Ernest Vigneaux: filibuster, prisoner and traveler in Mexico

The Mexican adventure of Ernest Vigneaux in 1853 and 1854, in which he kept a travel diary and throughout his itinerary, he recorded his experiences.

Ernest Vigneaux: filibuster, prisoner and traveler in Mexico
Travelers' stopover in the vicinity of Mexico.

Ernest Vigneaux was only 20 years old when he set sail from Pauillac, on the Gironde, for the New World. What drove this well-educated, well-to-do young man to adventure and away from Bordeaux, his hometown? Here are the details of Ernest Vigneaux's Mexican adventure in 1853 and 1854 and how he constructed his memories.

Attempts to dominate South American territories by peoples other than the Spanish were not always "official", i.e., conquests undertaken by states such as France and England. Filibusters, either in individual adventures or secretly financed by the aforementioned States, and others, repeatedly invaded this territory.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo formally ended the war between the United Mexican States and the United States of America. This nation had declared war on Mexico on May 13, 1846, and the war ended with the signing of the Treaty on February 2, 1848. But before and after those dates, Mexico had to face the belligerence of U.S. expansionism. Earlier, in 1836, the independence of Texas had constituted the first act of dismemberment of the national territory and set guidelines that would be followed by later attempts to separate its border provinces from Mexico. After the war, there would also be other episodes of armed struggle in the vicinity of the new frontier.

Just a month and a half after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, California newspapers began publishing, in March 1848, that gold had been discovered near Sacramento. In the following months, the news spread around the world, causing a huge "gold fever" that brought to this territory -until then sparsely populated- a multitude of men and women of all classes and races (it has been calculated that from 1848 to 1855 around 300,000 people migrated to California from various parts of the United States, Latin America, Europe, Australia, and Asia). They were the audacious, nonconformist, or ambitious, they were the failures and the miserable, they were hustlers, swindlers, fraudsters, and fugitives from justice. Although there were also some who had education and good manners. Perhaps a few thought of earning an honest living in the new land of opportunity; perhaps some sought more than opulence, fame, or freedom that they did not have in their places of origin, but most were possessed by the delirium of obtaining rapid wealth without caring that to achieve it they had to resort to unscrupulousness and violence.

On the other side of the border, the situation was chaotic. At the end of the "war of '47", General José Joaquín Herrera assumed the presidency of Mexico. Some thirty military uprisings challenged his mandate (1848-1851); at the same time, on the one hand, Apache raids (with U.S. weapons) ravaged the north and, on the other, the "caste war" raged in the Yucatan Peninsula, where the uprising Mayas (with British weapons) devastated the south. Incredibly, General Antonio López de Santa Anna then returned once again to power and at the end of 1853 signed the treaty known as the "Venta de la Mesilla" (or Gadsden Purchase as it is known in the neighboring country), through which Mexico sold to the United States 76,845 km² located in a region that today is part of the states of Arizona and New Mexico. Despite the displeasure of many Mexicans, the government of President Santa Anna carried out the sale and the Americans were able to lay the tracks of the transcontinental railroad that would connect the ports of the South Atlantic with San Francisco, California.

Antonio López de Santa Anna.
Antonio López de Santa Anna.

The powers that be in the United States were not satisfied with what they had obtained after the victory over Mexico and continued to press for more territory. The Californian gold bonanza was not enough to satisfy all the wealth seekers who arrived, and so ambition turned to the poorly defended, sparsely populated, and poorly administered territories of Baja California and Sonora. If Mexico was not willing to sell them, there remained the option of repeating the Texan expedient: that ahead of them were filibustering parties, provided with good weapons, initially claiming that they were settlers who would work the fields and mines while defending all the locals from the depredations of the rebel Indians; then, once they had established themselves on the ground through arms, they could - as the Anglo-Saxon Texans had done before - disregard the commitments contracted with the Mexican authorities and declare their independence under any pretext. Thus, these supposedly independent republics would end up being annexed by the United States. Unlike California, which in 1850 became a "free" state of the American Union, that is, a state in which slavery was not permitted (or which imposed legal limits on its practice), the sponsors and leaders of these projects for the creation of "independent republics" maintained with no qualms that the labor of black slaves and Indians was an indispensable condition for their prosperity.


The word filibuster derives from the Dutch word vrijbuiter, meaning pirate or freebooter. By the 17th century, the term was synonymous with buccaneer or pirate, as all three were applied to the maritime robbers who plundered the Spanish colonies and ships in the New World. However, during the 19th century, when piracy on the high seas was already in decline, the filibuster was used more to refer to adventurers who organized, led, and participated in armed expeditions into the territories of a nation with which the country from which such expeditions departed was in a state of peace. Since these invasion attempts were formally organized by private entities, the assumption was maintained that they were not enterprises of conquest by the government of the country harboring - and usually arming - the filibusters (yet diplomatic complications were not lacking). During the first half of the 19th century -and even after- there were several filibustering expeditions that, organized in the United States, departed from there to invade Cuba, northern Mexico, and several countries in Central and South America.

Perhaps because the filibustering expeditions of the 19th century sought to establish themselves in a more permanent way in the territories they invaded, the idea remained that the filibuster was a kind of privateer (if we accept that they had a privateer's license, even if it was "unofficial") who acted on land rather than at sea or in insular lands, unlike the concepts more regularly associated with the words pirate and buccaneer. Although nowadays the word filibustero is rarely used in everyday Spanish and its use is reduced to contexts of historical discourse (for example, one does not speak of "filibustero" goods, but of "pirate" goods), in the English spoken in the United States a curious twist of meaning has been retained: it is the one that refers to those congressmen (senators or deputies) who use their oratory skills to drag out the issues being dealt with in legislative sessions; of them, it is said that they act as filibusters or that they do filibusterism, something that we Mexicans would call "doing time" or "hacerse mensos".

