California In Argentine Hands: A Brief History Lesson

08/23/2011 08:23 am ET | Updated Oct 24, 2011

Hardly anyone in the United States, or even Argentina, knows this nowadays, but for a moment in history, what is now the US state of California was under the Argentine flag. This happened during Argentina's war of independence against Spain, when it sent a naval mission to harass Spanish shipping and possessions everywhere in the world - and that included California at the time.

Possibly the one place in the US where these events are keenly kept in mind, although with an arguably mistaken slant, is San Juan Capistrano. An attack by the Argentine expedition is still re-enacted annually there. It is good for its civic spirit, and for tourism.
The Spanish rulers at the time did not see the Argentine raid as part of the anti-Spanish revolutionary uprising. This insurrection was spreading through much of the Americas - emulating the US's revolutionary rebellion against Britain some years earlier. But the Spanish regarded the Argentine visit simply as pirate raiding. This interpretation survived in San Juan Capistrano even when California, and all Mexico, also became independent of Spain, and later when the territory was taken from Mexico by the United States. San Juan Capistrano is famous for its migrating swallows. It is ironic that the swallows, with a fine disregard for political nuances, always choose Argentina as the other terminus of their yearly travels.

There was an underpinning for the interpretation of Argentina's actions in California as piracy. It was that the Argentine ships that briefly took control of the territory weren't part of a formal navy. They were privateers commissioned by its government. In those days, however, privateering was regarded as different from piracy, by all save those on its receiving end. Spain itself had issued its own privateering rules in 1801, and Argentina embarked on its privateering adventures under those rules. The United States used the system against Britain in the war of 1812.

But for the current citizens of San Juan Capistrano putting on their costumes for the annual replay of the attack, the word "pirates" naturally sounds sexier than "anti-colonial fighters."

In 1817, when the Argentine expedition set out, and 1818, when it reached California after circumnavigating the globe, the territory was part of the vice-royalty of New Spain. Its capital was in Monterey. The foray was led by Hipólito Bouchard, an Argentine citizen born in France who in the previous decade had studied navigation in the US. He was a fire-breathing tough, always spoiling for combat - a quality which several countries, one after the other, channeled usefully in their wars.

Getting to California was no pleasure jaunt. There was mutiny on board - before even setting out. Then, an episode in Africa led to official protests by both France and Britain: Argentina had already proclaimed a form of emancipation in 1813, and Bouchard forcibly freed slaves on Madagascar who were being loaded on French and British ships.

After that came Malay pirates, who didn't know who they were tangling with, and didn't live to warn others about him. Next, Argentine mutineers from an earlier expedition, who were hiding in Hawaii, about as far they could get, found it wasn't far enough. (Like California, Hawaii hadn't been incorporated by the US in those days; it was independent.) Bouchard only found serious opposition in scurvy. The disease decimated his crew twice over: it killed 20 percent of his 200 men.

When the two-ship Argentine fleet approached Monterey, the local government cautiously retreated inland, leaving the defense to the soldiers in the presidio, or fort, and to pro-Spain militiamen. The fort won the first skirmish: an exchange of cannon fire with one of the Argentine vessels, which was forced to surrender. But during the garrison's nighttime "victory" celebrations, Bouchard's men were busy rescuing their comrades who had been taken prisoner and hadn't been injured.

The next morning, November 24, 1818, the attackers came on land. The local forces proved no match for them in the open. Then the Argentines scaled the walls of the presidio from the rear, and the fight within was quickly over.

The flag of a Hispanic but now independent South American country, Argentina, was hoisted over the capital of California. It stayed there for five days.

The pounce against San Juan Capistrano came later. And not before the anti-Spanish raiders, beginning their return to South America, burned down the Monterey presidio, plus the property of the royalist garrison (though not that of the local population). The same was done to a coastal ranch whose owners were strongly pro-Spanish and had dealt harshly with the pro-independence element among the population. Bouchard also made a prisoner exchange with the Spaniards in Santa Barbara.

After the landing in San Juan Capistrano, the Argentine expedition left the area that was later to become United Sates territory.