The Last Prince of
The Mexican Empire
Catherine Mansell Mayo
(Unbridled Books)Since the United States was embroiled in its own civil war, Louis Napoleon decided it would be a Good Thing to expand France's borders, create another Algeria ... but in the Americas. France invaded in 1863, and for the next four years was embroiled in a fractious war to take control of Mexico.
Napoleon III personally selected Ferdinand Maximilian (one of the Habsburg-Lorraine family) as Emperor of Mexico. Maximilian may have been shipped out because he was "too liberal" for the kings and queens and princes of Europe. He certainly was a bit daffy: flying things attracted him. He dithered. He certainly had a weird vision --- Mexico would be the center of an empire that ultimately would stretch down through Central America, all the way to Argentina.
His wife, Carlota --- née Charlotte, daughter of King Leopold of Belgium --- liked elegant parties and jewels. But she wasn't all that enamored of his bugs, even though she struggled mightily to like the specialties of Mexican cuisine (mosquito paste! corn smut!) And, because her husband sent her there, she stayed for a dreadful time in the fever-infested Yucatán. She almost died.
Maximilian wasn't so sure about Carlota, nor corn smut, but he did like butterflies and birds. Of the Mexican hummingbird, he said, "It is breath and sun," named "huitzihlihuitl" ... the Aztec word for "pure spirit." "It is the only bird capable of flying backward," he reports.
Maximilian was, according to rumor (and the present author) disinterested in sleeping with the lovely Charlotte. The only person who seemed to elicit any interest, outside of his scientific friends, was his Mexican secretary, José Luis Blasio. There is the hint of a deeper affection for this cheeky young man.
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The search for an heir is the ostensible subject of The Last Prince. The couple find a boy who had been born to a grandson of the previous emperor of Mexico, Augustín Iturbide, and they sign a contract with the parents saying that they will raise him, starting at age two.
If this is all too confusing, don't sweat it: everything is made clear, charmingly so, in The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. The book is chockablock full of royal families, royal rumors, royal disputes, as well as being an Upstairs, Downstairs to 19th Century royal life of uplands Mexico. It is also packed with the lore of that country from 140 years ago. The views to the twin volcanoes to the east. The brilliance of the sky. The omnipresent jarring rattle of coaches driving across the cobblestones of this (and all) 19th century cities. The dulces de cacahuates, the frijoles con epazote, the humble taco and tortillas (some of us who live here vow we could subsist forever on tortillas and frijoles de la olla.)
Outside of the food, and the parties, and the dances, and the royal visits, there were a few problems that presented themselves during the short reign of Carlota and Maximilian. Like the fact that they were in an occupied country. And that some, namely the Mexican president, Benito Juárez, along with many of his subjects, didn't want them there.
The French soldiers weren't so enchanted either: they don't think too much of spilling their blood over a wasteland 5,000 miles from home. There sits the emperor "on his cactus throne," says the tough old French General Françoise-Achile Bazaine. "For the glory of France" soldiers are dying of "typhoid, cholera, gangrene, syphilis, meningitis, yellow fever." They have been "shot, stabbed, burned alive and castrated, disemboweled."
His Majesty the Magnanimous, granting amnesty to guerrillas and toadying to their sympathizers, throwing costly balls, granting pensions, commissioning his viennoiseries, gardens, statues, whole boulevards, and when the whim took him, off he went, dillydallying about Indian villages, Aztec ruins, collecting butterflies.
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The Last Prince is elegantly detailed. The fevers and malarias of the coast, the backstabbing in court, and the general frustration of the Austrians, the French and the English with the supposedly docile Mexicans. One of the queen's servants comments on the no's. "With these Mexicans it is nada, nada, and nada. No hay, there isn't any. No sé, I don't know. Es la costumbre, it's the custom. Ahorita, in a little moment --- they hold up their fingers as if to show a pinch of salt." The foreigners learn the correct translation of "ahorita" is Don't hold your breath.
Maximilian von Habsburg and Carlota give young Agustín the title of "His Highness, the Prince of Iturbide," and began to groom him as heir to the throne. This is the hook on which our picture of The Last Prince is hung, but there are other touches. Homesickness? What do you miss the most when you have been shipped out of Austria to the wilds of the Americas: "The big spicy Herrenpilze that could be gathered in the Vienna Woods and which were the favorite of Maximilian and oh yes, all the archdukes, they took them sautéed in butter and then simmered in brandy and cream."
Franz Joseph, he wanted the broth only, and Sissi, it was a scandal the way she took hers, steamed, no butter.
And the Mexican food. Some (especially the servants), say "Phoo!" Huitlacoche, for example: "disgusting, on a par with roasted maguey worms, mosquito paste, tacos of ant eggs, and the like."
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Maximilian? He comes off as a bit of a dunce, can't make up his mind, maybe goes a bit buggy. At the end there, everyone, even Napolean III, tells him to abdicate. His indecision costs him his life.
Charlotte? Ah ... poor regal dear. She goes quite mad. "They are trying to poison me," she tells the pope when she returns, unannounced, to his private chambers in Rome.
She begins a breathless ramble on the province of Yucatán, San Luis Potosí, the archbishop of Mexico --- a farrago of nonsense, accusation, and natural history, but then she interrupts herself: "What is the most effective antidote to poison?"
"The rosary and prayer, my child."
She asks him again. His answer does not deviate.--- C. A. Amantea