Caribbean Project: Review: The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854-1861

Robert E. May, The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854-1861
Caribbean Sea

Robert E. May’s The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854-1861 recounts the story of the South’s vision of Manifest Destiny in the 1850s.

In the 1840s, the United States under President John Tyler and James K. Polk annexed Texas, went to war with Mexico, acquired California and the American Southwest, and settled the Oregon Question with Great Britain.

From 1848 to 1851, the North and South fought over the spoils of Western expansion in Congress – a polarizing contest over the admission of California as a free state ended with the Compromise of 1850 and nearly brought about disunion.

For half a century, the North and South had expanded west across the North American continent as equal partners in the Union. The slave states had expanded along with the free states under the terms of the Missouri Compromise.

The admission of California upset the sectional balance of power by admitting a free state south of the parallel 36°30 north. The polarizing debates over the Wilmot Proviso also put the South on notice that elements in the North sought to reserve all future territory to the free states.

In the 1850s, Robert E. May argues that Manifest Destiny became sectionalized over “the extension of slavery”: Northerners attempted to block the addition of new slave states in the West while the South began to nurture its own dream of empire in the Caribbean.

“The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire” intensified after the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the rise of the Republican Party in 1854 with its core Wilmot Proviso doctrine of the non-extension of slavery.

Southerners placed great hopes in three unfulfilled Caribbean acquisitions in the 1850s:

Cuba

No acquisition was more ardently desired in the South or better illustrates the Caribbean Dream than the long sought acquisition of Cuba which had been expected ever since Thomas Jefferson’s time:

“Occassionally southerners got so carried away by their own rhetoric about Cuba that their prose became erotic: “[Cuba] admires Uncle Sam, and he loves her. Who shall forbid the bans? Matches are made made in heaven, and why not this? Who can object if he throws his arms around the Queen of the Antilles, as she sits, like Cleopatra’s burning throne, upon the silver wares, breathing her spicy, tropics breath, and pouring her rosy, sugared lips? Who can object? She is of age – take her, Uncle Sam!”

Three attempts were made by Southern-controlled presidents to purchase Cuba from Spain: James K. Polk in 1848, Franklin Pierce in 1854, and James Buchanan in 1859.

The 1854 attempt produced the Ostend Manifesto which strongly implied the Pierce administration was willing to go to war with Spain to prevent British-inspired abolition and the Africanization of Cuba.

In 1848 and 1854, the Spanish government refused to sell Cuba. By 1859, Republicans in Congress were strong enough to block the acquisition of Cuba through purchase or war, and Spain was still unwilling to sell anyway.

The Venezuelan filibuster Narciso López cooperated with Southern expansionists in a failed attempt to conquer Cuba for Dixie in 1851. John Quitman, “father of secession,” close ally of Robert Barnwell Rhett, and governor of Mississippi, was even prosecuted in federal court for his involvement in an armed conspiracy to invade Cuba.

Virtually every major political figure in the Lower South in the 1850s – Rhett, Yancey, Davis, Toombs, Stephens, Benjamin and others – supported Cuban annexation which was something of a litmus test issue at the time.

Even Northerners like Stephen Douglas loudly championed Cuban annexation. The 1856 Democratic platform called for American ascendancy in the Gulf of Mexico.

Within Cuba, some planters correctly feared that British pressure upon the Spanish government would bring about the abolition of slavery and the demise of white supremacy, and some of them supported annexation for that reason.

If the sectional controversy over slavery had not put the brakes on American expansion in the 1850s, Cuba would have likely shared the fate of Texas and Florida.

Mexico

Mexico continued to be a fertile target for Southern expansion well after the Mexican War.

In 1848, President James K. Polk attempted to annex the Republic of Yucatán. The bill passed the House of Representatives only to be defeated in the Senate.

The Gadsden Purchase of 1853 resulted in the acquisition of southern Arizona and southern New Mexico. The original plan would have acquired a huge section of Northern Mexico including Baja California, Baja California Sur, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas.

In 1858, President James Buchanan attempted to purchase Lower California, Sonora, and Chihuahua and establish a protectorate over Northern Mexico – his plan was blocked by Republicans in Congress.

During the War Between the States, Santiago Vidaurri, the governor of Nuevo León and Coahuila petitioned Jefferson Davis for annexation to the Confederacy. This was highly impractical though due to wartime considerations.

In the 1850s, countless private filibusters attempted to conquer parts of Northern Mexico. One such expedition was led by William Walker who invaded Baja California and attempted to annex Sonora before he was repulsed.

