In 1818, while the future Republic of Mexico and other Spanish-owned regions in South America were fighting a war of independence against their mother country, California was still a remote, geographically isolated province. The residents there considered themselves far removed from this struggle, therefore unconcerned, until a flamboyant Argentinean revolutionary decided that the crusade for freedom deserved the Californian’s assistance—or their punishment, if support was not forthcoming.
Indeed, authorities had warned the Californians that trouble might come from South American privateers who had outfitted vessels for raiding Spanish ports on the Pacific. Despite that warning, the citizens of Monterey—the province’s capital—were shocked to learn that two hostile warships had attempted to attack Santa Cruz on November 20, 1818, right across the bay from them, and were headed in their direction. Luckily, because of that prior warning, they did have a preliminary plan. The province’s colonial governor Pablo de Solá immediately put that plan into action, ordering the men to prepare for battle, and the women and children to retreat to an inland rancho.
At dawn on November 21, the enemy frigate Santa Rosa approached the shore and fired a broadside at the artillery fort which was on a hillock overlooking Monterey Bay. After two hours of artillery dueling, during which the invading Santa Rosa suffered substantial damage, the privateer-insurgents lowered their flag in token of surrender—but not before sending six boatloads of men to their larger ship, the Argentina.
The Californians demanded that some responsible person be sent ashore, so a ship’s officer and two sailors landed. After questioning them, Governor Solá sent them to the guardhouse because of their “lies and frivolous excuses.”
Then it got worse. Hipolito (Hippolyte) Bouchard, the French-born, naturalized citizen of Buenos Aires who commanded the Argentina, sent another officer—under a flag of truce—bearing a formal demand for the surrender of the province. Governor Pablo de Solá, a colonel in the regular Spanish army, refused. He and his countrymen, he replied, were of course loyal to Spain, and would repel any attempt to capture their land.
But early the following morning, nine smaller boats, four of them carrying small cannon, came ashore with more than 300 armed men. The town’s defense consisted of just 25 cavalrymen and 15 artillerymen. Solá ordered Monterey’s cannons spiked and its powder magazines blown up; then the governor and his troops retreated inland to join the women and children at Rancho del Rey, near modern day Salinas. They took one cannon, two boxes of gunpowder, 6,000 musket cartridges, and all the official government documents.
The invaders stayed in Monterey for five days, during which time they repaired their ships, ransacked and looted the town’s dwellings, destroyed orchards and gardens, and carried off beef and other supplies. As a last act, they set fire to roof beams in the presidio before sailing south to attack a rancho near Santa Barbara. Afterward, they continued southward to plunder Mission San Juan Capistrano and then raid ports in mainland Mexico.
The Monterey invasion was a close call, and a humiliating experience for the Californians—long bitterly remembered as an invasion by “pirates.”
Argentina, however, remembers Hippolyte Bouchard as a hero and a patriot for his earlier role in defending Buenos Aires from a Spanish blockade. He was killed by one of his servants on January 4, 1837, in Peru.