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The Last Emperor – I

March 26, 2021

Note: This is a long post, which I broke into three sections.

Some things in this world are beyond my understanding, One of them is why Andrew Lloyd Webber never made a musical about Maximilian I of Mexico, and his wife Charlotte (Carlota). They were at least as interesting as Juan and Evita Peron. 

Maximilian was born in 1832 as the younger brother of the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef. Intelligent and idealistic, and with a solid track record in the Austrian Navy and later as Viceroy of the Habsburg holdings in northern Italy, he clashed with his royal brother over a preference for liberal ideas. He was recalled from Milan in 1857, and soon after that, the Habsburgs’ Italian territories were lost to forces aligned with Giuseppe Garibaldi, the man who unified Italy.

Maximilian and Charlotte, or Carlota, in 1857, the year of their wedding.

So, finding himself with a young wife (his second cousin Charlotte), but no real job, Maximilian spent a few years in his castle of Miramare, on the Adriatic coast, where he pursued his lifelong interest in botany. He was capable and popular, but at a loose end.

Then, in 1861, Mexico decided to default on its unmanageable foreign debts.

Britain, Spain and France, all of them owed a bundle, united to invade Mexico and force a change in fiscal policy. But France didn’t just want its cash, but rather to conquer the country and make it a colony. Britain and Spain negotiated a deal and pulled out, while France kept troops in Mexico till 1866. 

The French, ruled by the Catholic monarch Napoleon III, made an alliance with conservative (i.e., wealthy) Mexicans, who didn’t like the idea of democratic reforms. A delegation of such men went to see Maximilian in Europe, and overcame his initial hesitation to become their Emperor. He was intelligent, experienced in administration, energetic, and had royal blood. What could go wrong?

Well, plenty. For one thing, there was a legitimately elected Mexican president, Benito Juarez, who ruled from 1858 to 1872. Mexico’s struggle for independence from Spain had been long and bloody, as independence struggles are, and only a minority of people supported the conservatives. Even rich people weren’t unanimous in their support.

Benito Juarez in the 1860s.

Juarez, while he was driven into internal exile, would not give up the fight for a republic. Initially a wilderness figure during the years of the French presence, he received help and arms after the US Civil War ended, since the Americans, like him, didn’t want European Imperial powers back on the continent. Add to this Maximilian’s penchant for liberal ideas – land reform, religious freedom and extending the vote to a wider swathe of ordinary people – and you can imagine his conservative supporters recoiling in dismay. 

Further, while Juarez appreciated Maximilian on a personal level, he was an energetic realist, who detested the idea of his country falling back into colonial servitude. He was a republican to the core, and was one of those men who doesn’t give up when most people would have told him to. Fortune often favours the tenacious, and Juarez had tenacity.

Things didn’t go well for Maximilian.

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The Last Emperor – III

March 26, 2021

Traditionally, condemned prisoners are put into a carriage or a cart to be taken for execution. The Emperor, however, walked about a kilometer to the Hill of Bells, where he and his two generals were to be shot. The hill rises just a hundred meters from where he had surrendered a month earlier. Perhaps he asked for this walk, so he could spend his last half-hour admiring the trees on his route and on the hillside, newly green from the first summer rains. 

The Hill of the Bells gets its name not because of any actual bells, but because of the metallic stones found there. Guides on the site will strike a large stone with a small one, producing a ringing sound, slightly resembling the sound of a bell. None were struck (so far as we know) on that June morning, but they add a strange mystique to the place, as do the little green parrots that fly between the trees. 

And so, just as the sun rose, the firing squad assembled. All reports indicate Maximiliano was polite and brave that morning. He provided a gold coin for each soldier, requesting that they not shoot at his head, so his mother could view his corpse without horror. He and General Miramon died almost instantly, while General Mejia lasted a minute or two after the fusillade. 

Inside the chapel on Hill of the Bells. Marble cubes mark where (L to R) Mejia, Miramon and Maximilian stood to die.

Maximilian’s body was embalmed, and displayed to those who cared to view it. A couple of months later, it was taken to the warship Novara, which three years earlier had brought him to Veracruz, and carried back for burial in Vienna.

Queretaro became a despised place, the Ciudad Maldita – “The accursed city ” – for years afterwards, its citizens viewed as traitors to the young nation, although today it is prosperous and receives many visitors. The current pandemic has hurt its industrial economy, but the old core of the town, rebuilt after the fighting of 1867, is a delight for fans of colonial streets and churches. It fell into disrepute 150 years ago, but today it draws many people curious about Maximilian’s short, three-year imperium, and his efforts to install a progressive-minded monarchy in a country that had little appetite for one.

It’s easy to dismiss him as a naive dreamer, for naivete was his downfall. He was advised not to go in the first place, by various sensible people. But, his decree to execute those who fought against him aside, he was a capable and well-intentioned ruler who might have shaped Mexico very differently. Benito Juarez, who died in office of a heart attack five years after his imperial opponent, became more autocratic in his later years, ruling by decree when he couldn’t obtain legislative majorities any more. Establishing a stable democracy was not a simple task, and in a few years Juarez’ Republican rival, Porfirio Diaz, had become the country’s virtual dictator. Revolution was to come in 1910, and Diaz went to France, where he died.

Each of these men had a vision, and the ability to realise it. Wandering the streets of Queretaro this past week, I could feel how their ghosts, or at least the idea of their ghosts, still haunts the place. Following Maximilian’s walking route to the Hill of the Bells, and being in the building where he spent his last few days and nights, made this well-intentioned man seem a little more real than he had in my earlier explorations of places he’d known.

Oliguibel’s statue of Benito Juarez.

Olaguibel’s ugly black pile of stones, the final revenge of Republicans on their last Emperor, disrespects Maximilian, and thereby fails to obliterate him as was intended. 

And Carlota? 

Her breakdown was extreme enough to leave her on the sidelines of royal life. She was cared for well enough, by the standards of her time, but she was never again a public figure. She kept her souvenirs of Maximilian, and Mexico, close by her until her death from pneumonia in 1927, at the age of 86.

But at the time it happened, her psychiatrist, with the agreement of relatives, refused to let her know her husband had been killed. She was even persuaded to go to Belgium for care, under the pretext of an invented telegram from her already-dead spouse. And some historians believe the information was concealed from her, by careful references to long-term imprisonment, until the day she died.