The French blockade of the Río de la Plata (March 28, 1838 to October 29, 1840), whereby the French Navy closed the port of Buenos Aires for over two years, was a major event in Latin American history that had long-lasting implications, as it set a precedent for continued European and American intervention in the region. From the U.S. perspective, it also showed the impotence of the ‘Monroe Doctrine’, in that Washington was not yet powerful enough to dissuade European powers from adventures in the Americas.
The circumstances surrounding the blockade are incredibly complex. To make a very long story short, Argentina was then a loose confederation of states, dominated by Buenos Aires Province (which included the eponymous city), as opposed to being a unitary political entity. This arrangement was controversial, as the Argentine establishment was split into the Unitiarios (Unitarians), who wanted Argentina to become a centralized, unitary state, while the Federales (Federalists) preferred the status quo.
The Federales were led by the charismatic Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793 – 1877), the Governor of Buenos Aires (1835-52), lionized by his supporters as the ‘Restorer of Laws’, who wanted to maintain a decentralized system so that Buenos Aires would not have to share its great bounty of customs revenues with Argentina’s poorer provinces. To make matters more complex, the Argentine conflict dovetailed into the War of the Confederation (1836-9), a civil conflict that involved Peru and Bolivia, with the Bolivian generalissimo Andrés de Santa Cruz providing crucial support to the Unitarios. The Argentine struggle was also caught up in the Uruguayan Civil War (1839-51), with the Unitarios supporting the Colorado party, led by Fructuoso Rivera, and the Federales supporting the Blanco party, led by Manel Oribe.
The reason why France, Britain and other European powers were interested in the civil conflict in Argentina and neighbouring countries was that the Unitarios were proponents of free trade (good for Europe), while the Federales were in favour of protectionism (bad for Europe). Argentine trade with France and Britain through the Buenos Aires port was immense, so there was a lot of money at stake.
Both France and Britain preferred a Unitarios regime, however, London was determined to maintain a cautious approach, while Paris was eager for confrontation. France sent the hot-headed Aimé Roger to be their envoy to Buenos Aires. He had a mandate to present Rosas and his foreign minister, Felipe Benicio de la Paz Arana, with unreasonable demands (please see below), delivered at gunpoint. The French (correctly) assumed that Rosas would not agree to said blackmail, at which point the French Navy would blockade Buenos Aires’s port, and further believed that this would deliver a death blow to the province’s economy. They (naively) assumed that this would stoke public anger against Rosas and force him out of power, giving way to weak and plaint Federale leadership.
A French Navy fleet, commanded by Admiral Louis François Jean Leblanc, successfully sealed off the port of Buenos Aires, beginning on March 28, 1838, severely harming the economy of the province. Yet, Rosas dug-in and refused to concede. Instead of resenting Rosas, the citizenry saw him a heroic figure and his popularity went through the roof. The longer the siege dragged on, the more the costs weighed on the French treasury, and the more it seems to have strengthen Rosas’s administration. In this context, the present work fulfils a pro-Federale propagandist purpose, as it shows the French to be petulant, unjust and a touch impotent, while Arana (and by extension, Rosas) is shown to be strong, measured and dignified.
Eventually, Britain lost patience with France’s fiasco, and placed pressure upon Paris to abandon the endeavour. At the same time, even the most ardent diehards in Paris realized that the writing was on the wall. With the Mackau-Arana Treaty, France ended the blockade on October 29, 1840, leaving Rosas and Federales as the victors in the victors in the Argentine civil conflicts – at least for the time being. Rosas maintained his protectionist trade policies, much to consternation of European powers.
However, just to show that history repeats itself, and that most countries never learn from their mistakes, Britain and France mounted the five-year-long Anglo-French Blockade of the Río de la Plata (1845-50), against the Rosas regime, for similar reasons (i.e., Buenos Aires’s continued protectionist trade policies). The blockade ended with the same result, with Britain and France forced to withdraw, acknowledging the sovereignty of the Argentine Confederation. Yet, the failures of both blockades would not dissuade foreign powers – namely the United States – from mounting costly interventions in Latin America up to the present day, often with disastrous results.
The Present Work in Focus
The present work is a clever piece of pro-Federale propaganda, and is of the best kind, as it is predicated upon entirely factual information. It is a collection of unaltered correspondence between the French Consul Aimé Roger and the Argentine Confederation Foreign Minister Felipe Benicio de la Paz Arana y Andonaegui (1786 – 1865), plus supporting documents. The entire work, consisting of 37 documents, is printed in parallel French-English text, as the work was geared towards an international audience, with French being the established global diplomatic language, while the English text was ideally meant to be consumed by British officials in the hopes that they would pressure France to back down (which eventually happened after over 2 years!).
In essence, it outlines Roger’s three demands to Arana that: 1) a pair of French citizens in custody in Buenos Aires be released. These prisoners included César Hipólito Bacle, who was accused of selling sensitive Argentine military cartography to Bolivia, an enemy of the Federales; and Pedro Lavié, who was accused of stealing from an Argentine army regiment in Dolores. 2) That two other dual French-Argentine citizens be excused from military service. 3) In what was by far the biggest ‘ask’, Roger demanded that France be granted “most favoured nation” trading status, which would confer it extensive commercial privileges that would destroy Rosa’s protectionist economic regime. While the first two demands were modest and could have been consented to without too much trouble, the final issue was something that Rosas and Arana could never concede, at least not without being compelled to do so by military force. The documents include Arana’s resolutely unyielding responses to Roger’s demands.
The propaganda effect of the work is that it essentially shows Roger and the French side to be arrogant, unreasonable, petulant and increasingly impotent, while Arana’s tone is calm, measured, dignified and defiant. Any objective reader would be inclined to side with the Argentine Confederation.
There appears to have been two editions of the work. The present issue, which we presume to be the first edition, contains 37 documents and is 229 pages long, while what is apparently the second edition was expanded to include 50 documents, with a collation of 265 pages.
Also, pro-Federale operatives in Montevideo issued a version of the present work with text in Spanish, French and English, Oficio del cónsul encargado interinamente del Consulado General de Francia en Buenos Ayres, al Sr. Ministro de Relaciones Exteriores de la Confederación Argentina reclamando a nombre del derecho de gentes, para que los franceses, que publica y notoriamente se hallan establecidos en la República… contestación del Sr. Ministro y otros documenos relativos al mismo asunto (Montevideo: Impr. Oriental, 1838).
A Note on Rarity
The present work is very rare, we can locate 6 institutional examples of either of the editions, held by the Universidad de Buenos Aires – Facultad de Ciencias Económicas; Biblioteca Nacional de Chile; New York Public Library; Boston Atheneum; University of Kansas – Wheat Law Library; and the Universitätsbibliothek der Eberhard Karls Universität (Tübingen). Beyond that, we can trace only a single sales record from the last 25 years, in an Argentine auction catalogue.
References: Universidad de Buenos Aires – Facultad de Ciencias Económicas: AHA 025291; Biblioteca Nacional de Chile: 327.55082; New York Public Library: *KF 1838 (France. Consulate. Buenos Aires. Official note from the consul); Boston Atheneum: EW .1838 .f; University of Kansas – Wheat Law Library: 1729938; Universitätsbibliothek der Eberhard Karls Universität (Tübingen): Fo XXVIII 39; OCLC: 55277083, 311188308, 37178962; SABIN, no. 9028; Jorge C. BOHDZIEWICZ, Impresos relativos a la guerra franco-argentina, 1835-1842: contribución bibliográfica y crítica (Buenos Aires, 1982), p. 24.