The Mexican Expedition of 1861.
The long war of Mexican independence had left the country in a greatly fragile state. Teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, with a large army to pay, her once lucrative trade revenues dropped dramatically in the years that followed the expulsion of the Spanish. Sinking into an economic depression, rife with faction, alone and vulnerable with no allies to ensure her independence, Mexico decided to attempt to gain European interest by applying to one of the great powers for a loan. They, in response, were pleased to open the account.
Unfortunately, this did not take into account Mexico’s instability. The country had no taxation system to speak of and despite successive regimes promising reparation, continual strife meant that what money could be gathered got spent on internal matters. Mexico’s debts rose and foreign merchants and Mexican Citizens lost property and money as opposing forces sought cash to pay their troops. It got so bad that repayment of the Mexican debt proved to be a political topic of great discussion in Britain, France and Spain during 1861.
British representatives in Mexico had been working hard to try and achieve some kind of workable plan with multiple treaties being signed between 1842 and 1851 but to no avail. Mexico was consistently unable to raise the money. Calls for troops to be deployed to intervene in Mexico’s domestic problems and restore order were ignored. Although the British government was interested in the welfare of the country and wanted to see a stable government implemented, which was in the best interests of everyone. No one in parliament wished to make Mexico a protectorate or fight a costly war of intervention.
Britain’s Western relations were tense in the 1860s. There had been two war scares with the United States between 1859 and 1861. Once during a boundary dispute on the Canadian border, known as the “Pig War” and another when the U.S. Navy illegally seized Confederate diplomats sailing on RMS Trent. Both times cool heads had prevailed but on the wider stage Whitehall was disinterested in further large scale colonial adventures. Britain had only just got out of a conflict in China, and there were similar calls to protect British interests in Japan and New Zealand. A war without a firm goal in a country as destabilised as Mexico was not on the cards.
Between the loss of Texas and the year 1850 the Mexican nation went through a period of violent turmoil and anarchy. A series of revolutions and counter revolutions had wrecked the already fragile economy. Then in 1846 the disastrous American war, which ended in 1848, saw a chunk of territory comparable to the size of Western Europe, including gold-rich California, lost to the United States. Not unsurprisingly a civil war then followed, between Liberal Republicans and the Church conservatives, known as the “Guerra Reforma”.
On 1 January 1861, (the Liberal side having won the war) Benito Juarez, a 54 year old country bred Zapotec lawyer from Oaxaca became president of Mexico. After removing his enemies from positions of power, including sending the Spanish ambassador packing, his response to the debt crisis was to call a moratorium. The pending payments, now amounted to some $80 Million, parcelled out between Swiss banking houses, Spain, France and Britain. Britain making up the main injured party with unpaid bonds and damages valued in excess of £69 Million.
In September Spain suspended diplomatirelations in response to the ejection of her representative & urged France and Britain to do likewise. Infuriated Anglo-French representatives, Saligny and Wyck wrote angry letters to Juarez warning that if the moratorium wasn’t lifted then they would break off relations with Mexico. The Spanish went so far as to press Britain to form a coalition that would invade Mexico to obtain redress.
In the United States, President Lincoln, was unsurprisingly jumpy about the idea of European powers messing around South of the border with large armies and fleets. American ambassadors in Mexico City and London were empowered to take action. Thomas Corwin told the Mexicans that the USA would take responsibility for the debt, via a large loan, with the understanding that if reparation was not made in 6 years, all public and mineral lands in Baja California, Chihuahua, Sonora and Sinaloa would be forfeit to the United Stares. In London, ambassador Francis Adams informed Prime Minister Earl Russell that if European powers got embroiled in the Americas, the United States would likewise freely embroil itself in Europe. The British tacitly agreed that an intervention was necessary but also played for time, they told the Spanish to wait and see what the French would do.
The French question was soon to resolve itself. As leader of one of the three principle nations tied up in
Mexico, Napoleon III was watching events closely. The emperor was an adventurer, and all too happy to go galloping off in search of windmills to joust, especially if they furthered his imperial fantasies. After Juarez suspended the debt payment, Napoleon was eager to get involved in Mexico, not just for the money but to create a Mexican monarchy with a French puppet, Saligny wrote encouragingly that 4-5,000 European troops could take the whole country. Napoleon however felt politically insecure without British involvement, as the nation with the largest grievances.
On 31 October 1861 representatives from the three powers signed the London Convention which laid out their intentions to obtain redress from Mexico but firmly asserted that they would not try to take territory or usurp the government. The plan was to occupy Vera Cruz and from there coerce Juarez to pay up, although a coordinated effort was desired, the Spanish sailed from their nearby bases and took the port on January 17 1862. Spanish troops held it alone with 6,500 men, until the other allies arrived. The Mexican army withdrew from the coast at the arrival of the Europeans, who now in total numbered about 12,200 men.
The British force was small compared to her allies. 4 ships of Dunlop’s Squadron, two armed with heavy Armstrong guns and with between 400 and 700 Marines specially selected from the Plymouth Division aboard, backed up by double that number of sailors, who would form large Naval Brigade battalions if necessary. Dunlop’s numbers swelled briefly once they reached the West Indies in January 1862, and then receded back to their starting number. The navy, as the empire’s main trouble shooters in matters of this sort, had been chosen to undertake the operation alone. Once at Vera Cruz the three powers went about seizing the customs house and threatening to invade the interior of the country. The snag was that Dunlop, in conversation with the French admiral Graviere at Havana, had become aware that they were there on different missions.
Both the Spanish under General Prim and the British wanted to reopen negotiations with the Mexicans as quickly as possible. However Graviere insisted that the first objective was to assist the people of Mexico in forming a monarchy. Prime Minister Lord Palmerston had been aware of Napoleon’s crackpot idea to foist the Austrian Archduke Maximilian on the Mexicans, and had warned his representatives to take no part in the scheme unless the Mexican people wished it, and even then to not advance inland unless specifically ordered.
The French were under the opinion that there was a large monarchical party in Mexico and entertained Conservative party members, even though the British were arresting them, causing tension to rise in the European camp. After meeting with the secretary of war, General Zaragoza, and with no clear idea of how to proceed in one accord, the three powers sent their demands on to Mexico City, but yet again the excessive demands of the French derailed the scheme. Mr. Wyke correctly observing to Lord Russell that they were calculated to render acceptance by the Mexican government unacceptable. France was spoiling for a fight. Juarez tried to plead his country’s woeful financial state, and asked that the three powers return their troops to their ships.
There was however a pressing problem due to the buildup of troops and the advancing season. The climate would soon become unhealthy for the Europeans stuck in Vera Cruz, and negations were opened to allow them to move out to higher ground to avoid being decimated by the diseases that would find them on the low lying coastal plain.
In February the Soledad convention agreed on the various towns in which the Europeans could enter, and the limit to which they could advance. The British were still adamant in not advancing inland, while 3,000 French reinforcements drifted in to augment the 5,000 already there and so outnumber the Spanish. The Mexican flag was raised over Vera Cruz and the customs house handed back over. If negations were to break down the Europeans should “return to Go” at Vera Cruz, and 100 men from each nation were to garrison the city. The British contingent likely stationed at the fort of San Juan de Ulloa. It was hoped that the extraneous forces would be sent back to Europe.
However the treaty of Soledad was more an agreement between the three powers than one between them and Mexico and the problem still remained; how to obtain the money from an almost bankrupt nation without provoking a war. The way forward was marred by France’s belligerence and separate agenda. In an attempt to rein them in, Spain and Britain threatened to pull out if the French did not stop fraternising with the conservatives, as it was contrary to the convention of Soledad. They did not stop.
When exiled conservative Minister General Almonte arrived and proclaimed a monarchy. The bemused Wyke and Prim asked what government he was representing in declaring this. Almonte replied that he had the confidence of France, and the last straw broke.
France broke off negotiations with Juarez, Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs, General Doblaño warned the French that a move to overthrow the Republic and impose a monarchy would be strongly resisted, and invited the British and Spanish to discuss matters. Unwilling to back down, on April 16 France declared war on Mexico and urged its citizens to rally to the French tricolour in order to form a stable government.
General Prim and Admiral Dunlop condemned the action most strongly, much to Doblaño’s satisfaction and applause. With France in open violation of the treaty of London and the a Convention of Soledad, Britain and Spain could not justify their presence in Mexico any longer and withdrew. British representative Mr. Wyke however had finally found a temporary solution to the debt problem that had kept 700 marines cooped up for 4 months at Vera Cruz.
He simply managed to get the Mexican Government to agree to sign a convention that promised to begin paying their debt out of the illusionary loan of $11 million offered by the United States. As a result it would be years before the subject of repayment could be once again revisited.
The entire expedition was predicated on the idea that Mexico could pay the debt, or would promise to do so, and would not continue to resist an in the face of an armed intervention. When both of these assumptions proved false the entire thing went belly up, not aided by the less than inspired plan to impose an Austrian archduke, promoted by exiles like Santa Anna, as a resumption of the house of Moctezuma, on a hastily constructed throne propped up by French bayonets.
With the exit of Spain and Britain, Mexico declared war on France. The red trousered French regulars marched into the interior to begin “The Mexican adventure”. A conflict that would see, the early Republican victory at Puebla on Cinco de Mayo 1862, the last stand of the French Foreign Legion at Camerón, Mexico becoming a short lived protectorate of France, and the tragic execution of the reluctant emperor, Maximilian I. But it is nonetheless fascinating to think that in 1861 Britain, of all places, skirted close to an invasion of Mexico.
This post first appeared on the Britannia Magazine Facebook page in 2016.
Relations between Great Britain and Mexico 1820-1870: Yusuf Abdulrahman Nzibo.
Everyday Life and Politics in Nineteenth Century Mexico: Men, Women, and War: Mark Wasserman.
Maximilian and Carlota: Europe’s Last Empire in Mexico: M. M. McAllen
Hansard Archives, Mexican Affairs. http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/…/jul/15/papers-moved-for
Times and NY Times excerpts retrieved from Victorian Wars Forum thread http://www.victorianwars.com/viewtopic.php?f=18&t=8113