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The Torch of Freedom

Costa Rica's less-than-belligerent history has provided little consequence for the making of true war heroes.

However, one humble mulatto drummer boy is saluted every April 11th by all Costa Ricans for his bravery in repelling a marauding U.S. citizen from Central American soil.

by Michael L. Smith
photo by Roger Guido

It was the mid-1850s when William Walker, a lawyer, doctor and soldier of fortune from Tennessee, endeavored to conquer the five Central American states and annex them to a new Federation of Southern States in the United States. Walker and his filibusteros intended to hold political and financial power over this territory in Central America, with Walker as president.

After serving as commander-in-chief of Nicaragua's army in that country's efforts to quell an uprising of disloyal Nicaraguans, Walker craftily gained military strength. With the aid of 400 riflemen, he coerced the aristocracy of Granada into making him provisional president. Costa Rica was next on his list and he commanded his cohort Colonel Schlessinger to invade Costa Rica with four companies of men.

President Juan Rafael Mora, only the second president of this young, free Republic, received word of Walker's plan through the Costa Rican envoy to Washington. President Mora went to the people to raise an army with which he could repel the impending invasion. Since Costa Rica had no history of fighting for her independence--it was literally handed to her--there was little national identity during this period. The President rallied his citizens against the coming invasion, not with a call to national patriotism, but with something much closer to their souls: Mora foresaw the slave traders overrunning the country, kidnapping the children and raping the women. It was with this compelling argument to protect families and loved ones that he raised a force of 9000 men in less than a week. Among these volunteers was young Juan Santamaría, a drummer boy from Alajuela.

During the two week march to Guanacaste, the rag-tag army, led by President Mora and his brother-in-law General José Cañas, dwindled to 2500 determined patriots armed with machetes, farm implements and a few old rifles. On March 19, 1856, they encountered a group of about 300 of Walker's freebooters at the Casona on Santa Rosa Ranch.

A 14-minute battle the next day resulted in the freebooters fleeing back across the border to safe haven in Nicaragua. Two thousand Costa Rican soldiers followed Walker's men across the border to his stronghold in "Mesón de Guerra" at Rivas. Joined along the way by a number of Nicaraguan freedom fighters, Mora's men confronted Walker's band again on April 11.

This was a bloody battle--half the Costa Rican forces eventually fell. In order to extricate Walker and his gang, General Cañas decided to try and burn them out. In what had to have been a suicide mission, two courageous volunteers, one Costa Rican, the young drummer boy Juan Santamaría, and one Nicaraguan, died in their successful attempt to set fire to the Rivas stronghold. Walker's troops retreated once more.

And that was the end of the fight. The deaths of Juan Santamaría and more than a thousand other men had saved Costa Rica and Central America from a despot.

A Hero Reborn

In 1865 a Guatemalan general was beginning a campaign to take over control of the Central American countries. Again Costa Ricans would need to show strength against a potential tyrant. By this time national identity was growing, but still was not a strong enough reason to go to war. So the President used the courage of a young boy who valiantly gave his life in a successful fight against a past would-be oppressor. Just as Juan Santamaría protected our families from the filibusteros, the President said, we must now protect our land against those who would take it from us.

So, rallying around the image of the courageous young Santamaría, now as a hero of the Republic, the people once again rose to protect their families and their land. And Juan Santamaría became the national hero of a proud, peace-loving people.

Historical footnote:

When Juan Santamaría's name was revived as a national hero in 1865, his mother petitioned the government for a pension. A benefit of two colones per month was awarded, the first pension ever given by the Costa Rican government. Some years later Juan's mother petitioned for a raise in her pension. That, too, was granted, becoming the first raise in a pension on record in Costa Rica.

Copyright © 1996 by Michael L. Smith. All rights reserved.

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Updated on April 13, 1996 by M.L. Smith