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William Walker: The Loud American

A rampaging yank intent on subjugating the locals, William Walker is a man you'll read and hear about a lot while traveling in Nicaragua. His life seems like an outright exercise in madness and insane ambition. The infamous American filibustero invaded Mexico with just 45 men in 1853. He was quickly repelled and then arrested in the U.S. for conducting an illegal war. Freed, he then set his sights on Nicaragua, which was at the time rife with civil conflict and ripe for exploitation by a young intellectual and white supremacist who thought it was the United States' destiny to spread south and bring slavery with it.

Encouraged by the Nicaraguan liberals, he gathered an army of 400 mercenaries and captured Granada, declaring himself president in 1856. English was announced as the official language, slave emancipation revoked, and white settlers encouraged to move south and carve up the territory. His Nicaraguan supporters soon realized their mistake and joined the conservatives and Costa Ricans to push him out in a campaign financed by Cornelius Vanderbilt. Defeat at Rivas, followed by a cholera outbreak and desertion, forced him to flee north to New York, where he wrote a book about his adventure called War in Nicaragua (1860). Undeterred, he soon returned to Central America, was caught by the British, and was swiftly executed by a Honduran firing squad. He was 36.

Yet taken in an historical context, Walker's endeavor to establish a U.S. colony in Nicaragua was no folly and could have easily succeeded. A child genius who graduated from university at 14, Walker enjoyed considerable support back home and was greeted to a hero's welcome whenever he returned to the States. In his initial trial for the Mexican affair, he was acquitted in just 8 minutes by a sympathetic jury. A trained doctor, lawyer, and journalist, he had his allies in Washington and the southern states who saw the annexation of Central America as manifest destiny, and Nicaragua was particularly attractive, as it offered that coveted Atlantic-Pacific water route. The U.S. officially recognized him as president in 1956. He could easily have become a Central American version of the British colonialist Cecil Rhodes, who established his own fiefdom in Africa. However, Walker's obvious intelligence did not extend to military and political matters. Tactical blunders like alienating Vanderbilt were key to his downfall. Razing Granada did not gain any favors, either. His main legacy is somewhat different from what he planned. He united a fractious region, both liberals and conservatives, Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans, in a successful attempt to oust him, and the wars against Walker are looked upon as a source of national pride.

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