Its name is better suited to a Musical Comedy than a conflict between Nations and calls up visions of armies bombarding each other with Éclairs, Fruit Tarts, Napoleons and even Strudel. But on April 16, 1838 a French Fleet began the blockade of Mexico’s east coast seaports, launching a war. It was based on a claim that since Mexico had first gained its independence, various French citizens living there, had lost both lives and property due to actions by Mexicans. In one such incident, a restaurant owned by one Monsieur Remontel either in Puebla or in Tacubaya – reports of its location vary – had suffered an assault on its supply of pastry valued at 60,000 pesos. He pointed a finger at some inebriated Mexican officials as the criminals. The ambiguity of the restaurant’s location plus the size of the claim seem to cast doubt on the validity of all the French demands. However, this particular one caught the eyes of French journalists who immediately made this incident a cause celebre and dubbed the event “The Pastry War.”
Actually, there was more to this than a raid on a restaurant’s supply of pastry. Mexico had many loans from France and was in default on all of them. The Mexican economy was weak and a constant parade of claimants to the Presidency did little to assure debtors that payments would resume. The entire matter had been simmering for months. Rather than seek the repayment of the loans that totaled millions, the French now demanded a 600,000-peso indemnity based on the alleged losses of property. Mexico refused to pay, demanding that the blockade be ended before any negotiations could begin. Although the Mexicans had put an army into the field to defend Vera Cruz, lack of funding made significant armed resistance impossible. The French force of 30,000 men was opposed by only approximately 3000 Mexican troops.
Some negotiations were started but Mexico continued to demand an end to the blockade and negotiations failed. By November of 1838 the French had lost patience and began to bombard the Mexican fort of San Juan de Ulna that defended the harbor of Vera Cruz, the principal port of entry for imports. Three days later Mexico declared war on France. Now the French invaded the city. A one-day battle occurred and although the Mexicans enjoyed some early success, in the end they were forced to retreat. It was at this point that the Pastry War left its single significant mark on Mexican history. Although it was a defeat for Mexico, for one man it was a victory.
In 1833 a General, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had seized the Presidency. Almost immediately he had established a pattern of retiring from office in favor of his vice president, returning when he saw fit to do so. In 1836, he led an expedition across the Rio Grande to quell a rebellion that sought independence for Texas, then a part of Mexico. While he had captured the Alamo, he was soon defeated and taken prisoner. Somehow he managed to arrange to meet the American president, Andrew Jackson. Strangely, enroute to Washington, he was greeted as a celebrity by the anti-slavery movement since they viewed the events in Texas as an effort by the slave states to improve their position. Because he was still legally the President of Mexico, Santa Anna managed to secure his freedom by agreeing to recognize the independence of Texas if he were permitted to consult the Mexican Congress. Once again in Mexico, he did not resume the presidency nor consult the Congress but retreated into retirement. Since the revenue from the customs duties that had been cut off by the blockade was the chief source of income for the government, it did not seem a good time to take back the reins of the nearly bankrupt country. Added to this, his negotiations with the Americans that led to the loss of Texas were questionable. For all practical purposes, Santa Anna was politically dead.
Although Gomez Farias, Santa Anna’s vice-president was supposedly in charge of the country during Santa Anna’s foray into Texas, Anastasio Bustamante had been elected president and had appointed a General Rincon to lead the battle against the French. But with the sound of the first French gun, Santa Anna rushed to Vera Cruz and placed himself under Rincon, who accepted him readily. Now Santa Anna recommended a withdrawal from the beleaguered fort and the resumptions of negotiations. At this point Bustamante appointed Santa Anna to take command and attack the French. Attack he did and succeeded in briefly stopping the French landing force. He then sought to seize the pier being used for the landings. At this point a volley of French cannon fire hit Santa Anna and he lost his leg. Forced to retreat from the city, he still claimed a victory. Melodramatically, he issued a statement in which he claimed to have come to his end, begging to be buried on the site to which he had retreated, and asked only to be granted the title of “The Good Mexican.” His limited success in temporarily stopping the French plus the loss of his leg that he later had enshrined in Mexico City, had dramatically rehabilitated him as a hero in the eyes of his fellow citizens. Had it not been for The Pastry War Santa Anna might well have disappeared from the Mexican scene. Now, he was to go on to regain the Presidency and despite periodic retirements and exiles remained the dominant figure in Mexican politics until 1855.
As for the Pastry War itself, the English now intervened and Mexico finally agreed to pay the original 600,000 peso claim in installments. Today, “The Pastry War” has just about disappeared from Mexican history. Many Mexicans know nothing about it. But the fact that it was the vehicle for the return of Santa Anna to power makes it an event that must be noted as a significant turning point in Mexican history.