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Commodore David Porter and the Mexican Navy

Author(s): Elmer W. Flaccus

Source: The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Aug., 1954), pp. 365-373
Published by: Duke University Press
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American Historical Review.
Commodore David Porter and
the Mexican Navy
COMMODORE DAVID PORTER, hero of the war with the Bar-
bary Pirates and the War of 1812, had reached a cross-
roads in his career early in 1826.1- He had been in
commanld of a squadron sent to the West Indies to eliminate piracy.
One of his officers, pursuing a pirate, landed at the port of Fajardo
(Foxardo) in Puerto Rico, and was arrested and detained by the
Spanish authorities. Porter, acting on his own responsibility, invaded
the port and forced the authorities to apologize. Spain protested;
Porter was recalled, court-martialed, and suspended for six months-
a decision which infuriated him and irritated many of his fellow
Americans.2 Although the verdict was not severe, Porter felt that his
career in the United States Navy had been blighted and determined to
seek employment elsewhere, preferably in the Western hemisphere.
The author is associate professor of history at Austin College, Sherman,
This study is based largely on letters written by David. Porter to Joel R.
Poinsett, American minister to Mexico, in the Gilpin Collection, Gilpin Library of
the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and microfilms of these letters in the Uni-
versity of Texas Library. Abstracts of many of the letters appear in Grace E.
Heilman and Bernard S. Levin, eds., Calendar of the Poinsett Papers in the
Gilpin Library of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1941).
The writer's dissertation, ''Guadalupe Victoria: Mexican Revolutionary Patriot
and First President, 1786-1843,"' MS, in the University of Texas Library, 1951,
treats the subject from the viewpoint of contemporary Mexico. La A1guila
Mexicana, El Sol, The Arkansas Gazette, and The Weekly Register (Baltimore),
H. Niles, ed. (hereinafter cited Niles Weekly Register), all contain articles on
Porter. Archibald Turnbull, Commodore David Porter, 1780-1843 (New York,
1929) (hereinafter cited as Turnbull, Commtodore Porter), is an adequate but un-
documented biography.
2 Material on the Foxardo affair is plentiful. See Niles' Weekly Register,
XXVIII (March 26, 1825), pp. 55-56; ibid. (April 30, 1825), p. 144; ibid. (May
7, 1825), p. 149; ibid. (June 1, 1825), pp. 231-236; ibid. (June 18, 1825), pp.
245-247; ibid. (July 2, 1825), p. 278; ibid. (Aug. 20, 1825), p. 390; Turnbull,
Commodor e Porter, pp. 269-282; Gales and Seaton, eds. and printers, Annual
Register of the Debates in Congress (Washington, D. C.), II, 55-65, gives the
congressional reaction to the Porter trial.
366 HAHR
In the meantime, Guadalupe Victoria, first president of Mexico,
was eager to secure a first class fighting man and experienced admiral
for his embryo navy. When Victoria assumed the presideney in 1824,
Mexico's total naval strength consisted of six gunboats, two sloops-of-
war, one brig, and two launches.3 The refusal of Spain to recognize
the independence of her former colonies had convinced the president,
his advisers, and virtually all Mexicans that Spain would like to plan
a war of reconquest.4 Victoria hoped that by seizing the initiative
and harassing Spanish commerce in the West Indies, business interests
in Spain mnight demand a truce from Ferdinand VII and his advisers.
Joel R. Poinsett, American minister to Mexico, was fully cognizant
of Victoria's alarm. Hoping to use this situation to the advantage of
the United States as well as to diminish the prevalent British influence
in Mexico, Poinsett urged Victoria to get in toueh with Porter, and
thus renewed a personal correspondence of many years standing.5 The
commodore had written to Poinsett, expressing coneern over the re-
duction in the strength of the United States Navy, and had mentioned
that muany officers feared the loss of their positions. These men were
unsuited for the American merchant marine, and Porter had urged
Poinsett to explore the possibility of their serving as volunteers with
the patriots in South America.6 Poinsett also knew that many British
officers were interested in the Mexican navy. In fact, one of them, a
Lieutenant Dillon, had been drowned enl route to accept a command.7
Porter's interest had been stimrulated by the result of the Foxardo
Affair. He replied promptly: ". . . I shall look anxiously for the
invitation to serve in the Mexican navy you speak of . . . My mind is
made up . . . I think I see before me a bright field of glory.
" 8
As early as October 6, 1825, Porter wrote to Pablo Obregon, Mexi-
can minister to the Uniited States, in response to a letter from Obregon,
offerinig to resign his commission in the United States Navy if Mexico
would give him a rank sufficiently high to justify the step.9 He sent
Flaccus, Guadalupe Victoria, 400-410; H. G. Ward, Mexico in 1827, (2nd edi-
tion; London, 1828), I, 227.
