Of all countries of the world, there is a special place for those that have endured a suffering and a struggle for definition against powerful enemies both from within and without. Some of the struggles and mortifications that a people endure have become almost mythic and have come to stand as an example of human suffering that stretches beyond the countries concerned: they become, in a sense representative and definitive. Over the past couple of centuries there have been countless examples of the extremes of human conduct, in which small groups of people inflict their will on the majority. Nicaragua, although relatively small, must be counted among the most afflicted of countries in this respect. A series of dictatorships here have condemned the bulk of the population to obscene levels of poverty over generations, but less well known is the role played by influential foreigners. Few can compare in this respect with William Walker, the subject of an epic poem by Nicaragua’s great poet Ernesto Cardenal.
William Walker, the American son of a Scottish banker, exemplified a type of expansionist vision of what North Americans might make of their back yard, and he was evidently a scoundrel of the first order. He set out for Nicaragua in June 1855 with a small force of mercenaries and his plan was to colonise the country as a new slave state, to be settled by North American Anglos, who would own the land and the plantations, and import black slaves – who would do all the work. Eventually he planned to settle and colonise all of Central America as a slave-based empire to compensate for the abolitionist tendencies that were to drive the United States towards civil war a few years later.
His plans went well at first, his well-armed battalion of troops taking on the local army from Granada, which he made his base, before launching attacks into Leon and other regions. Walker declared himself president, invented a new flag for the country, confiscated all the lands owned by those who opposed him, made English the official language of business, and gained the recognition of the US government as head of an official state. His apparent invincibility came to an end when the Nicaraguans decided they’d had enough and rose up against him. After several bloody battles, he fled Granada by steam-boat, across Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean, but not before his mercenaries had raped and massacred to their fill in a drunken killing spree, and burned Granada to the ground.
According to the plaque, the church of San Francisco was re-built in 1867, twelve years after the filibuster (delightfully, filibustero in Spanish) William Walker left Nicaragua. He had another throw of the dice in Honduras, but was captured by a British naval officer, Captain Salmon, and handed over to the Honduran authorities, who had him shot, an action that was long overdue.