While most of the leaders of Mexico’s War of Independence were Mexican-born creoles, an exception was Francisco Javier Mina, whose name today appears on street signs and monuments throughout Mexico. Like Burke, Fox and Paine, Mina was a citizen of the mother country who deeply felt the pain inflicted on its colonists.
Appropriately for a revolutionary, Mina was born in 1789, the year the Bastille fell. His birthplace was Otano, a village in the northern Spanish province of Navarre. Like so many future revolutionaries — Danton and Robespierre come to mind — Mina was originally trained as a lawyer. As a teenager he went to study law in the Navarrese capital of Pamplona.
When Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808, Mina made a rapid transition from lawyer to soldier. Taking to the hills, he resisted the Napoleonic forces as a guerrilla. The French were eventually driven out of Spain but what happened next drove Mina even further into rebellion. During the French occupation, Mina was fighting to unseat Joseph Bonaparte, who had been placed on the Spanish throne by his brother. Of the Bourbon monarchs who had ruled Spain since 1700, some, like Charles III, were quite progressive. But Ferdinand VII — forced by Napoleon to abdicate in favor of Joseph Bonaparte and then restored after Napoleon’s defeat — was an arch reactionary who loathed the doctrines of the Enlightenment and supported the Inquisition.
Ferdinand, who was reinstated in 1814, detested young liberals like Mina and had them mercilessly hunted down. Fearing for his life, Mina left Spain and sought refuge first in France and then in England. By now determined to resist Spanish absolutism wherever he could, he decided that the best place to play an active role was in Mexico, where an armed struggle was actually in progress. In 1816 he left for the United States to organize an expedition that would aid the Mexicans in their struggle for independence.
By early spring of 1817 Mina had assembled an invasion force consisting of three ships and over 300 men. Departing from New Orleans, he stopped briefly in Haiti to take on additional supplies. Mina and his men debarked in Mexico on April 15, at Soto la Marina on the Gulf coast, near what is today the port of Tampico.
In the village of Horcasitas, the invaders seized 700 horses that had been earmarked for the royalists. The liberators first went into combat on June 8 at Valle del Maiz, where they defeated a Spanish force under a Captain Villaseñor. June 14 they arrived at Hacienda de Postillos, on the road to San Luis Potosí. The next day Mina won his most impressive victory, defeating a Spanish formation that outnumbered him six to one. But it was a costly victory. With 60 casualties, Mina’s band was now down to 240 men.
The picture improved on June 24. Entering a fort called El Sombrero, he found it occupied by fellow rebels. Teaming up with his new allies, he smashed a Spanish detachment under General Ordoñez, leaving his foe lifeless on the battlefield. On July 7 the combined force fell on Hacienda del Jaral, seizing supplies and 1,400,000 pesos in cash.
Moving deeper into the Mexican hinterland, Mina met his initial defeat when he failed to capture León. Realizing what a dangerous opponent they were up against, the royal government put one of its top commanders, Marshal Liñan, into the field against him with 2,500 men and 14 cannons. After failing to take León, Mina entrenched himself at a nearby strongpoint called El Sombrero. Though an August 4 attack on the fort was hurled back, the Spaniards blocked an attempt on Mina’s part to exit the El Sombrero fort in search of fresh supplies.
Between August and October Mina gave the enemy no rest. His operational area was the León-Silao region, the geographical center of Mexico. Though greatly outnumbered, he caused the royalists to divert troops from other areas where they were desperately needed.
Mina’s brief but meteoric career in the Independence War came to an end when he was hemmed in between two royalist armies at Hacienda de la Caja, between San Luis Potosí and Guanajuato. Managing to escape the trap, he took refuge October 26 at a ranch called Venadito. Captured the following day, he was brought to Marshal Liñan’s headquarters and put before a firing squad. At the time of his death, he was only 29.
Mina’s audacious incursion was a tactical failure but a strategic success, By weakening their forces to cope with the daring young invader, the royalists set events in motion that would lead to their eventual defeat and to Mexico’s independence.
Francisco Javier Mina and Thomas Paine both fought a valiant struggle against colonial oppression — one with the sword and the other with the pen. And they had something else in common. Where Burke, Fox and others were content to sympathize with a struggle for freedom from afar, Mina and Paine got into the trenches and fought the oppressor mano a mano.