4Ward, Mexico in 1827, II, 548; J. A. Castillon, ed., Rep0Thlica Mexicana:
informes y m.anifiestos de los poderes ejecutivos
g legislativos
1821 hasta 1904
(Mexico, 1905), I, 60. "It is still the wish of Mexico to be at peace with an enemy
bent on continuing the war."
Porter to Joel R. Poinsett, Aug. 21, 1825, Gilpin Collection, Pennsylvania
Historical Society, Philadelphia, Penna. (hereiniafter cited as GC). Microfilm copies
of these letters are in the University of Texas Library.
Porter to Poinsett, March 9, 1816, GC.
7London Morning Post, Jan. 11, 1826.
8Porter to Poinsett, Aug, 21, 1825, GC.
9Porter to Pablo Obreg6n, Oct. 6, 1825, GC. The rank of captain was the
higlhest then existing in the Mexiean navy. Pablo Obreg6n to Porter, Sept. 24,
1825, GC.
Obregon a book containinig a detailed defense of his conduct in the
Foxardo Affair, informed the Miinister that the only bar to his (Por-
ter's) entering the Mexican service was the possible objection of the
Mexican government to the aforementioned trial, and that while the
rank of captain offered to him was lower than he had expected, he
hoped to secure an additional promotion by being useful.10
According to Porter 's biographer, an inducement held out by
Obreg6n to persuade him to enter the Mexican service was the comple-
tion in New York of a new Mexican brig, the Guerrero. That ship,
designed by Henry Eckford, was destined to be the flower of the
Mexican navy. On Porter's insistence, the command of the brig was
promised to his nephew, David H. Porter.1"
Porter accepted Obregon's invitation to visit Mexico. He wrote
Poiinsett on February 19, 1826, that he had expected to leave before
that date for Mexico. He was waiting for the new brig. He had no
way of hurrying Obregon, but he hoped to see Poinsett soon. Opti-
mistically, he stated: ". . . I am prepared for all contingencies. [A
statement he would have cause to regret for not even in his wildest
nightmares did he realize what lay before him] . . . There is scarcely
a doubt that I shall accept the terms. "12
Porter, accompanied by his two sons, David Dixon and Thomas,13
took an unofficial "leave of absence " and arrived in Veracruz on
April 16, 1826 to find Mexican naval affairs in a wretched condition.
However, he assumed command of the Mexican navy in July. He was
disconcerted by the resentment he encountered from the Mexican
officers whom he found to be very quarrelsome. Nevertheless, he wrote,
"With time and patience and perseverance, I hope to make something
of them. " '14 On the other hand, he received many expressionis of
official frielndship from the Mexican government. The state of Vera-
cruz gave him a tract of land eleven leagues square on the Guasacua-
loco [sic] River, which would relieve his financial embarrassment.15
Though Porter promptly decided that, "For political intrigue, Mexico
compared to Washington was as Mount Orizaba compared to a level
plain,"16 he felt sufficiently encouraged to submit his resignation to
the United States Navy, to take effect August 18, 1826.'7
0Porter to Obregon, Oct. 25, 1825, GC.
Turnbull, Com.modore Porter, pp. 284-286.
Porter to Poinsett, Feb. 19, 1826, GC.
Turnbull, Co-mmodore Porter, p. 286.
'1 Porter to Poinsett, July 26, 1826, GC.
Arkansas Gazette, Oct. 3, 1826.
16 Quoted by Turnbull, Commodore Porter, p. 287.
Ibid., p. 287.
368 HAHR
Porter was handicapped by his irascible disposition and an abysmal
ignorance of the Spanish language and the Mexican temperament.
Evidelntly, complaints of his behavior reached Poinsett, for Porter
hastened to assure him that he was very eager to please and that the
errors to which Poinsett's attention had been directed had occurred
through ignorance of the language. In the same letter Porter com-
plained that his suggestions for improving the navy had been re-
jected.18 Nevertheless, he made it clear who was to be commander of
the navy for he arrested one Landara with whom he had clashed.'9
That action gave Porter some prestige, but his unwise request to be
made a brigadier general in the army hurt his case. Also, he constanit-
ly slurred the capacity of Mexicans for naval leadership, claiming:
" . The officers must come from the United States. If they make
officers of Mexicans, they must make them of the next generation, not
this . "20 At a later date, he was to claim that his Indian crewmen
were equal to any crew that he had ever commanded, but he reiterated
that Mexicans made poor officers.2'
By December of 1826, Porter had created a fairly efficient squadron
and had put to sea to harass Spanish commerce in Cuban waters.
