The Golden Circle

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 16 No. 4, "Flowers in the Desert Die." Find more from that issue here.

In 1850, a Southerner named William Crittenden signed up to join a military expedition against Cuba, then a Spanish colony. A nephew of the U.S. attorney general, Crittenden was one of 400 men recruited from Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi to invade the Caribbean island and establish a slave state for wealthy Southern backers. 

Spanish troops crushed the expedition in August 1851, killing or capturing and later executing most of its members. Taken prisoner, facing a firing squad, Crittenden refused to kneel or accept a blindfold. His last words: “A Kentuckian kneels to none except his God, and always dies facing his enemy.” 

“Filibusters,” as the members of such privately organized expeditions were known, made several abortive attempts to invade Cuba and Mexico during the late 1840s and early 1850s. Thwarted in these efforts to expand their slave empire, Southern planters increasingly looked to Central America to enlarge their territory and political power. What ensued was a violent history of illegal wars and intrigue as for more than a century the South sought to transform its southern neighbors into appendages of its own economy. 


The Front Yard 

Although the political upheaval in Central America has dominated headlines in recent years, our country’s fixation on the region is really a very old one. Its roots are buried deep in our national history, where they intertwine tightly with the history of the South. 

From the earliest days of our nationhood, U.S. political leaders, opinionmakers, and commercial interests looked to the Caribbean to boost our national progress. Since the Louisiana Purchase and the acquisition of Florida, the U.S., through its command of the Gulf of Mexico, has geographically dominated the Caribbean, a source of important trade even in the colonial era. Indeed, the very contour of the Gulf seems to grasp at the Caribbean. With the markets of Europe and Asia closed or dominated by older powers like England and France, the U.S. saw the prospect of turning the southern sea into its own Mediterranean. 

The South, with its Gulf ports, obviously stood to be a prime beneficiary of such a relationship, and Southern politicians have always vociferously supported any scheme that promised to enlarge U.S. control or influence in the Caribbean. Thus, what the rest of the nation has often thought of as its “backyard” has long been the South’s front yard. 

But the pre-Civil War South had a special interest in Central America beyond the prospective advantages of commerce. Slavery—the “peculiar institution” upon which the South’s way of life was founded, without which its planter society could not conceive of existence— required continual accretions of new territory. Agriculture based on slave labor was prodigiously inefficient; to be profitable it required vast tracts of naturally fertile sod, and these it exhausted rapidly. And the slaveowners lived in constant dread of a slave uprising, which they believed was inevitable unless the growing slave population were dispersed over an ever-widening area. Also, older slave states like Virginia and South Carolina, where raising slaves for sale to other states came to replace export agriculture, had a vested interest in slavery expansion. Finally, as the westward push added new free states to the Union, the South sought new slave states to maintain the political balance. 

For several decades slaveholders managed to expand their territory and maintain their political position by forcing, under threat of secession, a series of compromises — the Missouri Compromise (1820), the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Bill (1854) — that gave them a share of the new Western states. But the “doctrine of popular sovereignty,” whose inclusion in the Kansas-Nebraska Bill the South had demanded because it eliminated all geographical barriers to slavery, boomeranged on its sponsors. Abolitionists and free-soil farmers, mobilizing and arming themselves, thwarted Southern efforts to impose slavery in Kansas. With their defeat in the 1854-1856 Kansas Civil War, the slaveholders turned their attention to the Caribbean as the only remaining avenue for expansion.


Plantation Paradise 

It was in Central America that opportunity for such expansion seemed to knock loudest. The world had long recognized the potential for an Atlantic-to-Pacific canal across the Central American isthmus. After the U.S. acquired California, the gold rush and the prospect of lucrative trade with Asia sent representatives of private enterprise and the U.S. government alike scurrying over Central America in search of a canal right-of-way or other transit concessions. By 1851, shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt had established a riverboat and coach service across Nicaragua, cutting weeks off the journey to the West Coast. Hundreds of thousands of North Americans were soon crisscrossing Central America on their way to and from the gold fields, and Southerners quickly recognized the potential for plantation agriculture in Central America’s balmy climate and rich volcanic soil. 

Kentuckian Elijah Hise, appointed charge d’affaires in Central America in 1848 by the expansionist, pro-Southern Polk administration, reported enthusiastically that Honduras was 

a most magnificent Country unsurpassed in Scenes of Grandeur and Sublimity of Aspect, and unrivalled in Respect to its Agricultural and mineral resources. Gold Silver and Copper are or rather might be its Mineral productions; Sugar, Coffee, Rice, Indian Corn, Cotten, Cochineal and Indigo Die woods of Various Kinds, Valuable timber of several kinds, all kinds of Tropical Fruits, are or might become its productions from the Soil, which as I am Informed, is of Great and Exhaustless fertility. 

Acting without instructions, Hise negotiated a draft treaty giving the U.S. exclusive rights to all forms of transit across Nicaragua. The treaty, he argued, would contribute to “the perpetuation of the American Union,” meaning it would facilitate the acquisition of Central America as fresh territory for slavery expansion, thus appeasing the South and reducing the threat of secession. In the contentious years that followed, Southerners and their Northern Democratic allies would continually repeat this refrain. By the time Hise’s treaty reached Washington, however, President Polk had left office and the incoming Taylor administration repudiated the document. 

Intoxicated by the emerging doctrine of Manifest Destiny — which asserted the Anglo-Saxon race’s “natural right” to rule the Americas — many whites in the United States, North and South, simply assumed that Central America would sooner or later be part of the U.S. The most conscious slavery partisans, however, were unwilling to wait for destiny to take its course. Confronted in the 1850s with a succession of administrations in Washington that disappointed their expectations for territorial expansion, Southerners began to take matters into their own hands. 

To expand slavery, wealthy planters and others organized filibustering expeditions. Most of their recruits were poor Southern whites enticed by the prospect of glory and fortune, and the hope that in conquered territory they themselves might become masters of plantations and owners of slaves. 

With their defeat in Kansas and the failure of filibustering expeditions to Cuba and Mexico, Southern expansionists came to see Central America as the key to a new slave empire. As it happened, they were aided by the situation in the five Central American republics. Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica had been united until 1838. But bloody feuding between Liberals and Conservatives split the federation apart and kept the isthmus in turmoil, and some Central American leaders enlisted North American mercenaries under their banner. 

Nowhere was the internal weakness more apparent, the allure of virgin soil more promising, than in Nicaragua. The largest of the Central American states, it sat astride what was then the most likely route for an interoceanic canal. Many who traveled as passengers of Vanderbilt’s Nicaragua Transit Company, particularly Southerners, were enticed by the country’s potential as a plantation paradise. [See sidebar.] 

The first recorded filibuster among them was John Maclaine of Louisiana, who in 1851 got himself commissioned a colonel by Nicaragua’s Liberal faction, then warring against the country’s Conservatives. Recruiting some 25 other North Americans who were passing through Nicaragua on their way to California, Maclaine planned to capture a Conservative stronghold. But Conservative troops took the gringos by surprise, killing three and wounding several others. Only the intervention of a U.S. diplomat saved Maclaine from a firing squad. 


The Man of Destiny 

A few years after Maclaine escaped with his life, the most notorious filibuster of all time arrived in Nicaragua. Though long neglected by historians, William Walker put his indelible stamp on the momentous half-decade preceding the Civil War. Bom in Nashville, Walker studied for a medical career and later coedited the New Orleans Crescent, but he ultimately decided that his real calling was filibustering. 

Walker first gained national attention with a failed invasion of Mexico in 1853. Two years later, he and 57 followers arrived on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, where civil war had broken out again. Following in Maclaine’s footsteps, Walker had signed a contract with the Liberals to help turn the tide in their favor. 

Aided by a string of fortuitous circumstances, Walker played Nicaragua’s political factions against each other and turned the situation to his own account. Money, arms, and reinforcements poured in from the U.S., courtesy of Vanderbilt and powerful backers in the South. Within six months Walker had become Nicaragua’s military strong man, and in 1856 he proclaimed himself president. He immediately re-legalized slavery, which had been outlawed in 1824. 

Nicaraguans revolted. The other Central American nations, aware that Walker’s plans included them, joined the struggle. Even Vanderbilt switched sides when Walker revoked his transit franchise. By early 1857, Central American troops had all but wiped out Walker’s army, which at its peak numbered several thousand well-armed men, many of them veterans of the Mexican War. Besieged in the Nicaraguan town of Rivas, reduced to a few hundred feverish and half-starved followers, Walker fled the country under U.S. Navy escort in May 1857. 

He returned to a hero’s welcome in New Orleans, and traveled to Charleston, Nashville, and Mobile to organize the “Central America League,” a clandestine group designed to fund a second invasion. His fundraising appeals were always based on the need to spread slavery further south. Writing of the “inferior races,” Walker warned that “if the South wishes to get her institutions into tropical America she must do so before treaties are made to embarrass her action and hamper her energies . . . in the effort to re-establish slavery in Central America.” 

Walker attempted twice more to invade Central America. Ultimately, he was captured by the British navy, handed over to Honduran authorities, and executed by a firing squad in 1860. Seeking to establish a slave empire tied to the South, he had succeeded only in turning Nicaragua into a field of gore. Thousands of North Americans, mostly Southerners, perished there, having suffered inglorious and often horrible deaths for an ignominious cause. And for each North American corpse there were an estimated 10 casualties among the Central Americans. 


The Diplomats 

Usually ceding center stage to the filibusters, but playing their part in expansionist plans all the same, were Southern diplomats. Receiving their appointments as political plums from proslavery Democratic administrations, these point men for Manifest Destiny often put the interests of their region first, those of the nation they officially represented second. 

Notable among them was Solon Borland, a former U.S. senator from Arkansas assigned to Nicaragua by the Pierce administration in 1853. The following year, Borland witnessed the murder of a black man by the white captain of a Vanderbilt riverboat. When the town marshal and his deputies tried to arrest the killer at San Juan del Norte, Borland warned them off at gunpoint. That night the U.S. diplomat was accosted by angry townspeople and slightly injured in the scuffle. 

Unable to produce new territory for his Southern backers, President Pierce seized on the alleged “insult” to Borland to pose as a champion of white supremacy. When San Juan refused to pay monetary reparations, Pierce sent a naval vessel to bombard and burn the town. Justifying the destruction in a message to Congress, Pierce denounced San Juan as a “pretended community, a heterogeneous assemblage . . . composed for the most part of blacks and persons of mixed blood” who had followed “a course of insolence and plunder.” Though condemned elsewhere, the action was strongly applauded in the South. 

The Southerners who succeeded Borland as Nicaraguan envoy were also strong advocates of slavery. John Hill Wheeler of North Carolina earned a reputation as “the filibuster minister” for his enthusiastic support of William Walker, and reportedly helped Walker write the decree that reinstituted slavery. William Carey Jones, an alcoholic Washington lawyer sent by President Buchanan to survey the region in the aftermath of the Walker fiasco, reported back that “the ultimate dominancy here of our race” was certain. Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar, another Buchanan appointee and himself the one-time president of the Texas Republic, repeatedly urged Buchanan to intervene militarily in Nicaragua. But Congress, then polarized by the slavery issue, refused to grant Buchanan the necessary approval for expansionist military adventures. 


The Golden Circle 

The filibusters and their diplomatic allies had hoped to make Central America the base for establishing a slave empire that would eventually unite Mexico, Cuba, and the rest of the Caribbean with the Southern states. Notwithstanding Southern disappointment over Walker’s failure, the evanescent vision of tropical empire continued to tantalize planter society, holding out the hope of new life for a regime whose time had expired. 

Clinging to that vision was a mysterious order called the Knights of the Golden Circle, whose founding convention was held at White Sulphur Springs, Virginia, in 1859. The Knights took their name from the fantasy of a slave empire that would take the form of a circle with Havana at its center, spanning 2,400 miles from the South to Central America. Included in the Knights’ initiation ritual was a pledge to extend slavery over the whole of Central America immediately following the conquest of Mexico. 

Although the order apparently did not include many Southern leaders, its chapters spread rapidly and widely across the South. The Knights soon assembled a filibuster army of several thousand men who were poised to attack Mexico in 1860, just as Lincoln’s election and the perceived need to defend existing slave territory cut short their plans. (In some areas the Knights’ military units became nuclei of the Confederate armies.) 

With the South’s defeat in the Civil War, slavery expansion became a dead issue. Ironically, however, just as the Lincoln administration was ending the slavery threat to Central America, it approved a plan that seemed to Central Americans nothing more than filibustering in a new disguise. 

Many Northern whites, despite their opposition to slavery, believed that free blacks and whites could not live together harmoniously in the U.S. Accordingly, in 1862, Lincoln approved a plan to resettle freed slaves in Central America, Yucatan, or Colombia. U.S. diplomats approached their Latin counterparts about the scheme, and Congress appropriated the funds in July 1862. The various governments responded favorably at first, but cooled after Lincoln promised a black delegation that freed slaves would go to Central America under U.S. “protection.” 

A similar proposal, authored by Union General Benjamin F. Butler in 1865, would have transported the 150,000 ex-slaves serving in the Union army to Panama to dig a canal. Lincoln referred Butler’s plan to Secretary of State Seward, but its consideration was cut short by the president’s assassination a few days later. 


The Golden Markets 

For the South, slavery was gone, but the vision of a tropical empire in Central America was not. During Reconstruction, Southerners began to eye the region anew — seeing Latin nations as “natural markets” for their products. 

The South’s economy depended heavily on exports. Even in the best of years, the U.S. market absorbed a mere third of the Southern cotton crop. Cotton production doubled between 1870 and 1890, and the manufacture of cotton cloth increased fivefold, but the depression of 1893-97 dried up both domestic demand and the South’s traditional markets in Europe. Again the region looked further south for a solution to its woes. A major exposition held in Atlanta in 1895 and smaller trade shows throughout the South promoted trade with Central and South America, bringing new commercial ties with Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Mexico. 

In the minds of most Southerners, the quest for expanded markets was intimately connected with the idea of an interoceanic canal across Central America. Nicaragua was still favored as the site after a U.S. survey team recommended that route in 1874, and a private firm called the Maritime Canal Company actually began work in 1889. Senator John T. Morgan of Alabama, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was one of its chief boosters. 

A former Confederate general, Morgan has been described as “an almost fanatical” Nicaragua canal enthusiast. Declared Morgan in the Senate: “There can not be anything done for the Southern people of equal advantage to the building of the Nicaragua canal, so as to give us access to the eastern Asiatic countries for our cotton.” When the Maritime Canal Company’s coffers ran dry in 1893, Morgan introduced a bill to have Congress guarantee the company’s bonds. A coalition of competing interests defeated the Morgan Bill, however, and the company defaulted in 1899. 

Nicaragua canal partisans ultimately lost out to backers of the Panama Canal, but the notion that a Nicaragua canal — several hundred miles closer to Gulf ports than Panama — would somehow benefit the South died hard. In the 1920s, when the volume of ship traffic threatened to clog the newly completed Panama Canal, Southern leaders renewed their call for a Nicaragua canal — only to have their hopes dashed by the Depression. Representative Carl Vinson of Georgia, chairman of the House Committee on Naval Affairs, floated the plan again in the mid-1930s, arguing that the Panama Canal was vulnerable to earthquakes and military attack (and, incidentally, that a second canal through Nicaragua would improve trade with Latin America). 


The Golden Fruit 

Just as Southern interest in a canal intensified, the commercialization of bananas was creating new and powerful links between Southern ports and Central American markets. During the 1870s and 1880s, steamship companies established regular runs between New Orleans and the emerging Central American banana ports. For merchants in New Orleans, bananas were truly golden. In the 1880s, a New Orleans steamship owner could buy 100 stems of bananas in Guatemala for about $40 and, in the words of a contemporary reporter: 

The steamer people, after a voyage of four days, during which all their expenses are paid by the passenger-list and the Government mail-subsidies, sell the bananas on the wharf in New Orleans for $125 . . . clearing $85; while the planter, for a whole year’s labor put into the bananas, gets $30 . . . it is not uncommon for the profits of a single round trip of two weeks to exceed $40,000. 

The returning ships carried the entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs who sought to make a killing in Central American bananas, timber, or mining. Where the filibusters had failed, it seemed, businessmen would succeed. Those who did went a long way toward realizing the dream that eluded their Southern forerunners, building an empire based not on slavery (at least not in the literal sense), but on finance and commerce — their “golden circle” described by the banana boats’ ports of call. 

The adventurers of antebellum Dixie were investors, international carpetbaggers of sorts, who transplanted planter society to the banana farms of Central America. One of the first and most successful was Minor Keith, a New Yorker who emigrated to Padre Island, Texas after the Civil War and established himself as a hog rancher. Keith’s uncle and brother had signed a contract with Costa Rica to build a railroad. Persuaded that “I would make more money in Costa Rica in three years than I could make in Texas all my life,” Keith sold his Texas properties and moved to Costa Rica. Although his relatives defaulted on their contract, Keith took over the railroad project and finished it himself. 

