The Last Emperor – II

March 26, 2021

What I feel is possibly the ugliest statue in existence towers over the place in the city of Queretaro where Maximilian was executed early on June 19, 1867. It is by Juan Olaguibel, who made several monumental sculptures using carved blocks joined by cement. It depicts, or tries to depict, Benito Juarez and was unveiled in the centenary year of Maximilian’s defeat, 1967. 

In its shadow lies the chapel that Maximilian’s relatives erected in 1901 over the spot where the Emperor and his chief generals, Miguel Miramon and Tomas Mejia, were shot. Conservative Catholics still, you’ll hear, come here to pray for the man who had embodied their hopes for a Mexico more closely shaped in the image of traditional, Catholic Spain.

Two memorials adjacent to each other, then, and two visions of what Mexico should or might be. I confess I’d prefer the site had been left as it was just after the execution, with three modest stones to mark where the Emperor stood to die, his two loyal generals to his right. But history always belongs to the people who build the monuments, and not to the cold, stark facts.

A dozen years ago, one a business trip to Vienna, I took an afternoon to hunt for the church where Maximilian and his wife had their last Mass on Austrian soil. I couldn’t locate it, confused by the local Mexico Kirche which was built later, and when the Vienna business executive who was my host too me for dinner, I told him of my disappointment. He smiled, and pointed across the Danube from his car.

“There it is,” he laughed. Ever since, I’ve repeatedly picked up the couple’s trail, and this week, I was finally able to visit where it all ended, in the city of Queretaro, north-east of Mexico City.

Leaving Europe on the warship Novara, Maximilian and Carlota (the Spanish version of her name) arrived in Mexico at the port of Veracruz, on the Gulf of Mexico, in 1864. Here, they discovered how slim their support was: they were dependent on French arms and a few wealthy conservatives. Otherwise, they were not wanted. But they set about making themselves known as the rulers of their new empire, and soon installed themselves in the palace on Chapultepec (Hill of the Grasshoppers) in Mexico City.

I’ve visited the palace, but it was used by other Mexican heads of state at various times, and has little that impressed me with a surviving Habsburg presence. What did captivate me was their acquiring the Garden of Borda in the city of Cuernavaca, the ‘Cuaunahuac’ of Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 novel Under the Volcano. My current home is scarcely an hour from this place. Here, living modestly (by royal standards) in the house on the property, the perpetual botanist Maximilian was able to plant and admire tropical plants that weren’t necessarily native to Mexico. In particular, from prior visits to the country, he had a liking for certain shrubs and trees from Brazil.

A spot in the Garden of Borda, with the dome of Maximilian’s preferred church behind.

The place itself is unremarkable today, yet it’s easy to imagine the young Emperor (he was in his mid-thirties at this point) wandering amid the broad-leafed tropical greenery, admiring exotic leaves and unusual formations of branches or flowers. Had he come here as a modest resident, not as a ruler, he might have kept the Garden for decades, and happily so.

There is a church overlooking the Garden where he and Carlota went to Mass, and it’s easy to stand inside and imagine how the grand interior and its paintings affected their thoughts. Some of their happiest times were spent in Cuernavaca, then a very modest city, albeit one with its own cathedral a block from the Garden residence. They posed for portraits and photographs, issued coins with Maximilian’s likeness, and tried to visit as many places as possible in their new domain, all in an effort to impress upon people that they were the rightful rulers of a country they loved.

Carlota seemingly was the devoted wife, the woman standing in the shadow of her blond, blue-eyed and rather taller husband. Privately, as the effort to establish their legitimacy was threatened constantly by Juarez’ small but determined bands of troops, the pair shared a rising sense of danger. It was this that led Maximilian to issue a decree that any person found to have taken up arms against the legitimate government (i.e., his government) could and would be summarily shot. An estimated 11,000 such men were killed, a measure that produced not subservience but bitter resentment. 

With the end of the Civil War in the United States, Maximilian began inviting Confederate veterans to settle in Mexico. This was not necessarily welcomed. Further, France decided it needed its troops elsewhere, and decided it had to pull out, warning Maximilian to leave while he could. The Garden of Borda didn’t see them again. But he wasn’t a man to run, having genuine courage as well as a desire to maintain acceptable form in public.

Carlota, though, was sent to plead her husband’s cause across Europe, but without any luck. Her failure and the overall strain sent her into a depressive breakdown, especially when she visited the Pope and was clearly paranoid about assassins, and she never returned to Mexico. 

Juarez, meanwhile, was able to pick up surplus arms and ammunition from the U.S., which no longer had to fight the Confederacy, and he was finally to launch a full offensive against the man he saw as a foreign interloper. The Emperor began to lose territory and supporters, and finally late in 1866 withdrew to the city of Queretaro as his final secure base.

Its intensely devoted Catholic population mostly welcomed him, though it was to suffer for doing so. Soon, the attacking Republican forces had the city surrounded, and were bombarding homes and factories. The aqueduct supplying Queretaro’s water, still a striking sight today, was cut. The town was heavily damaged, its economy collapsed, and food ran short. An effort to let the Emperor slip away in the night went wrong, and he made his last stand in the city, being captured on May 16. A simple white obelisk with a plaque marks the point where he handed his sword to the Republican General Escobedo.

The Museum of the Restoration of the Republic. Maximilian’s last few days were spent in an upstairs room.

He and his closest supporters were held in two or three different locations, spending their last few days in a building now called the “Museum of the Restoration of the Republic.” Here, there’s a reproduction of Maximilian’s condemned cell, with a small desk, a chair and a single bed. It wasn’t the most cruel of prisons, but after his summary trial in a local theatre, he knew it was his final home.

All along, there’d been an assumption that somehow the emperor would be allowed to return to Austria. But Juarez survived as long as he did from being a ruthless man, if relatively enlightened in his beliefs. He knew he had to stamp out monarchical ideas or his concept of Mexico would not survive. Despite heavy lobbying from European ambassadors, especially the British one, whose Queen was related to Maximilian through dynastic marriages, no reprieve was offered. 

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