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Fooling the Commandante: Celebrating San Jacinto Day in a Mexico City Prison

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February 5, 2012 - The walls surrounding George Wilkins Kendall and his Santa Fe Expedition comrades during their imprisonment had long symbolized conquest and oppression.  The Church and Convent of Santiago stood at the very spot in Mexico City at which the Aztecs had made their final stand against the ruthless conquistador Hernan Cortes.  Tens of thousands had died by Spanish steel.  His victory secured, Cortes ordered the demolition of the Aztec temples occupying the plaza.  Upon their foundations arose the massive colonial church and convent.  At the time of his 1842 arrival, George Kendall estimated that 10 to 15 monks still occupied the complex.  For them it was home.  For Kendall and the Texans it was a dungeon.

 

Church and Convent of Santiago.  George Kendall and the other Santa Fe Expedition prisoners were held in the red convent building at right.  The building has since been painted yellow.In his memoir of the failed Santa Fe Expedition, Kendall expressed dismay at the treatment that all of the captured men received.  But, given his status as an American citizen he felt especially violated.  Furthermore, at the time of his capture he carried a passport issued by the Mexican consul in New Orleans as well as a letter from Texas President Mirabeau Lamar disavowing any official role on Kendall's part.  Neither of the documents saved him.

Exterior view of the Convent of SantiagoUpon arrival at Santiago Kendall discovered with disgust that the Texans were held in chains.  At daybreak guards marched the chained men into the streets of Mexico City for forced labor.  By night the men slept on stone floors wearing their chains.  To his great relief, though, Kendall learned from his fellows that a few coins slipped to the blacksmith forging his manacles bought him a job sloppy enough to allow him to slip his chains at will.  Unchained when left alone, the men nevertheless kept their fetters within arm's reach in case of a surprise visit from the commandante.  Unlike many of the guards watching over them, the commanante, according to Kendall, "was tyrannical and overbearing in his disposition, and used his best exertions to keep the prisoners continually in chains."

Thomas Lubbock escaped from the Convent of Santiago by leaping from a balconey to an adjacent building.  Afterwards, the Mexicans sealed off the balconey.By the time of his transfer to Santiago, Kendall had long dreamed of escape.  But prospects for a successful jailbreak from the convent seemed bleak.  True, Thomas Lubbock and a Frenchman named Mazur had accomplished this by leaping from a balconey to an adjacent building, but that point of egress had quickly been bricked over by the Mexicans.  One entered the facility via a narrow passage sealed at either end by heavy doors.  Several guards slept in this passage at night.  Inside was a courtyard surrounded on all sides by stone buildings, the Texans occupying rooms on two sides of the square.  On one side was a stairwell descending from the second floor into a garden outside of the main complex, but a guard stationed at the doorway to the garden barred access to all but the monks.  Massive exterior stone walls precluded any thought of a direct breakout, as did the absence of windows in the rooms used as cells.  Kendall therefore saw only three possible methods of escape: bribing a guard, procuring keys for the doors at the rear of the complex, or slipping into the garden disguised as a monk.  He thought the latter represented the best option.

Another view of the outer wall of the Convent of Santiago.  The church is in the background.In the meantime, though, Kendall wore chains like everybody else.  Barred by circumstances from engaging in open defiance, Kendall and his comrades sought other means of thumbing their noses at the Mexicans.  Feigning sickness was relatively easy and kept a man from being sent out to work.  But many actually enjoyed a chance to leave the compound for a bit of fresh air and exercise.  Shovels in hand, the prisoners were skilled at appearing to work hard while accomplishing little.  Kendall recalled with amusement that an Irishman named Jimmy Tweed "had exerted himself all day to ascertain how little he could do; and the result . . . was that he had thrown one shovelful of mud from the ditch, but in so doing he had contrived to tumble three back!"

