Category Archives: Mexico

On January 6, 1862, an expeditionary force of 2500 French, 800 English and 6800 Spanish appeared before the coast of Mexico and occupied the town of Vera Cruz to coerce the Mexican government into paying its debts. It was the beginning of an ignominious adventure that became known as the French Intervention: an attempt of the French Emperor Napoleon III to bring the economy of Central America under his control. To that end, Mexico was to be given a solid, trustworthy government on the European model. Head of state was to be Ferdinand Maximilian of Habsburg, brother to the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I, who, as Maximiliano I, briefly ruled over this ephemeral “Second Mexican Empire”.

Mexico – the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867 (7/2)

7 – OTHE COLD LIGHT OF DAY (2)

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867
The army the empire could bring in the field consisted, besides the French, of an Austro-Belgian auxiliary force of 8000, and a national army of about 6000 men. By the Treaty of Miramar, signed on the day of Maximilian’s accession, it was concluded that the French shall withdraw, but gradually: from 35,000 in 1864 to 28,000 in 1865, to 25,000 in 1866, and to 20,000 in 1867. The Foreign Legion, 8000 strong, shall remain in Mexico for at least six years. This would give Maximilian ample time to build a national army that could take over from the French. All this may look very sensible and reasonable on paper, but when, finally and far too late, it was tried in practice, it proved a virtually impossible task.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867
The commander of the Belgian auxiliary force, Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred van der Smissen to the Belgian Minister of War: “In Belgium, one cannot form an idea of the Mexican army, that is to say the five or six thousand bandits it is composed of, mule drivers, bakery boys, risen from the ranks to become Colonels. Mendez himself, one of the best, was, twelve years ago, a tailor’s hand persecuted for theft of handkerchiefs in Mexico-city.”
“To recruit men, one takes them by force and conveys them to barracks between two rows of bayonets. From the moment one leads them through a field of sugar cane where they can hide, they desert. (…) The day the French army embarks, the empire will fall with a crash”.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867
The auxiliary corps developed into an additional source of difficulty. The officers of the Austrian contingent had not forgotten Solferino and Magenta, and tempers were rising whenever a difference occurred with the French allies. This situation is complicated by Maximilian, who establishes a military cabinet through which the Austro-Belgian forces are independently administered, thus placing it beyond the jurisdiction of the man who is supposed to be their C-in-C, Marshal Bazaine.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867

Although the country is now apparently in the hands of the French, their force, scattered over such a vast territory, is hopelessly insufficient to hold it permanently. The predatory bands fighting under the flag of the republic are ever on their heels, ready to pounce upon the village or town which the French must perforce leave unprotected, and wreak terrible vengeance upon the inhabitants. Unsurprisingly, the intervention quickly gains in unpopularity.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867
At the beginning of 1865 martial law is proclaimed, by which Bazaine tries to check not only brigandage, but also the brewing military disorganisation which the state of things must inevitably create. He finds but little support on the part of the imperial government. Indeed, Maximilian insists upon all cases being submitted to him personally before any sentence is being carried out. Many times, as part of his conciliatory policy towards the Liberals, he grants pardon to the prisoners, which naturally enrages Bazaine, who is “tired of sacrificing French lives for the sole apparent use of giving an Austrian Archduke the opportunity to play at clemencies”.

Commandant Loysel explains it once again to the Emperor: “If one takes from the courts martial their authority, they are no longer of any use. In any event, one must be on one’s guard for the over-sensitiveness of those that out of fear intervene in favour of the wrongdoers”.

Max wisely decides that he does not wish to be informed of the proceedings of the military courts any longer. Still, complaints from Maximilian about Bazaine and vice versa begin to rain down on Paris. The Marshal doesn’t lose Napoleon’s trust, but Napoleon does lose his patience with Maximilian. The Empress Eugénie writes curtly to Charlotte: “The Marshal is our best soldier. He judges the events with a straight mind and a firmness that are in every respect remarkable”. And that’s the end of it..

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867
While the cruelties on both sides multiply, Napoleon insists on draconian measures. A redoubtable character appears on the scene: Colonel Dupin, sent to take charge of the contra-guerrilla. Despised and detested by the regular troops, Dupin, who likes to boast how much he enjoys pillaging the villages that he purges of the Juaristas, is placed at the head of a band of hooligans that are as ruthless as their commander: immigrants from Louisiana, Spanish deserters and Mexicans that are prepared to do just about anything not to starve.

