Q COSTA RICA, by Mitzi Stark. Outside of Central America few people know about the invasion of William Walker and his filibustero army in 1856. Or that it was the Costa Rican army that routed them and guaranteed independence for the five republics.
William Walker, as every Costa Rican school child knows, came from Tennessee in the United States to claim the five Central American countries for slave states to bolster the south’s position against the anti-slavery north. His soldiers, recruited in the States, were called Filibusteros, a word that comes from the Dutch Vrij Buiter, or free booter, a word that also referred to pirates.
In 1855 Walker arrived in Nicaragua with his army on a mission to colonize that country which was embroiled in a civil war. Soon he was made president and in 1856 he ordered his Filibusteros south to take over Costa Rica. But the Costa Ricans under president Juan Rafael Mora Porras, called Don Juanito, resisted, pushing the invaders back into Nicaragua and defeating them in the Battle of Rivas on April 11. The day is a national holiday to commemorate the victory for independence.
Who were the men who made up this strange rag-tag army? They were for the most part, young and restless. Many were immigrants to the states. They were jobless. Some had been in prison. They were adventurers in an era of adventure with endless frontiers. The Manifest Destiny doctrine encouraged expansion into unclaimed, and even claimed territories and although the United States government did not condone such adventures, they did not put a stop to them.
Recruiters in New York, New Orleans and San Francisco promised land, pay, pensions, even political positions for those who signed up. The recruits were expected to bring their own arms as there was no financial resource to provide them.
To the public they were heroes. There were plays, and stories, and music celebrating the life of the freebooters. Newspapers and popular magazines sent reporters and artists to record their deeds and their battles.
A new exhibit at the Juan Santamaria museum in Alajuela shows them, their faces, how they dressed and how they were armed, with photos made from daguerreotypes from a private collection. These are the enemy who tried to take Costa Rica away to become a slave state. They are nattily dressed and armed with guns, rifles and an assortment of daggers and knives. For most of them their names and fates are unknown. For a brief time they made history.
Walker’s cause was a complicated one. To control the San Juan river between Costa Rica and Nicaragua was to control traffic and trade between the Atlantic and Pacific with a promise of wealth and position. But it was not to be. A united army of Central Americans defeated Walker and his Filibusteros. Walker was executed in Honduras in 1860.
The photo exhibit runs to June 25. on the second floor of the museum which is located on the northwest corner of the central park in the heart of Alajuela. The museum is free and is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.