April 19 is the anniversary of the “Landing of the 33 Patriots” in Uruguay, also known as the Treinta y Tres Orientales, though it’s safe to say none of the 33 “Orientals” ever set foot in Asia. They were called ‘Orientales‘ because Uruguay was known as the Banda Oriental, or the “Eastern Bank” of the Rio de la Plata, the western shore being Argentina.
In a span of less than ten years—1807 to 1816—the Banda Oriental and its capital city of Montevideo were occupied by the English, retaken by the Spanish, and invaded by the Portuguese.
In 1816 Portuguese Brazil took Banda Oriental from the north, ousting the province’s hero Jose Gervasio Artigas in 1820 and forcing him into exile in Paraguay. The Banda Oriental became a province of Brazil, which achieved independence from Portugal in 1822.
In 1825 a group of exiled Uruguayan fighters called the 33 Orientals returned from Buenos Aires. They were led by Juan Antonio Lavalleja, who had fought with the exiled Artigas. The 33 Orientals secretly crossed the Plata River, landing on the Eastern Bank on April 19. There they planted what would be known as the flag of the 33 Orientals and took an oath to kick the Brazilian government out of Uruguay.
Four months later, on August 25, 1825, Uruguay officially declared its independence from Brazil. After 500 days of fighting (the Argentina-Brazil War), Brazil recognized Uruguay’s independence in 1828.
If you grew up in El Norte, chances are your history books skipped the chapter on William Walker and Juan Santamaría. The two men could not have been more different.
Juan Santamaría was a poor laborer, an illegitimate son raised by a single mother in the impoverished district of Alajuela, Costa Rica. He joined his country’s army as a drummer boy in the 1850’s.
William Walker was born to a well-to-do family in the American South and graduated from college summa cum laude at age 14. He went on to study at some of the most prestigious universities in Europe before earning his doctorate in medicine at age 19. He briefly practiced law in New Orleans before moving to San Francisco where he explored the field of journalism.
Despite their different upbringings, the fates of these two men would become inextricably woven at Rivas, Nicaragua in April 1858.
While in San Francisco, Walker had conceived of a political opportunity south of the border—he gathered a group of pro-slavery supporters to help him establish slavery-friendly zones in Mexico and Central America.
For whatever reason, the government of Mexico had issues with Walker’s notion. When they didn’t capitulate, Walker raised an army and took Baja California by force. He proclaimed it part of a larger pro-slavery region that would be called the Republic of Sonora. Later defeats caused Walker to retreat. He was put on trial in the United States for inciting an unsanctioned war. And was acquitted by a jury in eight minutes.
The William Walker story doesn’t end there. It worked so well in Mexico, he figured why not spread the love to Central America.
Walker set his sites on Nicaragua. Before the Panama Canal, Lake Nicaragua was the gateway between the Atlantic and Pacific. The overland route could chop months of a trip around the Tierra del Fuego. Nicaragua had just undergone a serious period of destabilization—15 presidents in six years—making it ripe for exploitation.
With an invitation from one of the feuding Nicaraguan political parties, the Democrats, Walker and 57 men invaded Nicaragua. They captured the city of Granada. With the support of the Democrats, Walker set himself up as de facto ruler of the country.
At this time, the President of Costa Rica, Juan Rafael Mora, sensing Walker’s future ambitions, made a pre-emptive decision—to cross over into Nicaragua and attack, not on the country of Nicaragua itself but Walker and his forces.
The climactic battle between Walker and Mora was the Second Battle of Rivas. The inexperienced Walker made multiple military blunders prior to the battle, forcing the small army to hole up inside a thatched-roof hostel.
Enter Juan Santamaria. There couldn’t be a more compelling antidote to the overeducated and overprivileged Walker. At the time of the Battle of Rivas, the day laborer was a 25 year-old drummer boy in the Costa Rican army.
Though Walker’s forces were outmanned at Rivas, their position in the hostel gave them a distinct shooting advantage. Costa Rican General José María Canas called on a volunteer to approach the hostel and light the roof on fire with a torch. It was a suicide mission. Santamaría stepped forward, asking only that should he die, someone look after his mother.
Under heavy fire, Santamaría reached the hostel and threw the torch, igniting the roof. Santamaría was struck dead by enemy fire; however Walker’s men were forced to flee. Santamaría’s last act was the beginning of the end for Walker, and marked a symbolic turning point in the repulsion of foreign forces from Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Walker was executed by firing squad in 1860.
Sadly, the heroics of the Battle of Rivas were overshadowed by a devastating cholera epidemic that killed a tenth of the population of Costa Rica. But in the decades that followed, Santamaría’s legend emerged as the leading heroic figure symbolizing the unity of the Costa Rican people against imperialist forces. Because Costa Rica hadn’t fought for independence from Spain, the battle against William Walker became event that solidified the nationalist spirit.
Even today, the young drummer boy from Alajuela is the only Costa Rican to be honored with his own national holiday—April 11, the anniversary of his death and of the Battle of Rivas.
He stood the aged palms beneath,
that shadowed o’er his humble door,
Listening, with half-suspended breath,
To the wild sounds of fear and death,
— Toussaint L’Ouverture, by John Greeleaf Whittier
Toussaint L’Ouverture was born a slave in French Saint Domingue, now Haiti, in 1743. Many legends are told of his early life. He was nicknamed “Walking Stick” due to his narrow stature, and was later described as more charismatic than attractive.
At the age of 33 he was given his freedom. He married and by all accounts he had settled into a quiet life by 1791. By that time word of the French Revolution and its ideals of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity had reached Saint Domingue, and the slaves and free men of color hoped the promises of the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” would extend to them. When it became apparent no such action was forthcoming, the slaves revolted in the Boukman Rebellion of of 1791. Slavery was banned in 1793.
During the 1790’s the three great European powers, France, Britain, and Spain, were all vying for control of the colony. Toussaint joined the army, first working as a doctor; within a few years, now in his early 50’s, he underwent an unbelievable professional trajectory. Toussaint went from being an ordinary Haitian living in peace to an unparalleled military genius and the governor of Saint Domingue. A former black slave who would defeat the armies of the greatest European empires.
Toussaint became governor of Saint Domingue in 1797. Professing allegiance to France, he chased the last Spanish forces off Santo Domingo in 1801.
Toussaint next sought to make Saint Domingue an independent, permanently slave-free nation. Napoleon, seeking to reintroduce slavery to the island, sent 20,000 troops to the island to retake and depose of Toussaint.
“At the head of all is the most active and indefatigable man one can imagine. One can definitely say that he is everwhere and above all in the place where sound judgement and danger lead him to believe that his presence is the most essential. His great sobriety and the ability given only to him of never resting, the advantage he has of going back to office work after a tiresome journey, of replying to a hundred letters a day and of habitually exhausting five secretaries.”
—Colonel Vincent, in a note to Bonaparte. The Gilded African, Wendy Parkinson
Though initially told he could return to civilian life, Toussaint was betrayed and kidnapped by French forces, and was taken to a remote fort in the high French Alps. Unused to the freezing temperatures and kept under the harshest conditions, Toussaint died in French captivity on this day (April 7) 1803.
The U.S.’s second President (1796-1800), John Adams, voice of the American Revolution two decades earlier, had supported the L’Ouverture revolution against European colonialism.
Adam’s successor Thomas Jefferson felt otherwise:
“I become daily more & more convinced that all the West India Islands will remain in the hands of the people of color; & a total expulsion of the whites sooner or later take place. It is high time we should foresee the bloody scenes which our children certainly and possibly ourselves (south of the Potomac) have to wade through to try to avert them.” — Letter to James Monroe, July 1793
When Haiti gained won its freedom in 1804 under the command of one of Toussaint’s generals, Jefferson, a strong ally of the French, refused to acknowledge Haiti’s independence. The island nation would have to wait until 1862 when Abraham Lincoln’s administration finally recognized it. Ironically, the Jefferson administration owed a great deal to L’Ouverture. It was L’Ouverture’s defection and uprising in Haiti that forced Napoleon to sell their continental North American possessions—the Louisiana Territory—to Jefferson for a song.
Toussaint, the most unhappy man of men…
O Miserable Chieftan! Where and when
Wilt thou find Patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
…There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultation, agonies
And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.
— William Wordsworth
“His political performance was such that, in a wider sphere, Napoleon appears to have imitated him.”