Slavery and manifest destiny

Slavery is a social phenomenon that has been present in almost all human civilizations (from hunter-gatherer bands to the nations of the modern era) and, of course, it has acquired very different forms and manifested itself in different places and times. Here we are only interested in pointing out some of the main characteristics of this phenomenon in Mexico and the United States in the mid-nineteenth century in order to highlight the relationship that existed at that time between the maintenance of slavery and the sociopolitical doctrine known as "manifest destiny".

Since the colonial era, the Spanish Crown had sought to place legal limitations on the enslavement of indigenous people who agreed to join voluntarily - that is, without armed resistance - the sovereignty of the Spanish monarch. Of course, such limitations were not always respected by the colonizers who benefited from slave labor, but in a way, the legal obstacles that protected the natives made it possible for their communities to remain. By the way, this minimum level of protection (in what today we call the human right to personal liberty) did not extend to black people, since they did not constitute corporate communities that could demonstrate the legality of their alliance with the Crown and, through the Crown, the relevance of their rights of possession to land and other types of property. Thus, black slavery was maintained in New Spain, although their mixture and assimilation with the indigenous people made it possible for many descendants of black slaves not to be slaves themselves.

The Mexican independence movement soon became radicalized; shortly after the Grito de Dolores ("Cry of Dolores"), Hidalgo issued a proclamation abolishing slavery and condemning slave owners who did not free their slaves to capital punishment and confiscation of their property. José María Morelos and the Congress of Anáhuac did the same in 1813. Once independent and converted into a republic, Mexico definitively decreed the unrestricted abolition of slavery in its territory, on September 15, 1829, when General Vicente Guerrero was president. It must be recognized that this formal prohibition had then and would continue to have for a long time more numerous and flagrant exceptions in reality since the treatment given to the peons in the haciendas, to the Indians who were taken as prisoners of war, or even to some criminals -especially those of the lower classes- who were serving sentences was in fact equivalent to a regime of slavery. But, at least formally, slavery as such was not legal in Mexico.

Proclamation launched by Hidalgo in which he abolished slavery.
Proclamation launched by Hidalgo in which he abolished slavery.

By contrast, the United States of America, although it saw itself - and other nations saw it as well - as the epitome of egalitarianism proclaimed by the regime of republican democracy, maintained the legality of slavery throughout its colonial past and in its independent period until 1865. Most of the slaves were of the black race since it was much easier to keep enslaved the population that had been forcibly brought from Africa since it was very ethnically and linguistically differentiated (when they arrived in America, slaves who were of the same tribe were immediately separated) and, therefore, did not constitute a homogeneous group that could unite in defense of their rights. Although there were also cases of enslaved indigenous people, in general, it was preferable to have black slaves, since the natives could escape and integrate more easily into the tribes that had not yet been subjugated. The slave regime was much more characteristic of the southern states since the predominant economic model there was based on the free labor that slaves contributed to the large plantations of cash crops (cotton, tobacco, cereals, and grains). In contrast, in the northern states, industrial factories and commerce constituted the main economic base, which benefited more if it had a proletariat willing to sell its labor to the highest bidder and a consumer public that could buy the products offered in a free market.

The division between pro-slavery and pro-abolition states became more problematic as the republic spread across the interior of the continent. Slaveholding farmers wanted the newly incorporated territories, whether by purchase (Louisiana) or conquest (those taken from Mexico), to join their cause and thus increase the weight of the slave regime in Congress. Northern industrialists opposed slavery, but not expansion.

Between roughly the mid-1830s and the mid-1840s, the libertarian ideas of the Revolution of Independence in the United States had given way to a new ideology - which had become almost a religious faith - in which Anglo-Saxon Americans were seen as predestined by God and Nature to penetrate and dominate the entire American continent first, and then other large areas of the world. While at first the justification for such dominance was based on the alleged superiority of the republican institutions established after the separation of the 13 colonies from the British Crown, by the mid-19th century the racial supremacy of whites of European descent had become the nodal point on which the supposed rationality of expansion rested. A publicist and politician of the Democratic Party, John L. O'Sullivan, coined in his writings, published in several newspapers, the phrase "manifest destiny", with which he synthesized the expansionist processes that led soldiers and settlers under the American flag to confront the Mexicans in the southwest and the English in the northwest. This is how O'Sullivan expressed himself in 1845:

The vanguard of the irresistible army of Anglo-Saxon emigration has begun to advance, armed with the plow and the rifle, leaving its trail of schools and colleges, courts and representative halls, mills and meeting houses [...] it is the right of our manifest destiny to spread out and possess the whole continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of freedom and federated self-government which has been entrusted to us [i.e., wasp Americans].

When American expansionism reached what were the territorial domains of Mexico, its racism was also applied to the Mexican population, which to some extent was considered worse, for it was argued that the purebloods - whether Hispanic, black or Indian - had become so mixed that degradation had eventually affected them all. From this perspective, the defeat of the Mexicans in the war against the United States proved the ineluctability of manifest destiny; for the Americans (and for others, such as the French) the problem was no longer posed in moral terms, that is, it was no longer a question of whether or not it was just to take over Mexican territory; the problem lay rather in practical questions, i.e., which power groups, which trends of socio-economic development and which national formations (for it must not be forgotten that other world powers were also competing for predominance in Hispanic America) would be favored in the long run by attempts to dismember weakened Mexico.

