The State of the Union in 1855: Filibustering

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

 

Franklin Pierce’s third annual message progressed from bland assurances that all went well to a set of real grievances against the United Kingdom. Relations with the world’s great superpower, with whom the United States had twice fought wars, understandably take pride of place. Only after updating Congress on them did Pierce address tension with other powers. He didn’t care for Denmark’s insistence that the United States pay a toll to pass through Danish waters and trade in the Baltic. Some matter with the French consul at San Francisco had come to a satisfactory resolution, as had a dispute with Greece over seizure of American property.

Then Pierce turned south of the border once again:

With Spain peaceful relations are still maintained, and some progress has been made in securing the redress of wrongs complained of by this Government. Spain has not only disavowed and disapproved the conduct of the officers who illegally seized and detained the steamer Black Warrior at Havan, but has also paid the sum claimed as indemnity for the loss thereby inflicted on citizens of the United States.

That did made for good news on both sides of the Atlantic. The Black Warrior controversy threatened briefly to spark a war, with Pierce making dire threats. That the whole thing came out of the Spanish governor’s desire to warn off American filibusters, most notably Mississippi’s ex-governor John A. Quitman, gave the situation an ironic twist. In other Cuban news, Pierce happily related that the Spanish would pay an indemnity for prematurely cutting off duty free access to the island’s ports back in the 1840s. He expected Madrid would soon gave satisfaction on the matter of another steamer, the El Dorado, as well. All in all, Pierce saw the Cuban situation as one of improvement. That must have frustrated the filibusters to no end.

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

William Walker, the gray-eyed man of destiny

Speaking of filibusters, 1855 brought with it William Walker’s Nicaraguan expedition. Pierce didn’t mention the Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny by name, but anybody who followed the news could figure out who he meant. After a homily about respecting the sanctity of neighboring republics, the sort of thing that General Pierce observed most studiously during the Mexican War, President Pierce took aim at their instability:

obstacles have arisen in some of them from their own insufficient power to check lawless irruptions, which in effect throws most of the task on the United States. Thus it is that the distracted internal condition of the State of Nicaragua has made it incumbent on me to appeal to the good faith of our citizens to abstain from unlawful intervention in its affairs and to adopt preventative measures to the same end, which on a similar occasion had the best results in reassuring the peace of the Mexican States of Sonora and Lower California.

William Walker and a few hundred men marched into Baja California and claimed it as the Republic of Lower California in 1853. Shortly thereafter, without setting foot within it, Walker annexed Sonora to his republic and renamed the country after it. The Mexican army objected and chased Walker back over the border. A San Fransico jury took eight minutes to acquit him on charges of levying an illegal war against Mexico. He had, after all, only levied an illegal war against Mexico. Walker had gone to Nicaragua, at the invitation of one of the parties to its civil war, back in May of 1855. By the end of the year he had effective control of the country. Prominent filibusters who had operated in Baja California and Sonora, then moved on to Nicaragua made for a fairly small demographic.

Reading Pierce one likewise sees that, while he avowed American responsibility for keeping order and friendly relations, his “best results” ended with an acquitted filibuster happy to have another go and justified filibustering in general on the grounds of foreign lawlessness. He cast the United States as a good neighbor of the sort that might just see you overwhelmed by your real estate portfolio and help out by relieving you of vast swaths of land. Don’t we all want friends who see us in need and don’t wait around until we collapse in desperation before pitching in to help?

The State of the Union in 1855: The Crimean War Recruitment Controversy

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce told the 34th Congress that the United Kingdom had broken faith with the United States in Central America and now imposed its will upon the nation by recruiting for the Crimean War on American soil and without permission. We had laws specifically against such things in the name of preserving American neutrality. Furthermore, Pierce avowed, those laws comported well with established nineteenth century practice. As such, when news came that the United Kingdom would seek foreign enlistments

Nothing on the face of the act or in its public history indicated that the British Government proposed to attempt recruitment in the United States, nor did it ever give intimation of such intention to this Government.

Yet the British came anyway. While they didn’t set up a recruiting office in Times Square, they did have agents go about finding people and sending them along to Halifax for proper enlistment. This “was going on extensively, with little or no disguise.” The men so engaged soon found themselves under arrest for their lawbreaking and Pierce’s administration protested through diplomatic channels.

