September 25, 2008


Tycoon’s War: How Cornelius Vanderbilt Invaded a Country to Overthrow America’s Most Famous Military Adventurer. By Stephen Dando-Collins. Da Capo. $26.

Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt. By Joyce Tyldesley. Basic Books. $27.50.

     The name of Vanderbilt resounds even today in the United States as a symbol of great wealth, great ruthlessness – and higher education, at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. But in Central America, the American name that continues to resound – and in a resoundingly negative way – is that of William Walker, an opportunistic empire-builder who became president of Nicaragua and whose eventual defeat is celebrated in that country, in Costa Rica and indeed throughout the region. Walker, killed by firing squad in Honduras in 1860 at the age of 36, had grandiose dreams of establishing a Central American empire with himself at its head, and successfully fomented a series of revolutions by becoming the man considered by the people of the region to be the king of the filibusteros. That term – “filibuster” in English – did not have the purely political connotation in the 1850s that it has today. It referred to would-be foreign colonizers who brought their weapons and their ideals to Mexico and Cuba. Walker hated the term, but it fit him very well indeed. And Walker was above all a man of expediency, most notably in his avowed support for returning slavery to Nicaragua (which had previously abolished it) so he could gain the backing of moneyed Southern interests from the U.S. Walker appears not actually to have supported slavery – he did not seem to care much one way or the other – but if backing it got him the money and power he wanted, so be it. The same was true of his maneuvering to take control of the Accessory Transit Authority in Nicaragua – a feat he accomplished at the expense of Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the most ruthless of all American plutocrats and perhaps the most averse to losing anything. Ever. Vanderbilt took Walker’s actions personally, even though Walker surely did not intend them that way, and set in motion a series of events that eventually led to Walker’s overthrow and defeat. This complex and fascinating story is told by Australian historian Stephen Dando-Collins in Tycoon’s War with all the verve of a novelist writing a book that will one day become a screenplay – which, come to think of it, is an excellent idea. The dramatically different personalities of the central characters, the ways they deputized numerous characters from the noble to the venal to fulfill their opposed missions, and the tremendously detailed accounts of battles and missives and narrow escapes and amazing (and sometimes amazingly flawed) decision-making, add up to a genuinely thrilling book whose spotlight on the pre-Civil War United States also shines indirectly on later U.S. colonial and neocolonial adventures, from the Spanish-American War to the war in Iraq. Dando-Collins makes many marvelous connections, one of the most delicious having to do with Vanderbilt University: it was built in Nashville, Walker’s home town, after Walker’s death, and it eventually helped destroy the University of Nashville, from which Walker had graduated. Coincidence or posthumous revenge? Tycoon’s War asks many questions like this, leaving readers with many possible fascinating answers.

     Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt, by British Egyptologist and professor Joyce Tyldesley, aims for a similar balance of history, personality and excitement, but does not quite attain it. The style is a reason: “Egypt was a land trembling on the brink. Perhaps Caesar calculated [after arriving in pursuit of Pompey] that increased stability would bring increased wealth, and that increased wealth would allow increased taxation. Perhaps he understood that a grateful Egyptian king and/or queen might be of some use to him in the future. Perhaps he was simply bored.” This mixture of cliché (“trembling on the brink”) and speculation (“simply bored”) continues throughout the book and belies its solid scholarship. There are also some irritating misspellings, such as “grizzly” when what is meant is “grisly.” Still, Tyldesley’s book gets a (+++) rating for its effective portrayal of Cleopatra as anything but the hyperemotional femme fatale she later became on stage and screen. That image comes from writings about Cleopatra by the Romans, to whom she was an enemy. Tyldesley instead gives us a calculating and rather cold Cleopatra, aware that her body and her liaisons could be powerful weapons to keep Rome at bay and arrest the decline of Egypt as a major power. At this she failed, but Tyldesley is less concerned with that incontrovertible historical fact than with redeeming Cleopatra as an intelligent, politically skilled and rather duplicitous woman (duplicity being, then as now, often a useful skill in politicians). Cleopatra’s capture and death ushered in the glory of Imperial Rome, Tyldesley argues, as Octavian (who became Augustus Caesar) “claimed Egypt as his own personal estate” and ended the rule of the Ptolemaic dynasty. This well-sourced book remains highly readable despite some infelicities of style, and provides a portrait of Cleopatra quite different from those with which most people are today familiar – and likely quite closer to historical truth.

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