6 – GREAT EXPECTATIONS
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”.
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.
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