Political Climate and Reception in Central America

    Catherwood and Stephens visited Central America and México in turbulent times. Leading up to their arrival, the French (1789-99) and American (1765-1783) revolutions shook the western world as common people overthrew powerful monarchies. Napoleon invaded Spain and captured King Fernando VII in 1808, replacing Fernando with his brother Joseph as King of Spain. Fernando was reinstated in 1814, but the Spanish empire had become unstable and revolutions broke out in Spain’s colonies in the Americas.

    Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and his followers were among the earliest freedom fighters, working for an independent México until Hidalgo’s execution in 1811 and the death of his student and second-in-command José Maria Morelos in 1815. Vicente Guerrero and Guadalupe Victoria led the Méxican revolutionaries until 1820. Neither the insurgents nor the Royalists could gain the upper hand. Meanwhile, a military uprising in Spain restored the constitution of 1812, giving the government more power and less to the King and Roman Catholic Church, which changed the power institutions in México as well as Spain. General Agustin de Iturbide struck an alliance with Guerrero and pitched the Plan de Iguala, hoping for peace and equality under a new monarchy. They called it the Treaty of Córdoba, which was signed in 1821 and Iturbide was named emperor in 1822. In 1821, El Salvador and Honduras had also declared independence from Spain, and tried to join México’s new empire.

    Iturbide was overthrown in 1823 and México became a republic. El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua formed the United Provinces of Central America. In 1826, the federation’s president, Manuel José de Arce y Fagoaga helped the powerful Aycinena family gain a foothold in the federation. Mariano Aycinena y Piñol, head of the Aycinena family, became governor of Guatemala in 1827. He proclaimed Martial Law, angering the citizenry.

    General Francisco Morazán, hoping to destroy their power, established a stronghold in San Miguel, El Salvador. He forced President Manuel Arzú to flee to Guatemala and defeated Antonia de Aycinena and the last federal army in El Salvador before he marched on Guatemala, defeating Mariano Aycinena y Piñol in Guatemala City and taking control of the government. His new party maintained popularity until the mid-1830s, when an outbreak of cholera devastated the area. The Church was against the new government (who had abolished mandatory tithing) and incited a new series of revolts by convincing the poor that the contamination was a government attempt to poison their water sources. Revolts broke out in 1837, causing the Federation’s capital to shift to San Salvador from Guatemala.

            One peasant uprising was led by Rafael Carrera, who gained popularity and followers from the working poor and Indigenous population after a string of successful skirmishes. When Morazán took over San Sur, Pascual Alvarez was beheaded and his head displayed on a pike to waylay his followers. Alvarez was Carrera’s father-in-law, and this move started a blood-feud between Carrera and Morazán. Carrera retreated to the mountains while Morazán returned to Guatemala City where the Aycinena clan offered him financial support, which he accepted. The poor continued to be repressed, likely Morazán believed he was discouraging them from joining Carrera again. Meanwhile, Francisco Ferrera was leading another group of insurgents into El Salvador. Honduran Morazán needed the support of the Guatemalan peasantry, so pardoned Carrera instead of killing him, leaving him unarmed in a small town. Ferrera, an enemy of Carrera’s, decided it was most prudent to ally himself with Carrera against Morazán, bringing Carrera a supply of arms and ammunition and asking him to invade Guatemala City.

            In 1838, a year before Catherwood and Stephens visited Guatemala, the state of Los Altos declared sovereignty from Guatemala. The heads of the Liberal Party of Guatemala sought refuge there. This region had been the economic hub of Guatemala, and the Aycinena supporters left in Guatemala City found themselves cut off from their resources. Carrera moved on Los Altos with an army after peace negotiations failed. He defeated General Agustin Guzmán and Marcelo Molina, head of state in 1840. Morazán hastened to Guatemala to avenge Los Altos.  

    In 1840 El Salvador and Honduras gained full autonomy from other nations and became independent countries. Other nations were working to build strong relationships with Central America and Mexico, hoping to expand trade enterprises and build diplomacy. It was because of diplomacy that Stephens and Catherwood gained their opportunity. The United States was keen to solidify trade agreements with the United Provinces of Central America. Stephens managed to secure the post of chargé d’affaires with secretary of state John Forsyth under President Martin Van Buren. He had little, if any, competition for the appointment: Central America was not a safe place during the civil wars. But it provided him, and by association, Catherwood, official paperwork which would make travelling easier, and with some funds and contacts for the exploration the two men planned to undertake just as soon as Stephens’ official duties were finished. Largely because of the wars and power struggles they knew they were heading into, Stephens and Catherwood remained uncertain whether Stephens would even successfully manage trade negotiations, but the American government was intent on trying.

    The English, meanwhile, were quick to put a foothold on the Gulf of Honduras, which today is Belize. This is where Stephens and Catherwood were headed, south of Belize, where the Rio Dulce flows. The river once carried Spanish fleets and trade in and out of Central America. Catherwood and Stephens intended to take the river toward Guatemala City, where Stephens was posted. Upon landing in Belize, they spent a short (but very welcome) time at the British outpost before continuing by steamboat to Izabal, and then by mule intended to follow the Camino Real to Guatemala City. After several days over mountain and through a hot valley, they reached Zacapa, where the townsfolk told them it was dangerous to continue on their journey due to political upheaval and guerilla warfare. Foreigners were often killed. The adventurers embraced their situation and decided it would not be prudent to put their lives on the line for a mission of diplomacy when they heard rumours of ancient ruins not too far away, and could take a longer route to Guatemala City instead. And so the two men set out for Copán.


© 2018 SFU Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, created by Jackie La Mouri.