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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.