William Walker was a jerk. That should become clear pretty soon, but I just wanted to get that fact up front, in case there was any doubt.
Walker was one of the most successful - for a time - at the practice of freelance invasion. He was a filibuster, a word which essentially means a pirate who steals an entire country. The word was later used to refer to politicians who refused to sit down and shut up during political debates.
Walker was born in Nashville in 1824, when that was still on the American frontier. He was a member of a prominent family, precocious, and educated in both America and Europe. After his time overseas, he moved to New Orleans and practiced both
law and journalism, which should have been a sign to everyone that he was a bad seed.
Like other members of the white slaveholding aristocracy before the Civil War, he fought duels and dreamed of expanding the number of slave states. Unlike the other proto-Confederates, he actually tried to do something about it.
In January of 1854, he invaded and conquered Baja California, and declared it a republic, with himself as president, of course. He then set out to conquer the nearby Mexican state of Sonora - he had already named his new country the Republic of Sonora, so he had to grab the land to match his new letterhead.
Unfortunately, even a weak Mexican government could stand up to Walker once his supplies dwindled and his American volunteers started deserting. In May, he snuck back over the border into the U.S., and was tried (but acquitted by a sympathetic jury) for violating various treaties that banned Americans from randomly invading foreign countries.
By the way, during his stint in his mayfly republic, Walker had legalized slavery. See above, re: jerk.
After he had singularly failed to seize and hold a sparsely populated bit of Mexico, Walker came to the conclusion that he hadn't been thinking big enough.
There was a civil war raging in Nicaragua, which at the time was the key to trade across the Central American isthmus.
In 1855, Walker went down with 160 American volunteers, gathered another 200 Nicaraguans, and with the help of a lot of guns, he made himself the most important general in the civil war. Which he then won. To the surprise of absolutely no one who knew him, he then declared him president, and legalized slavery. The Americans recognized his new government in 1856.
Unfortunately, his second move after legalizing the ownership of people was to declare English the official language. Then he banned wealthy Cornelius Vanderbilt from using
Nicaragua as a shipping route.
Vanderbilt sent armed men, in a kind of counter-filibuster, and the native Nicaraguans also rebelled. By 1857, Walker was back in the U.S. again.
He then made his final try to take back what he thought was "his" country, in 1860. This time, he was arrested by the British Royal Navy - the Brits still had colonies in the area - who turned him over to the Hondurans. They decided to have him shot, which was probably for the best.
The scary thing about Walker is how common this type of effort was between the 1790s and the 1850s. There are dozens of examples, most of them Americans, but a scattering of Scots, Brits, and French freebooters as well.
I worry that, like bell bottoms, this trend will come back someday. Who's to say some jackass with a box full of bullets won't show up in Somalia or the western Sahara next week, trying to start the Republic of Kevin?
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