Filibusters in the Northwest

Before the war, the Rio Grande del Norte (which we Mexicans today call the Rio Bravo) had been the border guardrail. But later, the international limits were extended to the Pacific Ocean, bisecting imprecisely the Sonoran desert, where some populations (born as mining camps, Jesuit missions or military presidios) survived, fighting with more fortune than the rancherías against the Apache attack, the rebellion of the Cahitas (Yaquis and Mayos) and the insubordination of the Seris. For its part, the Baja California peninsula, despite being free from the constant bellicosity of these indigenous tribes, was even less populated than Sonora and its inhabitants -whether settlers of Hispanic descent or indigenous survivors of the epidemics that had terribly decimated them- were concentrated around a few dozen settlements that had originated with the founding of Jesuit, Franciscan and Dominican missions.

Under Article XI of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the U.S. government had solemnly undertaken to prevent - by force, if necessary - incursions of armed invaders seeking to cross the border into Mexico; if unable to prevent such acts, it was nevertheless obligated to punish and chastise the invaders and to exact appropriate reparations; it was also to prevent the sale or supply of firearms and ammunition to would-be raiders. While this and other associated provisions contained in the Treaty made explicit reference to Apaches, Comanches, and other hostile indigenous peoples, they were also to apply to any other type of armed contingent seeking to set foot on Mexican soil from the United States. Likewise, the Neutrality Acts, enacted by Congress in 1818, prohibited the organization and provisioning of armed forces on U.S. soil for the purpose of attacking countries at peace with the United States. In both cases, i.e., that of the indigenous peoples and that of the filibustering troops, such obligations became a dead letter, since, in reality, the government made few and very faint-hearted efforts to comply with them.

With this complicated context as a backdrop, in the 1850s a series of filibuster raids endangered national sovereignty by attempting to repeat the Texas tragedy, only now targeting the appropriation of Sonora and Baja California. First, in 1851, Joseph Morehead, quartermaster general of the U.S. Army stationed in California, stole 400 rifles and 90,000 cartridges and with them armed a group that headed to Sonora, then to La Paz, BC, and later to Mazatlán without succeeding in establishing a head Frederic Rosengarten, Jr., William Walker and the decline of beach filibustering in any of these places. In 1852, Marquis Charles de Pindray attempted to establish a French colony in the Cocóspera Valley in Sonora, but the very Apaches he intended to exterminate wiped out his people. In 1852, the French Count Gaston, Editorial Guaymuras, Tegucigalpa, 1997. Raousset-Boulbon made his first entry into Mexico trying to take Hermosillo, but he had to retreat to Guaymas due to the harassment of the Mexican troops and from there he returned to San Francisco.

In 1853, William Walker, a fervent supporter of slavery and manifest destiny, took things to the extreme. After failing in his attempt to conquer Sonora, he was taken prisoner, tried by a court when he disembarked his filibusters in La Paz, took the Mexican authorities prisoner, and unilaterally declared the independence of the Republic of Baja California, which he would endow with a constitution in everything similar to that of the slave state of Louisiana. In search of support, he headed for the border, as far as Ensenada, where he received reinforcements. In March 1854, his filibusters moved on to Sonora, which Walker also declared independent and a member of a republic of which he named himself president. Two months later, attacked by troops loyal to Mexico, starving and fed up with their leader's despotism, the filibusters crossed the border back to the United States. Finally, at the beginning of April 1857, the expedition commanded by Henry Crabb was annihilated by the soldiers and the civilian population (among which there were many Pápagos and Yaqui natives) who fought against the filibusters in a six-day battle that took place at H. Caborca (an action that earned that town the distinction symbolized by the H, which stands for Heroic).

William Walker

William Walker epitomizes the figure of the 19th-century filibuster. Born in 1824 in Tennessee, that is, in the heart of the slave states of the American Union, he studied medicine and law. He traveled in Europe and upon his return became a journalist. In his writings, he unrestrainedly defended the slave system, the superiority of the white Anglo-Saxon race, and the doctrine of manifest destiny. After his invasion of Mexico failed, he was tried by a U.S. federal court on charges of violating the Neutrality Act. After only 8 minutes of deliberation, the court acquitted him of the charges against him, so that the trial only served to increase Walker's popularity among the many supporters of the armed conquest of Latin American territories. Supported by politicians and businessmen who sought to consolidate their dominion over the Central American isthmus, Walker put together an expedition that arrived in Nicaragua in 1855 under the pretext of supporting the liberal party that was engaged in a civil war against the conservative faction in that nation.

When the new government obtained the recognition of the United States, in July 1856, Walker carried out a coup d'état, betraying his Nicaraguan allies; he named himself president, legalized slavery, proclaimed that English was the national language, and announced his intention to extend his mandate to the other countries of the region (it has been said that he intended to declare himself king of Central America). But then his arrogance made him make the fatal mistake of making an enemy of Cornelius Vanderbilt (who until then was one of his main sponsors), an American magnate - the owner of shipping and railroad companies - who controlled the transit between the Atlantic and the Pacific through Nicaragua.

Losing this support and facing the military alliance of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica against him, Walker suffered several defeats and eventually surrendered to the U.S. Navy officers who had been sent to arrest him (at the behest of Vanderbilt and his consortium). Tried again in the United States and again acquitted, the unredeemed filibuster - who in his homeland was seen as a hero until he blamed his defeat on the US Navy - organized other expeditions to invade Nicaragua. On his fourth attempt, he landed in Honduras. Harassed by local troops that decimated his filibusters and by British warships that prevented the arrival of reinforcements from New Orleans (the British saw their own interests threatened by the intrusions of the Americans) he finally surrendered to the latter, believing that once again his luck would spare him from punishment. But turned over to the Honduran authorities, Walker was subjected to summary trial and shot in September 1860.

