(9AM EST – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)
On the morning of July 13, 1854, the American sloop-of-war USS Cyane fired nearly 200 cannonballs at the defenseless and unarmed town of San Juan del Norte, Nicaragua. When their supply of cannonballs neared exhaustion, Captain George N. Hollins dispatched a group of sailors to burn anything in the town that was still standing.
By nightfall, the town of San Juan del Norte, also known as Greytown, ceased to exist. The inhabitants, who had mostly fled before the bombardment, were homeless.
There was no declaration of war before, and no apology after. The official reason was given by President Pierce as such:
The president concluded that while it would have been more satisfactory if the Cyane’s mission could have been consummated without the use of force, “the arrogant contumacy of the offenders rendered it impossible to avoid the alternative either to break up their establishment or to leave them impressed with the idea that they might persevere with impunity in a career or insolence and plunder.”
The truth behind why this criminal act occurred had a lot more to do with greed and racism, than with “arrogant contumacy”.
First came the greed
The story starts with America’s first Robber Baron, Cornelius Vanderbilt.
At the time of the California Gold Rush, the primary way of crossing the country was by wagon. The trek required months of hardship, through freezing mountains and blasted deserts, and with the constant danger of attacks by indians, outlaws, or Mormons. The other way was an epic voyage around the always dangerous Cape Horn.
Vanderbilt had an alternative. For $300 a piece, he could take 2,000 passengers a month by steam ship from New York to San Juan del Norte at the mouth of the Rio San Juan River. From there they would travel up the river to Lake Nicaragua to the town of Rivas. A short stagecoach ride would bring them to San Juan del Sur on the Pacific. After a few days on a steamer they would be in San Francisco.
It was a brilliant and profitable enterprise. The only trick was to get a staging area at San Juan del Norte.
In 1851, Vanderbilt got a concession from the Nicaraguan government for a modest fee for a spot of land 200 feet wide by 400 feet deep just across the river from Greytown, to be used as a coal depot. You see, a profitable idea just isn’t good enough for a Robber Baron. Not when you can make a killing instead.
Almost immediately Vanderbilt’s company, the Accessory Transit Company, began building a huge complex of stores, hotels, and warehouses, that extended out far beyond their leased land.
As the flood of wealthy travelers flowed through Vanderbilt’s complex, the people of Greytown couldn’t help noticing that none of the wealth was trickling into their town. The Transit company had the trans-Isthmus traffic monopolized. The local government tried to apply port charges on the Transit company. Vanderbilt refused to pay.
The local government then exercised a stipulation in the company’s lease where they could reclaim the land upon request. In exchange, they agreed to wave all local taxes and port charges if they would move their whole operation into Greytown.
Vanderbilt again refused.
In frustration, a band of armed citizens from Greytown destroyed a few of the Transit company buildings. On March 12, 1853, the Cyane dropped anchor in San Juan del Norte harbor and proceeded to land a detachment of Marines to protect Transit company property.
Things quieted down for awhile, but nothing had been resolved. The citizens of San Juan del Norte spent the next year trying to disrupt the business of the Transit company, sometimes stealing supplies.
Into this tense situation was thrust the absolute least qualified, worst possible candidate – Solon Borland.
Then came the racism
Solon Borland was an former Arkansas Senator. He was a slave-owner who believed in the expansion of the United States all the way to Nicaragua so that more slave states could be added to the American Union. His reputation was of an acerbic and arrogant personality who had been known to cause brawls during his tenure in Washington.
In the summer of 1853 he was appointed Envoy and Minister to Central America.
He spent about a year working out a treaty with the government of Nicaragua. Both parties were interested in sidelining British expansion in the area.
On May 16, 1854, Borland was riding a Transit steamer on the Rio San Juan river, when it struck a small fishing boat. The captain of the fishing boat, Antonio Paladino, became angry and threatened the captain of the steamer, a Captain Smith. After some words were exchange, Borland told Captain Smith, “How do you let outrage that way from a black? Take your rifle and put him down like a dog.”
Captain Smith then put two bullets into Paladino’s chest.
Later that day, the steamer arrived at Greytown where, to Smith and Borland’s surprise, a mulatto marshal and a posse of about 20 blacks attempted to arrest Smith for murder. Borland intervened and told the posse that the United States would recognize no legitimate authority in Greytown. When they attempted to seize Smith, Borland grabbed a rifle from one of the posse members and warded off the marshal with it.