In the autumn of 1865, the (false) news is spread in the capital that Juárez has passed the border and left the country. Maximilian, elated, issues the infamous decree of October 3, the “bando negro” or “black decree”. In this fatal enactment, drafted and amended by Bazaine (as Maximilian spitefully declares afterwards), it is assumed that the war is over, and consequently styles all armed republicans outlaws who, if taken, will from now on be summarily shot within 24 hours.

When a few days later the republican Generals Arteaga and Salazar surrender to General Mendez and are shot under the decree, such a clamour of indignation is raised that it must have demonstrated his mistake to the Emperor.

The war has become a death struggle, and the sound of the gunshots echo beyond the borders and reach as far as the Senate of the United States: “An inhuman and barbarous decree, issued in violation of the laws of war, the rights of the Mexican people, and of the civilization of the 19th century”.

Dark clouds appear on the northern horizon.
 

©2010, M.S.F. Wick

 

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Mexico – the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867 (7/1)

THE COLD LIGHT OF DAY

Besides the unrelenting Juárez, the mountain of problems that awaited the new sovereigns would have dispirited the blithest of optimists. Afterwards, in a letter to the French financial advisor Langlais, Maximilian describes what he found: “only a tenth of the country was pacified. At our heels, two hours away, Porfirio Diaz disputed the road to the capital. The treasury was completely empty. A national army did not exist. Numerous undisciplined bands, assembled under the name of auxiliaries, devoured the public means. Little time I needed to be struck by the chimera of the edifice, and to understand how much they have played on the trust of the Emperor Napoleon”.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867
Nonetheless, the most urgent task he can think of is the refurbishment of the castle of Chapultepec, which is to become their “Mexican Schönbrunn”. He sees no reason to economise: a charming little theatre is added to the plans, and a long boulevard “like the Champs Elysées” is to connect the castle with the Plaza Mayor in the city.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867
And then, hardly two months after his arrival, he hands the affairs of government over to his wife, and leaves the capital for a long tour of his new country. The heavy guard of French cavalry that accompanies him is no superfluous luxury. For the first time he begins to realise the truth behind the “vote of the people” he had so keenly insisted upon as a condition for his acceptance of the throne: “the populace was very excitable and, when leaving, very dangerous”. Moreover, he is shocked to find corrupt judges and immoral clergymen everywhere. “I found that this Mexico was quite different from the one described to us at Miramar.”
On his return, he immediately sets about drafting instructions for the prefects. But instead of simply and clearly pointing out the problems, he writes a veritable novel of great confusion, mixing in brigandage, bribery, religion, agriculture, the state of the roads, the amelioration of the equine race, the search for minerals, the abandonment of uncultivated land and schooling. Then, in seven enormous volumes, he lays down his new laws, aiming to immediately remedy problems of such dimensions as would take the work of generations to solve.

“Once again,” Charlotte writes admiringly, “Max has given proof of unusual wisdom. What he has done for the prefects is a model of everything one could call liberal, noble and just.”

Liberal, noble and just. Here is in three words the whole impossibility of Maximilian’s policy. The conservatives, who were instrumental in putting him on his throne, don’t want liberal, noble and just: they simply want their property and their status back. The French, on whose army his throne depends, don’t want liberal, noble and just either: they want their money back, and on top of that they want control of the economy of Latin America, if they can get away with it. And the liberals, the only ones who want -or at least say they want- liberal, noble and just, will have none of this throne nor of its occupant, who is to them a puppet of the French invader and of the conservative oppressor.

Maximilian can issue as much laws as he wants: nothing moves as long as he holds on to his policy of courting his adversaries and alienating his supporters. And at this point his friends pose more danger to his position than his enemies: the question of the return of the church lands has come to a complete standstill, and everything else with it.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867
Charlotte, by the way, is quite a success as regent: Countess de Courcy, Bazaine’s Chief of Staff General Roussel de Courcy’s wife, writes that her husband found that the Empress ruled “…to the satisfaction of everyone and the great advantage of the public cause (…) She loves movement extremely, the ceremonial tasks as well as the care for politics, very different from her husband, who likes nothing as much as calm, rest, and the relative solitude that is only permitted to princes.”

