The Pastry War: How a French Bakery Caused a War in Mexico

In 1838, in what may be the silliest war in history, France invaded Mexico–all because of a French pastry shop.

Bombardement_de_Saint-Jean_d'Ulloa_en_1838_lors_de_l_expedition_contre_le_Mexique

The French bombardment of Veracruz during the Pastry War

After Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1821, there followed years of political unrest and violence. Elections at all levels were fraudulent, governments were corrupt, and rebellions and uprisings followed every election. There were 20 different Presidents in the first 20 years of the Mexican Republic.

In 1828, Mexican President Manuel Gomez Pedraza removed one of the local Governors, Lorenzo de Zavala, from office. Zavala responded by rallying the Army to his side and fighting back–and after several days of street fighting in Mexico City, Zavala and his supporters in the Army removed Pedraza himself from office and replaced him with Vicente Guerrero Saldana, who had lost the election to Pedraza.

During the chaos, a group of Mexican soldiers (no one is sure from which side) ransacked and looted a number of shops in the Parian Marketplace, in Mexico City, including a few restaurants and bakeries. One of them was a pastry shop owned by a French citizen named Remontel. His shop was completely looted, with not a single croissant or macaron remaining.

Remontel first approached officials of the Mexican government, asking them to pay for his losses (which he put at 60,000 pesos–an amount equal to an average workman’s pay for 165 years). The Mexicans thought his figure ridiculous, and flatly refused. After years of wrangling with the Mexican government, in 1838 Remontel went to officials of the French government, asking if they could help. Remarkably, the pastry shop-owner’s request went all the way up to King Louis-Philippe himself. Louis-Philippe rather arbitrarily estimated the losses for all the French citizens whose property had been damaged in the riots, and added in some debts that the Mexican Government still owed the French for the war in Texas–he put the grand total at 600,000 pesos, and demanded that the Mexican government pay up. The Mexican government, under President Anastasio Bustamante, considered the French King’s figure to be outlandishly inflated, and flatly refused.

Louis-Philiipe responded by dispatching a French Navy fleet to Mexico, under Admiral Charles Baudin. Arriving on April 16, 1838, the fleet blockaded the port of Veracruz, shutting off most of Mexico’s foreign trade. Bustamante in turn declared that he wouldn’t pay a single peso until France lifted its blockade. On November 27, after seven months of diplomatic arguments, France upped the ante by bombarding the Mexican fort at San Juan de Ulua at the entrance to Veracruz Harbor, which prompted Mexico to declare war on France. It was a bad move on Bustamante’s part–within days, the French captured the entire Mexican Navy in the harbor, and 30,000 French troops invaded and occupied the city of Veracruz.

It was at this point that General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, of “Alamo” fame, entered the scene. After his loss in Texas, Santa Anna had retired in disgrace to a hacienda just outside Veracruz. But now he saw his chance to make a comeback and, acting without government approval, he organized a small army of his own and charged into battle against the French. During the fighting, Santa Anna’s horse was killed by a blast of grapeshot and his leg was severely wounded. When doctors had to amputate the limb, Santa Anna buried it in a showy military ceremony with full honors. Now known as “The Napoleon of the West”, Santa Anna once again became a hero to the Mexicans and re-entered Mexican politics.

The occupation of Veracruz put the Mexican government in an untenable position. The weak Mexican economy was already losing thousands of pesos every day in loss of trade from the blockade, and now it also faced the expenses of rebuilding the occupied city. Bustamante approached the British government to act as a negotiator, and in November the deal was reached; Mexico would pay the 600,000 pesos demanded by France as compensation for damages–including the 60,000 pesos for Remontel’s bakery shop.  The “Pastry War” ended, and the French forces left Mexico on March 9, 1839, and sailed for home.

The aftermath of the Pastry War left Mexico economically shattered and militarily weak. Santa Anna established himself as the dictatorial President of Mexico (he went so far as to dig up his severed leg, bring it to Mexico City and bury it again in an elaborate state ceremony). The chaos in Mexico gave the expansionist US, eager to gain more territory in the west, the excuse it needed to invade Mexico in 1846 and seize literally half of its territory for itself. By 1860, Mexico was again in debt to France, and in 1864, the French invaded again, this time conquering the country and installing an Austrian Prince as Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico. Maximilian was subsequently overthrown by a revolution and executed in 1867. The resulting decades of political instability provoked US troops to enter Mexico again in 1916.

All because a group of Mexican soldiers looted a French pastry shop.

 

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