William Walker American Adventurer 1824-1860
Tennessee, William Walker is revered as the “Gray Eyed Man of Destiny” who was at various times the President of Baja California, the Republic of Sonora, and Nicaragua. In Central America, he is despised as a pestilent outlaw whose military defeats are celebrated as National holiday.
From a young age Walker was extremely motivated and incredibly sharp. After graduating university at the age of 14 and medical school by 19, he spent time as a lawyer, journalist, co-owner of the New Orleans Crescent newspaper, and was shot in two separate duels—all of this before he turned 26.
Apparently wishing to be shot again, He began plotting the conquest of Central America to set up a massive slave territory to fuel the development of his beloved south. He began recruiting and leading outnumbered crews of ragtag, American adventurers into Baja California, defeating larger Mexican forces and several times declaring himself president of his newly conquered territory before finally surrendering to a US commander for violating neutrality laws.
But he continued undeterred, recruiting greater numbers of believers in his cause while utilizing local politicians and American businessmen to both fund his cause and to manipulate support in his favor. At the peak of his career, he briefly conquered the capital city of Granada, Nicaragua and declared himself its President, even gaining recognition by the US government. Forced to retreat a short time later, he burnt the city to the ground and left the famous inscription “Here was Granada” in his wake.
After surrendering to several more angry US Navy commanders, Walker was finally halted by the British Royal Navy in 1860 who delivered him to Honduran authorities. Unwilling to see their own country conquered and burned, they ordered a firing squad to execute him.
Philander C. Knox US Attorney General and Secretary of State 1853-1921
Knox played an integral part in the construction of the Panama Canal; While President Theodore Roosevelt manipulated the Panamanian revolution against Columbia, Knox, for his part, oversaw and approved the transfer of a very controversial title necessary for American control of the canal project. Several people viewed this as a blatant manipulation of the law, and even Roosevelt himself was nervous of the title’s validity. Knox reassured him, however, famously stating: “Mister President, do not let so great an achievement suffer from any taint of legality.”
Perhaps most offensive to Latin Americans, however, were his actions Nicaragua a few years later. The Nicaraguan government, under the enormously popular and freely elected President Jose Santos Zelaya, was enjoying an economic boom along with widespread social and infrastructural improvements. Despite the fact that Nicaragua was on a peaceful road to becoming a social and economic leader in Latin America, the American government grew increasingly frustrated over their inability to receive special treatment. After directing various attempts at smearing Zelaya’s image and fomenting revolution, Knox finally sent his famous “Knox Note” in December of 1909 to the then Nicaraguan Charge D’ Affairs. In it he claimed, amidst little to no justification, that the Zelaya government had continually suppressed basic human rights and threatened the stability of the surrounding countries, and that as a result the United States government had no reasonable choice but to cease relations with the nation until Zelaya had been deposed. The letter succeeded and Nicaragua was thrown back into a turbulent succession of puppet presidents, violent dictatorships and constant revolution, not witnessing another legitimate Presidential election until the end of a ten year civil war in 1990.
Samuel Zemurray Banana Magnate 1877-1961
early twentieth century Central America was known as a “Banana Republic” then Sam “The Banana Man” Zemurray was no doubt its President. At the age of 21, Zemurray had overcome childhood poverty to amass over $100,000 in wealth by purchasing train-car loads of overripe imported banana’s from the cargo ships in which he worked.
Still not satisfied, he purchased a container ship and 15,000 acres of land in Honduras to cultivate the bananas himself. Though the venture was enormously successful, he quickly discovered that local Honduran laws and taxes were impeding his profits and future expansion plans. Unable to negotiate concessions from liberal Honduran President Miguel Davila, he simply purchased a boat, hired an army of mercenaries, recruited an exiled Honduran war general and set sail for Honduras. Within three months Zemurray had toppled the Honduran government. When his handpicked President, Manuel Bonilla, took power a year later, Zemurray had effective free reign of the country. Bonilla rewarded Zemurray with tens of thousands of acres of land and a complete tax exemption for the next 25 years. Within a few decades Zemurray’s companies owned over half of Honduras’ arable land, 90% of the countries railroads, and controlled the largest private fleet of steamships in the world.
Decade’s later Zemurray once again led a successful coup. The victim this time was Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz, who had earned high praise from his countrymen for taxing foreign corporations and seeking to purchase and redistribute vast tracts of land to the nations impoverished. Zemurray’s United Fruit Company owned over 20% of the nation’s land and was in danger of losing it in exchange for the grossly underpriced value he’d claimed for tax purposes. Unwilling to let this happen, he funded an expensive public relations campaign in Guatemala to convince the native’s not only of United Fruit’s good will, but of the apparent Communist threat of Arbenz. With massive funds and the paranoia of an American government embroiled in the Cold War, Zemurray was once again successful in toppling an inconvenient leader of a foreign country.
When Zemurray died on American soil in 1961, the nation mourned the passing of a business icon and admirable philanthropist who greatly advanced the agricultural sciences while donating millions to universities, schools for the poor, and the Zionist movement. In Central America, however, he will always be remembered as the millionaire giant who suppressed countless workers to near slave labor, and toppled the beloved leaders who got in his way.