Thereupon it became known, by the admission of the British Government itself, that the attempt to draw recruits from this country originated with it, or at least had its approval and sanction; but it also appeared that the public agents engaged in it [had] “stringent instructions” not to violate the municipal law of the United States.

That might sound nice on paper, but how do you keep within the law while doing the specific thing it forbids? Pierce might cave to the Slave Power for a few stern words from his fellow Democrats, but he had no such respect for British shenanigans. They could promise whatever they liked, but if they recruited at all then they must either have broken the law or found some shady legal excuse to violate its spirit whilst respecting its letter.

And it got worse:

the matter acquired additional importance by the recruitments in the United States not being discontinued, and the disclosure of the fact that they were prosecuted upon a systematic plan devised by official authority; that recruiting rendezvous had been opened in our principal cities, and depots for the reception of recruits established on our frontier, and the whole business conducted under the supervision and by the regular cooperation of British officers, civil and military, some in the North American Provinces [Canada] and some in the United States.

All of this came out when the recruiters went to trial. A few bad apples, one might shrug off. Irresponsible civilian contractors or private businessmen might slip beneath official notice. But the British had a whole, organized operation to move Americans through the United States and just over the border to train them as soldiers for a foreign war.

Nineteenth century Americans often have a chip on their shoulder about national sovereignty, particularly as relates to European powers and especially when the British come into it, but even when making allowances for that one struggles to see the whole business as anything less than a complete disregard of American self-determination. Britain had not embarked on a course to annex the United States back to its empire, but clearly didn’t take American laws and their jurisdiction seriously. In past decades, the United States had done a somewhat better job of restraining filibusters operating against Canada and such expeditions had never had the full backing of the state.

The State of the Union in 1855: More Central American Trouble

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

We left Franklin Pierce inveighing against the British in his third annual message. The Young Hickory of the Granite Hills complained that perfidious Albion had agreed to renounce all claims to control of Central America in exchange for the United States doing the same. This would ensure that neither power had to worry about the other using a future canal to their detriment. But then the British persisted in their protectorate over the Mosquito Coast and expanded their recognized influence over Belize at the expense of Honduras by colonizing the Bay Islands. London had agreed to do exactly the opposite of this in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850.

Or had it? Franklin Pierce called on the Great Britain to do the right thing and withdraw completely from everywhere save Belize. The British thought otherwise:

the British Government has at length replied, affirming that the operation of the treaty is prospective only and did not require Great Britain to abandon or contract any possessions held by her in Central America at the date of its conclusion.

According to London, the British empire only committed in 1850 to develop no new claims or interests in the area. What Britain had, it would retain. You can read the treaty that way without twisting yourself in too many knots. The text makes frequent reference to a future canal and how the parties will not obtain or maintain dominance over it. But nor does it include language that only brought the neutrality and renunciation provisions into operation when someone built a canal and the text often looks as much to present circumstances as to the future. Even if one granted Belize and the Mosquito Coast as properly untouched by the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, that still left Britain’s new colony on the Bay Islands as a positive advance of British influence.

The Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia)

Pierce, understandably, didn’t buy what London tried to sell. To him, and to posterity in general, the British position simply assumed prior rights held, up to and including the expansion of British power in Central America until such time as someone built a canal. Then the United States would just have to trust Britain to do as promised. This would make for a hard sell between nations with uneasy relations today, let alone the tense Anglo-American accord that prevailed in the nineteenth century. Pierce told Congress that he hoped for a peaceful solution still, but he saw

reason to apprehend that with Great Britain in actual occupation of the disputed territories, and the treaty therefore practically null so far as regards our rights, this international difficulty can not long remain undetermined without involving in serious danger the friendly relations which it is the interest as well as the duty of both countries to cherish and preserve. It will afford me sincere gratification if future efforts shall result in the success anticipated heretofore with more confidence than the aspect of the case permits me now to ascertain.

Pierce would love it if everything worked out, but he didn’t like the odds. Posterity, for once, vindicated him. The British wouldn’t renounce their interests, outside a Belize expanded well beyond American understandings of its borders, until the end of the decade.

