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Charlotte, Empress of Mexico, was too proud to abdicate

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Revolution, Royalty on Thursday, 28 February 2013

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This edited article about Mexico originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 165 published on 13 March 1965.

French in Mexico, picture, image, illustration

Napoleon III’s troops landed on the shores of Mexico and eventually marched into Mexico City against Benito Juarez, by Angus McBride

Although it was dark, it was not late. Certainly not late enough to account for the streets being completely deserted.

To the couple sitting in the carriage that was rattling over the primitive roads of Veracruz, Mexico, it was another ominous sign to reinforce the misgivings that had assailed them on their arrival in Mexico. They had expected a royal welcome, with thousands of cheering people to greet them, but instead they had been kept waiting on the moored boat until General Almonte had finally arrived, five hours late, to escort them to Mexico City.

The General had been apologetic about his late arrival, and a little embarrassed by the lack of any demonstration, which naturally needed some explanation. Forced to give it, he had mumbled something about the people of Veracruz being strongly opposed to being ruled by a foreign monarch.

It was the night of May 26, 1864, and the couple in the carriage were Maximilian, brother of the Austrian Emperor, Francis Joseph, and his wife Charlotte (pronounced Car-lot-a). Whatever doubts this couple might have had about the future, neither of them could have imagined the nightmare that was to come – especially Charlotte, who was to be haunted by it through the long, long years until her death in 1927.

To find out why Charlotte and her husband were there in the first place, we have to go back to January 11, 1861, when a black carriage entered Mexico City, almost unnoticed.

Inside it sat a grim-faced Indian named Benito Juarez, who had just become the new President of Mexico. Juarez had good cause to be grim faced. He had fought and won a bloody revolution, and he was anxious now to bring peace and prosperity to his country. But unhappily the finances of the nation were in a deplorable condition, and what was worrying Juarez now was where he was going to get enough money to put the country back on its feet.

Juarez tried to solve the problem by suspending all payments on foreign debts. It was a reasonable enough action in the circumstances.

It was at this stage that a new character stepped on the scene – Napoleon the Third of France, a ruthless, vainglorious man, who yearned to be as great as his famous uncle, Napoleon the First. Forever looking for ways in which he could expand his colonies, he had already cast a greedy eye on the young republics of Latin America. Mexico, with her enormous pile of unpaid bills, would provide the excuse he was looking for to start building his empire.

Within three years Napoleon the Third had achieved his aim. He had crushed the Mexican army in the field, driven Juarez into hiding, and chosen a suitable monarchy, loyal to his crown. The royal couple were Maximilian and his wife, Charlotte, the daughter of King Leopold of Belgium.

The misgivings that had beset Charlotte while driving through Veracruz evaporated once they were settled in Mexico City. The Mexican elite, who had feared Juarez as a dangerous social reformer, welcomed them almost as liberators.

It was all very pleasant and very harmless, and the days passed quickly and easily. In six months the new Empress of Mexico had almost completely forgotten those disturbing few hours in Veracruz.

The glittering balls and state functions went on, while unknown to the happy and carefree young couple Napoleon the Third was already planning to abandon them to whatever fate awaited them. For in Europe, Bismarck of Prussia was now rapidly gaining control of the political scene and Napoleon decided the time had come for him to buttress his defences by recalling his troops from Mexico. The secret orders for their withdrawal were to be put into operation in November, 1866.

When it was suggested to Charlotte and her husband that it might be advisable for them to abdicate, Charlotte showed unexpected reserves of strength and resolution. This young woman, who had always leaned heavily on her husband, was outraged by Maximilian’s meek acceptance of the situation. She was Empress of Mexico, and would remain Empress. Rather than make a cowardly retreat, she would go to see Napoleon the Third and demand that the French troops remain.

She left for Veracruz at the height of the rainy season, on a journey across country through torrential rains which would have taxed the strength and resolve of a man. Twice she had to abandon her carriage sunk to the axles in mud.

Undeterred, she still battled on through the lashing rains until, near collapse, she finally reached Veracruz. Even then her trials were not at an end. For days, the ship that was carrying her to France was buffetted by pitiless storms that alarmed even the sailors aboard her.

Then good fortune, for the last time, it might be said, smiled down on Charlotte. The ship limped into St. Nazaire battered, but with her crew and passengers safe.

But Charlotte was to find that her courage had been wasted on a lost cause. Napoleon had no intention of rescinding his orders, especially now that he knew that Juarez, aided by arms from America, was daily growing stronger.

Charlotte spent several weeks battling on her husband’s behalf, until the strain of it all became too much for her. On October 9, exactly three months after her departure from Mexico, her mind gave way, and she was declared insane.

Eight months later her husband was in the hands of Juarez, and from then on nothing could save him, not even the pleas for mercy that poured in from all the crowned heads of Europe. On July 19, 1867, Maximilian walked out into the chill early morning air to face a firing squad.

His death was quick. But for Charlotte, the suffering was to go on for an incredibly long time. For periods her sanity returned, but this was a mixed blessing for a woman tormented by the knowledge that her husband would have lived if only she had not persuaded him that honour obliged him to stay on in Mexico.

Her release came at last on January 19, 1927, when at the age of eighty-seven, she died on the family ancestral estate near Brussels.

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