Keith’s operations in Central America closely involved the South. As soon as his company began work on the port at Limon, Costa Rica, Keith established steamship service from New Orleans, the first regular service to a Central American port since the demise of Vanderbilt’s Nicaragua operation in William Walker’s time. 

Symbolic of the South’s new assault on Central America, 40 veterans of the Walker invasion were among the first 700 railroad workers Keith recruited in New Orleans. Reminiscent also of Walker’s macabre legacy, nearly all the recruits died in the Costa Rican jungle from yellow fever, other diseases, or accidents, as did hundreds more brought from New Orleans, Jamaica, and elsewhere. A nightmarish total of 4,000 corpses lined the first 20 miles of rail. 

Keith’s ships carried supplies and machinery from New Orleans to Costa Rica and returned with cargos of wood, coconuts, and tortoise shell, and — most important — the first bananas to reach New Orleans markets. Soon Keith grew bananas all along his railroad right-of-way through Costa Rica’s Caribbean lowlands. 

In 1899, Keith merged his business with the then-largest U.S. banana operator, Boston Fruit Company. The result was United Fruit, which more than any of its competitors would make the banana practically synonymous with the Crescent City: even in its first year, two or three United banana steamers unloaded at New Orleans docks each day. By 1905 New Orleans was the world’s largest fruit importing terminal, distributing nine million banana stems annually — almost as many as all other U.S. ports combined. 

That same year — 1905 — a yellow fever epidemic struck the Gulf Coast. The public blamed the banana trade, and for three months New Orleans authorities banned all banana imports. More than 450 persons died in New Orleans alone, but the Daily Picayune worried less about the victims of yellow fever than what the ban on yellow fruit was doing to the city’s business. It was an indication of how important New Orleans’ ties to Central America had become. 

Prominent among Louisianans who enriched themselves on those ties were the Vaccaro brothers, Italian immigrants who had established a citrus business in the Mississippi River delta after the Civil War. When a severe winter destroyed their crops in 1899, they began importing bananas from Honduras. Over the next 70 years they and their descendants built Standard Fruit, one of the banana industry giants. By the late 1960s, when surviving family members sold their interest to Castle and Cooke, a San Francisco-based conglomerate, Standard handled one-third of the world’s banana trade, having overtaken United Fruit as the largest importer of bananas into the United States. 

Headquartered in New Orleans, the Vaccaros based their operations in La Ceiba, Honduras, a company town they helped build. With the millions made on Honduran bananas, the family extended its empire over much of Central America. They branched out into sugar, banking, brewing, and manufacturing in Honduras; lumbering in Nicaragua; and banking, ice making, hotel management, and even industrial gases in New Orleans itself. The Vaccaros’ success enabled them to overcome anti-Italian prejudice and gain status in New Orleans society — so much so that the New Orleans press declared a 1925 testimonial for them “the greatest civic tribute ever accorded individuals” in that city. 

Close on the heels of the Vaccaros came Samuel Zemurray, a Russian-Jewish fruit jobber in Mobile, Alabama who acquired much of the prime banana land remaining in Honduras. In 1930, United Fruit took over Zemurray’s Cuyamel Fruit Company for $32 million in stock, making “Sam the Banana Man” United’s largest stockholder and soon its managing director. 


Black and White in Greytown

Southern expansionists were drawn to Nicaragua for a variety of reasons, not the least of which were its geographic and ethnic divisions. The country’s Atlantic Coast was inhabited by the Miskito ethnic group, a mixture of indigenous peoples, escaped African slaves, and European pirates. The swampy, sparsely-populated Miskito Coast was cut off from the rest of die country by forbidding mountains and jungle. England had claimed a protectorate over the area since 1740, establishing a puppet “Miskito Kingdom” and crowning a Miskito “king.” 

In 1848, the British seized the port of San Juan del Norte from Nicaragua and renamed it Greytown. When Cornelius Vanderbilt made it the eastern terminus of his Nicaragua transit, the town existed in diplomatic limbo, a sort of free port. Blacks from Jamaica and elsewhere, including escaped Southern slaves, came to dominate the local administration. 