 

The State of the Union in 1855: Central American Trouble

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Fed up with the House’s inability to organize itself, Franklin Pierce issued his annual message on the very last day of the year. Custom dictated he wait for the Congress to have its affairs in order, but the Constitution required him to report on the state of the Union every year. Pierce’s message dealt with a wide variety of topics beyond the Kansas question, so it offers an occasion to catch up on the other things happening in 1855.

Pierce claimed that foreign relations proceeded amicably, except where they did otherwise. He opened with the dispute over Central America which informed the destruction of Greytown, in modern Nicaragua, the year previous. (Nobody died and they soon rebuilt.) Per the terms of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850, the United States and the United Kingdom mutually renounced dominion over Central America. In a time before the Pacific Railroad, the United States had a keen interest in ensuring that the easier path between its new conquests on the Pacific coast and the old Union remain free from foreign domination. Mutual renunciation of imperial designs and guarantees of the region’s neutrality meant that neither power would dominate a future canal across it. If neither side exactly won, then they didn’t quite lose either.

So long as both nations held up their end of the deal, that all worked fine. Per Pierce, the British had not. They had a colony in the area, Belize, but the understanding at the time of ratification held that the treaty didn’t involve it. The United Kingdom had previous rights to the area, though Pierce construed those rights as strictly economic. The British could “cut mahogany or dyewoods […] with the positive exclusion of all domain or sovereignty.”

London had done rather more than that:

It, however, became apparent at an early date after entering upon the discharge of my present functions that Great Britain still continued in the exercise or assertion of large authority in all that part of Central America commonly called the Mosquito Coast, and covering the entire length of the State of Nicaragua and a part of Costa Rica; that she regarded the Balize as her absolute domain and was gradually extending its limits at the expense of the State of Honduras, and, that she had formally colonized a considerable insular group known as the Bay Islands, and belonging of right to that State.

Pierce didn’t imagine any of this. The United Kingdom did maintain a protectorate over the Mosquito Coast. For a time, it even occupied Greytown at the eastern terminus of the trans-isthmus route across Nicaragua. Nor did the Court of St. James care to pretend otherwise. Instead, the British argued that they had prior rights to the Mosquito Coast based on treaties with the local Indians. Pierce found the claim preposterous, declaring that “by the public law of Europe and America no possible act of such Indians or their predecessors could confer on Great Britain any political rights.” Only American powers could treat with Indians, and then only so long as they felt like it. Maybe if Britain had cut a deal with the Spanish that would count; the word of a white power to another white power had to mean something. But Indians? Even the British could not muster sufficiently unamerican a character as to treat with them as the equals of whites.

The Bay Islands? Those belonged to Honduras and the British had there “as distinctly colonial governments as those of Jamaica or Canada.” Once more, one can’t argue with Pierce on the facts. The British really had set up a proper colony on the islands. This flew in the face of the nation’s mutually-agreed renunciations all of five years prior. What part of no colonies and no occupation had London failed to understand? That the United Kingdom had chosen to act in such a way and broke faith with the clear provisions of the treaty suggested that it aimed for a revision of the status quo in Central America very much to its favor, and to the detriment of the United States.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection, Part Six

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection: parts 123, 4, 5

The destruction of Greytown scandalized much of the North. The Democracy’s paper liked it not much better than Horace Greeley did. Solon Borland did not do himself any favors through his involvement. Furthermore, the British took it as an outrage at a time when tensions between the United Kingdom and United States already stood at a high point over Central America and had the additional aggravation of American ambitions toward Cuba. George N. Hollins would have struggled to find a worse time to improve on his instructions by burning the place.

Matters all came to a head in late summer of 1854, roughly simultaneous with Franklin Pierce making his last-ditch attempt to work around Pierre Soulé and his dubious escapades in Spain to secure Cuba for the United States and the betterment of slavery. If he could not take Cuba with John A. Quitman’s filibusters then Pierce would settle for buying it. But nobody in Europe and of a sound mind wanted to deal with a maniac like Soulé. Thus Pierce sought Congress’ leave to send a special delegation to negotiate for Cuba’s sale.

