- Empire by Invitation: William Walker and Manifest Destiny in Central America by Michel Gobat
Though contemporaries of slave owners, slave traders, and secessionists, filibusters still stand out for their negative portrayal in the historiography of antebellum America. Dedicated to spreading slavery beyond the borders of the U.S. South, they waged violent wars against foreign people and nations, [End Page 442] imperiled freedom throughout the Americas, and brought the United States to the brink of civil war. The reputation is hard to refute. But in this important study, Michel Gobat shows that in the case of William Walker's infamous conquest of Nicaragua in the 1850s, Central Americans invited filibusters to their shores and then assisted the invaders in toppling the government.
According to Gobat, whose first book on the United States' occupation of Nicaragua in the early twentieth century similarly exploited Spanish and English sources to great effect, William Walker and the filibusters he commanded were "liberal imperialists" fighting to bring American business and technology, along with a free and democratic political system, to a region in desperate need of assistance (p. 156). With northern Free Soilers, free black emigrationists, and European revolutionaries composing a portion of Walker's army, it is no surprise that native Nicaraguans—from elite white landowners to dark-skinned farmers, shopkeepers, and soldiers—saw in these filibusters an opportunity to remake their young nation into a miniature version of the United States.
The experiment was, for a brief moment, successful. After disembarking on Nicaragua's west coast in the summer of 1855, Walker and his followers brought peace to a war-torn nation and instituted a series of reforms that resulted in the creation of a fully functioning nation-state. In collaboration with countless native Nicaraguans, including lowly peasants, powerful property owners, and Catholic priests, Walker and his filibusters established a court and tax-collection system, an all-volunteer army, a customhouse, and a post office. The objective at all times was clear: "Americanization" (p. 5).
More than a brief chapter in the long history of manifest destiny, Walker's Nicaraguan conquest, according to Gobat, was a pivotal moment in the history of the Americas. Building on an idea he first articulated in the American Historical Review, Gobat considers the episode crucial in the "invention of Latin America" ("The Invention of Latin America: A Transnational History of Anti-Imperialism, Democracy, and Race," American Historical Review, 118 [December 2013], pp. 1345-75). After several months of Walker's rule, Central Americans united in an armed revolt against the filibusters and expelled them from the region. "The idea of Latin America," Gobat boldly contends in this book, "was the most enduring outcome of the anti-U.S. moment" (p. 96).
Desperate to reclaim his position of power, Walker returned to the United States. While northerners had grown suspicious of his enterprise and withdrew their support, white southerners who were hell-bent on spreading their peculiar institution to the tropics continued to rally behind his cause. By insisting that Walker's proslavery position emerged only at this moment, Gobat takes his biggest swing at the conventional wisdom regarding filibusterism. In so doing, he erroneously paints the adventurer—who in 1856 infamously re-legalized slavery in Nicaragua—as an antislavery activist. With freedom and slavery often serving as two sides of the same coin, Walker ultimately strove to spread both—far beyond the United States' southern border.
That being said, Gobat should be commended. He has produced an outstanding transnational history that, because of its originality and style, will appeal to scholars and students alike. [End Page 443]