The Attack on Monterey – Meet the Argentine Privateer Who Captured Spain’s California Capital

How did a French born privateer in the service of Argentina end up capturing the Spanish capital of California? MHN contributor George Yagi explains.

How did a veteran of Napoleon’s army end up seizing the Spanish capital of California? MHN contributor George Yagi Jr. explains.

“Rather than being immortalized as a champion of freedom and liberty, Bouchard is remembered in California as a pirate.”

 By George Yagi Jr.

AS THE AGE of revolution swept across 19th Century Latin America, and Spain’s once vast overseas empire collapsed in turmoil, an Argentine privateer sought to carry the struggle for independence far beyond the borders of his adopted homeland.

Hipólito Bouchard. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Hipólito Bouchard. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Originally born in France on Jan. 15, 1780, Hipólito Bouchard was a revolutionary at heart, having served in Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign and later accompanying French forces fighting in Haiti. For some unknown reason, he left Bonaparte’s army at the height of victory and appeared around Buenos Aires in 1810. Shortly after his arrival, Bouchard joined the revolutionaries and found himself doing battle with his former adversaries: the Spanish. After enjoying some success at sea, in 1818 Bouchard embarked on his most audacious adventure yet. The 38-year-old mariner planned a circumnavigation that would see his ship, La Argentina, strike Spanish shipping off the Philippines. However, during his blockade of Manila, instead of seizing enemy treasure galleons, Bouchard could only find sixteen fishing vessels. While sailing for home in disgrace, the expedition stopped in Hawaii to allow his forces to rest. On landing, Bouchard immediately recovered an Argentine ship from mutineers, the Santa Rosa, and also met an Englishman named Peter Corney who revealed details about Spain’s provincial capital in California, Monterey.  Believing that glory, plunder and the prospect of sowing rebellion awaited him at the remote outpost, Bouchard set sail for the American west coast.

Unfortunately for the Argentine privateer, the settlement would not be the push-over he imagined. Although vastly outnumbered, the Spanish defenders at Monterey would offer determined resistance to prevent the seizure of the distant colony.

The far-flung Spanish outpost at Monterey, California as it looked in 1818. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The far-flung Spanish outpost of Monterey, California as it appeared in 1818. (Image source: WikiCommons)

At the time of invasion, California boasted a meager military presence. Spread across four presidios, twenty missions, and three pueblos were a total combined force of 410 men. Although the Royal Presidio of Monterey officially maintained a garrison of 90 men for the defense of the capital, Governor Pablo Vicente de Solá could only rely on a force of 65 soldiers. The rest were scattered among various missions and outposts assigned to the presidio. Aware of the danger posed by Argentina as early as 1816, Solá ordered that each mission provide him with 15 to 20 vaqueros or cowboys from among the Mission Indians in an attempt to bolster his troops. In 1818, although Solá could expect some reinforcements, repelling the invaders would prove a daunting task as the combined crews of Bouchard’s ships, La Argentina and the Santa Rosa, numbered 360 sailors. In addition, the Argentines carried an armament of 52 cannon of various sizes.

Spanish authorities called on Vaqueros or local cowboys to help the colony fight off what they considered to be Argentine pirates.

Spanish authorities called on local vaqueros or cowboys to help the colony fight off what they considered to be Argentine pirates.

Despite the shortfall in manpower, Solá enjoyed the major advantage of knowing that the privateers were coming. On Oct. 8 1818, a messenger arrived in Monterey with intelligence from the commandant of Santa Barbara, José de la Guerra y Noriega. An American captain, Henry Gyzelaar, had arrived at the port from Hawaii with news that two ships under Bouchard intended to strike the province. Armed with this vital information, Solá prepared his men. Six weeks later, two suspicious ships appeared on the horizon. Solá described the event:

On the 20th of November, the lookout, who is always on duty at Point Pinos, reported sighting two vessels. I immediately issued orders to all the neighbors and militiamen from six leagues around to gather at the battery site. This has been my custom since I took command of this province. With the Presidio Company troops and four veteran artillerymen I gathered forty men in total. Twenty-five were from the Presidio Company, four were the artillery men, and eleven were militiamen.

In an attempt to fool the Spanish, Corney sailed into the bay at midnight and answered questions from shore only in English. Although the Spaniards could not understand, the ruse did not work. Early the next day, Corney observed: “Before morning they had the battery manned, and seemed quite busy.” Realizing they knew his identity, Corney hoisted the colors of the Provincias Unidas and opened fire.

