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


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

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon I through that great man’s brother Joseph, has had his Saint-Simonian eye on Central America for a long time. Rich in natural resources, with a climate favourable for crops of all kinds, a soil teeming with minerals and an ideal geographical position, Mexico was a country that unlocked his imagination. He who could dominate this country not only had access to all these riches, but moreover would control the trade around the future canal of the two oceans.
But first, he had to impose a more effective policy than that of a Juárez. Only a stable form of government and straight lines with Europe could bestow confidence and attract capital and immigrants. The Mexican émigrés couldn’t agree more; after forty years of republican instability, it was time for monarchy to take over. And now the fruit seemed ripe. There were the U.S., incapacitated by their Civil War; there was an impoverished Mexican government, that would hardly be able to put up any serious resistance; there was the unconditional support of the Church and the landed nobility. By defeating the anti-clerical party he could master this land of plenty, make France the first economic power in the world, and affirm his reputation as the soldier of the faith, as he had done in Syria and in Rome.

“It is our interest that the United States shall be powerful and prosperous, but it is not at all to our interest that she should grasp the whole Gulf of Mexico, rule thence the Antilles as well as South America, and be the sole dispenser of the products of the New World…”

So, Napoleon orders his envoy, Dubois de Saligny, to report on the possibilities of an intervention. The envoy learns that the conservatives are routed, the Church threatened with spoliation, that the payment of foreign debts is postponed and that the Mexican government has no intention whatsoever of paying or indemnifying European traders for goods delivered or for losses caused by the civil war. The report is more than satisfactory. The emperor knows that he has a solid pretext for an invasion, and that he will be followed by those two other major creditors; Spain and England.

On 31 October, 1861, England, Spain and France sign the Convention of London. England wants no more than the payment of debts, but Spain and France agree that Juárez’ regime must go. They differ, however, on a candidate for the future monarchy. In Madrid, Queen Isabella has a Bourbon prince in mind; in Paris, Minister Thouvenel proposes the Archduke Maximilian of Habsburg, a Catholic prince favoured by the Pope.

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

On 6 January 1862, a European force arrives before the coast of Mexico. An army of 2500 French, 800 English and 6800 Spanish, commanded by the formidable General Prim y Prats, Marquis of los Castillejos, disembark and occupy the town of Vera Cruz. They raise their standards, issue a proclamation. And then the whole thing comes to a dead end. The Mexicans simply retreat, leaving the allies trapped on the plateau, where the yellow fever, the “vomito”, soon makes its first victims.

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

What to do next? Prim, no fool, sees the enormous risks of an advance on Mexico City with a force of no more than 10,000. He proposes to negotiate. And then the alliance begins to fall apart. The first thing they did was what they ought to have done in London; each party set forth its claims, which amounted to the grand total of $ 40,000,000. Now, to demand such a sum of a bankrupt country of which the yearly revenue never exceeds $ 10,000,000 is not only unrealistic; it is embarrassing. And then, in the midst of this embarrassment, Dubois de Saligny produces the Jecker claim, by which $ 18,000,000 more are added.

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


The English envoy, Sir Charles Wyke, qualifies the demand as “shameful”. It becomes clear that the French have an agenda of their own, and that an agreement with the Mexican government is not on it. More so when, at the same time with a French reinforcement of 4000, a group of Mexican émigrés disembark, headed by a man we’ve seen before: General Almonte, the Minister of the defeated conservative government in France. On his arrival he announces that he has a commission to establish a monarchy in Mexico in favour of an Austrian prince. Sir Charles asks him in the name of what government he speaks? Certainly not in his, and nor in that of Spain, as the equally stunned General Prim confirms. When Almonte replies that he has the confidence of the French government, and that he acts by the authority of Emperor Napoleon, the rupture is a fact: on April 9th, 1862, the English and Spaniards embark, and set sail for Europe.

How the French ever imagined that they could subdue the Mexican army with their puny expeditionary force is beyond comprehension. Perhaps the émigrés managed to convince them that the mere sight of a French uniform would be enough to raise the people into a massive revolt against Juárez? Or did Napoleon, instead of to reason, prefer to listen to his new army chef, who assured him that “thanks to the incomparable superiority of the French race, it’s feel for organisation and discipline, coupled with it’s morality, he could, he: General Lorencez, assure His Imperial Majesty that he is master of Mexico” ?
In any event, the French commander, General Charles de Latrille, Comte de Lorencez, opens hostilities at the first pretext, and takes the road to Mexico City.

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



©2010, M.S.F. Wick

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