French filibusters

While what has been said about manifest destiny as an ideology and practice of faith on the part of the Americans amply explains their participation in the filibustering expeditions against Mexico, it is perhaps necessary to comment a little more about the French. Without ruling out that a good proportion of them shared the racist and imperialist ideas of the Anglo-Saxons, we could call attention to some other factors that determined their role in the Henry A. Crabb (1823-1857), leader of other filifilibustering that occurred on the northern frontier of Mexico.

For one thing, the rapid political changes in France known as the Revolution of 1848 caused many Frenchmen to leave their country; exile, for this reason, involved such dissimilar characters as Count Raousset-Boulbon and Ernest de Vigneaux (whom we can see, in the first case as someone who went into exile when the anti-aristocratic faction took power, or, in the case of the latter, as an example of the exile of someone who left his country when the anti-liberal counter-revolution was imposed).

Meanwhile, whether for political reasons or simply out of a desire to seek a better fortune elsewhere, thousands of French people flocked to California, attracted by the fabulous gold rush that also began in 1848; for the most part, excluded from the positions of political and economic control by the Anglos, these immigrants formed an important concentration of elements united by their linguistic and cultural background. Another important factor was the business conducted by the banking firm known as Jecker-Torre and Company, which had special economic and political interests related to the minerals of Sonora; with a Swiss as its principal representative, this firm was inclined to favor on principle the predominance of the French.

Last, but not least, was the fact that the Mexican government itself favored the entry of settlers of foreign origin into the border states. This resource had already proven to be highly dangerous in Texas, where settlers from the United States had formed the spearhead of the invasion. However, given the failure of internal colonization (that is, the colonization that Mexicans from other regions were to carry out), the idea of encouraging foreign settlements was maintained; although for obvious reasons it was forbidden for these to be American, they were allowed to be of European origin, especially French, who were considered to be more akin to Mexicans in culture and religion.

Count Gaston Raousset-Boulbon (1817-1854).
Count Gaston Raousset-Boulbon (1817-1854). After he attempted to conquer Sonora failed, he was taken prisoner, tried by a court when he disembarked his filibusters in La Paz, taken martial and shot in Guaymas.

Count Gaston de Raousset-Boulbon, who was the son of an old aristocratic family from Avignon, in the south of France, took advantage of this. An adventurer and spendthrift, he undertook business ventures in England and North Africa in which he squandered the fortune inherited from his parents and also fell out of favor with the faction that initially triumphed in 1848 Revolution in his homeland. In search of fortune, he arrived in California in August 1850; although he did not do well with gold, he did manage to head a company dedicated to the beaver and otter fur trade. In the gambling halls of San Francisco, he met the same Pindray who had tried to establish a colony in Cocóspera, who convinced him of the lucrative possibilities offered by the then legendary mines of Sonora. The Count obtained financing from the Jecker-Torre house to create and equip (especially with arms) the Arizona and Sonora Mines Restoration Company, the business façade behind which were the interests of Swiss and French banks. The Count did not entirely conceal his geopolitical objectives:

Europeans are worried about the growth of the United States, and with good reason. For unless that nation [Mexico] is disunited, unless a powerful rival rises on its borders, the United States will, through its trade, its industries, its growing population, and its geographical position between two oceans, become the master of the world. In ten years more Europe will not dare fire a shot without its permission. That's the United States!"

As mentioned, Raousset-Boulbon led a first expedition to Sonora in June 1852. Faced with the arrogance and contempt of Raousset's 200 or so men, after six weeks, the Sonora State Congress revoked the contract permitting the activities of the Restoration Company, warning the count and his people that they would only be allowed to remain in Mexico if they renounced French nationality and opted for Mexican nationality. Discarding the mask of a businessman, Raousset-Boulbon showed his true face as a filibuster when he launched himself on Hermosillo, which then had 12,000 inhabitants. After briefly occupying that town, many filibusters suffered -among them the count himself- the ravages caused by the extreme weather and fell before the onslaught of the cavalry that the recently arrived army commanded by General Miguel Blanco launched against them. Once they surrendered, the filibusters were allowed to embark back to California.

However, Raousset-Boulbon went back to his old ways, hoping that Jecker-Torre's support would be definitive. In 1853 he traveled to the capital of Mexico, where he met with President Santa Anna to request a new mining concession. The "Napoleon of the West" declined to grant him an official permit, but did not deny his desire to see colonists of Belgian, French, and Spanish origin settle in northern Mexico. Perhaps misinterpreting the result of such an interview or perhaps disdaining it, the Count returned to San Francisco where he set about recruiting a new troop to take to Sonora.

An atypical filibuster

Ernest Vigneaux was born in Bordeaux, also in the south of France which faces, but backwards from Avignon - the birthplace of Raousset-Boulbon, located in the French region of the Mediterranean Sea - towards the Bay of Biscay, near the immense inlet of the Bay of Biscay. Apart from the fact that he had studied medicine in Paris, not much else is known of his life before May 24, 1849, when at the age of 20 he embarked on a voyage that took him across the Atlantic to the southern tip of America, where the ship he was traveling in turned northward at Cape Horn, then sailed the Pacific near the coasts of Chile, Peru, the Central American isthmus and Mexico, to end up disembarking his passengers in San Francisco (thus, Vigneaux traveled along one of the routes most used by Europeans in search of the Californian bonanza). As there is no reliable data about the reasons that pushed him to undertake this trip, any hypothesis can be considered; for example, that his political ideas contributed to taking him away from his homeland.