Although he had only one frigate, two brigs, and a schooner, he met
with some success at first. Unfortunately for him, Spain possessed an
excellent strategist in Admiral Laborde, whose veteran squadron out-
numbered and outfought Porter's untrained crews. The only thing
that saved Porter from destruction was his skill as a seaman. His
knowledge of the waters around Key West enabled him to escape from
Laborde, but he became painfully aware that his defeat was just a
matter of time, unless he received reinforcements.22
About this time, Colombia and Mexico, believing that Cuba was
weakly fortified, plainned to reduce the power of Spain by seizing the
island. Santa Anna, while visiting in Guatemala, had issued a procla-
mation calling on the Negroes of Cuba to revolt which created con-
siderable alarm. Both Mexico and Colombia collected troops for the
invasion but backed down when confronted by British and American
Porter to Poinsett, Aug. 15, 1826, GC.
Porter to Poinsett, Sept. 6, 1826, GC. Porter did not say whether Landara
was a military or naval man.
Porter to Poinsett, Sept. 30, 1826, GC.
Quoted by Poinsett in
' '
Mexico and the Mexicans," in J. B. Debow, ed.,
Commercial Review of the South and the West, II (1846), p. 169. Apparently
Porter never made the distinction between mestizo and Indian f or he obviously
had both groups represented in his crews.
22 Porter to Poinsett, Jan. 19-20, 1827, GC. "'Laborde is blockading me with
two or three frigates and three or four brigs . .
opposition to the project, confining their activities to hit-and-run sea
Porter evidently hoped that American lax enforcement of neutrali-
ty laws would enable him to use Key West as a base for annoying
Spanish commerce. He violated neutrality provisions in numerous
instances. On one occasion, he either bought the Colombian privateer,
Carobobo, or, as seems more likely, persuaded its officers to join him,
for he granted them Mexican commissions-taking this decidedly
questionable action in American waters. He also visited New Orleans
in the Guerrero, trying to recruit officers and men. When protests
were filed, Porter excused himself on the ground that he had not been
notified officially to stop recruiting.24 Furthermore, Porter had trou-
ble controlling his owil men, for one of his ships attacked an American
vessel, the Desdemona, an action which alienated many of his sup-
porters in the United States. Eventually, Spain protested these many
violations of neutrality and forced the United States to order him
from Key West. He barely escaped in time to avoid Laborde 's pur-
suing fleet.25
Porter had the rather fantastic idea that Mexico should build him
a steam frigate and give him an allowance of $13,000 a month-an
impossibility in view of Mexico's financial condition. He overempha-
sized a meagre success when he claimed to have stopped singlehanded
a Spanish plan to reconquer Colombia, for Spain at the time was in no
condition to launch such a project. However, he and his untrained
crews had accomplished much during his first year as captain. The
Mexican navy had harried the commerce of Cuba and had demon-
strated considerable skill in its rear-guard action against Laborde.
Victoria was pleased. He wrote Porter a letter (unfortunately mniss-
ing), that praised the work of the commander and his crew. Indeed,
Porter might have accomplished a great deal more, had it not been
for the rapidly deteriorating financial and political situation in Mexi-
co in 1827.26
The situation in Mexico virtually demanded a naval victory over
Spain. Hence, Porter decided to wage a more aggressive campaign
though his crews were still green. He selnt the Guerrero, commalided
J. M. Callahan, Cuba and International Relations (Baltimore, 1899),
141-144; William W. Kaufman, British Policy and the Independence of Latin
America, 1804-1828 (New Haven, 1951), pp. 208-210.
24 Niles' Weekly
Register, XXXIII (Sept. 8, 1827), p. 23; ibid., Sept. 15,
1827), pp. 40-41; ibid. (Sept. 29, 1827), pp. 71-72
25 Arkansas Gazette, Dee. 12, 1826; ibid., Sept. 4, 1827; Porter to Poinsett, Oct.
30, 1827, GC.
26 Porter to Poinsett, Mareh 15, 1827, GC; Porter to Poinsett, Nov. 10, 1827,
GC, is a typical example of Porter's complaining letters.