John Slidell

John Slidell

What does this have to do with Nicaragua? Alongside Pierce’s special commission for Cuba, Louisiana’s John Slidell, on behalf of the Louisiana legislature, continued to push for granting Pierce the special power to set aside the Neutrality Acts and unleash any filibusters who cared to go to Cuba in retaliation for the brief seizure of the Black Warrior, which had also prompted Soulé to a wildcat ultimatum over in Madrid and to stop the threat of an Africanized Cuba which would imperil the white South through the good example it might give to the South’s slaves.

How did this have to look? On every front it seemed that someone in the Democracy, whether working directly with the White House or not, had some kind of scheme afoot for territorial expansion in the name of slavery. If the United States no longer respected Britain’s protectorate over the Mosquito Coast, then what did that say about its guarantee that Cuba would remain Spanish? Especially with eyes in Europe turning increasingly to the Crimean War. Maybe a filibuster could get away with it now and come off with a fait accompli that the British would protest only with a diplomatic note. The destruction of Greytown, from a certain perspective, could appear as a trial balloon completely aside from the outrage it would provoke all on its own.

In other times that might have all gone by without too much comment, but Americans had a much more adverse experience with the Democracy’s expansionism in 1854 than they had in the years previous. The Democracy had just sold the Great Plains, and with them the white north’s future, to the Slave Power. Now the Slave Power demanded still more? The antislavery movement might take a page from the South’s book and refuse to vote for the admission of new states from the territory that the Kansas-Nebraska Act gave over to slavery. To people already fearing that their way of life, free from slavery and free from blacks, would soon end this had to come across as salt on the wound.

All of this comes together, Greytown with Kansas-Nebraska with Anthony Burns (parts 123456) with Cuba and with the filibusters into an image of a nation gone mad. It had to look like a brewing disaster for the Democracy. Elections in the fall would provide just that. Even the most diehard expansionists in the Congress might have hesitated to add more fuel to the fire. So Slidell’s proposal to suspend the Neutrality Acts and Pierce’s to send a special commission to buy Cuba both failed, casualties of the storm Stephen Douglas sowed on that fateful carriage ride with Archibald Dixon.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection, Part Five

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection: parts 123, 4

The events at Greytown scandalized the North. As Horace Greeley had it,

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.

Even the Washington Union, which dutifully followed the Pierce administration’s official line, could come up only with a plea to suspend judgment until all the facts came out. Those facts included the official correspondence, which had both George N. Hollins’ account of himself and the orders that brought him to Greytown. His orders contained this provision:

It is, however, 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.

George N. Hollins

George N. Hollins

Way to follow orders, George.

While one might expect that sending in the military could lead to violence, and it carries the implicit threat of force, the Cabinet had as much of a shock as anybody else. Careful, conservative William L. Marcy might have felt it the worst. He wrote to James Buchanan in London that

The occurrence at Greytown is an embarrassing affair. The place merited chastisement, but the severity of the one inflicted exceeded our expectations. The Government will, however, I think, stand by Capt. Hollins.

Will Great Britain interfere in the matter? If she does, her course will tend to bring Central American affairs to a crisis. I am glad your reply to Lord Clarendon was in before the news of the bombardment of Greytown was received at London.

Lord Clarendon served as the Foreign Minister at the time.

Buchanan wrote back at the end of August, getting right to the heart of the matter:

I am sorry, however, to be informed that the Government will, you think, stand by Captain Hollins. I have read every thing with care in regard to that affair, and with the strongest disposition to excuse or justify him for burning Greytown; -and I still hope that after more mature reflection the Government will not adopt the act.

The Old Public Functionary (They really called him that!) further told Marcy that he’d met an Indian prince the British had just given a handsome pension in exchange for his kingdom. The British let him know that they might have to do the same for the King of the Mosquito Coast. London did not, however, care for the fact that the United States and United Kingdom exchanged ratifications of a treaty over Canada in the wake of news of Greytown’s destruction. It gave the impression that

James Buchanan

James Buchanan

we have discovered the mode of dealing with the British-we went down to Greytown and smashed it, whereupon they became alarmed and gave us all we wanted.