Instead, it is known that Vigneaux, like many of his compatriots, did not become rich from gold, but, as Raousset-Boulbon had done, he became involved in the fur and cattle trade; but unlike Raousset-Boulbon, he paid more attention to his new environment, which led him to admire the democratic values advocated by the American republic. After five years in the region, a mutual friend, Dr. Pigné-Dupuytren, recommended him at the end of 1853 to Raousset-Boulbon to be his secretary and interpreter in the expedition that the Count was organizing, since the young Ernest, besides French, was fluent in English and Spanish, knew something of the maritime arts and was good at putting ideas in writing. Thus it was that, from the beginning of the expedition to Sonora, Vigneaux kept a diary that in the future would serve him to write the book of which we will give the details later on.

The port of Guaymas
The port of Guaymas was coveted by the Americans who wanted to have an outlet to the southwest in the Gulf of California.

Raousset first sent the U.S.-flagged sailing ship Challenge with 350 men, mostly French (plus some Germans, Irish, and Chileans) who had the authorization of the Mexican consul in San Francisco to arrive at the port of Guaymas as colonists. A few weeks later, at the end of May 1854, Raousset, Vigneaux, his friend Pigné and others left on the schooner La Belle carrying arms, ammunition, coal, and other provisions. Weathering storms that nearly capsized them, they finally landed (July 13) at Morro Colorado, a place near Guaymas, from where Vigneaux left for a port with an assignment:

Monsieur Raousset's intention was not to go directly to Guaymas, but to seek the vicinity of a good anchorage. From there an emissary was to go mysteriously to the city in order to make sure of the presence and dispositions of the French enlisted men, a mission that was within my competence.

Vigneaux and Pigné - who were to warn their previously disembarked comrades that the count and his reinforcements were near - were detected on the way, so when they arrived in Guaymas they were arrested, thus frustrating the surprise attack. Raousset tried unsuccessfully to convince General José María Yáñez, commander of the Mexican troops stationed in the port, to join his cause. After an arduous fight in which better artillery decided the triumph of the Mexicans, the filibusters surrendered. General Yáñez sent the prisoners to San Blas, in Colima, retaining in Sonora only the wounded who could not move (among them our friend Pigné) and Count Raousset, who would undoubtedly face a trial for being the leader of the invaders and for commanding a second filibustering expedition.

During the time he was imprisoned in Guaymas, Vigneaux demonstrated one of the characteristics that will give singularity to his narration of Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century: the detailed observation of the popular classes of the Mexican people, whom he describes from a much more empathetic point of view than other contemporary writers, most of whom were too imbued with the racist and discriminatory tendencies so in vogue at the time. For example, about the soldiers against whom he fought under Raousset he tells us:

We were granted complete liberty to go around the barracks and observe the soldiers. They are all indigenous; their uniform consists of a white cloth coat and white cloth pants and a small black leather jacket worn at the crown of the head. The sergeants only wore shoes; the soldiers, sandals, or huaraches [...] This tight-fitting costume admirably emphasizes the muscular development of the body and the beautiful proportions of the natives [...] The countenance has character; the eyes are beautiful, but with a hard look [...] They are obliged to wear their hair short, except for two long locks at the temples, and they are beardless. The exceptions to this last rule, however insignificant they may be, give the physiognomy a savage stamp of marked expression. The officers, on the contrary, all having some white blood in their veins, are generally the possessors of large mustaches.

A prisoner's journey

Taken by sea to the port of San Blas, the prisoners of war learned there that they would be taken immediately to Tepic. From then on, his knowledge of the Spanish language made Vigneaux the mediator between the prisoners and their captors, thus occupying a leadership role that he shared with another Frenchman named Guillot.

The 187 men set out into the interior of the mountain range guided by an indigenous man who took them to Tisontla. There they spent their first night in the interior of Mexico, during which a terrible electrical storm broke out, which Vigneaux describes as follows:

Clouds of dust enveloped the city, the darkness was intense [...] only in this gloomy background glittered in myriads the luminous coconuts and flies. Overexcited by the disturbance of the elements and by the electricity with which the atmosphere was charged, those fantastic fireflies fluttered with frenzy [...] Then, suddenly, the clouds opened; the night without clarity was succeeded by clarity without shadows; under the torrent of sulfurous light that burns the pupils of man, the cocuyos disappeared and the entire landscape was revealed in all its hurricane-swept details and resembling a decoration from another world [...] Then came the showers of rain and the rain, which were not only intense but also intense [...]. Then came the tropical downpours that bring to mind the memory of the deluge [...] If it had been possible to sleep in the midst of that revolution of nature, we would have been awakened by meaner cares. The long-legged mosquitoes, the terrible mosquitoes, the fleas, and other insects, drunk with electricity, ferocious to the point of rage, as numerous as the atoms of the dust that blinded us, gave us continuous attacks, furious, irresistible.

Already on the road to Tepic, Vigneaux obtains certain prerogatives conferred by his power of communication, his awakened intelligence, his gifts as a leader, and by having some cash. He narrates:

The population is indigenous and of beautiful race; I saw there some young women of such admirable grace, that statuary would try in vain to idealize [...] I rented a horse; some desperate prisoners also had to ride on baggage and even procured others on the road, because the number of stragglers was great [...] The Mexican officer on the march always has the right to demand this baggage, and in case of necessity, men for the service; he is the arbiter of justice and fixes the retribution at his convenience. So the transit of the troop is a scourge for the country people [...] With all this, only by threatening saber in hand, can the officers obtain these rights [...] The owner then sadly follows his beasts one day, two sometimes, until a relief obtained by the same procedure, without being justly remunerated for his loss of time.