370 HAHR
by his nephew, Captain David H. Porter, to sea. The younger Porter
sailed in Decemnber of 1827 and captured two Spanish brigs, olnly to be
trapped by the Spanish frigate Lealtad on February 20, 1828. Though
outmanned and outgunned, the Gmerrero virtually wrecked her op-
ponen)t before she was destroyed. David H. Porter was killed in ac-
tion but his brave defense so impressed the Spaniards that they buried
him with high military honors and behaved most humanely toward
the surviving prisoners, among them, Porter's son, David Dixon.27
The spirited defense of the Guerrero at first united Porter and
Mexican officialdom, but later these relations deteriorated. To the
Mexicans, who desperately needed a decisive victory over Spain,
Porter's loss of the Gmerrero was galling. Porter complicated mat-
ters by embarking on a long and acrimonious controversy with Jose
Ignacio Esteva, the secretary of the treasury, over the amount of the
pension to be paid his late nephew's family. Porter also alienated
niany by attempting to install in the Mexican navy the stringent dis-
cipline prevalent in the American and British fleets. El Sol, hitherto
his supporter and, mnore important, the mouthpiece of Manuel Gomez
Pedraza, supposedly the administration's strong man, attacked the
naval commander for his methods and his inability to adapt himself to
Mexican needs and techniques. Although the periodical placed most
of the blame on Porter's subordinates, it called for the appointmnent of
a native Mexican to be commalider in chief.28
Even before the attack by El Sol, Porter had threatened to resign.
His favorite son, Thomas, died June 1, from ". . . that terrible disease
[yellow fever] so fatal in this climate. Thomas was my favorite son
. . . this is my punishment for loving him too much . . . there is no con-
solation for his loss. " '29 In his bitterness he uttered wild and extrava-
gant statements against Esteva, President Victoria, and Go6mez Pedra-
za, claiming that his crews were deserting for lack of pay, and that
both G6omez Pedraza and the president were too weak to control
Esteva.30 To add to Porter's troubles, he was bitten by a tarantula.
While he was recoverilig, he sent Poinsett a series of unbalanced and
fantastic letters.
Arkansas Gazette, April 2, 1828, May 17, 1828; Porter to Poinsett, Feb. 29,
1828, GC; Porter to Poinsett, Feb. 29, 1828 (different letter of same date), GO;
Porter to Poinsett, March 8, 1828, GC; Pedraza, Seeretary of War and Navy, to
Porter, March 27, 1828 (official document in Spanish), GC; Porter to Poinsett,
May 10, 1828, GC; Niles' Week7ly Begister, XXXIV (March 1, 1828), p. 9.
28El Sol, July 28, 1828; ibid., July 30, 1828.
Porter to Poinsett, June 3, 1828, GC.
Porter to Poinsett, July 21, 1828, GC. Other attacks on the governmnent ap-
peared in Porter to Poinsett, Juine 16, 1828, GC; Porter to Poinsett, July 4, 1828,
. . .There is no remedy but absence for what I suffer . . . I ami tormiiented
to death with attempts to thwart and injure me . . . I did not believe there
was such a set of devils in existence. If I may not go to the north, I will
tender my resignation . . . if they will not accept miiy resignation, I will de-
sert; if I cannot desert, I will die . . . Call on Goniez Pedraza immediately
and tell him you know there is an imperious and absolute necessity for my
going immediately . . .3
Porter's disturbed mental state is further illustrated by a letter
he wrote at the tiine of Santa Anna's insurrection against the nationial
governmnent. Normally, Porter had a deep sense of loyalty, but in that
letter he lost all sense of restraint. ". . . I would not have any more
scruples about shedding Mexican blood thanl any other blood . . . the
moving principle of the Mexicanis is self interest . . . Mexieans are
Jews . . . I wish I could leave Mexico.'"32
Despite the difficulties that Porter had encountered and his threats
to resign, he genuinely wanted to complete his job alid build a strong
Mexican navy. Unfortunately, Mexican political instability anld bu-
reaucratie apathy were too much for him. He did not attempt to re-
gain the esteem of President Victoria, whose mind, he claimed, had
been poisoned against him by Esteva.33 However, Porter lingered in
Mexico a year longer. Although he had promised Poinsett to remain
aloof from the forthcoming presidential election, he supported Vicente
Guerrero whom he hoped would restore the prestige of the navy. He
was among the first to send congratulations to Guerrero when the
latter was designated president-elect. His behavior was tactful for
the government commended Porter on his attitude, and he was not
summoned to Jalapa on the occasion of a naval investigation in Janu-
ary of 1829.34 But Porter's bright hopes were soon dashed. "Pray,
are they going to do anything for me?" he asked Poinsett, whose own
position was precarious.35 Everywhere he went, he told the American
envoy he was greeted with the stock answer, "no hay dinero. "36
A lively newspaper war blazed in Veracruz over the payment of
a pension to the family of his late nephew. Porter 's unfortunate
linguistic difficulties had resulted in the pension being made out to
the nephew's widow instead of his mother-the younger Porter was a
bachelor. The elder Porter found himself enmeshed in yards of red
tape in addition to becoming a target of charges that he had defrauded
Porter to Poinsett, July 30, 1828, GC.
