“Known as Guerra de los pasteles to the Mexicans or Guerre des Pâtisseries to the French, the origins of the little-known 1838 dust-up go back to the previous decade.”
IF ANY NATION in the world would pick a fight on another country over pastries it would have to be France. And that’s just what happened in 1838 when the French and Mexico descended into a five-month conflict in what went down in history as The Pastry War.
Known as Guerra de los pasteles to the Mexicans or Guerre des Pâtisseries to the French, the war arose as a by-product of an internal power struggle between the Mexican president Manuel Gomez Pedraza and a political rival Lorenzo de Zavala, who at the time was governor of the state of Mexico.
Pre-Heating the Oven
The origins of the little-known dust-up go back to the previous decade, when the president tried to remove Zevala from power, the governor and his political ally, the redoubtable General Antonio López de Santa Anna assumed command of the garrison in Mexico City and overthrew Pedraza. Amid the chaos of the 1828 rebellion, mobs of soldiers looted homes and businesses throughout the city. One of the victims was a French national and pastry shop owner by the name of Remontel. Ruined, the businessman did what most entrepreneurs would do today: he applied for government compensation to recoup his losses. After 10 years of having his requests flatly ignored by the Mexican regime, a frustrated Remontel took his case to the government of France.
Surprisingly, Paris took up the chef’s cause and pressed Mexico to pay 600,000 pesos as reparations – a ridiculously high sum of money for a damaged pastry shop. Paris also used the occasion to demand Mexico repay millions of dollars worth of outstanding loans.
Still reeling from years of political and social instability, cash-strapped Mexico reneged on the loans and rebuffed the call for reparations. France responded by sending a fleet of warships to collect on both scores.
By November 1838, the French flotilla, under the command of a Napoleonic naval hero named Admiral Charles Baudin, handily blockaded Mexico’s coastline grinding the struggling country’s commerce to a halt. The French also bombarded the fortress at San Juan de Ulúa and seized the entire Mexican fleet, which was anchored at Vera Cruz. Mexico responded by declaring war on France in December.
Mexico Brought to Heel
With its navy in enemy hands and its ports closed to merchant traffic, Mexican smugglers tried to move goods into Texas ports and then transport them overland into the country itself. In cooperation with the French, the Republic of Texas put armed vessels to sea to intercept the smugglers. Even an American warship, the USS Woodbury, joined the blockade.
Desperate to do something to salvage its flagging national honour, Mexico enlisted the aid of the disgraced General Santa Anna.
In 1838, the general was living in obscurity near the port of Vera Cruz after his humiliating capture and exile following his post-Alamo defeat at the Battle of San Jacinto just two years earlier. Sensing the opportunity for a comeback, Santa Anna gathered what troops he could muster and led a small force against the French who were holding the port city.
Sanata Anna’s Comeback
Although the Mexicans were soundly thrashed in the ensuing engagement, the attack itself was still celebrated throughout the country. Even the disgraced Santa Anna won laurels for his role in the ill-fated assault. The self-styled Napoleon of the West was sprayed with grape shot while personally leading his men in the attack and subsequently lost a leg. His sacrifice (coupled with a follow-up PR blitz to rebuild his reputation) catapulted the has-been general back onto the national spotlight.
By the spring, with its economy in tatters, Mexico finally accepted the advice of its ally Great Britain and sued France for peace promising to pay the 600,000 pesos. By March of 1839, France lifted the blockade.
The French suffered only eight casualties during the five-month conflict. Mexico lost little more than 200 troops.
It would not be the last time France and Mexico would fight. From 1861 to 1866 a French expeditionary force waged a bloody conquest of Mexico, once again over unpaid debts. Following its victories in that war, Paris installed an Austrian to the throne of Mexico. Maximilian I was named Emperor of Mexico in 1864 but would be captured and executed by republican forces in 1867.
The 1838 to 1839 Pastry War wasn’t the end of Santa Ana. The one-legged general would lead Mexican troops in the war with the United States from 1846 to 1848. During that conflict Santa Anna lost the artificial leg he’d been using since the Battle of Vera Cruz. The prosthetic limb, which was made of cork, was captured by American soldiers and sent back to the States as a trophy of war. It is currently on display in the Illinois State Military Museum. Mexico has repeatedly asked that it be repatriated.
(Originally published on July 22, 2012)