Until then, the filibusters did not know what fate their captors had in store for them; it seems that General Yáñez had assured them in Guaymas that from San Blas they would be shipped back to California; however, in Tepic, Colonel Yáñez (military commander of that federal territory and brother of the other Yáñez to whom they had surrendered in Sonora) communicated bad news to them: President Santa Anna was very upset because he considered that the general had exceeded his authority by granting them a grace that was the sole prerogative of "His Serene Highness", besides, he blamed the prisoners of violating the Law of August 1, 1853, which established that the participants in uprisings and revolts against the Mexican government should be judged by a court martial that, if found guilty, would condemn them to the death penalty. Therefore, Vigneaux and his companions were to move to Guadalajara, where they would receive new instructions.

All the way to Guadalajara, Vigneaux proved to be a good leader, since he not only enjoyed prerogatives but also fulfilled his responsibilities. One of them was to draft, with the help of Guillot and others, a document that they sent to the French legation in Mexico City to intercede on their behalf with the central government. Others were more practical, such as organizing collections among his comrades for the creation of a common fund (since the prisoners had to pay for their sustenance), obtaining horses, going ahead on the road to obtain lodging, food, and other provisions (among which tobacco was one of the most required). These tasks gave Vigneaux the opportunity to make some curious observations which he recorded in his book, for example:

The tortilla vendor is a common type in Mexico, where the tortilla is a national food that replaces bread. This preparation is a very thin and dry cornflour paste, with an unpalatable taste. There are, however, bakers in all the cities; but they do not make ordinary bread except for strangers; for the people of the country they make a multitude of caprice bread rolls, of which there are no less than eighty species that have their different names, and that could be designated with the name of mantecados ("buttered"), because in their manufacture there is always butter and almost always sugar. The Mexicans make great consumption of them with their cups of chocolate, many times repeated in the course of the day, like lunch, snack, or dinner. But the tortilla ordinarily accompanies substantial meals and the poor class eats no other bread.

So Vigneaux had to learn how to "amarchantarse" (" befriend ") the tortilla vendors he met along the way, for he required between 1500 and 1800 tortillas a day to supply his companions. He tells us that many vendors were suspicious when he asked them for what for them were fabulous quantities of their product (since they bought the corn or dough on credit, preparing such quantities meant the risk of being ruined if the stranger did not pay them); on the other hand, the Frenchman had to always count the tortillas delivered to him so that he would not be cheated. But Vigneaux was sensitive to these difficulties and took the whole matter with good philosophy:

The poor native has for centuries been so exploited, his ingenuity and good faith of all his feelings have been so abused, in short, that the inferiority of ignorance in which their lives have been left cannot be painted in anything but the ugliest colors. The thief does; but not by instinct, as so many wise physiologists dare to say, but by a kind of right, the right of war, by retaliation, because he has been and is always treated as a defeated enemy [...] By dint of patience, gentleness and energy at the same time, I nevertheless came to negotiate on a more fraternal basis.

Regarding tobacco, Vigneaux makes another observation that, despite its age of more than a century and a half, moves us to compare his account -of course, with certain caveats- with the current situation of several industrial branches in the country.

Many cigars are also manufactured, and more would still be made if this industry were not stagnant. Tobacco is originally from Mexico; Moctezuma smoked it mixed with the odorous resin of the liquid amber tree. The party of Tepic, as well as those of Autlán, Ahuacatlán, and Acaponeta, which are adjacent, produces tobacco that is justly esteemed since its cigars do not yield in anything to those of Havana [...] Unfortunately the tobacco control system stifles this trade that could contribute so powerfully to the national wealth. The cultivation of this plant is restricted to a few districts and to the quantity necessary for local consumption, by a law that forbids its exportation in any form whatsoever, outside the producing district [...] But that is not all; if the manufacture is limited, the consumer's supply is equally so. No one can have more than two hundred cigars at home. The administration makes home visits, which the aristocracy can avoid, however, by bribing the employees. The tobacconist is a lease and the lessees, who are usually foreigners, very solicitous of their personal interests, find a more immediate profit and above all guarantees against the competition, in importing tobacco, than in favoring its cultivation in the interior.

At the beginning of September, the "French Battalion" (the name by which the former filibusters were known) passed through Ixtlan and entered the state of Jalisco through Magdalena. The immense fields planted with maguey then announced to them the proximity of the town of Tequila and its famous drink, which Vigneaux calls mezcal: "Tequila gives its name to the mezcal brandy, just as Cognac gives it to the brandies of France in general."

Rain gear.
Rain gear.

Shortly thereafter 147 prisoners arrived in Guadalajara, as 40 had remained in Tepic due to their poor health. Most were on foot, almost barefoot and ragged. All were fearful of what would happen to them, especially those who had held commanding positions in Raousset-Boulbon's filibustering force. During their confinement, the prisoners were visited by some French merchants established in the city, accompanied by Manuel Llanos (a Mexican who was a customs administrator and had lived in France for several years). But these gentlemen could do nothing to revoke General Santa Anna's order: the prisoners were to leave for the Mexican capital on September 11. However, Ernest Vigneaux, attacked by constant diarrhea (who knows if it was due to the unhealthy conditions of the trip, to his fear of what would happen later or both) obtained permission -along with seven of his comrades- to be hospitalized at the Bethlehem Hospice, where he was admitted a day before the departure of the rest of his comrades. In narrating his entry to the hospital in Guadalajara, Vigneaux casually tells us the detail of his upbringing:

The officer in charge of the post received me and handed me over to the commissary of the hospice, who made me enter his kitchen, waiting for the arrival of the others. This man of about forty years of age, and with the face of a famulus, took greater notice of me, ordered me to be served to eat, protested his joy at finding a gentleman, promised me his sincere friendship, and knowing that I retained some dust from the college, he also spoke to me in Latin. Under the shield of this dead language, he told me in the poor officer's beard, a portion of bad things against the dictator Santa Anna and even offered me to protect my escape [...] Upon the arrival of my companions he again took his official mask to enroll us in his records.

