The expedition to Mexico in 1838

The expedition to Mexico in 1838

Episode of the Mexican expedition in 1838

© RMN-Grand Palais (Palace of Versailles) / Gérard Blot

Publication date: November 2016

Historical context

Mexican sovereignty in question

The Mexico of the 1830s struggled to find political stability and faced financial difficulties. Violence, looting, various bans, trade restrictions: the European powers are exasperated to see their financial interests violated and regularly put pressure on the country to help their nationals.

Seeing that their claims for compensation are being ignored by President Bustamante, many French traders living in Mexico turn to Paris. Among them a pastry chef, hence the name of this episode: the "cake war" (guerra de los pasteles). For several months, in 1837, French vessels sent by King Louis-Philippe blockade the port of Vera Cruz, without for all that to cede the Mexican government.

The expedition mounted for the fall of 1838 led to a real show of force: the squadron bombed the fort of San Juan d'Ulùa, installed on a rocky promontory defending the bay of Vera Cruz. The episode does not end the conflict but is a decisive step in bringing Mexicans to the negotiating table.

This gigantic painting by Horace Vernet, completed in 1841, is part of a series of commissions from the Orleanist state, eager to build a gallery of history paintings that extols the birth of the regime in 1830 and the military successes of the new dynasty. .

Image Analysis

A spectacular naval bombardment

Vernet’s painting serves primarily to pay homage to the Prince de Joinville, seen on the corvette Creole, holding a telescope in his hand. Louis-Philippe's third son, just twenty years old, had just been given command of this vessel in the French squadron under the responsibility of Rear Admiral Baudin.

The bombardment of Vera Cruz in the background, with the flames and smoke escaping from the buildings, refers to a very specific episode: the explosion of the tower of the fort of San Juan d'Ulùa, which contained the reserves. of powder, November 27, 1838. Joinville listens to the report of a lieutenant, in a somewhat nonchalant posture while the danger remains very real, because of the cannon fire and grape shot opposed by the defenders of the fort, including we can see the impacts on the water, and the presence of nearby reefs.


A painting glorifying the July monarchy

Often presented as a very modest regime in terms of foreign policy, the July Monarchy often displayed, on the contrary, ambitious objectives. It also took care to present itself and to present itself to the contemporary French public as a regime leading a policy of power.

Louis-Philippe multiplied the orders for paintings intended to evoke the birth of the regime, with the days of July 1830, and its great external successes, in the completion of the conquest of Algeria or in naval and military operations abroad. sea. This work by Vernet can therefore be seen as a propaganda painting, extolling the success of France and the personal role of one of the king's sons in a naval operation which really had a great international impact.

The fall of Fort San Juan d'Ulùa was indeed the fruit of a very effective naval bombardment, carried out with the aid of completely new explosive buses, and Joinville was indeed distinguished there. These leadership qualities were to earn him a brilliant career in the navy, until the Revolution of 1848 forced him into exile.

  • Mexico
  • Louis Philippe
  • battles
  • July Monarchy
  • blockade
  • expedition


Jacques PENOT, Relations between France and Mexico from 1808 to 1840, Lille, Theses reproduction service, 1976.

Michel VERGÉ-FRANCESCHI, Maritime history dictionary, Paris, Robert Laffont, 2002.

To cite this article

Nicolas BOURGUINAT, "The expedition to Mexico in 1838"

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