had happened in Cuba, a war might very well have erupted. But the Mosquito Coast lived in a legal limbo, Greytown especially. No one could plausibly blame Nicaragua, or even the United Kingdom, for the act of an unruly mob in a fairly lawless town of five hundred outside the reach of both. That said, someone had to pay. The mob assaulted and injured an American diplomat. Even calm old William L. Marcy would not take that sitting down.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection, Part Two

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: part 1

The United States and the United Kingdom both had intense and conflicting interests in Central America, particularly in Nicaragua where a route down the San Juan river, across Lake Nicaragua, and only a few miles by stagecoach connected the Caribbean and Pacific and thus the American East and Gulf Coasts with the West Coast. That route served the same purposes, with all the same strategic implications, as the Panama Canal would in later decades.  Anglo-American relations in the middle of the nineteenth century ran generally cool, with occasional bouts of paranoid hostility on the part of the Americans. 

But when the United States did not swallow Mexico whole  in 1848, British fears eased somewhat. Overheated rhetoric aside, the Americans did not particularly relish the prospect of war with the United Kingdom. The British felt much the same way about the United States. Thus, as responsible nations do, both parties sat down and negotiated a treaty to settle matters to their mutual satisfaction. The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 provided that:

neither the one nor the other will ever obtain or maintain for itself any exclusive control over the said ship canal; agreeing that neither will ever erect or maintain any fortifications commanding the same or in the vicinity thereof, or occupy, or fortify, or colonize, or assume or exercise any dominion over Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Mosquito coast, or any part of Central America; nor will either make use of any protection which either affords or may afford, or any alliance which either teas or may have, to or with any State or people, for the purpose of erecting or maintaining any such fortifications, or of occupying, fortifying, or colonizing Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Mosquito coast, or any part of Central America, or of assuming or exercising dominion over the same

Both nations saw a canal in Nicaragua’s future and agreed not to seize control of it, either directly or by conniving in with local governments to the same end. The United States had long wanted a neutral canal and the British had little reason to object, since a neutral canal would suit their shipping just fine. But just to make sure, the treaty also provided

Vessels of the United States or Great Britain traversing the said canal shall, in case of war between the contracting parties, be exempted from blockade, detention, or capture by either of the belligerents; and this provision shall extend to such a distance from the two ends of the said canal as may hereafter be found expedient to establish.

Secretary of State John M. Clayton

Secretary of State John M. Clayton

Further guarantees went out that neither nation would try to seize the canal, or any operations engaged in constructing one. They would support ports at either end. They intended the treaty as a statement of general principles as well as one specific to the Nicaragua route. They agreed to encourage other nations to sign on to similar guarantees and promised to give them the same privileges that American and British shipping would enjoy.

The British had seized part of the Mosquito Coast in 1848, but once the Americans contented themselves with only half of Mexico, they pulled back. The UK claimed a vague protectorate over the Mosquito Coast and its Miskito Indians, but in reality the port at the Caribbean terminus of the Nicaragua route, Greytown, governed itself. That status quo suited the Americans and their interpretation of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty well enough.

The British took a turn at the expansionist role by establishing a crown colony over some islands in the Bay of Honduras in 1852. This aggravated prior disagreement over the Mosquito Coast protectorate. The Americans thought the treaty required the British to withdraw entirely and at once. The British read it as requiring withdraw if and when someone started building a canal and regardless of that viewed the Bay Islands as an extension of Belize. The United States accepted the British claim to Belize, as British Honduras, after all. Here London at least pushed against the status quo and the United States found itself defending more or less the existing order. The aggressor over Cuba became the defender on the other side of the Caribbean.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection, Part One

John Slidell

John Slidell

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

In revisiting the Cuba filibusters, I dropped one thread of the narrative that I should pick back up. Back in May of 1854, Louisiana’s John Slidell stood in the Senate and presented a resolution that the Congress should give Franklin Pierce the power to set aside the Neutrality Acts and generally tell John A. Quitman to go on his merry way. He did so in support of a like resolution by the state legislature that appointed him and on the grounds that the British had a conspiracy (parts 1, 2, 3, 4) with the Spanish to Africanize the island and turn Cuba into a base from which to harass American shipping and foment servile insurrection in the South. Slidell’s resolution did not win the approval of the Congress, even after Pierce asked for extraordinary powers relating to Cuba later on in August.

All of this leaves unanswered why Congress did not grant Pierce those powers. The same Congress assented to at least a reduced form of the Gadsden Purchase (parts 1, 2, 3) so it did not have a dogmatic opposition to territorial expansion. Pierce ran on an expansionist platform and promised more land in his inaugural address. Everybody in 1852 expected the Democracy to pick up where it left off in 1848 and continue painting the map red, white, and blue. Certainly the Kansas-Nebraska backlash complicated those efforts, but at least some Northerners would happily sign on to more American territory still. Most everyone believed that the United States had some kind of natural destiny to dominate the continent.

Cornelius Vanderbilt

Cornelius Vanderbilt

What happened? Nicaragua happened. As gentle readers might recall (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), few people wrote home from Nicaragua to comment on its remarkable stability and strong government. Internal divisions and rugged terrain did it no favors on those fronts. Yet Nicaragua sat astride a quick route across the Central American isthmus and thus drew the intense interest of major commercial powers like the United States and the United Kingdom keen on skipping the long haul around South America to reach the Pacific. A steamer line already ran down Nicaragua’s San Juan river to Lake Nicaragua and from there wagons and stagecoaches took goods and people the few miles to the Pacific coast. Cornelius Vanderbilt set up a steamer route between New York and the Pacific using Nicaragua to get people to California for the gold rush and his Accessory Transit Company continued to operate that route.

The United States thus had an obvious interest in Nicaragua. The United Kingdom had ill-defined claims to various parts of Central America, including British Honduras (now Belize) and the adjacent Mosquito Coast (now the Caribbean coast of Honduras and Nicaragua). Those claims overlapped with both the Nicaraguan isthmus route and the oft-proposed canal to make a direct sea connection to the Pacific. The Americans very much did not want the British to dominate an eventual canal through their control of its eastern terminus, a prospect made still more dreadful by various bouts of anglophobia in the American political class.

That anglophobia had some informing it. The British had moved into the Mosquito Coast when it looked like the United States might take larger sections of Mexico than it in fact did. The British guarantees to Spain over Cuba fit in here too, as did British efforts to deny the United States a naval base in the modern Dominican Republic, British efforts to preserve Hawaiian independence, British protests over a commercial convention with Ecuador, and real and perceived past efforts to establish some kind of protectorate over Texas. It looked very much like Albion intended to contain the United States and deny it its geographic, racial, political, and religious destiny.

On the Choice of Real Estate

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

I have the sense that I’ve pushed the notion that the South chose Kansas over Cuba to the point that a reader could take it too literally. While the choices of various Southern leaders, and Franklin Pierce, certainly brought about that outcome in the end it  bears repeating that the choice here did not amount to the same thing as going to a store and picking one or the other off the rack. At no point did Jefferson Davis, by the grace of Calhoun King of the South, or anybody else have before them the explicit decision and power to take one place or the other for the benefit of American slavery.

To the degree that antebellum Southerners did make conscious choices that led to having a chance for slavery in Kansas but precluded stealing Cuba, they made those decisions together only because the Kansas crisis and the Cuba crisis happened largely at the same time. The best opening for Quitman’s filibusters came in the wake of the Black Warrior Affair and the Africanization panic (parts 1, 2, 3, 4). The seizure of the ship in particular gave them some cover against Northern objections, something Franklin Pierce surely understood when he strongly implied that he would start a war over it in his message to the House in March of 1854.

But that same month, the Kansas-Nebraska Act made it through the Senate after a seventeen hour marathon session that went all through a Friday night and into Saturday morning. The bill hit the House, where it would have the harder fight, just as the Cuba crisis really blew up. Confronted with both questions, both deeply entwined with slavery and thus deeply perilous, the Pierce administration seems to have walked back its steal first Cuba policy. We know that Pierce switched to trying to buy Cuba from the new instructions to Soulé in Madrid, but how much success he expected from those negotiations we can’t know.

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

That amounts to something like a deliberate choice, but if someone in the Pierce Cabinet made that choice explicitly, that person did so at a late date. All through the spring and summer, as Kansas-Nebraska debates raged in the House, as the Anthony Burns affair (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) sprung up, as the bill finally passed, and as the reaction set in in the North, Pierce seems to have maintained a course directed toward getting Cuba somehow. As late as early August, he repeated his saber-rattling message to the House. Only in November, after the Democracy took its electoral beating does Soulé receive his dressing down and the Ostend Manifesto went public, does Washington appear to completely give up the idea of a Cuban annexation. The costly Kansas controversy appears to have forced the administration to yield on the dream of a Caribbean empire.

Thus Samuel R. Walker’s eleventh hour plea for support in the pages of DeBow’s Review really did come at the last possible moment. Later that winter, Pierce had Quitman down to Washington and laid out for him just how thoroughly the Spanish had reinforced the island. By that time, the Democracy had bigger problems than an emancipated, Africanized Cuba. It had Know-Nothings and Republicans to face.