sealPurdue News

November 22, 2002

Book: Some Americans of yore were terrorists

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – American overseas adventurers of old share similarities to today's terrorists, according to a recently released book by a Purdue University professor.

"This book is a kind of ironic commentary about the current terrorist situation, because in the mid-19th century, these American criminals – known as filibusters – were regarded throughout much of the world with the kind of fear that today's Americans reserve for today's terrorists," says author Robert May, a professor of history.

"The book shows why the United States government had so many problems preventing these men from constantly attacking other countries. Just as today's terrorists continue to menace the United States, filibusters were constantly plotting their next invasion. Meanwhile, people living abroad – mainly throughout Europe and Latin America – assumed the American government encouraged these invasions, much as many Americans today speculate that the governments of other countries are promoting terrorism."

The book, "Manifest Destiny's Underworld: Filibustering in antebellum America," was released in June by the University of North Carolina Press.

The term filibuster is derived from Dutch, French and Spanish words for freebooter. In the 1850s the term did not refer to congressional speeches, instead it described American adventurers who organized, funded or served in illegal, private military forces that invaded countries with which the United States was at peace. Latin American countries and Hawaii, which at the time was known as the Sandwich Islands, were frequent targets of filibusters.

"Often regarded as pirates, filibusters also were worshipped because they epitomized the romantic spirit of manifest destiny and American expansion," May says. "Meanwhile, the U.S. government's legal and military branches attempted to prevent expeditions, having little more success against them than do modern federal officials against the international drug trade and undocumented aliens."

May says filibusters are a forgotten component of history, even though they were front-page news in their day. Now, they rarely appear in museum exhibits, American history textbooks or Hollywood.

"I hope to revive the interest in this fascinating group of people who captured the imaginations and hatreds of their own countrymen, and who significantly affected American relations with foreign countries," he says. "Since the early 20th century, Americans have developed a collective public amnesia about America's pre-Civil War adventurers."

Latin Americans, though, haven't forgotten American filibusters. In 1850 to 1851, several American expeditions attacked Cuba. From 1855 to 1857 Nicaragua was ruled by William Walker, a filibuster from Tennessee, who legalized slavery. Walker's regime ended when he was defeated by a coalition of other Central American states and his Nicaraguan enemies, as well as representatives from the British government and American steamboat magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. More than 2,500 filibusters helped Walker secure Nicaragua.

"Many expeditions were not that large," May says. "Some had 20 to 40 men. It doesn't take a lot of terrorists to make a tremendous impact. Just like today's terrorists, they operated in secret cells and used their own codes."

The book also examines what motivated filibusters to act like pirates. May says filibusters often were unsuccessful fortune seekers from the gold rush and Eastern city dwellers down on their luck. But respectable and educated men, ranging from politicians, journalists, lawyers, doctors, authors and governors, were known to plan or participate in filibuster adventures.

Not only were their adventures chronicled in newspapers, but the myth and fascination with filibusters became part of theater, popular music, advertising and literature.

Interest in filibusters began to recede during the Civil War, when many filibuster veterans became soldiers for the Union and Confederacy. When the war ended, expeditions resumed, and several attacks were launched on Canadian territory.

The book also discusses Abraham Lincoln's fears of the filibusters and how their expeditions contributed to the start of the Civil War. Surprisingly, there were still expeditions occurring during the Cold War.

The book is available through The University of North Carolina Press. For more information visit the web site.

Writer: Amy Patterson-Neubert, (765) 494-9723,

Source: Robert May, (765) 494-4122 or (765) 494-4131,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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