The journey to freedom

But this escape was not necessary, since, through the support of Mr. Llanos and the French merchants, who paid the bail set by the governor of Jalisco, young Ernest was released and lodged in the house of his compatriots Tarel and Lyon. After four months of painful captivity, Vigneaux thus obtained a freedom that, although conditioned, allowed him to better enjoy his surroundings, to be more meticulous in his recording, and to describe years later - thanks to the power of indelible memories - what he observed at the time. For example, when his pen sketches the garden overlooking the window of the room where he was lodged, or when he recounts his attendance at the parade commemorating Mexico's independence:

It was a monochrome mosaic, where all the shades of green were mixed, it was nature's cheerful livery. The banana tree swayed its broad leaves above the orange trees laden with fruit, next to the mulberry, peach, and pear trees. The supple cane rose in the midst of the rose bushes and the acorn leaves of the coffee plant shone like rubies in this beautiful enamel. The trees of the Paseo de la Alameda, dominated by domes and bell towers, formed the frame of this picture, from which the somber pyramid of one or another cypress stood out [...] I still have not forgotten that garden, that perfumed atmosphere, that room in which I dreamed so much, those portals under which half of our existence was spent. There we received visitors, played and discussed over coffee after lunch, and smoked a Tepic cigar. There I spent some months, the happiest of my life, in the midst of a family that replaced my own [...] On September 27 I set foot on the street for the first time, in honor of a great national holiday: it was the anniversary of the entry into Mexico, in 1821, of the army, called the Three Guarantees, commanded by Iturbide, victor over the Spaniards. The business was suspended on this day; there was a big parade in the afternoon. Then I saw for the first time the dress of those soldiers; a kind of old blue tunic, faded and dirty, with a fringe and without epaulets and a pompom on the jacket [...] Then the concurrence in the Plaza de Armas, where the military bands play music, and not bad music because the Indians are very fond of the arts. There all the beautiful society congregates, and the fans are waved and the glances cross and meet in abundance...

A week later, Vigneaux returns to the streets of Guadalajara, this time to attend a religious celebration:

On October 5, another new feast brought me to the streets: the feast of the miraculous Virgin of Zapopan. The number of miraculous virgins is infinite in Mexico: every town has its own. This is a small image, which spends six months of the year in the immediate town of Zapopan and another six in Guadalajara, where it receives successively a hospitality of a few days in each of the churches. The Lady travels only with great pomp, escorted by the entire population of the city and the surrounding countryside. There I saw again that ragged mob which was grouped around us on our arrival; some days before; but the most curious spectacle was that which was represented by several of the natives of Zapopan and the surrounding villages, for whom this festivity is saturnal in which they give free rein to their propensities, especially to strong drink. Half naked, horribly masked, and with their garlands of flowers, they dance, making grotesque contortions, competing in agility, burning firecrackers, and throwing rockets. Some follow the procession on their knees [...] All this degenerates at last into a complete orgy, which only fatigue and sleep can only put an end to. Such were the feasts of their ancestors at the time of the conquest, the mitotes whose description is given by ancient historians.

During his stay in Guadalajara, some prisoners who had been left behind in Guaymas and Tepic passed through the city on their march to Mexico. Advised by his French friends not to go out to meet them, as doing so would needlessly risk his expensively obtained freedom, Ernest learned that on August 12, 1854 Count Gaston Raousset-Boulbon had been shot on a beach in Guaymas, after the Mexican authorities had condemned him to capital punishment for his attempts against national sovereignty. He also learned then that his friend Pigné and other filibusters had been allowed to embark for South America. Then he received a letter from Guillot in which he told him that the members of the French Battalion separated from him in Guadalajara were at that time in Perote, awaiting the arrival of a French warship in the port of Veracruz that would transport them out of Mexican territory.

Main square of Guadalajara.
The main square of Guadalajara.

This happened because in November General Santa Anna, calculating that the execution of Count Raousset-Boulbon could work sufficiently as a lesson to the filibustering attempts and seeking to maintain a good relationship with Napoleon III -already by then enthroned as emperor of the French-, had decreed an amnesty that freed the French Battalion from prison and death, on condition that its members left Mexico as soon as possible. The French who remained in Guadalajara were notified that they should leave immediately to reach the ship that would take them to Veracruz. Vigneaux did not want to leave with his compatriots because he was not willing to submit to the mandate of Napoleon III, who ordered the former prisoners to be taken to the island of Martinique, in the Caribbean (the emperor did not want them to arrive on the French mainland as defeated). Moreover, Vigneaux hoped that separated from his former comrades it would be easier for him to return to the United States. Thus:

On January 20 I received my passport from the government for Mexico [the city] and a travel allowance. On the 23rd I said goodbye with deep sorrow to a family that had become so dear to me, and riding on horseback, I rode away from that oasis, where my good star had guided me from all past and future evils.