Buchanan answered that he needed to talk with the Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, about the complicated Central American situation. Buchanan let on that he saw Aberdeen as more friendly to the United States. Lord Clarendon did not take the suggestion of going over his head, especially in this situation, well at all:

Lord Clarendon then seized me by the lapels of my coat and shook me, and said, “I am as good a friend of the United States as Lord Aberdeen, or any man in three Kingdoms.”

Even in a rougher age, one diplomat did not simply seize and shake another over light and trivial matters. Buchanan had not previously expected the British to take their protectorate over the Mosquito Coast seriously, but now he had reason to think otherwise.

A Greytown Narrative, Part Three

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Solon Borland (D-AR)

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.

George N. Hollins

George N. Hollins

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 Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia)

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.

A Greytown Narrative, Part Two

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Solon Borland (D-AR)

On May 16, 1854, Solon Borland came to Greytown. He arrived via an Accessory Transit Company steamer under the command of a Captain Smith. Smith had a longstanding dislike of a black pilot who once worked for the Company. When Smith saw Antonio’s boat out on the river that day, he apparently decided to ram and sink it with his larger vessel. Antonio saw Smith coming and called out that should Smith ram him, he would shoot Smith. Smith rammed Antonio anyway, failing to sink his boat. When the passengers came on deck to find out what transpired, Smith told them that he’d lost control of his rudder. Just a little fender bender. Smith got his vessel underway again and left it all behind him.

Solon Borland gave Smith a talking to. Would he let a black man speak to him like that? Why didn’t he shoot Antonio? By the time Borland convinced Smith that his white manhood and honor hung in the balance, Smith’s steamer had gone half a mile or more down the river. Smith turned it around and went back, going below to get his rifle while the vessel went upstream. He came out and found Antonio, took aim, and shot him dead. Then the vessel resumed its prior course for Greytown.

The Greytown authorities soon involved themselves. A coroner’s jury, attended by United States commercial agent Joseph Fabens, agreed that Antonio died not at the hands of the mysterious Nicaragua Bullet Tree but rather at the hands of another person. Acting doubtless on the testimony of many of Antonio’s employees on hand when the shooting occurred, they pinned the blame on Smith. The constabulary duly went off and presented themselves at Smith’s ship. Smith, feeling some remorse at having been browbeaten into murder, seems to have intended to cooperate until Solon Borland once again inserted himself. He drew up a rifle or pistol, accounts differ as to which, and threatened to shoot any members of the Greytown constabulary who set foot on deck. Borland declared his credentials as the American minister to Central America and called on his fellow passengers to help him.

The Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia)

They did not leap to the task, but Greytown’s officers of the law exhibited the common allergy to bullets and opted not to risk Borland’s aim. They left without Smith. Borland took himself to the home of Joseph Fabens. Word got around Greytown that Borland had Smith with him and an angry mob gathered outside Fabens’ house. Borland came downstairs and ranted at the mob for a while, denouncing them as, among other things, the scum of Hell. Someone threw a bottle and hit Borland in the face. Greytown’s mayor arrived, denounced the mob, apologized to Borland, and offered a reward for the capture of the man who threw the bottle.

If we believe a man who saw Borland the next day, the bottle might have hurt his pride. Fabens, however, told it that the bottle cut open Borland’s head. He went out to the American ships at anchor in the harbor seeking guns, ammunition, and men all of ten minutes after the confrontation with the mob. What did Fabens want those men and arms for?

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.

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy

Fabens got together eleven men for his planned arson, but word had gotten back to Greytown. Possessing a strong aversion to having their homes and businesses burned to the ground, the people refused to let him and his band come ashore. They would permit Fabens alone, but not his gang. Nobody besieged or detained Borland at the Commercial Agency, but he apparently considered himself under arrest because of all this. Somewhere along the way, Borland also hired on a guard for American property in Greytown at the State Department’s expense. Borland left town the next day.

Fabens wrote to William L. Marcy, the Secretary of State, about how Greytown had set itself against the Transit Company, stolen its property, and generally made itself a nuisance. Only on May 30th did Fabens elect to write Marcy about what happened with Borland. Borland’s own letter explaining himself bears the same date.

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.

