Roatan’s Beauty, Truth & Wisdom

William Walker’s Roatan Adventure

American soldier of fortune William Walker lands at Trujillo, Honduras.
Roatan and the other four Bay Islands enjoyed the status of being a full-fledged British colony from 1852 until 1859, when Britain, bowing to pressure from the USA, signed the Wykes-Cruz Treaty, which handed the islands back to the control of Honduras planned for July 14. One hundred fifty Bay Islanders, saddened and perturbed about their future, attempted to thwart the handover by petitioning Queen Victoria with a letter. Receiving no answer from Buckingham Palace, they turned to an unlikely savior: the Tennessee-born man of manifest destiny, William Walker.

Walker’s last adventure in Central America, as self-proclaimed President of Nicaragua, had ended in total fiasco. He also earned some respect among white Bay Islanders, and in April of 1860 a representative was sent from Roatan to New Orleans to invite Walker to help set up a new, independent Bay Islands republic, with himself as President.

Unbeknownst to the islanders, Walker, backed by his allies, including wealthy Southern plantation owners and the Masonic pro-slavery group The Knights of the Golden Circle, had been stockpiling weapons and ammunition and recruiting men in New Orleans since September of the previous year in order to launch a new campaign in Nicaragua. There he intended to reclaim the presidency,as well as control of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s transit company, which offered the quickest route from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast by way of stagecoach and river steamer, generating some $6 million in revenue per year.

With this money Walker planned to finance his campaign to conquer all five of the Central American countries and unify them into a huge cotton, rubber and fruit-producing region. Slavery was to be reintroduced and English was to be the official language. He had promised his motley band of soldiers of fortune that, once the expedition proved to be a success, each would receive 150 acres of land.

Starting in late April, Walker began sending his representatives to Roatan on fruit boats in order to await the handover date from Britain to Honduras, at which point he and his forces would strike. In June, he and 55 men left New Orleans on the chartered schooner “John C. Taylor,” while more men and most of his stock of weapons and ammunition were sent to Belize on the “Clifton” to await orders. Meanwhile, the arrival of dozens of American and German mercenaries on the island had not gone unnoticed by the British authorities. They beefed up the island’s defenses with 40 troops sent from Belize, while sending 15 ships from their West Indian naval fleet in Jamaica to patrol off Roatan.

Upon arriving at Coxen Hole, the notorious Walker was refused permission to disembark from the “Taylor.” On also learning that all his ammunition and weapons had been confiscated from the “Clifton” in Georgetown, he retired north to the island of Cozumel to await the handover of Roatan to Honduras. Five weeks later he and his men sailed back to Roatan, only to discover an even larger British military presence barring them from landing. To further frustrate him, Britain and Honduras had hastily extended the handover date for Roatan to April 22 of the following year.

Infuriated, Walker made the biggest blunder of his career: an all-out attack on the Honduran mainland at Trujillo. With a force of 91 men, including three new recruits from Roatan, Walker arrived in Trujillo on August 6 and quickly took the fort. Six of its Garifuna defenders died; five men on Walker’s side were seriously wounded, two of whom would later die.

Walker immediately declared the town a free port and confiscated $3,500 from the town’s customs and excise office. His men encamped in the fort, where they fixed its broken cannons and replaced their ammunition.

His next move was to contact former Honduran President José Trinidad Cabañas about forming a coalition government, with the idea of joining forces to re-invade Nicaragua. Cabañas, however, engaged in setting up Honduras’s fledgling education system, rejected Walker’s overtures. Meanwhile, British Commander Nowell Salmon arrived from Belize on the “Icarus” and informed Walker that the money confiscated from the customs house belonged to Britain in lieu of a debt; if Walker did not surrender the town, Salmon would order a naval bombardment of the fort.

When Walker refused, Salmon confiscated the “Taylor,” and on August 26 General Mariano Alvarez, marching from Tegucigalpa with 700 Honduran troops, arrived in Trujillo to confront Walker on land. Outgunned and outnumbered, Walker beat a fighting retreat some 80 miles to the east, losing 18 men in skirmishing and disease before reaching Black River, where he hoped to find another boat.Salmon set off in the “Icarus” in hot pursuit and soon reached Black River. While laid up resting on a farm along the banks of Río Sico, Walker reluctantly surrendered to the British marines after being promised protection and safe passage back to New Orleans by Salmon.

However, instead of sailing to Louisiana, Salmon broke his word as an officer and a gentleman and promptly delivered Walker and his men to the waiting authorities in Trujillo. Walker was charged with piracy and violating international neutrality laws; in his defense, he claimed he was only attempting to “protect the inalienable rights of the people of Roatan, and protect them from tyranny.” This defense failed,and he alone was sentenced to death.

He languished a further six days in the fort, while his remaining 75 men were deported on the British steamship “Gladiator.” The last throw of the dice to save Walker’s life came from the US consul, and a fellow freemason, in Trujillo who offered General Alvarez $10,000 to spare him. The offer was rejected, and on the morning of September 12, 1860, Walker faced a three-man firing squad behind the fort. The first volley of shots did not kill him, but the coup degrâce blew away his face beyond recognition. The consul paid 10 pesos for his coffin and he was buried in Trujillo’s old cemetery.

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