[5 November 2008]
When Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1877, he was worth more than the U.S. Treasury. After a modest start operating ferries between Manhattan and Staten Island, Vanderbilt made his first millions in steamships, and then later expanded his fortune exponentially by investing in railroads. He was a tireless and ruthless competitor, motivated less by greed than by a hunger to defeat and destroy his rivals. In the 1850s, he even went so far as to fund a bloody war in Latin America in order to revenge himself on some former business partners who had made the mistake of attempting to double-cross him.
Meanwhile, an American adventurer named William Walker raised a small mercenary army and installed himself as the president of Nicaragua. Trained as both a doctor and lawyer, Walker had worked in the newspaper business in San Francisco before launching his first attempt to carve out an empire for himself in the Mexican state of Sonora. Having other ideas, the Mexican government promptly sent Walker packing. But, undaunted, Walker soon involved himself in Nicaragua’s civil war, becoming first a general and then eventually the sole ruler of reunified nation.
In his new book Tycoon’s War, historian Stephen Dando-Collins portrays Vanderbilt and Walker as enemies locked in an epic struggle for power in 19th-Century Latin America. According to Dando-Collins, Walker ran afoul of Vanderbilt not because of his imperial ambitions, but instead because he made a business deal with Charles Morgan and Cornelius Garrison in which he granted them the right to convey passengers to California via Nicaragua. In the past, Morgan and Garrison had both collaborated and competed with Vanderbilt’s Nicaraguan ferry business—but Vanderbilt saw their latest move as a betrayal, and became determined to oust Walker from power in order to get back at his former associates.
In order to achieve this aim, Vanderbilt cast his lot with a coalition of Central American governments that shared his interest in removing Walker from power. Bolstered by Vanderbilt’s deep pockets, Nicaragua’s enemies did, in fact, succeed in toppling Walker’s government, thus clearing the way for the restoration of Vanderbilt’s business operations in the area. Walker fled the country, but soon returned to Latin America in the hope of re-establishing his power. In 1856, when he was only 36 years old, Walker was executed in Honduras after being captured by British authorities.
Throughout Tycoon’s War, Dando-Collins makes his disdain for Vanderbilt clear, painting him as a tyrannical, power-mad villain who did not hesitate to send thousands of Latin Americans to their deaths in order to satisfy his own lust for personal revenge. But strangely, Dando-Collins also treats William Walker—an American interloper who cut a swath of death and destruction through Latin America in a naked grab for power—as a hero for his opposition Vanderbilt’s interests in Nicaragua. If Vanderbilt is a villain, then surely the mercenary imperialist Walker is a villain, too—but in Tycoon’s War, Dando-Collins inexplicably cheers Walker’s victories while rooting for Vanderbilt’s defeat.
The bulk of the book offers blow-by-blow historical reconstructions of Walker’s military battles and political maneuverings in Nicaragua, all told from a perspective sympathetic to Walker’s efforts. In many of these passages, the depth of Dando-Collins’s research is on impressive display: he does an excellent job of placing the reader right in the middle of the action by employing well-sourced details about the people, places, and events of the book. Some of the battle scenes contain passages of high suspense, as well as vivid, lifelike characterizations of several of Walker’s fellow soldiers.
Although these moment-by-moment accounts of Walker’s military adventures are often engrossing, in the end they only serve as distraction from the fact that Dando-Collins has made the poor choice of attempting to present William Walker as a hero. Although largely unknown in the United States today, Walker remains a notorious and reviled figure in Nicaragua; the date of one of his military defeats is even celebrated as a national holiday. But Dando-Collins fails to mention any of this until the book’s epilogue—much like a politician who attempts to bury an unflattering piece of news by releasing it without fanfare on a Friday afternoon.
Incredibly, Dando-Collins even goes so far as to attempt to defend Walker’s support of slavery. Slavery was illegal in Nicaragua when Walker came to power. But since the majority of Walker’s American soldiers were from the South, he found that political expediency demanded that he legalize the institution in order to ensure that new mercenaries would continue to make the trip down to Nicaragua to join his armies.
On the final pages of Tycoon’s War, Dando-Collins argues that previous historians have treated Walker unfairly with respect to the issue of slavery because he had not supported the practice prior to coming to power in Nicaragua. But it is hard to comprehend how the fact that Walker cynically changed his position on slavery in order to maintain his base of power could possibly place him in a positive light. Much of what William Walker did in Nicaragua was absolutely indefensible, and Dando-Collins’s failure (or refusal) to take this fact into account deeply compromises a book that might otherwise have been engaging and engrossing.