The Knights of the Golden Circle, the most colorful of all the antebellum Southern Rights organizations, was a predominantly Texas-based organization that regarded the conquest of Mexico as its primary field of operations.

When Louisiana seceded from the Union in 1861, its commissioners argued that Texas should secede for both states could cooperate in the Southern Confederacy to complete the conquest of the Gulf of Mexico.

The Confederate secret service would attempt to engineer the secession of Veracruz from Mexico a few months later.

Nicaragua

Aside from Cuba and Mexico, Nicaragua proved to be the last major target for Southern expansion in the Caribbean in the 1850s.

In this case, Southerners pinned their hopes on William Walker – the “grey eyed man of destiny,” and the most successful filibuster in American history – who conquered Nicaragua in 1855 and restored slavery there in a bid for Southern support for his legitimacy in 1856

Although the U.S. opposed filibustering, arrested Walker, and never seriously considered annexing his shortlived regime, William Walker became a hero in the Lower South and was one of the most well known men of his times.

Walker was a romantic figure who attracted support from Northerners and Southerners alike before he played the slavery card in an attempt to save his regime.

“Thus even his individualism is a mere denial of anything higher, and not an affirming of his own soul. The extraordinary man is the one who puts something else before his own life and security. Even as he faced the firing squad, William Walker could have saved his life by merely renouncing his claim to President of Nicaragua. To the common man, this is insane.”

In 1860, William Walker was executed by a firing squad in Honduras at the age of 36 during his final bid to reconquer Nicaragua. Francis Parker Yockey exalts him above as the embodiment of Faustian man in Imperium although the circumstances of his death were due to more to British resentment of his actions on Ruatan and the Mosquito Coast.

A Dream Deferred

The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire was blocked by Northern Republicans, internal division within the South, resistance from Spain and Mexico, and the outbreak of the War Between the States.

After leaving the Union, Southerners temporarily disavowed their imperial ambitions in a bid for European recognition and support, and to keep Mexico neutral and a useful partner in circumventing the Yankee blockade of the Southern coast.

The destruction of the Union also eliminated a major rationale for Caribbean expansion because there was no longer any need to retain parity with the free states in the Senate.

In the final two chapters, Robert E. May makes an interesting argument that Caribbean expansion was the poison pill that killed the Crittenden Compromise and destroyed the only chance to save the Union in 1861.

Why the Hispanic Caribbean? Why not the British Caribbean or French Caribbean? I could quibble with this book over any number of points, but it is fairly obvious that Cuba and Mexico were targeted for their relative weakness, whereas major acquisitions from Britain and France were outside the realm of possibility.

May shows his bias when he fails to blame Yankee extremism for causing of the War Between the States. Cuba or Lower California could have been added as slave states as easily as Missouri or Texas without recourse to secession and armed conflict.

He could have also spent some time analyzing postbellum American expansion in the Caribbean: Grant’s attempt to annex the Dominican Republic, the Spanish-American War, the creation of the Panama Canal, etc.

This book is still a good read. It is a launching pad for a broader inquiry into U.S. foreign policy in the Caribbean and Latin America. Slaveowners may have dreamed of a Caribbean Empire, but the Yankee created real Banana Republics.

That’s something we will turn to later.

20 Comments

  1. It’s fascinating to realize that our ancestors in the South, saw the conquest, control, and eventual annexation of the lands as necessary for growth and stability. Even more to the point, your review points out that Yankee bigotry and intransigence, coupled with their heretical abolitionist sentiment, are fully to blame for later problems in these very areas, that have made the latter half of the 20th and early 21st Century so disastrous for the USA.

    Cuba would never have fallen to Castro, the Bay of Pigs might never have happened, Kennedy might still have lived, and meximidgets, Arizona’s immigration bills, a mulatto president blocking the will of a sovereign state, and drug trafficking, as well as hordes of ‘illegals’ – all of it would NOT have happened, had we merely done what a Christian nation knew to do- Manifest Destiny- Whites to rule all nations, benevolently, as Whites.

    Thanks, Hunter. Your columns continue to inform.

  2. HW asks, “Why the Hispanic Caribbean? Why not the British Caribbean or French Caribbean? I could quibble with this book over any number of points, but it is fairly obvious that Cuba and Mexico were targeted for their relative weakness, whereas major acquisitions from Britain and France were outside the realm of possibility….”

    Always wondered about this whole history.

    Cuba seemed like for sheer proximity. They’re borders and so important. Somebody who went to HS in FL told me (would have been the 70s I think) he had to take “communism versus capitalism” classes classes which were instituted in their school system after the Bay of Pigs. He also had all hardcore communist teachers who were the only ones who signed up to teach it.

    But the Spanish and English, while both main groups in the americas, are very different cultures. I’m versed in the Jword-youknowwhos but the fifth column in u.s. government did not decide to print everything in hebrew without asking. It printed everything in spanish, which is an astonishing act on many levels, particularly in its jaw-dropping aggression. Also, it clarifies the enmeshment of government and all businesses (fascism), because of the sheer coordination involved to accomplish this “cultural revolution” in the anglo world, (which the u.s. inarguably was just 30 years ago).

    The real issue, then and now, seems how anglos and spanish deal with each other.

    What would they have done had they won? Were they going to take over Spanish planter areas, then use native populations already involved in the planter economy, like sugar or whatever?

  3. I would imagine that Cuba would have become another Florida, Louisiana, or Texas. The existence of slavery and the need to preserve white supremacy would have blunted Anglo-Spanish ethnic and religious tensions.

  4. In other words Southerners just love being around non whites , whether blacks or Hispanics doesn’t matter as long as your making money off of them, I guess losing the Civil War delayed the latinization of the South by a century. We Northerners like to be just with White people that why Yankee land …New England the Pacific North West and the Great Lakes region is the whitest area of America those areas could be called New Europe while the Afro-Euro-Latino South could be called New Brazil. We Yankees will keep New Europe you can keep your rainbow slave empire.

  5. In the 1850s, Cuba was a race based slave society. It was predominantly White with Spanish settlers instead of French settlers like Louisiana.

    Cuba had an anti-miscegenation law. The creole society that had evolved there wasn’t much different from Florida or Louisiana which were easily absorbed into the Deep South.

    The Know-Nothing movement of the 1850s had little support in the Deep South. Southerners were used to Catholics and religion was less of a dividing line here than race. The whole Gulf Coast used to be under the control of France and Spain.

  6. As for the North, it was a place where you had negro equality, black voters, black citizenship, integration, and black-white intermarriage in many areas. Cuba was far less foreign and antagonistic to the South than Vermont.

  7. “black-white intermarriage in many areas.”

    Nonsense. Even after the repeal of miscegenation laws intermarriage was quite rare. All these lighter skinned blacks you see running around the country came up from the South. Mandingo!

  8. Nope.

    The blackest blacks in America are those in the plantation belt. The lightest are those in the cities. Asians are another immigrant group that have a high intermarriage rate.

  9. Well intermarriage rates are lowest in the Midwest. It should be illegal everywhere. Every time I see a nigger walking down the street with a white woman I want to kill them both.

  10. The historical record is pretty clear on the matter of proximity. The idiotic things enacted in the NE were based on ignorance of the negro race, whereas Southerners, having experience with negroes, recognized reality. Even the upper South states are an example, in that their fewer negroes showed them to be less certain than the deep South about ‘equality’.

    Trying to explain this to Prussian Croats from Philly and Bangor and Chicago, to little effect in 150 years, is why secession remains a godly hope among Dixiecrats.

  11. In Florida history it is taught that during the Spanish American War that Spanish forces captured Florida’s capital, St. Augustine at the time, and same time as American forces captured Havana, Cuba. During the peace deal Florida was traded for Cuba. While nothing more was said or written about this in history class, I would like to know more details in why this trade off was made. I would have kept Cuba and having Florida connected to the mainland; I would have invaded and captured St. Augustine.

  12. “In Florida history it is taught that during the Spanish American War that Spanish forces captured Florida’s capital, St. Augustine at the time, and same time as American forces captured Havana, Cuba.”

    If you think Spain invaded Florida during the Spanish-American War the you need to go back to elementary school and actually listen to your teachers this time around. St. Augustine was ceded by Spain to the United States in 1819 and the Spanish Army hasn’t been back since.

  13. The Spanish overran British forts in Florida in the revolutionary war period.

    At that moment I think the British were demolishing Spanish outposts elsewhere in the Caribbean region

  14. Rudel I think he means me. No offense to the South but the White man is meant to live in Europe whether the original one or New Europes of his own creation. Canada is a new Europe so is Australia and New Zealand and I would count the Northern and Western States as Europe as well. The South is not Europe but a racial caste society with whites on top and if you are going to have a racial caste society it’s of course better for whites to be running things but it’s still a less natural way for the white man to live than to live in Europe. The South should have been allowed to leave in peace to find its own way while the New Europe of North America found its own destiny, most people on the board probably agree with the facts I have listed however I put a pro Northern spin on it while you would put a pro Southern/Yankees are scum spin on it.

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