This is a post in our series On Culture and Currency: History Lessons in the Palms of our Hands.
While Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, it is barely half the size of Oregon, my home state. My concept of country size has been challenged many times, including when I unknowingly befriended the godson of the Vice President of Nicaragua. What Nicaragua lacks in geographical presence it makes up for in a plucky, underdog spirit that is woven into its historical narrative. Two such examples are displayed on the (fittingly) smallest bill: 10 Córdobas.
Nowhere is the David vs. Goliath motif* so explicitly portrayed as the Battle at San Jacinto. One of the many military skirmishes between the Nicaraguans and forces led by the filibuster (and all-around jerk) William Walker took place at the San Jacinto Ranch on September 14th, 1856. Outnumbered two to one, it looked as if the Nicaraguans were doomed. Running out of ammunition, a desperate move by Sergeant Andrés Castro proved to be a turning point in the battle. Facing down a filibuster in a wooden corral, he picked up a rock and hurled it straight at the head of his opponent, killing him instantly. This moment is immortalized in many sculptures and paintings that can be seen throughout Nicaragua.
Built by the Spanish in 1675 to defend against pirates on a strategic stretch of the Rio San Juan, Emily and I had the pleasure of visiting this fortress in the quaint town of present-day El Castillo. While visiting the little museum at the ruins, I was captivated by the story of Rafaela Herrera. In July of 1762, a British-led force attacked the fortress. Jose Herrera, the commander of the fortress, and father of then 19-year-old Rafaela, died of illness mere days before the attack. Outnumbered 200 to 1, Rafaela’s bravery and ingenuity proved to be a galvanizing force for the defenders of the fortress. After a heavy day of fighting, Herrera ordered the forces to soak sheets in alcohol, float them down the river on branches towards the British ships, and set them on fire. Startled by the bizarre tactic (and allegedly fearing something supernatural was at play), the forces retreated, and the defenders won the “Battle for the Rio San Juan of Nicaragua”. Apparently, Rafaela Herrera herself was portrayed on a commemorative five Córdoba bill in the 1990s.
*For more great David and Goliath-type stories from Nicaraguan history check out this post by fellow Nicaragua Peace Corps Volunteer, John Kotula.