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Chapultepec: 4 January 1916.

The Chapultepec Incident was an attack on the Federal Prison in Chapultepec, Capital District on 4 January 1916, to free 8,000 imprisoned Negro slaves. The attack made slavery the leading political issue in the United States of Mexico in the late 1910s.

Chapultepec Treason Trials[]

During the 1914 Hundred Day War between the U.S.M. and France, French troops advanced on Mexico City from their beachhead in Tampico in late July and August. The French troops freed any Negro slaves they encountered during their advance through Durango, and some 8,000 freed slaves joined the French.

The French were defeated on 28 August at the Battle of Chapultepec, and forced to surrender unconditionally. Afterwards, President Victoriano Consalus ordered the freed slaves arrested and put on trial for treason. Senator Albert Ullman, the leader of the Liberty Party, argued that the slaves' actions during the French invasion were understandable under the circumstances, that a better response would be to abolish slavery in the U.S.M., and that it was illegal to try the slaves for treason, since they were not held to be citizens under Mexican law. The governments of Great Britain, the Germanic Confederation, and Italy protested, as did other nations, and the Pope sent a special plea to President Consalus asking for clemency.

Early in 1915, Governor Howard Washburne of Southern Vandalia demanded that the imprisoned slaves be released. On 10 February he went further, calling for the abolition of slavery in the U.S.M. Governor-General Albert Merriman apologized to Consalus, but Washburne's stand was a popular one in the Confederation of North America. The people of Southern Vandalia rallied behind Washburne, and within a week he had formed an organization called Friends of Black Mexico to work for clemency for the imprisoned slaves and the abolition of Mexican slavery. Thirty-four members of the Grand Council's Liberal Party caucus signed a petition supporting the Washburne statement, and Washburne himself stepped down as governor to devote all his efforts to the F.B.M.

Attack on the Federal Prison[]

By December 1915 the tumult had died down somewhat, when Judge Homer Mattfield of the Mexico Tribunal, which was presiding over the trials, announced that a final verdict would be handed down on 5 January 1916. Crowds began to gather in Chapultepec on 30 December, some to celebrate the New Year, but most to hold a silent vigil in support of the prisoners. The two groups clashed, and soldiers were sent from Mexico City to quell the disturbances. Most of the troops returned to Mexico City on 3 January after the disturbances ended, but the Chapultepec police and a select unit of the District Guard were stationed near the Federal Prison.

Just before dawn on 4 January, fires broke out in the Negro section of Chapultepec, and riots followed. The police were sent to the area to put down the riot, leaving the Federal Prison largely unguarded. At that point, more than 2,000 young people, including many North Americans, stormed the Federal Prison and freed the imprisoned slaves, at a cost of 1,166 dead and some 4,000 injured.

The next day, investigators at the Federal Prison reported that some of the prison guards had cooperated with the attackers, and that at least 200 of the 549 attackers who had died during the attack were North American citizens. Consalus ordered the Mexican Army on the alert and sent the Navy out of ports, while residents of Anglo and Hispano areas of the country began to arm against a feared slave rebellion and possible North American invasion.

Consalus and Merriman held a series of telephone conversations, and Merriman announced on 6 January that those North American citizens who had participated in the Chapultepec Incident had done so "without the knowledge of this government and certainly without its sanction. Measures will be taken at once to ensure that further incidents involving C.N.A. citizens in Chapultepec and other parts of the United States of Mexico will be prevented." Within the next two weeks, the passports of 10,970 North Americans then in Mexico were revoked, and their holders were told they must leave within three days. Eventually 232 of them were seized by the C.B.I. and charged with "actions injurious to the nation." 154 of them were found to be directly or indirectly involved in the Chapultepec Incident and were sentenced to prison.

The Slavery Dilemma[]

Before the Chapultepec Incident, slavery was not considered an important issue in the U.S.M. Reformers concentrated their attention on equal rights for Mexicanos and women, and Kramer Associates President Douglas Benedict did not consider manumission necessary for a stable nation. After the Incident, slavery became a national obsession. Every unfamiliar Negro was suspected of being a runaway, and there were constant fears of slave rebellions. Libertarian politicians known to favor manumission were hounded by their opponents, and in March Ullman was shot at while entering his home. By the summer of 1916 any Mexican Negro found in Anglo or Hispano neighborhoods ran a strong risk of being killed. Consalus was forced to institute a program of internal passports, and curfews were enforced in Tampico, Vera Cruz, and Mexico City.

Consalus established a number of commissions to investigate slavery in the U.S.M., and a series of reports on the subject were issued in 1916 and 1917. The best-known was the Holmes Report, authored by Theodore Holmes, a major Mexican scholar. Holmes proposed that Negro slaves be freed, but since he believed that Negroes could not live peacefully with the other races in Mexico, they should be allowed to emigrate, possibly to the C.N.A.

Consalus rejected Holmes' plan to allow the Negroes to emigrate. "One day," he said, "they may return to haunt us." However, he was unable to come up with an alternative. "If I retain the institution I will be pilloried. Should I ask for its end, I will be crushed."

It was not until 1920 that Consalus' successor, President Emiliano Calles, dealt with the issue by abolishing slavery in the U.S.M.


Sobel's sources for the Chapultepec Incident are Theodore Holmes (editor)'s The Rainbow Nation and Other Papers (Mexico City, 1925), Harold Walker's The Boil: Free Slaves in the Hundred Day War (New York, 1955), The Chapultapec Affair: Doorway to Today (New York, 1958), and Black Lloyd: The Life of Howard Washburne (New York, 1970), Jerome Krinz's Victoriano Consalus and the Politics of Race (New York, 1960), and Clyde Herman's The Gathering Storm: The End of U.S.M. Slavery (New York, 1967)

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