Mexico at Sea
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
February 2016

Despite Mexico’s huge cultural, economic and political influence and very long coastline, she has never been known as a naval power. The Mexican Empire declared in 1821 was a very large state, stretching from what today is British Columbia to Panama, but with a very weak hold on much of this territory. Central America broke away in 1823 and Texas in 1835, and a decade later what would become the American Southwest was lost after a disastrous war with the United States.

In all of these conflicts, the Mexican Navy played little role. In 1829, a Spanish squadron from Cuba landed troops at Veracruz in an abortive attempt to reconquer Mexico for Spain. A Mexican army besieged them there and eventually forced their surrender, but the tiny Mexican navy played no part.

Launching the Brazilian Deodoro, later Mexico’s battleship Anahuac.

When Texas rose in revolt in 1835, the tiny Texas Navy was able to fight Mexico’s little fleet to a standstill. Mexico, with just three brigs and two schooners plus a handful of revenue cutters, faced several converted merchantmen flying the Lone Star flag. The Mexicans also fought a series of naval skirmishes resulting from a French intervention in 1838 and a revolt in Yucatan the next year.

The Mexicans blockaded Texas in 1837, but their squadron was shot up by a single American warship, the sloop Natchez, which captured the brig General Urrea. The federal government apologized and ordered her returned, but it was a great embarrassment for the Mexican fleet. Later that year two Texan warships prowled the Mexican coast, burning villages and capturing merchant ships, until a storm drove them ashore.

The naval war continued, with the Texans allying with Yucatan and the Mexicans buying new steam-powered warships, including the sidewheeler Guadeloupe, the world’s first iron-hulled warship. In the summer of 1842 Mexican Cdr. Tomás Marín led an expedition that wiped out Yucatan’s navy. The next summer six Mexican warships, their crews badly depleted by yellow fever, fought a pair of Texan ships off Yucatan, with no result.

The Mexican fleet was of no use against the United States; the central government forbade privateering and the regular warships were not match for the American fleet. The Americans had control of the sea and when a large American fleet landed troop at Veracruz in 1847, the Mexcian warships did not interfere.

In the decades of unrest that followed, the Mexican navy seldom received much interest. The French-supported Emperor Maximilian had been commander of the Austrian navy and hoped to build a modern fleet for his new country, but this project had very low priority. His successor, the dictator Porfirio Diaz, ordered a series of four warships in the mid-1870s, designed to act as combine gunboat-transports. A small training cruiser was added in 1891, and four new gunboat-transports were ordered in 1902 to replace the first series. Two small cruiser-transports joined the fleet in 1908. The largest of them, the 1,8000-ton General Guerrero, was fitted to carry 45 horses and several field pieces in addition to her standard armament of six 4-inch guns.

Diaz was overthrown in 1910, starting over a decade of civil war and general unrest in which the tiny navy played little part. In 1924, Mexico began a careful rebuilding of her naval strength. The Mexicans scrapped a number of their older warships and purchased the coast defense battleship Maréchal Deodoro from Brazil for the bargain price of 8,000 Brazilian contos. The Brazilians then used the take to build a mine-laying submarine in Italy. The Mexicans re-named their new battleship Anahuac, after the Aztec name for the Valley of Mexico, and used her mostly for training for the next 14 years. She appears in Great War at Sea: U.S. Navy Plan Gold in her Mexican colors; as a Brazilian unit she’s found in the out-of-print Cone of Fire.

The Mexican goverment established warm relations with the Spanish Republic in the mid-1930s, and during the Spanish Civil War Mexico was a staunch supporter of the Republican cause, provinding the largest contingent of foreign volunteers. Before the war broke out Mexico bought three patrol sloops, a new gunboat-transport and 10 small patrol craft from Spanish shipyards. Mexico was the only member of the League of Nations to condemn the German annexation of Austria in 1938, and remained a determined foe of facsism during World War II as the only Latin American nation to actively participate in the war against Japan.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.