As troubles are piling up, Maximilian’s trips become more frequent: tours of his country, or prolonged stays at his hacienda in Cuernavaca, where he seeks comfort in wine and young ladies. But instead of thanking his lucky stars that he can leave the government in such capable hands, the praise for his wife’s capacities makes him jealous: Charlotte is ordered back to her parlour.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867Anxiously the sovereigns await the arrival of a Papal Nonce, Mgr. Meglia. But if Max expects that the Pope sends his envoy to make the Mexican Bishops understand that they’ll have to do “water by their altar wine”, he has another thing coming. Far from tempering the demands of the clergy, the Nonce exacerbates them: according to him, the church must have everything back without having to answer to anyone, not even to the emperor. Every attempt to reach a compromise is haughtily and without discussion rejected. The Nonce’s attitude is so extreme that Maximilian holds him for a madman.

Charlotte: “Nothing has given me a more clear idea of hell than that conversation, because hell is nothing else but an impasse without outcome. Everything glides from that man as from polished marble”. To Bazaine she confides that “the best thing to do would be to throw the Nonce out of the window”.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867
The attitude of Mgr. Meglia shouldn’t have surprised anyone who took the trouble to look at the state of affairs in Italy at that time, and indeed, least of all the former Viceroys of Lombardy. On 15 September 1864 the French had agreed with Piedmont to pull out the two regiments they have in the eternal city for the pope’s protection, which would inevitably lead to the annexation of the Patrimony of St. Peter by the new, unified Italy. The beleaguered pope, whose temporal power as King of the Papal States is now hanging by a thread, responds with an encyclical on 8 December: “Quanta Cura” (“with how much care”) in which he, with the reactionary irrationality of the despairing, condemns practically every modern idea such as freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, of religion, of education; the principle of precedence of the state over the church, the concept of liberalism, socialism, and so on and so forth. Particularly distasteful to His Holiness is the idea that the state has a right to claim “a right of property in those goods which are possessed by the Church, by the Religious Orders, and by other pious establishments”, and that “in the political order accomplished facts, from the very circumstance that they are accomplished, have the force of right”. From now on the Pope has but one answer for everyone, including Emperor Max: “non possumus”.

The Church may be unbending, Max is no less unbending: he declares his intention to ratify the laws of Satan Juárez on the nationalisation of church properties and the tolerance of other cults. Before his first year as head of state is over, he has managed to add the clergy to his growing list of enemies.

Now, in his inexperience and clumsiness, he sets about to alienate the French commander, Achille Bazaine, who is by now made Marshal of France.
 

©2010, M.S.F. Wick

 

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Mexico – the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867 (6/2)

6 – GREAT EXPECTATIONS (2)

After two weeks, on 12 June 1864, they arrive in Mexico City. Anxious to make the occasion a memorable one, the French and the clerical party had spared no effort to excite the enthusiasm of the people, and make an impression upon foreign observers. Triumphal arches of foliage are raised along the principal roads leading to the plaza mayor, and as far as the eye can reach, the festively decorated windows, the streets, and the flat roofs of the houses are crowded with people eager to catch a glimpse of the new sovereigns.

Charlotte in one of her many letters to Europe: “The welcome we received was such as I have never seen. It was the eruption of deliverance and like a sort of delirium that had overwhelmed Mexico”. The newspapers in France are no less jubilant: “Not one single cry of hatred; the hurrahs started from the soul and went up to the cortege as the echo of a lively inner emotion.” The Empress’ First Lady of Honour, the Countess Kollonitz, puts it more soberly: “Things present themselves better as one could have hoped for”.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867
And indeed; during those first months it seems as if the empire actually pulls it off. With Juárez holding barely on in the north and only General Porfirio Diaz putting up some significant resistance in the south, the Liberals are reduced to the role of rebels, while the new imperial administration assumes the position of lawful government. European ambassadors are not lingering to acknowledge this apparent legitimacy.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867

The glitter of the court life, but more the revival of trade and the abundance of money so freely brought and spent in the country dazzles the people. The revenues derived from the customs of Vera Cruz and Tampico are increasing; large concessions for railways are granted under solid guarantees to European companies; telegraph lines are established; coal, gold and silver mines are exploited, or are in a fair way to be; and from the imperial throne decorations, titles and nominations pour over the heads of the overjoyed subjects.

