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Court etiquette

4 September 2010

To a modern republican sensibility, one of the most ridiculous things about Maximilian’s short-lived Imperial Court was its elaborate etiquette, and to many historians, a sure sign of Maximilian’s superficiality his concern with such trivia as whose bench should be cushioned in velvet, what color stockings the lackeys should wear for a third-class dinner, & etc. Read the Reglamento y ceremonial de la Corte and I can guarantee some eye rolling and chuckles. But in context, the 1860s, when rigorous court etiquette was widely, from Austria to Spain to France and England, considered a crucial instrument to maintain the stability of the State– and this when the upheavals of 1848 were a fresh memory for so many— the Reglamento begins to look more sad than nonsensical.

Sad… perhaps if one has immersed ones’ self in the life of the Hapsburg puppet rulers of Mexico during the French intervention of the 1860s, and takes Maximiliano and Carlota as sympathetic figures.   Mexico City writer C.M Mayo does.  Her latest book “The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire”  is deservedly praised for bringing attention to the forgotten, and tragic story, of Augustín Iturbide y Green.

The grandson of the Napoleón wannabe, Augustín Iturbide — who had made himself Emperor of Mexico for several months after independence, but was forced to abdicate (and later shot) —   Iturbide y Green’s mother was a U.S. citizen, making the boy’s “adoption” (more like a kidnapping)  by Maximilano and Carlota in a desperate attempt to present a “Mexican heir” to their phantom throne more pathetic than anything.  “Prince Iturbide”, as an adult served in the Mexican army, later becoming a professor of foreign languages at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, where he lived in a monastery until his marriage (at the age of 59) .

Mayo deserves high praise for her dedication to this minor footnote in Mexican history, but the  very existence of “The Last Prince” is one reason I don’t take the Mexican Emperor and his courtiers seriously, and find them not so much nonsensical figures, but repellent ones.

I’ve mentioned before that it was the Maximiliano and Carlota story that first piqued my interest in Mexico (blame it on Bette Davis), and — considering how short a time they actually were in Mexico (they arrived in Veracruz on 21 May 1864.  Carlota left for Europe in early 1866.  Maximilano was overthrown on 15 May 1867, and was shot on 19 June 1867, meaning he was only in the country for a little less than three years… not even long enough to apply for a permanent residency today) — their story has fascinated scholars and moralists for the last 150 years.

I’ve certainly read my share of various studies of the royal couple.  Most frankly annoyed me, with their willingness to forgive the royals  their active support for, and participation in, mass murder, plunder, pillage and economic rape   (Carlota, as their French military controller Achille Bazine later remarked, was the cold-blooded one, Max being something of an amiable fool — sort of the Dick Cheney and George W. Bush of Mexican historical pairs) with bland references to their “good intentions” (and isn’t that what the road to Hell is paved with).  One reads endlessly of Max’s interest in the welfare of “the Indians”, and uses his friendship with Tómas Mejía as proof.  Or, makes mention of “la India Bonita” (Max’s supposed indigenous mistress).  Interestingly though, “la India’s” name is left out of most narriatives — she being “just an Indian”, not a human being.  Nor, in most of the studies, are “the Mexicans” — with the exception of a few criollo courtiers and absolutely necessary people like General Mejía — considered more than a colorful native backdrop to a romantic tale in an exotic land.

When I read the late Jasper Ridley’s “Maximilan and Juarez” — considered one of the standards of Max-ology — I was incredulous that it was written in 1992, not 1892.  Or even 1932 when Bertita Lorenz Harding’s “Phantom Crown” could, without self-conscious irony, write of “Indians” in terms of stereotypes like “stoic” and “humble”.  Ridley spent his long career writing royal biographies, and perhaps he was a royalist.  And he was a European.  None of which means that his thesis that Benito Juarez was simply an “Indian” and therefore stubborn and unable to comprehend the subtle ways of the white man’s hereditary rulers, was somehow “racial”… not a political stance of a radical 19th century republican liberal.

For all that, I depended on Ridley (along with Joan Haslip’s 1971 “Crown of Mexico”) for much of what I wrote about the Second Empire in my own book.  But, in the end, I didn’t find them “sad” so much as diabolical:

Foreigners often see the Imperial couple as a tragic, romantic pair. Mexicans see them as well-intentioned fools, or worse. By modern standards, they were white supremacists. Like the gachupines of the colonial era, they believed that Europeans were obviously superior to the Mexicans, and the warfare and destruction carried out in their name was justified. Unfortunately, this attitude pervades most foreign writing about the Hapsburgs. The legal concept of “crimes against humanity” did not exist in their day, but in the 21st century they could be tried and convicted of genocide and terrorism under Mexican, French, Belgian or Austrian laws for the atrocities committed by the soldiers serving in their name.

They were foolish and greedy people, not idealistic, misguided ones…

…  The French occupation of México happened at the same time as the American Civil War. In both, white supremacy was one of the justifications for massive bloodshed and destruction. There is no more reason to defend the selfish, stupid, vain and cold-blooded Hapsburgs any more than there is to defend slaveholders.

Although I suspect that in a modern court of law, the royal pair could have been found not guilty by reason of mental defect or disease, the enormity of their crimes and the havoc they wreaked upon Mexico are mind-boggling. There is no way, except by looking at the individual victims of their short rampage through Mexico, of contemplating that. C.M. Mayo is to be commended for writing the story of perhaps the most innocent, and therefore, most tragic of their victims.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 5 September 2010 10:17 pm

    Hola Richard, thank you for your kind mention of my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. I quite agree that the often romanticized take on Maximilian needs some modifiying– after all, he was heartless (and ham-handed) enough to arrest the little “prince’s” heartbroken mother. Maximilian also signed the Black Decree of October 1865— execution for anyone found with a weapon— and he legalized slavery in Mexico, in order to attract immigrants from the ex-Confederacy.

    All that said, however, I do try in the novel to show Maximilian as a complex character, who also had many appealing qualities. I believe all people, including the ones we might label diabolical, are complex— far more than we often realize.

    For many people, Maximilian’s actions were, unquestionably, diabolical. But I believe that, in his own mind, and in the context of the traditions in which he was educated (not exactly a modern democracy!), he tried, very hard, to do the right thing.

    About Jasper Ridley’s book, “Maximilian and Juarez”– a great read by the way– I talk about that at length in the epilogue of my novel, “The Story of the Story.” Ridley’s is a well-researched and important book but, alas, Ridley’s chapter on the prince has several basic mistakes. For anyone interested in all the nitty gritty details of my research, I invite you to listen to my lecture at the Library of Congress, which you will find at my webpage,, on the “podcast” page.

    P.S. Viva Bette Davis!

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