This post first appeared on the Historical Fiction E-books blog.
Events in Latin America have always hit the headlines in the US but its history isn’t particularly well known. Even when a figure grips the national consciousness for an extended period, they are subsequently forgotten. Lee Christmas was a star of the Sunday supplements from the start of the 20th century until the outbreak of World War I, but few recall him today. And he was the most memorable out of all the hired guns toppling Central American governments.
I knew straight away that I wanted to write a novel about this extraordinary man and working on Mercenary was an adventure in itself. There was a rich tapestry for a historical novelist to work with: the economic growth (and increased inequality) of the Gilded Age, the rapid development of the railroads, and the boom in both industrialization and immigration. But what fascinated me the most was the dawn of American imperialism.
With the Civil War ended and Reconstruction underway, the US turned its attention further south. Not just militarily, but economically too. Oil prospectors flocked to Mexico. Banana companies expanded throughout Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Colombia. Roosevelt become the first sitting President to leave the US when visiting the Panama Canal. At the same time, American banks used their increasing political power to advance their interests throughout Central America, often putting local governments on the hook for loans they could never repay. Of course, where the dollar went, troops followed.
Before I started researching Mercenary, I had quite simplistic ideas about American intervention in Central America. I had vague notions about the era of Gunboat Diplomacy and Banana Republics. And I assumed much of the instability was down to US meddling or outright invasions. But the truth was more nuanced.
For example, Honduras suffered through countless revolutions, but it often wasn’t directAmerican involvement causing this. The government of the day would grant concessions to one banana company over another, and then the rival operation would engineer a revolution to put someone more “friendly” in power. Elections were often a farce where the incumbent president would annul the vote on some spurious pretext, or simply rip up the constitution so that he (it was always a man) could serve another term.
That said, the American government didn’t have particularly clean hands either. Major General Smedley Butler famously stated that “war is a racket.” In a blistering speech delivered towards the end of his career he said the following:
“I spent most of my time being a high class muscle- man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.
I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street.
The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916.”
All of that was true, and this was coming from the most decorated war hero of the era. But much of the fighting in Central America was not conducted by regular soldiers. Instead it was mercenaries, hired guns, and soldiers of fortune. At times the Marine Corps was intervening to prevent these private armies from putting their man in power, or to protect the growing American populations in the banana exporting towns dotted all along the Caribbean coast.
It is these men which really drew my interest, in particular a Louisiana native by the name of Lee Christmas. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Lee didn’t have any formal military training, nor was he on the run. He didn’t turn up in Central America seeking fame and fortune, and he wasn’t attracted by the wars that continually broke out along the isthmus. The truth was more prosaic: he couldn’t get a job.
Trade with the region was, as you might expect, quite lop-sided. When those banana steamers unloaded their cargo in New Orleans they usually had few goods to transport in the other direction. Banana companies helped defray their costs by taking paying passengers heading to Guatemala or Honduras.
There were prospectors, adventurers, expatriates, and mercenaries. And then there were people like Lee Christmas who got on board with no real plan. He didn’t even know where the boat was headed!
And within twenty years he became one of the most powerful men in Central America.