George Wilkins KendallForced attendance of Catholic mass offered the Texans another opportunity for deceiving their captors.  Each Sunday the men were "paraded in rows before the altar, and compelled to fall upon their knees" for the duration of the service.  Kendall calculated that none of the men were Catholic, yet as the priest began "the assumed air of grave devotion to be seen in their faces would have done credit to the most rigid of that creed."  Several of the men had studied the devotions well enough to mimic the motions of the faithful.  As the Mexicans in attendance crossed themselves, so did the Texans "but instead of stopping with their Catholic neighbours, they wound up by placing the right thumb to the tip of their noses . . .  [and] circl[ing] the fingers about."  When time came for another round of crossing a whispered order to "come the double compound action" elicited a repeat performance "but this time the left thumb was joined to the little finger of the right hand, and then commenced a series of fancy gyrations with all the fingers, the like of which was probably never before seen in a Catholic church."

Only months after their release from Santiago, both George Bonnell and Richard Mier were killed as a result of their participation in the ill-fated Mier Expedition.  Brenham's remains lie with many of his colleagues under a monument in La Grange.Kendall awoke the morning of April 21, 1842 to unusual bustle and excitment among his comrades.  This was the sixth anniversary of the Texian victory over Santa Anna and the Mexican army at San Jacinto and the prisoners intended to celebrate.  Several Americans living in Mexico City had donated a half dozen turkeys, wine, liquor, and other luxuries, which the prisoners had supplemented by purchasing what they could on the streets of the city while marching to and from their labor.  The Texans aimed to begin the party in the early afternoon, but how could they convince their captors to excuse them from their work?  Several Spanish-speaking prisoners approached the officers with the claim that April 21st was the patron saint's day of Texas.  The officers gladly gave their consent for a shortened work day.  Kendall saw this as proof that the Mexican officers were completely ignorant of the day's true meaning, for as "liberal and accomodating" as the young men were, "they would not have dared grant the Texans permission to celebrate a victory which had lost their country one of its most valuable provinces, and this under the nose of Santa Anna himself."

As the work gangs left Santiago, several of the more artistic prisoners remained behind with feigned illness.  They spent the morning painting the walls of their jail cells with Texas flags and glorious battle scenes.  An unidentified poet wrote a ballad, which another volunteered to sing.  Planners created and filled the posts of toastmaster, orator, and master of ceremonies, as well as several others.  By the time the work crews returned "every necessary preparation had been made for a regular celebration."

During the San Jacinto Day celebration, the Texan prisoners enjoyed belting out several patriotic songs, including Hail Columbia.Even before the announced dinner hour of three o'clock, several non-Mexican city residents had arrived to participate in the festivities.  One man, a veteran of San Jacinto, regaled the crowd with heroic tales of the struggle.  Everyone enjoyed a feast of roast beef and turkey, after which dishes and utensils were stowed and the party began in earnest.  Several of the prisoners offered speeches or toasts, foremost among them George Bonnell and Richard Brenham, namesake of the Washington County town.  As the men became drunk, "the hilarity and general good feeling increased."  Men danced, played music, and belted out "Hail Columbia," "The Star Spangled Banner," and patriotic songs about Texas.  Town visitors playfully placed the prisoners' chains around their own ankles.  American hero George Washington received numerous toasts.  So festive was the atmosphere and so successful were the Texans with their ruse that "the younger Mexican officers took part in a celebration which to them must have been strange, drinking several toasts which were highly complimentary to the Texans." 

Detail from Henry McArdle's 1895 painting of the Battle of San JacintoDarkness halted the party, but not the fun.  Even locked away in their cells, many of the Texans continued to sing and "uproarious merriment helped still farther to enliven the scene."  Thus, according to Kendall, while in another part of the city Santa Anna undoubtedly brooded over his memories from San Jacinto, "a crowd of jovial Texan prisoners were celebrating that very victory in another part, and in chains."  As Kendall noted, though, "their limbs were fettered, but their minds were free."  And thus a gang of imprisoned Texans believed they had triumphed yet again.


Jeffrey Kerr
Written on Sunday, 05 February 2012 20:55 by Jeffrey Kerr

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