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The Grave of William Walker



William Walker was handed over by British forces to the Honduran army to be shot. The Hondurans wanted him dead because they feared he would take over their country. The British wanted him dead because they too were afraid he was going to take over their country: British Honduras (now modern-day Belize). He had a history of doing just that, you see.


If you take a look at a list of the former presidents of Nicaragua, you’ll notice something interesting. In between the names of Patricio Rivas (1855-1856) and Tomás Martínez (1857-1867) is a distinctly un-Spanish sounding name: William Walker (1856-1857).


William Walker was born in 1824 in Nashville, Tennessee. A brilliant young man, he had a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania by the age of nineteen. He also practiced law and spent some time in newspaper publishing. He did all this, of course, until he learned where his true gift lay: toppling governments.


While Walker was developing a knack for anarchy, the United States was expanding. After Texas successfully broke away from Mexico in 1836, Walker conceived the idea of leading other parts of Latin America into rebellion. The new government would be headed up by some of Walker’s American cronies. This process—making war on a sovereign nation as a private venture—is called filibustering. Walker led his first filibustering expedition in 1853, at the age of 29. With 45 men, he captured La Paz, capital of Baja California. They managed to hold the city for three months, before Mexican forces drove them out. Back in the United States, he was tried in California on charges of starting an illegal war: the jury acquitted him in eight minutes.


His next venture was more successful. In 1855, he led 57 men to Nicaragua, which was in the midst of a nasty civil war. Together with forces from the rebel faction, Walker and his men defeated the Nicaraguan national army and within a month assumed control of the country. In 1856, he named himself president, and put out the call to mercenaries around the world: he intended to conquer the rest of Central America. In the United States, the Franklin Pierce administration recognized his government.


Despite a rather illustrious career in filibustering, things began to fall apart for Walker in 1857. Many of his men deserted or were wiped out by a cholera epidemic. Forces of other Central American nations, aided by agents working for the American tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt (he disapproved of Walker’s policies regarding trade across Nicaragua), forced Walker to withdraw, and he returned to New Orleans in May.


He was not about to leave the world stage without one final appearance, however. In 1860, he went to Honduras, where he was captured by the British. He was handed over to the Honduran authorities, and he was executed by firing squad on September 12. He was 36.


In the Honduran coastal town of Trujillo, the old cemetery is an overgrown maze of crumbling stones and weeds wilting in the tropical heat. The grave of William Walker can be found here, fenced off from the rest of the cemetery, as if the rulers of Central America fear that he might rise up from the dead and incite rebellion once again. If you’re in the neighborhood, pay him a visit: love him or hate him, you have to admit that the ultimate Yankee imperialist had cojones.

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