To all appearances it is beginning to look as if Napoleon might actually get out of this adventure with honour and profit. But it is one thing to occupy a country, rent its presidential palace out to an emperor and throw a party; it is quite another matter to organise an empire on a permanent basis. As Plon-plon remarks: “One can do anything with bayonets, except sit on them”.

Mexico – de Franse Interventie en het 2de keizerrijk, 1862 – 1867

Juárez himself, seeing that the “invader” is getting some results, is strengthened in his resolve: “We, the republicans, must do anything at no matter what price to fight Maximiliano primero”.
 

©2010, M.S.F. Wick

 

 

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Mexico – the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867 (6/1)

6 – GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867
On the 14th of April, they board the Austrian flagship SMS Novara. The first stop is Rome, where they are given a truly royal welcome by the pope, Pius IX. An impressive guard of honour consisting of papal zouaves and French chasseurs, here to protect the papal territories against the oncoming flood of the Italian unification movement, are positioned along the route.
Holy Mass, dinners, sightseeing, receptions… but the audience with the Holy Father is wasted on chit-chat. Now, when a concordat could still be possible, the problems with the Mexican clergy are hardly touched upon. Maybe the Pope tries to clarify his position in the sybillic speech typical for the age-old diplomatic tradition of the Vatican: “Great are the rights of peoples, and it is necessary to satisfy them. But greater and holier are the rights of the Church”. If so, it is lost on Max.

The Pope’s “cameriere segreto”, Mgr. de Mérode, writes afterwards: “It is regrettable that the Emperor didn’t lay his cards on the table and said: This is what I can concede; that is what I demand”.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867
This opportunity wasted, the two continue their voyage, and can think of nothing more constructive to do than to draw up in minute detail the etiquette and protocol of their future court. The order of precedence, the uniforms, the honorary titles: a book of 300 pages. For the many people that accompany them, they envisage important positions with a generous pay. The annual cost for the civil list amounts to no less than 1,500,000 pesos. Above that, 200,000 more are allotted to the House of the Empress. In comparison: the preceding Mexican Presidents had to make ends meet with 36,000.

On May 28, they finally arrive at Vera Cruz. First act of government: General Almonte, who boards the ship to hand over the insignia of his function to Maximilian, is promoted to the strictly ceremonial rank of Grand Marshal, thus casting aside this meritorious and experienced politician. Then, together with a retinue of 85, a load of 500 trunks and a magnificent, gilt carriage, the Imperial Couple disembark, ready to receive the heartwarming acclamation of their new subjects. But instead of the expected cheers and ovations, they are greeted with the deafening silence of reality: the streets of Vera Cruz are deserted. Except for the town’s notables, nobody shows; not even the French garrison.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867
Without further ado they leave for the capital. First by train, then by carriage, pulled by mules. When the axle of their beautiful state coach breaks, they must continue their voyage in a “Diligencia de la República’. The roads are execrable. Many times they are forced to spend the night in their carriage, and it is only due to their escort of lancers that they are not robbed by the bandits that hide in the undergrowth.

Occasionally they meet with the heartfelt cheering of groups of Indians, who think that the white, tall emperor has come to free them from the heavy yoke of their Spanish masters. They, too, will be disappointed.

In the towns along their way, the reception is hardly better than in Vera Cruz. At Puebla of all places, between the shell-ridden houses, Maximilian maladroitly expresses in a speech his gratitude to the French Emperor for having helped him to mount his throne.
 

©2010, M.S.F. Wick

 

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Mexico – the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867 (5/2)

5 – THE ARCHDUPES (2)

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867

Forcibly retired to their splendid castle of Miramar near Trieste, the couple drifted into a period of boredom and estrangement. No more people to await their kind words or benign gestures; no more acclamations; no more gala balls; no more dinners to preside over.
While Maximilian sought distraction in Vienna and other women’s beds, and even went on a long trip to Brazil, Charlotte watched the Mediterranean, sadly writing letters to her relatives, in which she was careful not to make any reference to her marital problems. When Max finally came back, he apparently infected his wife with a venereal disease, which might be the cause that they never had children. Anyway, from that moment on they slept in separate rooms.

