William Walker (1824-1860) was a man of many skills: physician, lawyer, journalist, mercenary, president. The Tennessee-born polymath completed his medical degree and legal studies before he turned twenty-five. After moving to California to work as a journalist, he concocted a plot to conquer parts of Latin America and create new slave states to join the Union.
In October 1853, Walker and forty-five filibusters (or freebooters) captured La Paz, the capital of sparsely populated Baja California, Mexico, which Walker declared the capital of a new “Republic of Lower California,” with himself as president. He then put the region under the laws of the American state of Louisiana, making slavery legal. The filibustering expedition didn’t last long: Mexican resistance eventually forced him and his mercenary army back into U.S. territory.
Walker was at it again in 1855, sailing with about 60 men to participate in a civil war in Nicaragua. His ragtag army defeated the Legitimist faction, and the rival Democrat faction allowed Walker to govern through a provisional president. The administration of Franklin Pierce even granted diplomatic recognition to Walker’s new pro-slavery government. But it too did not last: a coalition of Central American countries invaded Nicaragua and forced Walker’s flight. During a later failed filibuster attempt in Honduras in 1860, he was executed by firing squad, which, ironically ,further increased his popularity among southern and western Americans.
In the antebellum era, there was significant southern interest in Latin America, much of it motivated by a desire to spread (and protect) the “peculiar institution.” There were filibustering attempts in Cuba in the 1850s, supported by southern politicians such as Jefferson Davis and John Quitman. Hundreds of American filibusters died as part of the ill-conceived attempt.
Several short stories of the North Carolina-born writer Wiliam Sydney Porter (better known as O. Henry) suggests this southern fascination with attempts to influence Latin America did not die with the Civil War. Accused of embezzlement in1896 while working at a bank in Texas, O. Henry fled to Honduras, which had no extradition treaty with the United States at the time. When he eventually returned to the United States, he was found guilty and spent three years in prison.
Henry’s six months in Honduras occasioned four short stories, as well as a book, Cabbages and Kings, from which originates the phrase “banana republic.” The stories offer a clever (and instructive) reflection on southern misadventures in Latin America.
“A Ruler of Men” is the story of Kansas Bill and Barney O’Connor, who plot a revolution in an unnamed “small, green, doomed country” in Latin America. The topography of the tropical nation is enchanting, but the political situation mystifying. O’Connor holds clandestine meetings a small rented house with co-conspirators, who convince him he will soon lead a revolutionary army through the streets. “The people, in secret, already call me ‘El Library Door,’ which is the Spanish manner of saying ‘the Liberator,’” O’Connor proudly confides. Even the skeptical Bill is taken in: “I began to feel like a Hidalgo de Officio de Grafto de South America myself.”
O’Connor is persuaded the local inhabitants, whom he is paying to make necessary preparations, are eager for his leadership. He observes their “oppressed and melancholy air.” In a spate of gringo hubris, he declares that revolution can be “easily accomplished by a man of courage, intelligence, and historical superiority, such as myself.” Bill is not so sure: “They’re not the kind of people to take an interest in revolutions,” he tells the Irishman.
Despite Bill’s reservations, O’Connor determines to proceed. He personally attacks a local generalissimo on the streets, whose saber breaks in two, provoking the Latin officer to turn tail, screaming for the police. O’Connor is promptly arrested by “five barefooted policemen in cotton undershirts and straw hats.” A local named Sancho tells Bill that O’Connor will be jailed for six months, then brought before a firing squad. “I think too hot weather for revolution. Revolution better in winter-time. Maybe so next winter,” succinctly explains Sancho.
O’Connor has confused quixotic fantasy for real-politik. Thankfully, an American-educated local judge with impeccable English who drinks highballs helps facilitate his release. He tells Kansas Bill that the so-called revolution was a mere joke “fixed up” by a group of locals. “The town is bursting its sides with laughing. The boys made themselves up to be conspirators, and they — what you call it — stick Señor O’Connor for his money. It is very funny.”
The story “Next To Reading Matter” follows a similar trajectory: adventurers Judson Tate and Fergus McMahan aim to influence political events in another imagined Latin American country, “to straighten out a lot of political unrest and chop off a few heads in the customs and military departments.” But the exotic Latina enchantress Señorita Anabela Zamora draws both their attention, and a comedic romantic competition ensues. “Shoes” and “Ships,” alternatively, both describe an isolated American diplomatic mission in a lazy, backwater Latin American town, and enterprising (if poorly informed) American businessmen eager to make a dollar.
What binds O. Henry’s absurdist tropical fiction together is a portrayal of adventuring Americans as naive, if not downright foolish. Would-be filibusters think they can simply sail into Latin America and conquer banana republics for democracy and capitalism. What they encounter is far more complex and nuanced. Though they may seem like backwaters, these Latin American cultures predate the American experiment, and cannot be turned overnight into Western-style democracies. Nor, O. Henry’s characters discover, do they necessarily want to be.
Is it not the same when it comes to those who aim to censure, manipulate and “reform” traditionalist Southern culture? LIke O. Henry’s romantic Americans in Latin America, many outsiders misunderstand the South, finding it backward and ignorant. Yet Southern culture retains veritable, time-tested traditions and practices that predate the Founding. They will not be easily erased (or exploited) by interlopers. Nor should they be.
Southern Americans in the nineteenth century learned their lesson when it came to foolishly campaigning in Latin America. O. Henry made light of those terrible misadventures. Those seeking to bully and “improve” the South in the twenty-first century should take notice.