Needless to say, North Americans passing through the region in that era were unaccustomed to dealing with blacks in positions of authority. Southern whites considered San Juan an open sore and viewed the entire Miskito Kingdom with contempt: the British were their bogeymen, rivals for Caribbean empire. 

Among Southerners who viewed San Juan as a special target was Colonel Henry L. Kinney, an early Anglo settler in Texas and a founder of Corpus Christi and the Texas Rangers. Kinney made millions trading livestock and speculating in Texas land, and in 1854 he used some of his profits to buy a claim to 22.5 million acres on the Miskito Coast — about 70 percent of Nicaragua’s total land area. He began advertising in leading newspapers for prospective colonists. 

Kinney bought the deed from a trader in San Juan who had acquired it years earlier from the Miskito “king,” said to have been drunk at the time. Although the new “monarch” and his British patrons had repudiated the spurious claim, Kinney had reason to believe the U.S. would back him. He had reportedly met personally with President Franklin Pierce, a pro-Southern Democrat who had campaigned on a Manifest Destiny platform, and the stockholders in his venture included Pierce’s attorney general and a U.S. Senator. Among his confidants was Joseph Warren Fabens, the U.S. commercial agent at San Juan, himself an ex-colonel of the Texas Republic army. Fabens, in turn, was a good friend of Vanderbilt’s company, which also seemed to look favorably on Kinney’s “colonization” scheme. 

An article by a sympathetic correspondent in the December 15, 1854 New York Times captured the flavor of Kinney’s appeal: “Central America is destined to occupy an influential position in the family of nations, if her advantages of location, climate and soil are availed of by a race of ‘Northmen,’ who shall supplant the tainted, mongrel and decaying race which now curses it so fearfully.” 

But the enterprise was destined to failure. A federal grand jury indicted Kinney and Fabens in April 1855 for planning a military expedition in violation of U.S. neutrality. Released on bond, Kinney easily evaded half-hearted Coast Guard efforts to stop him, and set out for Nicaragua. But his “colonists,” scared off by the indictments and adverse publicity, had dwindled to 13. Influential supporters had likewise bolted. Arriving in San Juan, Kinney took control of the municipal administration and proclaimed himself “governor.” But he failed to attract further support, and a year later he returned, broke, to the U.S. Landing again in San Juan in 1858, he was arrested by the British and turned over to the U.S. Navy. 

— K.B. 

Jim Crow 

Dominance by the U.S. fruit companies gave the Central American states, particularly Honduras and Guatemala, their reputations as “banana republics,” most of whose stereotypical connotations are all too familiar. But it also enabled the South to recreate its way of life along the Caribbean rim. If La Ceiba, Honduras looked like a typical company town, Southern-style, so did other fruit company enclaves like Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua (built by a Vaccaro Brothers subsidiary), and Puerto Barrios, Guatemala (literally owned by United Fruit). They were all the same — a pier jutting from the jungle to the sea, a narrow-gauge rail line, a cluster of shacks for workers, the clapboard, neo-Victorian structures that housed supervisors, and the ubiquitous company store where often workers bought goods with the coupons or scrip they were paid in lieu of currency. All were suburbs, or colonies, of New Orleans, Mobile, and Galveston. 

But the resemblances were more than physical. Also transposed to the tropics were Southern social relations. The fruit companies imported black workers from the South as well as from Jamaica to help offset a shortage of native hands on the “banana coast.” Most supervisors and overseers, meanwhile, were Southern whites who brought their racial attitudes with them. Often these were codified into company policy, as in Guatemala, where United Fruit required “all persons of color to give right of way to whites and remove their hats when talking to them.” 

Jim Crow reached as far south as Panama, where skilled jobs in the construction of the canal were reserved for whites, most of whom were Southerners. Paid in U.S. gold dollars, these workers were known as the “gold roll.” Unskilled laborers, mostly blacks, received their pay in Panamanian silver currency, and were known as the “silver roll.” Racial segregation as such was prohibited on federal projects like the canal. Instead, separate facilities — down to water fountains — were designated as “gold roll” or “silver roll.” With five-sevenths of the canal work force made up of West Indian blacks intolerant of such discrimination, the export of Jim Crow to Panama caused serious labor problems. 

Poor Southern whites were drawn to Central America for the same reasons their fathers had joined the filibusters. By the hundreds came Dixie’s displaced — the descendants of plantation overseers, filibusters, and Johnny Rebs — drawn, like their ancestors, by the tropic’s seductive promise of fortune or adventure. Most were deceived, but not all. 