Later that night Borland visited the home of Joseph Fabens, the U.S. Commercial Agent. A body of armed men appeared at Fabens door looking to arrest Borland. Borland yelled that they could not arrest a United States official even if he had prevented the arrest of a murderer.
Just then the mayor showed up and apologized to Borland, saying that he didn’t authorize anyone to arrest him. As they were talking a broken bottle was thrown which struck Borland in the face. Borland was not seriously injured and the assailant got away.
“…burn the ruins…”
The next day Borland left for Washington to report the affair. The Secretary of the Navy decided to dispatch the U.S.S. Cyane to Greytown with a letter which read: “Now it is very desirable to that these people should be taught that the United States will not tolerate these outrages.”
A fact ignored is that the Mayor and city council had resigned after Borland left and no government was formed to replace them. At the same time, Nicaragua was descending into civil war.
“If the wicked are punished severely, we can take possession of the plaza and create it as a seat business, to our employees, transferring jurisdiction … and you know the rest. “
– Joseph L. White, Chairman of the Transit Company to JW Fabens
Failing to receive and apology from a government official, Commander Hollins issued an ultimatum to Greytown on July 12. Either they paid $24,000 in damages to the Transit company, and give an official apology for injuring Minister Borland, or the town would be destroyed.
In the meantime a group of soldiers and sailors was sent ashore to loot the local police station. They then went to the British Consulate and tore down the flag and trampled it. Seeing this, the citizens of San Juan del Norte began to panic and flee the city.
“By their obstinate silence they seemed rather desirous to provoke chastisement than to escape it.”
– President Pierce
The next day the Cyane, on Commander Hollins’ orders, leveled the town with cannon fire. He then sent a group of sailors ashore under the command of Lieutenants Pickeryng and Fauntleroy to set fire to the rubble.
“Our bullets and shrapnel had almost completely destroyed the houses, but was thought appropriate to burn the ruins to instill the locals a punitive lesson they will never forget, and for the whole world realizes that States U.S. has the power and the will to bind, as a government, to respect it and give reparations due at any point on the globe where outrages committed. “
– Commander Hollins
Captain George Hollins
The cost of the destruction of San Juan del Norte was later estimated at two million pesos. Many of the victims were Europeans.
Both the British and Nicaraguan governments filed protests, which were ignored. The Pierce Administration was initially silent on the affair. Domestic critics of the Democratic Administration were harsh in their judgment.
President Pierce later justified the attack as retaliation for molestations by “a heterogeneous assemblage gathered from various countries, and composed for the most part of blacks and persons of mixed blood who had previously given other indications of mischievous and dangerous propensities.” He also made it a point to say that “most of the buildings of the place were of little value” and that “there was no destruction of life.”
Pierce then drew upon comparisons to brutal conquerors of the past. “If comparisons were to be instituted, it would not be difficult to present repeated instances in the history of states standing at the very front of modern civilization where communities far less offending and more defenseless than Greytown have been chastised with much greater severity.”
Oh, great. So we are more civilized than Rome because we didn’t sell them all into slavery. Wonderful.
Solon Borland’s career went into decline after the incident. When the Civil War began, he joined the Confederate Army and rose to the rank of Colonel, although he never served at the front. He died from natural causes in 1863.
George Hollins served in the Confederate Navy during the Civil War and commanded the Confederate Naval forces around New Orleans in 1862. On June 29, 1861, Hollins disguised himself as a woman and took control of the Chesapeake Bay steamer “St. Nicholas.” It was the first victory for the Confederacy. He died in 1878.
President Pierce was so unpopular even within his own party that he wasn’t nominated to run for re-election in 1856. He became an alcoholic and his marriage fell apart. He declared his support for the Confederacy during the Civil War and died in 1869 of cirrhosis.
Greytown was rebuilt only to see Nicaragua conquered by William Walker in 1855 who seized the Accessory Transit Company’s assets there. Walker was ousted in 1857 by a central american army supplied and funded by Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt ceased operations on the Transit company when the rivals Pacific Mail Steamship Company and the United States Mail Steamship Company, both of which used the isthmus of Panama, agreed to pay him $40,000 a month to simply shut down the company.
Without the travelers, San Juan del Norte drifted back into obscurity. It was destroyed for a final time by the American-backed Contras on April 9, 1984.