Bouchard's ships exchange fire with Spanish coastal batteries off Monterey, California.

Bouchard’s ships exchange fire with Spanish coastal batteries off Monterey, California.

Despite being vastly outmanned and outgunned, the Spanish brought Argentine operations to a halt. With two batteries at work, El Castillo and El Mentidero, which maintained only nine cannon, the attackers suffered tremendously. Antonio María Osio recorded:

As soon as the next day’s light allowed the captain of the anchored frigate to make out the objects at which he wanted to aim, he opened fire on the principal homes of the presidio. But at the same time, he began to receive hits on his waterline from El Mentidero. After each hit, so much water would pour into his vessel that within a few minutes the pumps could not empty even half of the water that was entering. Señor [José de Jesús] Vallejo’s cannon, positioned at a distance of less than a rifle shot away from the frigate, was protected only by a barricade of loose earth and branches, which absorbed or deflected the enemy shots. Fortunately, no shots penetrated the embrasure, so Vallejo’s cannon could fire without being hit or wasting one cannonball in its constant and accurate volley. The crew of the frigate did not have time to patch the holes that were being made so quickly, and they began to cry out that they were in danger. They loudly proclaimed their surrender and begged that the shore battery cease fire for the sake of God and his heavenly court.

Bouchard watched the scene in horror from the deck of his vessel.

“After seven rounds of fire I saw with disgust our flag being lowered and people escaping in boats toward my ship,” he later recalled.

Because of a shortage of both cannons and boats, the Spanish were unable to destroy or seize the ship after the surrender; it was later retrieved by the Argentines, despite the governor’s demand of payment for the vessel. Meanwhile, Bouchard sent a message to Solá demanding the surrender of the entire province. The action cost the Argentines five dead, while the Spanish suffered no casualties.

Despite a spirited defense, the following day the capital fell. Angered by the previous afternoon’s events, Bouchard landed a force of 200 men and advanced on the batteries, which were captured without opposition. Following a brief exchange of fire at the presidio, the Spaniards fled. When the Argentines entered the complex, they found it abandoned by both soldiers and civilians, with the exception of a local drunk named Molina, who was immediately taken prisoner. With the flag of the Provincias Unidas flying overhead, Monterey was officially under enemy occupation. Meanwhile, the Argentines began pillaging the settlement, taking what few valuables they could find, and killing all the animals. Bouchard sent a message to Solá demanding the return of three men captured the day before. If they were not released within three days, Bouchard threatened to burn the town. Solá refused, and with the exception of the Royal Presidio Chapel, the settlement was razed.

While Bouchard is remembered today by Californians as a pirate, in his adoptive homeland of Argentina, the French mariner is considered a national hero. (Image source: WikiCommons)

While Bouchard is remembered today by Californians as a pirate, in his adopted homeland of Argentina, the French mariner is considered a national hero. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Although Monterey had fallen, Solá preserved his forces to fight another day. Bouchard would descend upon other settlements along California’s coast before returning to Argentina, but was unable to seize the province so long as the Spanish military remained intact and shadowed his ships as they made their passage south. Adding further disappointment to the privateer, no oppressed masses existed to fan the flames of revolution that had swept through other regions of Latin America. The colony remained loyal to Spain. As a result, rather than being immortalized as a champion of freedom and liberty, Bouchard is remembered in California as a pirate instead.

41wMdoGz4kL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Dr. George Yagi Jr. is a historian at California’s University of the Pacific. His latest book, The Struggle for North America, 1754-1758: Britannia’s Tarnished Laurels, explores Britain’s years of defeat during the Seven Years’ War. Follow him on Twitter @gyagi_jr

3 comments for “The Attack on Monterey – Meet the Argentine Privateer Who Captured Spain’s California Capital

  1. 5 September, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    That was a fun read for me. Like most folks who live in a historical area, I never really took notice of my hometown of Monterey and its history (other than its fishery). Funny that I live within 5 miles of where this action took place. Thanks again for the info.

    • 5 September, 2016 at 5:52 pm

      Thanks for the feedback. George Yagi always comes up with great story ideas.

  2. 7 December, 2016 at 7:27 pm

    Lieutenant Colonel Bouchard obtained the Argentine corsair patent that authorized him to prey on Spanish commerce, the countries of Spain and the United Provinces ( Being like California, a former Spanish colony) being in a state of war at the time.
    The United Provinces of the River Plate provided support to the local patriots against the local royalists. A hawaiian crew raised the Argentine flag that flown over the town for six days.

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