The combat of the obligatory return
The supremacy of the navigation of the rivers of the Plata estuary had become the main focus of conflict that confronted Juan Manuel de Rosas—governor of the province of Buenos Aires and in charge of Foreign Relations of the Confederation—with France and England. , the two European powers that were unaware of Argentine sovereignty over those river courses that navigated without authorization with their modern vessels equipped with steam propulsion.
This recurrent intrusion into Argentine territorial waters was not an occasional practice, but rather obeyed the particular idea of free trade supported by those hegemonic nations and which consisted of the exchange of products from coastal lands for overseas manufactures, without passing through Buenos Aires or pay taxes to the Buenos Aires Customs, an income that that province did not share with the other provinces.
The Anglo-French fleet anchored in Montevideo, a deep-water port, used to sail up the Paraná to Asunción in Paraguay, touching intermediate ports to trade. The president of the Eastern Republic of Uruguay was Manuel Oribe, head of the Blanco Party and ally of Rosas, while Fructuoso Rivera, a leader of the Colorado Party, had supported during his presidency the alliance that the emigrated Unitarians articulated with the European powers to confront to the Rosa regime. The climax of this strategy had taken place in 1840, when that alliance promoted the failed campaign of General Juan Lavalle. During all those years, the Anglo-French fleet operated at ease, even blocking the port of Buenos Aires to force the Argentine government to accept its conditions, which were basically the free navigability of inland rivers.
In 1845, Rosas was already ten years into his second and long term. Once diplomatic channels were exhausted, Rosas entrusted General Lucio Norberto Mansilla—his brother-in-law, father of the writer Lucio V. Mansilla—to put a stop to these river incursions. With this objective, as there was no naval squadron, the batteries located in the so-called Vuelta de Obligado, a bend in the Paraná River near the Buenos Aires town of San Pedro, were ordered to be reinforced, where the boats had to reduce their speed and approach the shore, then being at the mercy of the cannonade. The mission mobilized line soldiers and militiamen, most of them local gauchos, including women, who made every effort to ensure that the preparations were ready in time to go into action.
The enemy fleet, made up of almost a hundred merchant ships with their holds full of European merchandise and a score of artillery ships that guarded them, arrived at that point on November 20, 1845 and found that thick chains tied to a line of boats prevented the passage to the north, while projectiles rained down from the top of the ravines, amidst cheers for the country uttered loudly by the enthusiastic defenders every time a shot hit the target.
The confrontation lasted several hours, until the cannonade subsided and the enemy landed, trying to win the riverside positions stoically defended by the decimated Creole militias. There were numerous casualties and Mansilla himself was badly injured by a projectile that took him out of combat.
At the end of the day, the invading fleet was barely able to cut the chains and sail up the mighty river towards Paraguay. Left behind were the remains of boats, smoking logs and dozens of bodies floating in the brown waters of the river. Every so often, during the river’s downflows, remains of those chains appear (image).
Although Mansilla and his people could not claim victory that day, nor achieve their ultimate goal—preventing the passage of the enemy fleet—they fully fulfilled their duty, offering heroic resistance. Although traditional historiography ignored it, the event had high symbolic value and was a severe wake-up call to all countries in the world that, like France and England, had claims over the national territory, claiming control of the waters. Not in vain, the peace treaties of 1849 and 1850 validated the Argentine position.
The combat of the Vuelta de Obligado earned Juan Manuel de Rosas the recognition of his contemporaries, among them General San Martín, who, although he lived in France, rewarded him for that and other actions in defense of sovereignty, bequeathing him his historic saber.
In 1974, the date was declared “National Sovereignty Day” (Law 20,770) and since 2010 it has been a national holiday.
The post first appeared on nuevarioja.com.ar