The William Walker Episode
William Walker, a tiny man, only 5ft3 and weighing 100lbs, was responsible for one of the ‘most transcendent events’ in Central American history, 12 which would result in the death of over 20,000 men. Walker was a ‘megalomaniacal adventurer’ who believed it was the manifest destiny of the U.S. to control others!13 He traveled to Central America in 1855 with the aim of conquering Nicaragua and constructing a trans-isthmic canal there. He wanted to create a sea-route, far more efficient than the difficult over-land route, that could be used by Easterners transporting gold from California, and saw Nicaragua’s San Juan River as the ideal base for this.
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He was supported in his endeavor by a group of wealthy and powerful Americans, on the condition that he institute slavery in Nicaragua. Walker proposed converting the whole of Central America to slave territory and annexing it to the confederacy of Southern U.S. States. He arranged for an invite to support the Nicaraguan Liberal Party who were embroiled in civil war. He arrived in June, 1855, bringing men and arms from California, and quickly overpowered the opposition Conservative forces, declaring himself ‘President of the Republic of Nicaragua.’
He then proceeded to invade Guanacaste, Costa Rica, in March 1856. However, the Costa Rican envoy to Washington had sent President Mora advanced warning of Walker’s intentions. Mora pulled together a make-shift army of 9000 men, comprised of all classes – campesinos, artisans, merchants and bureaucrats – all wanting to defend their country. He led this army north to meet the invading forces, aided by none other than Captain William Le Lacheur of England, who used his ships to carry soldiers and ammunition.
In September 1856, this ragtag army attacked the filibustero forces and defeated them in only 14 minutes at the Battle of Santa Rosa. Those who survived fled back into Nicaragua, followed across the border by Mora and 2000 men, to their stronghold at Rivas, where fighting continued. On 11th April, 1857, Walker’s forces had barricaded themselves into a farmhouse from which they refused to be dislodged. According to popular legend, Juan Santa Maria, a lowly drummer-boy from Alajuela, ran up and torched the roof of the house, dying in a hail of bullets, but forcing Walker’s retreat and ensuring Costa Rica’s victory. Juan Santa Maria id now recognized as a national hero, the victory is celebrated every year on the 11th September and Costa Rica’s International Airport is named after the boy. Walker was eventually captured in Honduras in 1860 and was executed by the Honduran army.
The victory made President Mora a popular hero, this however was short-lived as the real price of the war was yet to come. Costa Rican soldiers had been infected with cholera in Nicaragua, and in 1857 the epidemic spread rampantly through the country killing approximately 10% of the population. This, combined with the costs of the ‘National Campaign’, put Costa Rica’s economy into recession and together with Mora’s attempts to establish a National Bank, challenging the cafetalero’s economic control, turned the tables against the president, and when he attempted a third term in power the army helped to topple and exile him.
He came to an unseemly demise in 1860 when he attempted a coup d’etat against the new president and was subsequently executed by a firing squad.