It was during this time that Gutierrez de Estrada, with the blessing of Napoleon, went to Vienna to sound the position of Franz-Joseph on putting a Habsburg on the Mexican throne. The Austrian emperor understandably nourished no friendly feelings towards his French colleague, and didn’t believe in the project: “To propose a throne to Max, so feeble of character and incapable of governing, is the proof that this throne is nothing but a malicious joke”. Still, since Estrada had to be given an answer, Foreign Minister Count Rechberg was sent to Miramar to talk with Maximilian about this utopian scheme. The minister deemed it a mere formality: surely nobody in his right mind would want to leave such a paradise to go to a country where coups d’état and summary executions were the national sport?

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867

Not so for Max. Here he was: 30 years old, with no prospects of a position of any significance; bored stiff in his seaside castle; his governorship disgracefully ended; his command as vice-admiral taken; his pride hurt by his elder brother. And now the satisfaction, that that same brother obviously had to admit that he is worthy of this high position; the pride that one had thought of him for taking up the reins of an empire; his enthusiasm about the New World since he experienced in Brazil the adventure of a new colonisation. And above all there was Charlotte: highly intelligent, highly ambitious, and highly disappointed…

Followed a long period of thinking, reflecting, consulting. Letters full of advice and cautions from Brussels; promises and assurances from Paris; warnings from Vienna. Meanwhile it turned 1862, and the French had captured Mexico-city. And then October came and with it Estrada and his Mexican Commission to offer formally the crown, which Max, as we have seen, refused. Napoleon, who was beginning to feel uneasy with all this hesitating and wavering, decided that it was time to force the issue and invited the Archdukes to Paris.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867
Father-in-law Leopold smelled a rat: “Take care, my son: the Emperor has but one wish: to withdraw his troops from Mexico. If the thing goes wrong, he’ll wash his hands of it. You must therefore demand a document specifying in what gradation the French troops will be withdrawn (…). Demand money also: without a loan, in your place, I wouldn’t go. Be careful not to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for the Emperor!” And: “The sly fox! He’ll make mincemeat of my poor children!”.

Max demanded the loan. Napoleon wrote back that all would be arranged during the visit, but forgot to mention that he intended to leave this matter to the bankers, who were more than happy to oblige: at a monstrous interest. Napoleon’s courtiers promptly renamed Max “the Archdupe”. The Emperor himself added to the fun: “In his place I’d refuse to sign… but you’ll see that he does!”

A few hours before the couple started for Paris another letter arrived. Max was stupefied: Franz-Joseph demanded that he renounced all his rights in Austria should he accept the Mexican throne.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867

The hearty welcome in Paris soon made them forget the shock. Treated as equal sovereigns by Napoleon and Eugenie, they went from feast to dinner, from gala to theatre: no expense was spared to rope the young couple in. As Napoleon’s cousin, Prince Napoléon Joseph (in the family circle known as Plon-plon) remarked: “When the Emperor sets about throwing dust into eyes, he is unbeatable”.

Finally, dazzled by the extravaganza staged by this most glamorous of courts, Max was ripe for the kill. Negotiations started, and after endless shilly-shallying Maximilian, at the very last moment (15 minutes before departure!), signed a document which saddled his future empire with a debt of 270 million gold francs, plus the interest, plus the Jecker debt, plus the “damages” suffered by the French forces. In short: Mexico was to pay for the entirety of Napoleons ambitions since 1861.

On 9 April, 1864, Emperor Franz-Joseph came to Miramar with a retinue of seven archdukes, three chancellors, several ministers and an impressive number of generals. That same night they left with a document signed by Max: “His Imperial Highness Ferdinand-Maximilian denounces for his august person and for all his descendants the succession in the Empire of Austria (…) as long as there remains one of the Archdukes or their offspring, even in the most distant degree.”

Old King Leopold said his piece: “Max is duped, and maybe they had two things in mind: to let him renounce and to get rid of him at the same time.” And: “The conduct of the Emperor of Austria is dishonourable.”

The next day, April 10, 1864, the Mexican Commission offered the crown of Mexico a second time. The Archdukes swore an oath; the Mexican flag was hoisted over the castle; salutes were fired. With hardly a Mexican knowing about it, Europe witnessed the birth of the Catholic Empire of Mexico.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867

And now we can let our Imperial Couple board their ship, and set sail for the land of Montezuma.

©2010, M.S.F. Wick

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