18 August 2022

The Pastry War


 Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Strong nation seizes on a historically unremarkable event as an excuse for a war declaration on a weaker nation, with the actual intent of bullying the weaker nation into agreeing to a political/economic settlement advantageous to the strong nation.

"Sure," you say. "History is rife with these sorts of examples. Take the Opium wars between Great Britain and China, as just one such example."

Good example, however, the one I'll be writing about during this week's turn with the blog took place in the Western Hemisphere.

"Well," I hear you say, "The United States intervened throughout the Caribbean islands, Central and South America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries."

I'm thinking of one such intervention that took place further north and west. And earlier.

"Oh," you think. "Mexico. The Mexican-American War?"

Mexico is definitely involved, but this was even earlier.

And the inciting event, according to the bully nation in this instance, was the vandalism of a pastry shop. If we're thinking in stereotypes, which county do you think most likely to get all worked up over pastry?

You read right. Pastry.

Stuff like this.

Now I hear what you're thinking? Can't be, right? Which country has elevated the making of pastry into high art? Why, France, of course.

Yep. We're definitely talking about France. The simple (and by "simple," I mean, "In no way, shape or form, 'Complete.'") answer is that the French government actually started a shooting war over a pastry shop.

A French pastry shop.

Obviously not the French pastry chef in question.

Owned and operated by a French citizen.

In a nice suburb of Mexico City.

Here's a quick overview of the rest of the story: after Mexico won her independence from Spain in 1821, the forces which had ousted the Spanish failed to unite behind any one leader for long, and quickly turned on each other. Thus the 1820s and 1830s in Mexico tended to be violent, unsettled times. One of the many results of this state of affairs was the frequent looting of locally owned businesses.

Usually these business owners had little recourse in such situations. Crime was rampant, the central government hopelessly corrupt and weakened by factionalism, and in no position to either crack down on rioters and looters, political or otherwise, or to make meaningful compensation to those whose businesses suffered as a result of these frequent outbursts of public violence.

One such victim of one such riot was a French citizen whose family name has come down to us, unaccompanied by a first name. This "Monsieur Remontel" cited an 1828 riot in the fashionable "Parian Marketplace," which occupied a bustling corner of the tony Mexico City suburb of Tacubaya, at that time a getaway playground for Mexico's richest where they could escape the heat and dust of neighboring Mexico City.

In Monsieur Remontel's complaint requesting compensation from the Mexican government for damage done to his pastry shop during the Parian Marketplace Riot, he was quick to point that the rioters who trashed his shop were in fact Mexican Army officers in uniform. And only had these officers destroyed Remontel's property, they had eaten ALL of the unfortunate man's pastries!

Remontel's shop was valued at roughly 1,000 pesos. He insisted on being compensated to the tune of 60,000 pesos.

Not surprisingly Remontel's efforts went exactly nowhere with the Mexican government, and so he turned in frustration to the French government. He submitted the same outlandish number (60,000 pesos) to the government of King Louis-Philippe. And in this, Remontel had company. Plenty of French citizens had advanced claims against the Mexican government in the years since 1821.

So the French started throwing their weight around. Their ambassador got laughed out of the Mexican legislature when he presented his government's demands for compensation. French newspapers took up the drum beat demanding satisfaction, and Remontel's little pastry shop captured the country's imagination. In no time at all the French navy was blockading Mexico's busiest port, Vera Cruz.

Of course there was more to the French aggression than merely seeking reparations. France wanted economic concessions.

During the years since Mexico won independence, the French had built a robust trade with the country, coming in third behind only the United States and Great Britain. Unlike the other two, though the French still paid taxes on both imports and exports moving through Mexico's ports.

During the next year the French navy seized dozens of merchant vessels attempting to leave or enter Vera Cruz, bombarded and eventually took the massive fort defending the harbor, and did immense damage to the already teetering Mexican economy. Add in that the war the French termed the Guerre des P√Ętisseries and the Mexicans called the Guerra de los pasteles gave the eternally troublesome General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (of "Alamo" infamy) the opportunity to get back into the national spotlight, losing a leg in battle with the French, and giving him a platform to make more mischief in pursuit of his never-waning ambition.

In 1839 the British (who, along with the Americans were losing money because of the on-going French blockade) succeeded in negotiating an end to the hostilities. In exchange for an end to the blockade, Mexico agreed to compensate French citizens (including the much aggrieved Remontel) to the tune of 600,000 pesos, and to lower taxes on French trade.

With the ink still dry on the treaty, the Mexican government once again fell, and the one that replaced it reneged on the promised payment, as did every succeeding government for the next two decades.

With the United States consumed by its own civil war, the French saw an opportunity to collect on this war debt, and used it as a pretext to invade Mexico again, this time conquering the country and installing an Austrian nobleman as the puppet "emperor" of Mexico. This "empire" lasted (at considerable expense to the French government) until the recovered United States threatened an invasion in support of the ousted Mexican government in 1867, and the French withdrew, with little to show for their second intervention in Mexico.

And on top of all of that, Monsieur Remontel never saw a single peso of his much-longed for compensation.

And that's it for me this time. See you in two weeks!

13 comments:

  1. Basic 1800's rules of invasion: "When invading, make sure that the government will last long enough to BE deposed."

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    1. A maxim the US followed every time it intervened in Latin America over the next century or so, for sure!

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  2. Interesting events. Thanks, Brian. We often overlook the history of our southern neighbor and how they affect our own history.

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    1. Agreed, R.T., and Mexican history is so fascinating! And there's so much of it! Just the written record itself goes back a full hundred years before those of even the earliest colonies in what is now the U.S. Mexican colonial history did so much to set up the chaos that followed Mexican independence, and the decade after independence was achieved in 1821 reads like something out of "Game of Thrones," only with guns to go along with the swords and lances (although there were still plenty of those to go around!).

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  3. Been trying to comment on this one all day. Finally was able by using the Brave browser. Ever hear of it? Hope this goes through. Interesting post. I read an excellent novel about the Mexican War by Jeff Shaara – Gone for Soldiers (2000).

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    1. Yes, O'Neil, I have. Brave is supposed to be more secure than most browsers. Could be wrong, but I think it's built on the Mozilla foundation.

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    2. Hi O’Neil the only Shaara book I’ve read was THE KILLER ANGELS, about the battle of Gettysburg, and I think that was by his father. Two great nonfiction historical sources on the Mexican War-one a classic, the other the result of recent scholarship, are SO FAR FROM GOD by John S. D. Eisenhower (son of the president and a retired general in his own right) and A WICKED WAR by Amy S. Greenberg. Both worth a look!

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    3. Hey O'Neil - the "Anonymous" response to you was from me. Not sure why it read as "Anonymous"!

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  4. Fascinating. Next time you should cover the Pig War!

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    1. Maybe you should cover it, Rob? You're closer to the actual "battlefields," after all. ;)

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  5. The Pig War is one of my favorites!

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    1. Okay so it sounds to me like Eve is down to do a post on The Pig War!

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  6. I was vaguely aware of Napoleon III's adventuring in Mexico, but not pastry uprising… which makes a terrible pun.

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