Among the latter was Lee Christmas of Louisiana, a railroad engineer blackballed in the U.S. for wrecking a train while drunk. In 1894, Christmas took a job in Honduras “hogging” a banana locomotive to the wharf at Puerto Cortes. Three years later, a band of Honduran rebels commandeered his train, and Christmas joined up. The revolt failed. But the would-be revolutionists were soon pardoned, and Christmas had added derring-do to his reputation for hard drinking and promiscuity. Viewing him as an insurance policy, successive governments in Tegucigalpa made Christmas head of the federal police and later a general in the Honduran army. 

For a dozen years Christmas played a pivotal role in the country’s tumultuous politics. He was President Manuel Bonilla’s right-hand bully until Bonilla fell in 1907. In 1911 Samuel Zemurray financed a revolt led by Christmas that returned Bonilla to power. (Among the many Southerners who joined Christmas was Guy “Machine Gun” Molony, who later became New Orleans chief of police.) 

Bonilla rewarded Zemurray with an enormous banana concession and Christmas with a thousand-acre coconut plantation and several jobs with lavish salaries, including commandant of Puerto Cortes. From that post Christmas headed numerous enterprises, several illicit. But the Hondurans eventually tired of Christmas and cut him loose in 1915. Accustomed to high living, the soldier of fortune quickly squandered his new-found wealth. In 1924, penniless, back in New Orleans, Christmas died of a tropical disease. 

Political stability was not a hallmark of the Banana Republics, and U.S. companies operating there often sought — and received — assistance from the U.S. Marines to protect their interests. But the banana companies themselves frequently instigated disorders, seeing some advantage in a change of regime, as with Zemurray and the Honduran revolt of 1911. 

U.S. companies operating along Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast promoted a series of uprisings between 1894 and 1910. For many years these businesses had enjoyed a cozy relationship with the British-backed Miskito authorities, and they actively resisted plans to reincorporate the region into Nicaragua. Finally, in 1909, they sponsored a determined effort to overthrow the country’s nationalist president, Jose Santos Zelaya. Conservative rebels, financed and armed by U.S. companies, recruited mercenaries in New Orleans. 

Virginian Lee Roy Cannon and Texan Leonard Groce, both commissioned as colonels in the rebel ranks, were captured while trying to blow up a riverboat carrying government soldiers. They were tried and sentenced to death. President Zelaya turned down their appeals for clemency, determined to dissuade other latter-day Filibusters. The conservative Taft administration, which until then had supported the rebels covertly, seized on the execution of Cannon and Groce as a pretext to break relations with Zelaya and intervene openly. With Taft’s help, the rebels triumphed, and Nicaragua became a U.S. protectorate. 

The fruit companies would continue to dominate Central America for years to come. In 1954, four decades after financing the Honduran revolt headed by Lee Christmas, “Banana Man” Sam Zemurray was at it again, this time campaigning for the overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz, who sought to institute land reform. This time, unlike 1911, as chief executive of United Fruit, with the Cold War raging, Zemurray had at his service the CIA, the State Department, and Ambassador John Puerifoy of South Carolina. A CIA-sponsored “liberation army” ousted Arbenz and installed in his place the brutal regime of Carlos Castillo Armas. 

Today the banana companies are gone from Nicaragua, along with the U.S. mining concerns and timber operators, unwilling to cooperate with the Sandinista government that replaced dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Elsewhere in Central America, the banana companies and their employees, while still important, maintain a lower profile. Since the mid-1960s, they have been joined by manufacturing companies, such as Texas Instruments in El Salvador, attracted by pliant governments and cheap labor. 

The slave South’s desire for territorial conquest in Central America resolved into the broader imperatives of economic expansionism, just as transnational conglomerates later absorbed or grew out of the Southern companies operating there. In the same way, Southern attitudes and policies toward Central America live on, incorporated today in the policy of our nation. In Central America’s tortured present reverberate echoes of Dixie’s filibustering past. The contra war against Nicaragua, the U.S.-backed aerial bombardment and the mass killing in El Salvador, the long reign of terror in Guatemala, the military dictators in Honduras — all can be traced, at least in part, to the South’s vision of destiny and glory in a tropical empire.