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by Ernie Merlos
The decades following the independence of Mexico in 1821 proved to be turbulent both economically and politically for Mexico. During this time Mexico was under constant rebellion from rising army officers and factions that led to civil disorder. Politically, Mexico’s presidency was turning over rapidly by power hungry men utilizing the presidency for their benefits. Domestically, Mexico needed stability that would necessitate defending and keeping their northern border and controlling their economy. Internationally there were many threats challenging the young Mexico. The United States of America and the Republic of Texas were in conflict with Mexico over territory and borders. Also, Mexico’s economy could not support the huge debt it had incurred from many Western European countries.
Throughout the 19th century, the French, like most Western European countries, settled in the Americas as colonists, merchants, and missionaries. The French settled in several areas in Eastern Mexico along the Gulf of Mexico coast. The French King Louis-Philippe had many ties with the Caribbean as well as other Latin American countries. France issued many loans to Mexico, which had turned into a large debt.
During Mexico’s turbulent period of civil unrest many foreigners and non-local residents were amidst this domestic strife. Unfortunately heavy damage and violence were brought upon innocent bystanders, both foreign and local, that harmed people and their possessions. Many innocent people’s businesses and property were destroyed as well. On one such occasion in Puebla, in 1828, a French bakery and shop was destroyed by angry soldiers. The irate baker demanded to be paid for the damages, which he estimated at 60,000 pesos. The Mexican government refused to pay for the compensation. Along with this disaster, Mexico still had an outstanding debt to France. The following turn of events would lead on to start the Mexican-French Pastry War.
Tension had been building up between Mexico and France as Mexico’s debt had drastically increased. When the news of the event of the French bakery got back to King Louis-Philippe, he was infuriated that Mexico gave no compensation. To make matters worse, Mexico stop making payments back to France for its debt. France believed that Mexico owed them near half a million pesos in over due debt. Mexico disagreed stating that it was exaggerated.
In February of 1838, senior French diplomat Baron Beffaudis gave Mexico an ultimatum. He asked for Mexico to pay 600,000 pesos or else they would be in worse terms and suffer severe consequences. Mexico, under Anastasio Bustamante, refused to pay France. France then set up a blockade in April of 1838 covering Mexico’s eastern coastal territory. The blockade covered from the Yucatan to the Rio Grande, including Mexico’s largest port—Veracruz. The blockade hurt Mexico’s economy tremendously. Even up until the 1940’s and 1950’s, Veracruz was the biggest port city for trade and travel. During the 19th century Mexico economy relied heavily on trade. In order to get around the blockade Mexico attempted to ship and receive around and go through Corpus Christi, Texas, then through the Rio Grande, back to Mexico. This detour was too far off route and expensive to make efficient trade.
The United States was integrated in this situation as well. The U.S. was interested in Mexican territory, so the U.S. was willing to abet France in whatever way possible. Several ships used in the blockade were courtesy of the United States including the Woodbury, a schooner rigged revenue cutter named after the United States Senator Levi Woodbury. The Woodbury was also helpful to France in eliminating trade through Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande.
Even after the blockade had been up for several months, France tried to settle and agree with Mexico on their debt and compensation. Bustamente did not want to be involved in any peace talks nor come to an agreement. His pride harmed the national economy and the nation’s well being.
Finally, in November of 1838, the blockade turned into an all out invasion on Veracruz. The small Mexican Navy could not defend and hold the strong French force. As the French invaded Verazcruz Mexico was practically unopposed with only a small Mexican Navy at anchor. Because of Mexico’s national debt no central strong army could be created. The only decent military force thus far in Mexican history was factions or radical armies behind independent generals.
With 30,000 troops, the French were under Commander Charles Baudin. The city of Veracruz was completely destroyed including the fortress of San Juan de Ulúa. The Duke of Wellington proclaimed this victory to be the only known instance in history of a regularly fortified citadel’s being taken solely by naval force. Baudin was praised in France for his achievements.
San Juan de Ulúa was a fortress that sat at the mouth of the port of Veracruz. It had been important to Veracruz because it was implemented in several successful defensives in Mexican history. When the French destroyed the fort, it was a huge devastation to Mexican pride. The remains still stand today and are a national landmark.
Three days after Veracruz had been bombarded, Mexico declared war. Because of the lack of military, no strong opposition could fight back against the French offensive. Within three weeks Veracruz had fallen and the French took the area over.
Antonio López de Santa Anna , the infamous generalissimo heard of the situation in Veracruz and quickly went to Veracruz with no higher authority. Fortunately Santa Anna found interest in the Veracruz situation. Santa Anna military career was extremely fickle with respect to taking sides, but his military intelligence and logistics were superior for his time. Santa Anna and his troops were Mexico’s only hope in saving and reclaiming the city.
Unfortunately for Mexico, Santa Anna and his troops were no match for the established French force. The Mexican troops could not claim Veracruz and half were injured or killed in battle. As Santa Anna and his troops were fleeing the city, an amphibious attacker hit Santa Anna’s leg, which had to be amputated. Many say that Santa Ana losing his leg was good because it was the only way to keep him into permanent retirement. Santa Anna became a national hero for his continuing perseverance.
After Santa Anna and his troops had left, the French were willing to leave stating that they received satisfaction, but they would not leave until they received payment, including compensation for the blockade. Finally in 1839, Mexico agreed to pay the French 600,00 pesos for damages. Along with mediation from Great Britain, Mexico and France resolved the conflict with two treaties.
Although the Pastry War was not a victory for Mexico, many Mexicans believe it was an important positive milestone in Mexican history. It was a time that Mexicans united in battle for the common good of the country and its autonomy. It was a big step in the process for unifying Mexico. It showed that Mexico could handle this dispute while fighting many other struggles at the same time. As the Pastry War was occurring, plenty of other conflicts were going on in land. Many political movements and forces tried to gain power. In the capital, Bustamente was busy with uniting the country as well as fighting off federalist, centralist and their movements.
Warner, Michael S. Concise Encyclopedia of Mexico. Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers. Chicago. 2001
Will Fowler Tornel and Santa Anna: The Writer and the Caudillo, Mexico, 1795–1853. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000