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


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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