On this day in 1855 the American adventurer William Walker, with an entourage of around sixty men, left to conquer Nicaragua. Walker is well known for these ‘filibustering’ missions where private armies tried to claim Latin American countries for themselves and establish colonies. Prior to the Nicaragua expedition, the Tennessean travelled to Mexico with the intention of creating an American colony there. To attract supporters, Walker expounded the principles of Manifest Destiny – that American has a divine duty to expand across the continent – and appealed to those keen on the expansion of slavery. Walker’s mission to Mexico was ultimately unsuccessful and when he returned was put on trial for his illegal war but the sympathetic Southern jury took just eight minutes to acquit him. Spurred by this, Walker set his sights on Nicaragua, which was in the midst of a civil war; the Democratic government gave Walker permission to come support them. Upon arrival, the Walker group joined with local and foreign groups, boosting their numbers and allowing them to defeat the other side. Walker then took personal control of Nicaragua, declaring himself President in 1856; his government was formally recognised by US President Franklin Pierce. He then began enacting his vision of a colony, reinstating slavery, making English the official language and reorganising Nicaragua’s entire financial system. He faced military challenges from surrounding countries, including Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, which feared conquest and succeeded in forcing Walker to flee. Before they fled, Walker’s generals had the ancient capital of Granada burned, where they left the words ‘Here was Granada’. Walker died soon after, in 1860, when he was executed by Honduran authorities.
The filibustering missions of antebellum America played a key role in the world to civil war. If one agrees with the basic assumption that the American Civil War was primarily fought over the expansion of slavery, you can see how these attempts by Southern adventurers to expand slavery south into Latin America would have alarmed the anti-slavery North. Southerners felt that the institution that was so integral to their economy and way of life was under threat, and in danger of becoming increasingly isolated in the Southern states; a ‘peculiar institution’ which would soon die out. They thus fought to expand slavery into the Western territories and even into Central America. At the same time that William Walker was seizing control of Nicaragua, a bloody civil war was taking place on the border of Missouri and the Kansas territory, as settlers fought amongst themselves over whether Kansas would ultimately be a slave or a free state. To Northerners, the filibustering missions represented another ploy by the Southern Slave Power who conspired to spread their evil institution throughout the American continent.