Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America. By Robert E. May. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8078-2073-7. Maps. Photographs. Illustrations. Notes. Index. Pp. xviii, 426. $45.00.
This book purports to tell the complete story of filibustering in antebellum America. Mostly, however, author Robert May tags the United States as the world home of filibusters, and by today's standards, it is "politically correct." It is also naïve in many ways. For example, the author buys into the canard that Americans are unusually violent. He quotes a silly Vermonter (that outlaw state) passing through San Antonio as being taken aback that in 1855, "Everybody carries pistols here when traveling and many carry them always." He had never heard of Comanches and Mexican bandits. This clues the reader in to the slant of the book. Indeed, Professor May goes to great lengths to exonerate countries like Britain and France from supporting filibusters, of course ignoring Britain's occupation of the entire Indian subcontinent under the guise of a trading company with a private army (the East India Company) because Queen Victoria said it was permissible. Then, of course, this author also fails to mention two French filibuster forays into Mexico by Messrs. the Marquis Charles de Pindray in 1851 and the Count Raousset-Boulbon in 1852 and 1854. Besides this, Maximilian's French conquest seems totally forgotten—or excused, except by the Mexicans. Even the Peruvians and Costa Ricans engaged in filibustering. None of this is to excuse the practice, which goes far back in antiquity. But it does preclude hanging a label on the United States for the actions of three thousand or less misguided ruffians, some of whom were named Lopez, Flores, and Carvajal. At least the author comes clean and points out that all of the American presidents [End Page 236] of the period and the American navy did their best to stop the elicit invaders of other countries.
Nonetheless, May fails to note that Britain's occupation of the Mosquito Coast and Belize (Honduras) were direct violations of the Monroe Doctrine and the 1850 Clayton-Bulwer treaty in which Britain was able to quash three United States-Nicaraguan transit treaties, including U.S. envoy Ephran George Squire's treaty with the Nicaraguan government for "free and unlimited" passage across that country to and from the Pacific. Moreover, Britain was so concerned about American expansion that it regularly and illegally stopped and searched American Mail steamers on the high seas. But then Britain's policy of "containment" of the United States was clearly spelled out by this reviewer some time ago in When the Eagle Screamed: The Romantic Horizon in American Expansionism, 1800-1860. Then, too, in 105 pages of closely packed notes the author ignores Edward S. Wallace's pioneering work on the filibusters, Destiny and Glory (thus missing some great stories in this present dull book). He also ignores Robert Russel's classic, Improvement of Communication with the Pacific Coast as an Issue in American Politics, 1783-1869. Strange research!
The structure of the book is as follows: first defining away British
and French filibusters, though Rudyard Kipling's satire on British
filibustering, The Man Who Would Be King, is mentioned; then,
secondly, he recounts briefly the stories of selected filibusters like
William Walker, Henry L. Kinney, Henry A. Crabb, Narcisco López,
Juan Cortina, Carvajal, poor old firebrand, John A. Quitman (who
just couldn't make it) and the Mexican War veterans who invaded
Yucátan. In another chapter the author speculates that most of
the filibusters were Southerners, but then realizing that they started
many expeditions from New York he blames the City's mechanics! Then
the author tries U.S. authorities, from presidents to secretaries of
state to local judges, before the bar and finds them unfortunately not
particularly guilty. The best part of the book is the latter part where
the author concludes that the filibusters stymied American expansion into
the Caribbean and especially Southern expansion of more slavery into
the region—a compromise that might have prevented the Civil War,
an event which, as the author laments, is better known than the story
of the three thousand "men of destiny."
William H. Goetzmann
University of Texas