Monday, February 5, 2007

William Walker- Fusilado

That’s what it reads on his gravestone--shot.

The Mosquito Coast is absolutely blowing my mind. In my search for the stories of my distant ancestor, I will start with his ending. In August 1860 he made his last, and by far most haphazard, attempt at conquering Central America. He would never again have the opening that the Liberals of Nicaragua had given him with their invitation to intervene in that country’s civil war in 1855. How he convinced a crew of mercenaries they had any chance of success, after 5 consecutive defeats, leads me to believe he must have had a snake oil salesman’s personality and the voice of a revivalist preacher. My most accounts that on his last adventure, his crew mutinied before they even arrived at his intended launching point on the Honduran Coast. He set himself at the mercy of a British frigate, whose Admiral, after assuring his safe passage, handed him over to Honduran authorities in the port town and former capital of Trujillo. He was shot by firing squad on the 12th of September, 1860, in a fortress overlooking the bay’s turquoise waters which lap at white sands overhung with dense green jungle that run around the town and up into the mountains.

I visited Walker’s grave yesterday in Trujillo and can say that I received the welcome fit for a distant ancestor of that wayward adventurer. First I stopped by the fort where he was executed. Built by the Spanish in 1546, the old stone walls are patched in places where over the years rocks were borrowed to build the rest of the town. What was a defensive wall that ran 3 kilometers down to a lagoon in the deepest curve of the bay is now only preserved as a perimeter for the fort and adjacent prison. The marker that indicates where Walker was shot is now outside this perimeter and on the back steps of a laundry and several small apartments. The residents now empty their bedpans a few feet from the marker. Another smaller plaque inside the gates fortress gates tells the story of the Hondurans dramatic victory and subsequent capture of Walker and his army. This is almost certainly a fiction, though the guard on duty who showed me around seemed proud of the tale so I didn’t interject. He also gave Walker the motive of a man driven mad by a lost love. This is a story I’d like to hear more about, it seems as plausible a motive as any for why a well-bred doctor and lawyer would go off and try to conquer five countries on his own initiative (Note: A book I found on Walker in Nicaragua provides some detail about the death of fiancee while he was in New Orleans).

When I arrived at the old cemetery the gates were locked so I jumped the wall rather than wait for two days when they would open again. I spent some time taking pictures and soaking in his outstanding view of the jungle and the bay below. When I turned around after paying my respects, there was a crowd at the gates. Mostly stern faced women and their wide-eyed kids, though there were also some young men in the group. They all stood there, staring at me. A bolt of ice hammered down my spine. I have never had quite the same feeling or terror in my life, including the time, at age 16, when Eric Anderson and I were held at gunpoint by a lunatic landlord who had just foiled a harmless Halloween prank, a knee planted on each of our chests, the gun pointed between our heads as we lay face up in a mulch bed, unable to breath out of fear and because of the knee. That was a different kind of terror. There is something about the instinct of the crowd, especially in the heat, that is further from reasonable thought or deliberate action than a (mad)man with a pistol.

So, I got to experience, if just for a second, what it might have felt like to see a lynch mob at the front door. My first instict was to run. Instead I walked towards the crowd, then angled to the left to get the wall between me and the still staring Hondurans. Once obscured, I quickened my pace, ok, a dead run, and cut back towards the rear of the cemetery. I grabbed a tree branch and with a crumbling head stone as my springboard, I vaulted the wall and hit the other side on all fours. Still out of view of the crowd, I moved as quickly as I could without looking absurd, and did not look back until I hit the beach a couple kilometers down the bluff. I traded my hat for a jacket packed in my day bag, and zipped up the jacket over my inconspicuous Black Panthers shirt. I hid out in the back of a sea side bar until dark, caught the first half of the Superbowl, and then crept back to my hotel up the dim light streets.

I caught the 430 am bus the next morning and headed towards La Ceiba.

No comments: