William Walker, the North American filibuster was a short man with a huge ego. Walker had wild dreams about conquering Central America and turning it into an English speaking country. During his adventures in Central America, he became president of Nicaragua. He may have succeeded in his endeavor if it weren’t for the fact that he fell on the wrong side of US magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Walker was an lucky man, time after time, the United States Navy rescued him and repatriated to the United States. Walker became one of the most hated persons in Central America.
Back in 1860, the British Crown, turned the Bay Islands of Honduras over to Honduras. This action might seem rather strange at first site. For one, they had only settled the islands 30 years before. Even more important, the country of Honduras did not have any interest in the Bay Islands. Being the case, why would Great Britain do such a thing? Well it turns out that the United States, still in full expansion mode from the Monroe doctrine and following their Manifest Destiny had some important interests in Central America.
The French were building the Suez Canal, that would interconnect the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea. The United States was seeking to build a canal across the Central American Isthmus. The logical route was to follow the natural route that the Transit Company used. This Nicaragua based company was property of Cornelius Vanderbilt. It transported passengers by steamship up the San Juan River in Nicaragua, then across Lake Nicaragua to Puerto La Virgen. From there, it was a short 20 mile trip across the Isthmus of Rivas to the Pacific Ocean.
But there was one big drawback with that route: The Brits. The British had two different colonies in the area and made the Americans uncomfortable. One of them was the Moskito Coast Protectorate. This protectorate included part of Honduras and all the Nicaraguan Caribbean coastline. The other was the Bay Islands of Honduras. The Brits were also in British Honduras, although the colony was disputed by Guatemala. The US put some strategic diplomacy to work. They convinced the Brits to turn their Caribbean colonies over to Nicaragua and Honduras. In exchange, the US would recognize the British rights over British Honduras, today Belize.
The British kept their word. They signed the treaty of Comayagua with Honduras, delivering the Bay Islands to Honduras. They also signed the treaty of Managua and turned the Moskito Coast Protectorate to Nicaragua. Both treaties where signed in 1860. This opened the doors for the United States to pursue their dream of building a canal across Central America.
The United States ended up having some distraction that kept them from pursuing the dream of building their canal: The Civil War broke out. Thus, the construction of a canal through Central America was not a priority for a couple of decades. In the meantime French Engineer, Ferdinand de Lesseps had finished the Suez Canal. Emboldened by his success, he was now ready to build a canal through Central America. His route of preference was across Panama. Back then, Panama was part of Colombia. De Lesseps made use of his broad experience as a diplomat. He obtained the necessary permits and concessions from Colombia to begin building a canal in Panama. A company was formed in 1876, led by de Lesseps to begin the construction of the Panama Canal.
But let’s get back to William Walker. After his defeat in Nicaragua, Walker was back in his hometime in Nashville. The Bay Islanders, who were British citizens, where quite unhappy with their change of luck. They were no longer in a British territory under British rule. They were unhappy with idea of being part of Honduras. Thus, a group of Bay Islanders came up with a brilliant idea. They were to ask William Walker to help them secede from Honduras! Then with luck, annex themselves to the United States or remain an independent state.
Walker, never shy of a good adventure, took up the offer, and rounded up a ragged army of 98 mercenaries. He departed New Orleans on board the “Taylor” and headed for the Honduran Islands. Luck was against Walker, the British Navy intercepted him. Thus impeding his plans to free the Bay Islands from Honduras. He did not give up, and came up with a “plan B”. He would invade Trujillo and take control of the port. Then negotiate with the Honduras government the return of the city in exchange for the independence of the Bay Islands.
William Walker took the city of Trujillo, and let the government of Honduras know his terms. Honduras sent an army to Trujillo which was much larger than Walkers lightly armed mercenaries. Then the British Navy closed his exit from the Bay. Walker had to march 100 miles east towards the old British settlement of Black River. This was once part of the Moskito Coast Protectorate. He was forced to surrender and was captured by Capt. Salmon of the British Navy and sent back to Trujillo. There, his surviving army signed an oath promising to never return to Honduras. Walker did not run the same luck. He was sent to prison in the Fortress of Santa Barbara in Trujillo. There he awaited his military trial.
Honduras had had enough of William Walker. They found him guilty of filibustering and aggression against the state of Honduras. Honduras sentenced him to death before a fire squad. On September 20, he received the last rites at the Catholic Church in Trujillo. Next he was put in front of a firing squad. The US consul in Trujillo paid for his casket and took care of his burial. His tomb still stands to this day in the old cemetery in that city. The gravestone reads: “William Walker September 20 1860, Fusilado”.
Although Walker marked the end of an era of United States actions in Central America, they would soon be back. The United States would take part in many invasions to Central America in the following 150 years. They would also help Panama get their independence from Colombia. This with the sole purpose of obtaining the proper permits and rights to build the Panama Canal.
The Bay Islands of Honduras never achieved their independence from Honduras. (Although many Islanders continue to dream of it.) Today, the largest travel destination in Honduras is the island of Roatan. Roatan is the largest of the Bay Islands of Honduras.