The Washington Union on Greytown

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

All the antics at Greytown made perfect sense to Joseph Fabens, who staged the town’s destruction for his Accessory Transit Company employers and used his other employer, the United States government, to get it done. They probably all made just as much sense to Solon Borland, the diplomat who encouraged Captain Smith of the Transit Company to murder a pilot named Antonio and then intervened to prevent Smith’s arrest. That brought a mob down on him and got a bottle thrown at him. Borland declared himself beset by pirates and hurried off to Washington to secure his revenge.

That revenge came in the person of George N. Hollins, captain of the USS Cyane, dispatched with orders to get satisfaction from Greytown for Borland and on behalf of the Transit Company. Hollins’ orders also instructed him to consult with Fabens about the current situation and a proper indemnity when he arrived. Fabens, who had tried to burn the town to the ground the night of Borland’s rendezvous with destiny in the form of a broken bottle, took his chance and encouraged Hollins to demand far more than any of the disputes warranted. When he got no satisfaction on those terms, Hollins bombarded and then burned the town.

However, Hollins’ orders included the hope that he could manage without any violence or destruction of property. Those same orders left open the option to escalate and put Hollins partially in the hands of Fabens, but no one in his chain of command expected Hollins to wipe the town off the map. Greeley tries to pin everything on the Pierce administration, but the orders he printed don’t support the notion that they sent Hollins to Greytown intending him to destroy it. The Democracy’s Washington Union took issue with Greeley’s editorial line. Greeley, who had taken swipes at the paper often enough, set aside his partisanship enough to reprint the Union’s editorial on the affair.

The enemies of the Administraion, led on principally by The New-York Herald, Tribune, Times, and Express, have labored assiduously and malignantly to create feelings of prejudice against the President and certain members of the Cabinet on this subject. The public had too many evidence of the industry with which the caterers for these papers distort and misrepresent facts, and not infrequently invent or fabricate calumnies against the Administration, to be now readily deceived.

George N. Hollins

George N. Hollins

No American could stupidly swallow everything Greeley and his friends said about the Democracy. Everyone knew him for a partisan hack. But you could trust the Union, which turned on a dime earlier that year from denouncing Stephen Douglas’ plan to repeal the Missouri Compromise to endorsing it.

This bears a momentary digression: in the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth, most major cities had multiple newspapers. Most often each had a clear alignment with one party or the other and made no bones about it. The distinction between editorial comment and unbiased reporting did not run so clear as one expects, or hopes to expect, today. Greeley, or the Union, could print what they liked and if readers didn’t like it, they could pick up a different paper. The notion of objective, unbiased reporting has come to us rather recently and incompletely.

Back to the Washington Union. Moving on from its invective against Greeley and the New York papers, the editors came to the matter at hand.

Some of them [the New York papers] have undertaken, in the most positive terms, to state the instructions to Captain Hollins, and to exert that the course pursued by him in the destruction of Greytown was distinctly indicated in his instructions. Upon turning to the letter of instruction, the recklessness of these assertions will be apparent. That letter was drawn by Secretary Dobbin, and is prepared with singular prudence and caution. We do not propose to indulge any comments, either of commendation or of censure, as to the conduct of Captain Hollins. Certainly we should be inexcuable for intimating anything like censure of his conduct in the absence of any authentic statement of the immediate facts on which he acted.

In their eagerness to injure the Adminsitration, the new York papers are guilty of gross injustice to Capt. Hollins. His high character for prudence, intelligence, coolness, and courage pointed out the proper officer to manage this delicate affair; and until he arrives and makes his report of the case, we shall regard it as wholly inexcusable to prejudge and condemn his conduct.

We don’t quite disavow Hollins. We don’t quite approve. We just don’t have the information. But in any case, nothing he did could reflect on the administration. And anyway, they had it coming:

Unquestionably, the facts set forth in the papers which we publish make out a series of outrages which demanded prompt and exemplary punishment.

The Union demanded having it every way favorable to the Democracy: The administration had nothing to do with Hollins’ actions on the ground. We don’t know the full story, so we can neither condemn nor commend. But anyway, even if Hollins went off-script, Greytown really deserved whatever it got. Heads we win; tails you lose.