Vigneaux left for Mexico, a city he was determined to see. Whether by word of mouth or fortunate chance, he hired a 20-year-old Zacatecan, Miguel, who served as his guide, servant, and companion on the next leg of the journey. His itinerary took him through the cities and towns of Guanajuato, Querétaro, and the State of Mexico to the vicinity of the capital. Of all these points, the traveler gives more or less detailed descriptions in his book. A very moving one is the one he makes when he climbed the Tepeyac hill, from where he obtained a magnificent view of the Valley of Mexico that leads him to say ecstatically:

The emotion, but an expansive and sweet emotion dilates the heart. No traveler can escape these impressions; everyone has perhaps felt the momentary desire, fleeting like lightning, to pitch his tent there and end his days there, in the ineffable joys produced by the contemplation of nature.
General view of Veracruz taken from the Orizaba road.
General view of Veracruz taken from the Orizaba road.

On February 6, 1855, Vigneaux entered the capital of Mexico. There he got in contact with people from the French legation who helped him to arrange his trip to Veracruz since the amnesty granted by Santa Anna was weaker if it referred to a single individual. Despite the supposed danger of his identity being discovered, Vigneaux dared to tour the city and its surroundings, which allowed him to record in his book brilliant descriptions of its main sites and, above all, its inhabitants. After selling his horse and saying goodbye to Miguel, on February 14 he set out in a stagecoach on the road that, passing through Puebla, Texmelucan, Ayotla, Perote, and Jalapa, would take him to the port. On February 22, 1855, he boarded the steamship Orizaba:

Very soon the anchor was weighed: and not without regret I saw the shores of Mexico gradually fade away in a vaporous distance; while the high peak of Citlaltepetl was visible on the horizon, my gaze remained fixed on it and my thoughts flew to that beautiful Aztec land, to which I wished with all my soul for peace and prosperity in independence.

The story written by Vigneaux

The Orizaba took Vigneaux to New Orleans, from where he planned to head back to California. That idea never materialized and sometime later he returned to France. In 1863, the publishing house L. Hachette published in Paris the book entitled Souvenirs d'un prisonnier de guerre au Mexique, the work that Ernest Vigneaux wrote during the eight years after his departure from Mexico. When the book appeared, a French army sent by Napoleon III was advancing into the interior of Mexico with the aim of paving the way for the establishment of the empire to be headed by Archduke Maximilian, son of the Habsburg emperor who dominated Eastern Europe, and his wife Charlotte, daughter of the king of Belgium, who controlled the slave trade in Africa.

Memories of a prisoner of war in Mexico, Ernest Vigneaux, 1863.
Memories of a prisoner of war in Mexico, Ernest Vigneaux, 1863.

In the 565 pages of his book, Vigneaux narrated in detail the events related to Raousset-Boulbon's expedition (remember that throughout his adventure he kept a travel diary and that he relied, through letters, on the information given to him by his comrades-in-arms). In this work, the author went at length in his descriptions of the places through which he passed, whether as a prisoner of war or as a traveler with safe conduct after the amnesty. And he did not omit, at all, to express his considerations and opinions about the social, economic, or political situations he witnessed or learned about in his conversations with well-informed people. In this way, Vigneaux pointed out that the weight of the Catholic Church, the ambitions of foreign businessmen, the arrogance of the military, and the inefficiency of the bureaucracy were something like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse coming together to ruin Mexico. That is why he says:

I was almost not in the salons where Europe is missed, where Mexico is irremissibly condemned, but I frequented the Mexican people, I am full of them, and I know their sorrows.

And indeed, much of what is most valuable in Vigneaux's book are his portraits of the Mexican people in the mid-nineteenth century.

[...] he had the opportunity to peek into "the depths of Mexico" and deal with the outcasts of its society: beggars, criminals, and beggars. He spoke with muleteers, cowboys, laborers, miners, water carriers, porters, washerwomen, fruit sellers, soldiers, and soldiers. A good writer, he was able to masterfully portray some characters, such as the Filipino shopkeeper of San José del Cabo: "toothless, gesticulating, bald, olive and exhausted", or Doña Concepción, the dyke of Magdalena, who, "lively and cheerful, constantly showed the pearls of her mouth in the most irritating smile, [and] had a wonderfully subtle tongue and a fine retort".

The publication of Ernest Vigneaux's work during the French intervention in Mexico was no coincidence; rather, it corresponded to the renewed French interest in our country and the intentions of the political forces in France and other parts of Europe opposed to such imperialist adventures. The rather favorable stance towards the struggle of Benito Juarez and his government, which the author makes explicit in the introduction and final reflections -reinforced by what he comments in the narration of his trip- make it unquestionable that Vigneaux was in favor of a republican and independent Mexico. It is therefore a pity that in the Spanish-speaking world his book was known then and is known even now in a poor format.

In 1866, the Spanish printing house of Gaspar y Roig, based in Madrid, published the book under the title Viaje a Méjico. But although beautifully illustrated with excellent engravings, Viaje a Méjico, by Ernest Vigneaux, in a Mexican version, this version summarized in only 64 pages the much more extensive original work. Besides being poorly translated, this Spanish edition suppressed the most polemic passages of Vigneaux's writing (for example, those related to the filibustering expedition, his appraisals of foreign capital companies, or his criticism of the Mexican Catholic Church, among other matters), focusing instead on his descriptions of towns, cities, and customs. Subsequently, Mexican editions of the book have followed the Spanish version, thus skimming much of the historical richness of the original writing. Even so, Ernest Vigneaux's account of his journey in Mexico is a highly recommended reading.

Author: Andrés Ortiz Garay, This story is from: