Granada: Grand City of Nicaragua: Once an Important Center of Power in Central America, This Nicaraguan City Still Shines with Colonial Architecture and Tales of a Tumultuous Past

Americas (English Edition), November-December 2010 | Go to article overview

Granada: Grand City of Nicaragua: Once an Important Center of Power in Central America, This Nicaraguan City Still Shines with Colonial Architecture and Tales of a Tumultuous Past


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Marauding pirates, bloodthirsty mercenaries, and roughneck gold rushers all played a part in the history of the colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua. But in spite of being burned to the ground twice and taken over as a stronghold for a foreign filibuster, Granada has managed to persevere and even prosper while emerging as Nicaragua's best hope for entry into the international tourism market.

History dominates Granada's landscape. Founded by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba in 1524, Granada is the oldest city in Central America. In that same year, Cordoba also founded the Nicaraguan city of Leon to the North. The two cities have sustained a long rivalry since then. After independence from Spain in 1821 and a brief period as a member of a Central American federation, Nicaragua became a republic in 1838. In the years that followed, Granada, which supported a wealthy and conservative populace, and Leon, whose citizens were much more liberal, battled for dominance in the fledgling nation. Hostilities increased irreparably in the 1850s and a civil war ensued. Eventually, Managua was chosen as the capital of Nicaragua in 1857, and the fighting diminished.

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Granada became Spain's showcase for elegant colonial buildings and high society, and the city's residents prospered. Because of its proximity to Lake Nicaragua, which provides access to the Caribbean Sea via the San Juan River, Granada flourished through commerce and trade. This access also made Granada vulnerable to Dutch, French, and English pirates who attempted to invade and then destroy the city. When Granada's most important churches and buildings were burned by outside forces, its citizens would rebuild their beloved city again.

Another source of wealth in Nicaragua was Cornelius Vanderbilt's Accessory Transit Company that was used to transport thousands of gold-rushers to California. In the 1800s the most expeditious route from New York to San Francisco was to go through Central America. From the Caribbean, prospectors followed the San Juan River inland to Lake Nicaragua and then crossed Nicaragua by stagecoach to the Pacific Ocean.

Granada's strategic location on the gold route attracted the attention of William Walker, a well-known forty-niner living in California. In partnership with Granada's bitter rivals in Leon, Walker contracted 300 men described as "colonists liable to military duty" for an expedition to Nicaragua. What followed was a series of military campaigns against Granada beginning in 1855.

Walker and his men eventually conquered Granada and ruled Nicaragua for nearly two years. He even managed to win a presidential election. During his presidency, Walker drafted a new constitution that reinstituted slavery and made English the official language. To gain favor and financial support from wealthy southerners in the United States, he promoted the idea of establishing a slave trade in Central America.

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Soon, Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras began to fear that Walker might infiltrate their territories, and they joined with the most powerful enemy Walker had made--Cornelius Vanderbilt--to depose Walker and his men. Vanderbilt used his Accessory Transit Company to shut off Walker's only means of communication with the United States. He withdrew his ocean steamers, left Walker without men or ammunition, and hired soldiers of fortune to block any attempt at escape to the Caribbean. Vanderbilt aligned with the Costa Ricans and contributed both money and men to wage war against Walker.

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Boxed in with no way of securing additional men and supplies, Walker reluctantly retreated from Granada. Unfortunately, upon leaving Granada, Walker ordered his troops to burn the city to the ground, leaving behind many destroyed and damaged colonial buildings and an ominous placard declaring, "Here was Granada. …

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