Corpse of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico

The Last Emperor of Mexico: A Disaster in the New World

Edward Shawcross, Faber & Faber, January 2022, 336 pages, £20

KEN BELL reflects on a Mexico that might have been

Mexico has only ever had one ruler who cared about the Indians and he was shot by order of an Indian. Mexican humour always has a deadpan kick. How that ruler, an Austrian, ended up in Mexico only to die there is the subject of Edward Shawcross’ book, and a very good account it is of the whole ludicrously tragic event.

This disaster came in three acts, with the first being set in Mexico and created by the local politicians. The country became independent of Spain in 1821 and within 20 years had gone through 11 presidents, only one of whom had completed his term in office. Mexico had also managed to have an emperor who didn’t last long, either, before being shot [EDITOR’S NOTE: Agustín of Mexico, reigned 1822-3]. In the 1840s a lost war with the United States had stripped the country of its northern territories, and a decade later a civil war had added to the nation’s woes.

The author overstates his case by putting most of the blame on the United States, and ignoring the role of Mexicans as the authors of their own misfortunes. For instance, Mexico could probably have fended off America’s ambitions in the 1840s by recognising the independence of Texas, which they had lost in 1836. Britain quite liked having a free trade republic that bought British goods and sold cotton to Lancashire, and with a bit of prodding from Mexico would probably have guaranteed the independence of the Republic of Texas, thus giving Mexico a buffer state. Mexico was not prepared to do that as politicians outdid each other in their bombastic determination to promise that Texas would be restored to la patria. It is perhaps not surprising Texan politicians preferred the embrace of the United States, but with a bit more Mexican astuteness it might have been averted.

At root, Mexico’s problems came about because of the internal divisions in the country, divisions intensified by the fact that political factions organised themselves within the secrecy of Masonic lodges. Thus politics became a kind of conspiracy, fought out by factions behind closed doors. Politicians outdid themselves in promising to rain hellfire down on the United States and those who would betray the nation by compromising with Washington, before trotting off to the American embassy to try and negotiate some backroom deal. Shawcross shows that out of this chaos, two political factions emerged. The first was the conservative-monarchists who had managed to lose the War of Reform in the 1850s and were gagging for revenge. The others were the liberal-republicans who wanted a federal republic in Mexico based upon the example of the United States.

For the second act, Shawcross looks at events in Europe, a factor often overlooked, especially by Mexican historians who often seem to treat the French intervention as just another act of colonialism when actually it was far more. Catholic Europe by the 1850s had become afraid of the rising power of the Protestant United States. Napoleon III was an autocrat, but of a very modern kind, who believed in constitutions and science. He was a great fan of the newly developed science of statistics and his statisticians told him that the two million people in the USA in 1763 had become ‘32 million in 1863 and calculated that in 1963 it would be 512 million.’

It was fear of the growing USA that led the French to conjure up the notion of Latin America, with themselves as the head of a Pan-Latin movement to connect Catholic Europe to Catholic America and fend off the rising USA. Thus, Mexican conservatives who wanted an empire in Mexico found a very sympathetic listener in Napoleon III and the French intelligentsia and military. Having settled on the Austrian Archduke Maximilian, it only needed a small French army to land at Veracruz, move inland to Mexico City and hang around until the new Emperor arrived to take charge in the interest of France. What could possibly go wrong?

The final act showed just how badly things could. The Mexican republicans managed to defeat the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Actually, the French were only a part of the army as much of it was made up of Mexican conservatives, a fact which Mexican historians tend to overlook. Another factor in the defeat was that the bulk of the French officers and men were suffering from the affliction known as the ‘MexicanRevenge. It is very difficult to load and fire a musket when squatting down because your bowels have turned to jelly.

Eventually, the French did manage to install Maximilian in Mexico City, which was when the Mexican conservatives discovered that they had been lumbered with a liberal who was not willing to turn the full, reactionary forces of Catholicism against Protestant heresy. Maximilian often wore traditional Mexican dress, learned some of the native languages and was quite happy to promote American-Indians to high office, with General Tomas Mejia commanding his light cavalry. Mejia was actually a brilliant cavalryman who saved Maximilian’s fortunes on several occasions before dying next to him in front of the same firing squad in 1867, but for those ultra-conservatives who wanted a reactionary empire he was an example that Maximilian was rather too modern for their tastes.

Having alienated the conservatives, Maximilian was unable to reach an understanding with his liberal enemies, headed by Benito Juarez, who was also an American-Indian, because they did not need to compromise. Divisions grew in the conservatives’ ranks and having an Austrian on the throne meant the liberals could crank up Mexican xenophobia to its fullest extent. Juarez orated about freeing the country from all foreigners while at the same time negotiating with the United States for arms and supplies. As soon as the American Civil War ended, Washington was only too happy to keep its side of the bargain, leaving unspoken the fact that Mexicans were dying to get the French out of their country only for American business to move in.

The French abandoned Maximilian for the same reasons that the American would abandon South Vietnam: it was costing them far too many men and far too much money to continue the contest. Maximilian hung on for longer than anyone expected, until eventually one of his most trusted generals crossed the lines and betrayed him for $30,000, which admittedly was rather a lot of money in those days.

Edouard Manet: Execution of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico

During his time on the throne, a tomb began to be constructed for Maximilian, but after his death, the body was returned to Austria and the tomb was then completed and used for the body of Benito Juarez in 1872. About 25 yards away from Juarez’s tomb, is the grave of General Tomas Mejia, who died with his Emperor in 1867. After all the slaughter that had taken place, it is perhaps fitting that those two mortal enemies became neighbours in death: they were both Mexicans when all is said and done. It fell to Porferio Diaz, a liberal general, to seize Mexico by the throat following the death of Juarez and install the ‘liberal dictatorship’ that Maximilian should have created. His 35-year rule lasted until 1910, when everything fell apart again.

Shawcross has given us a solid account of this turbulent part of Mexico’s past, that surely merits a place on the bookshelves of anyone interested in the history of the Americas.

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