Between 1823 and 1840, what we know of the countries of Central America was a single country, with the following two exceptions:
- British Honduras (now Belize) has never officially been recognized by Guatemala.
- Panama did not exist as a separate country, but was a part of the Republic of Colombia.
In 1839, a young American by the name of John Lloyd Stephens was appointed by President Martin Van Buren to be a special ambassador to the unified Federal Republic of Central America. The only problem was that, by the time Stephens and his artist companion Frederick Catherwood landed in Central America, the Federal Republic was in the process of splitting apart.
Stephens’s main interest was to visit the Mayan ruins scattered around Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico—but going as a plenipotentiary of the United States was a big plus, especially since the countries of Central America were coming apart like a cheap suit.
I have just finished re-reading Volume i of Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán. The only ruins Stephens and Catherwood were able to visit before presenting their credentials to the government were in Copán, Honduras. Most of the rest of that volume concerns the efforts of the two to find the government, which Stephens does in El Salvador, quite by accident:
The next day I made a formal call upon Señor Vigil [Vice President of the Republic]. I was in a rather awkward position. When I left Guatimala [sic] in search of a government, I did not expect to meet it on the road. In that state I had heard but one side [that of Guatemalan rebel General Carrera]; I was just beginning to hear the other. If there was any government, I had treed it. Was it the real thing or was it not? In Guatimala they said it was not; here they said it was. It was a knotty question. I was in no great favor in Guatimala, and in endeavouring to play a safe game I ran the risk of being hustled by all parties. In Guatimala they had no right to ask for my credentials, and took offence because I did not present them; here, if I refused, they had the right to consider it an insult.
As I read Stephens, I was reminded of how great some of the 19th century U.S. historians were. Not only Stephens, but also William H. Prescott (History of the Conquest of Mexico), Francis Parkman (the volumes of France and England in North America), and John Lothrop Motley (The Rise of the Dutch Republic). They are unfortunately not read much today, but I am convinced they are, in their own field, among the lights of 19th century American literature.