Juan Santamaría, an impoverished drummer boy, born of a single mother from the town of Alajuela, is easily the most famous martyr in Costa Rican history, and the only individual to have a National Holiday (April 11) declared in his honor. But was it really Juan Santamaria that saved the day at the Battle of Rivas, or was it more to do with Costa Rica’s need to have a national hero? Read on….
If legend is to be believed, as a result of the Battle of Rivas on April 11th, 1856, Juan Santamaria’s selfless act as his country's impromptu savior brought his eventual rise to glory, fame and martyrdom as he succeeded in saving Costa Rica against the infamous US sponsored invasion of the soldier of fortune style militia of William Walker.
William Walker, a lawyer, doctor and soldier of fortune from Tennessee, hoping to not only exploit the commercial trade route between New York and the Southern tip of Nicaragua, Walker also hoped to conquer the five Central American States with the intention to annex them, extending the new Federation of Southern States, part of the US. Walker and his “filibusteros” (soldiers of fortune) with his new post as a shaky provisional President of Nicaragua planned to instill his political and financial power over the Central American territories, with the next logical step being the invasion of nearby Costa Rica.
Fearing Walker’s growing force in Nicaragua, Costa Rican President Juan Rafael Mora supported by the backing of wealthy American businessmen who wanted their important trading routes reopened, was urged to declare war not on Nicaragua, but on Walker and his filibusters.
Furious, Walker ordered the immediate invasion of Costa Rica, crossing the border into the province of Guanacaste, while the Costa Rican army mobilized full speed ahead Northward from the Central Valley. This rag tag army, led by the President’s brother Jose Joaquin Mora and brother-in-law General Jose Cañas, with their contingent of three thousand men marched towards the Walker encampment said to be assembled near the now famous Hacienda Santa Rosa, south of Nicaragua. Upon learning of their imminent arrival, Walkers men made a hasty retreat, taking the battle to Meson de Guerra in Rivas.
That is where Juan Santamaría prominently steps into the picture.
Walker's men, under the command of Colonel Louis Schlessinger, had no sentries posted in the Rivas fort, allowing Mora’s Costa Rican troops to surprise the small American militia, as Schlessinger himself retreated, leaving his troops in complete disarray. When a bloody battle ensued, the commanding Costa Rican officer asked for a volunteer to set fire to thatch roof of the El Mesón de Guerra; the filibusters' stronghold. Surely a suicide mission at best, it is said that Juan Santamaría, an impoverished mulatto drummer boy from the town of Alajuela, stepped up and with torch in hand, approached the hostel and through a hail of bullets, tossed his torch of fire onto the vulnerable thatched roof. This selfless patriotic act caused the enemy to flee, resulting in Juan Santamaria’s death, but leaving him a genuine National Hero.
The deaths of Juan Santamaría and more than a thousand other men saved Costa Rica and Central America from a complete collapse. The Battle of Rivas put great confidence to the Costa Rican Army in the fight against Walker, who before this battle believed himself undefeatable and unstoppable, and lead to his later assassination in Honduras, during his next attempt at staging a Central American coup.
Although Costa Rica was victorious in the Battle of Rivas, the country did not return back to normal by any means. The numerous dead bodies were not buried in Rivas but were simply thrown into the wells, causing the city a huge outbreak of cholera from the contamination. The troops then carried the disease home with them to Costa Rica where it ravaged the country, killing as much as one tenth of the population. Mora was eventually blamed for the outbreak, as well as other economic problems, and was taken out of power a few years later in 1859.
This is where the dispute of the true legend of Juan Santamaria begins. Heated arguments and several investigations suggest that the well repeated history of Juan Santamaria may not be all it’s cracked up to. According to Steven Palmer, a Canadian researcher, Juan Santamaria was possibly invented by the Liberalist Costa Rican government. Palmer’s study suggests that the government in the late nineteenth century was seeking to create a national identity in order to unify the disorganized country. Legends, heroes and battles, all helpful ingredients in the creation of a sense of national patriotism, the government set out to find something or someone that would serve its motivating purpose. Since Costa Rica lacks a history of warfare, the Liberalist government chose one of the few significant battles, the 1856 Battle of Rivas fought against William Walker. After choosing the famous battle, a brave hero was to be chosen as their new “symbol” for National unity. With this, Palmer says, Juan Santamaria was “born” or reborn after being dead and forgotten for many decades. That Juan Santamaria was a member of the lower classes, only served to inspire an even stronger sense of belonging to a nation that was coming of its own in world recognition, as Juan Santamaria showed anyone could become a National idol.
Further claims have been discovered that state Juan Santamaria actually died of cholera and not by the bullets of his enemies. Now granted, there are said to be listed four different Juan Santamarias amongst the some 9000 volunteer troops of Costa Rica, so this does open the door for some skepticism and confusion, but it is interesting to consider why Juan Santamaria lay buried for almost four decades, before being remembered and named Costa Rica’s National Hero.
Finally, other historical versions of the Battle of Rivas and the fight at the “Mesón de Guerra”, list the Lieutenant Luis Pacheco Bertora as the first to approach the fort with the idea of flushing out the enemy, but he was gravely injured by gunfire in his attempts. Lying unconscious, a Nicaraguan named Joaquín Rosales made a second attempt to burn the fort, but lost his life in the process. Finally, a third brave soldier stepped forward, the now well-known Costa Rican soldier, Juan Santamaría, who successfully set fire to the “meson” and saved the day for Costa Rica. None of these other brave soldiers have ever received the recognition due them as Juan Santamaria did, much less a National Holiday, statues or International Airports named after them, though the mystery behind the true history of these events lives on!
In the end, there is no attempt to minimize the participation of any of the soldiers involved in this battle, even less so Juan Santamaria. We only hope to give a shout out to all the valiant soldiers who gave their lives to win the liberty and sovereignty of Costa Rica, and to dispel of the rumor that Juan Santamaria was simply approaching the building, tripped and his fire torch accidentally started the fire that ended the battle.
Tell that later version out loud in Costa Rica, and you may be run out of the country even faster than William Walker was!!
Author: Kimberly Barron, originally from Malibu, California has lived in Parismina and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica for 20 years. Starting as a certified tour guide, she spent 15 years managing fishing lodges on the Caribbean Coast and later 4* & 5* Hotels on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Currently semi-retired, Kimberly still works as the Marketing Director for Byblos Resort & Casino and Hotel Makanda by the Sea.
Lisa Tirmenstein email@example.com.