Porter to Poinsett, Oct. 18, 1828, GC.
33 Porter to Poinsett, Nov. 28, 1828, GC.
" Niles' Weekly Register, XXXV (Feb. 14, 1829), p. 404; Porter to Poinsett,
Jan. 2, 1829, GC.
Porter to Poinsett, Jan. 10, 1829, GC.
Porter to Poinsett, Feb. 9, 1829, GC.
372 HAHR
the government. For once, he displayed unusual moderation and came
out extremely well. Indeed, had the financial situation improved, he
might have stayed in Mexico, but when only a part of the pension was
paid Porter resignied, September 20, 1829, and prepared to leave
The Mexican navy deteriorated so rapidly after Porter's resignation
that when the Spaniards attacked Tampico in the summer of 1829,
they met with no opposition from the fleet. Porter's behavior during
those months is unknowni. He did not volunteer to lead the defenise
against Spain, and he may have been under some sort of protective
custody.38 Hostility to him had become violent and on two occasions
he had been assaulted, saving his life only by raw courage. His bi-
ographer relates one hand-to-hand battle in which Porter killed a Negro
in Veracruz. Turn-bull also describes another occasion in which Porter
and his friend Dr. Boardman were attacked by a group of brigands,
quoting Porter to the effect that Santa Anina was at the bottom of it.
That unsupported assertion by Porter has some credibility because
Porter had refused to receive Santa Anna when the latter came to
Veracruz, and had warned Poiilsett that Santa Annia was working
openly against Guerrero. He had further antagonized Santa Anna by
declining to attend any of the numerous balls and public affairs given
in his honor.39
President Guerrero paid Porter a flowery tribute when he de-
parted40 but neither was deceived. Both knew the mission had been a
failure. Bitterly Porter wrote Poinsett, ". . . I shall anxiously expect
your arrival and still pray most fervently for your escape from that
deii of devils free from harm. "41 In spite of his failure in Mexico,
Porter returned to the United States with considerable prestige. He
received a flattering reception upon his return home, including an
offer of restoration of his former rank. Two other foreign powers
(not named by Porter) offered him commandls in their navies. Porter
declined, though he needed money. ziVillR no reasons.42
87Notticiosa Comnercial y
Vera Cruz, Feb. 20, 1829, GC; Suplemento
aI Noticioso Comercial
y Cientifico, Vera Cruz, Feb. (24T), 1829, GC; Moctezuma,
Department of War and Marine, to Porter, Feb. 21, 1829, GC; Porter to Mocte-
zuma, Feb. 26, 1829, GO; Montoya to Acedo, May 31, 1829, GC; Montoya (A
signed warrant copy in Spanish), June 27, 1829, GC; Turnbull, Commodore
Porter, p. 300.
38Niles' Weekly Register, XXXVII (Sept. 19, 1829), p. 54.
39Turnbull, Comnmodore Porter, pp. 296-298; Niles' Weekly Register, XXXVI
1829), p. 225; ibid. (July 18, 18.29), p. 334; ibid. (Aug. 8, 1829), p.
381; Porter to Poinsett, March 12, 1829, GC.
Niles' Weekly Register, XXXVII (Oct. 17, 1829), p. 119.
4t Porter to Poinsett, 19, 1829, GC.
Porter to Poinsett, Aug. 19, 1829, GC.
With his departure, Mexico's experiment with a navy drew to a
close. The ships rotted at their docks through the decades that fol-
lowed. The bravery and natural aptitude of the Indian and mestizo
crewmen was forgotten. No ballads commemorating the defense of
the Guerrero exist, to the writer's knowledge.
For the most part, the blame for the fiasco rests on conditions be-
yond the control of those involved. Victoria might have done more
to reassure Porter, which was what the latter needed.43 Porter, on
his part, should have grasped the realities of the situation and adapted
his plans to them. Misled by dreams of grandeur and a genuine desire
to prove himself superior to those colleagues in the American navy
who had court-nartialed him, he evidently expected Mexico to dupli-
cate the American navy, something beyond Mexican financial re-
sources. His failure helped to prevent the development of a naval
tradition and a recognition of the importanee of sea power which, if
it had grown from these small beginnings, might have influenced both
the international situation of Mexico and its domestic politics.
Porter frequently asked Poinsett how he, Porter, stood with the government.
See Porter to Poinsett, Aug. 15, 1826, GC; ibid, Jan. 19-20, 1827, GC.