Exporting the Royals

Robert Tombs

  • Maximilian and Juárez by Jasper Ridley
    Constable, 353 pp, £16.95, March 1993, ISBN 0 09 472070 3
  • Maximilian’s Lieutenant: A Personal History of the Mexican Campaign, 1864-7 by Ernst Pitner, translated and edited by Gordon Etherington-Smith
    Tauris, 256 pp, £35.00, October 1993, ISBN 1 85043 560 X

Europeans coming to Veracruz during the 19th century were invariably impressed by its large population of vultures and sharks. Those who arrived in the 1860s in pursuit of Napoleon III’s Mexican dream, or who followed in the train of Maximilian von Habsburg in the hope of sharing in the glory and profit of his new empire, found what one French officer called ‘these disgusting animals’ which ‘stalk you like a prey’ a sobering sight. Things were to turn out worse than their worst forebodings.

Mexico seemed to invite the sort of mutually advantageous interference – ‘civilisation’ supplied in return for trade and natural resources – that formed the standard imperial package. It was barely a state at all. The Americans had already seized nearly half its territory. The Church, vastly powerful thanks to its enormous wealth as much as its spiritual influence, had a larger income than the Government, and had recently used it to finance successful military coups. The Army belonged to regional warlords and their retainers. Local economic and political power was held by an estate-owning aristocracy, the hacendados, who ruled over an indebted peasantry that were little more than slaves. Liberal governments – anti-clerical and anti-military bourgeois nationalists, supported by disaffected warlords – had begun to limit the powers and nibble at the wealth of the Church, but their ‘modernising’ land policy was dispossessing the Indian peasantry of their communal lands and driving them to make common cause with the formidable conservative opposition which was not in favour of land reform. Torn by endemic struggles between warlords, with civil war shading into brigandage, and social, racial and religious divisions, Mexico seemed easy meat for further United States aggression, unless someone else got there first.

Ever since the country gained independence in the 1820s, Mexican conservatives had been attracted by the idea of importing a genuine European monarch, and finding a European power as protector. Britain had been approached a number of times, but the Empire had no vacancies. Lord John Russell defined his attitude to Mexico in what could serve as a permanent axiom of British diplomacy: ‘it would be ... unwise to provoke the ill feeling of North America unless some paramount object were in prospect, and tolerably easy of attainment.’ Besides, noted Palmerston, all these requests added up in the long run to 20,000 British troops and ‘many millions sterling’.

This shopkeeper’s mentality had no appeal for the heir of the Bonapartes, the Emperor Napoleon III. Ever since the Revolution, the need for a successfully assertive foreign policy had seemed evident to many progressive-minded Frenchmen, not least as a remedy for internal divisions. There were recurrent fantasies of a ‘French India’ that could put France in the first rank of world powers, and various parts of the world, some of them rather unlikely, were successively cast in this role. Governments had had an eye on Central America for half a century. A little imagination could show Mexico as a prize well worth a calculated risk: the key to Central America, a possible canal route to the Pacific, and a vast new sphere of political and economic influence. The visionary socialist Fourier declared it the natural capital of the world. An astute seizure of initiative would dazzle France and Europe with another of Napoleon III’s sleights of hand: it would be hailed as ‘the great idea of the reign’, and would carry the added bonus of annoying the Americans and halting their frequently predicted rise to superpower status. Only boldness and imagination would enable France to punch above its weight in the world of the future, and the American Civil War provided a window of opportunity.

It is easy, if not inescapable, to condemn France’s gratuitous meddling in Mexico as cynical, opportunistic, amoral – the sort of blunder that Fouché regarded as worse than a crime. There are a few extenuating circumstances, however. Napoleon III, a rare (fortunately) combination of mystic and manipulator, saw himself as representing moderation and progress. His mission, he had said, was to end the era of revolutions by satisfying the legitimate needs of the people. ‘Liberal dictator ship’, as he called it, seemed to have done the trick in France, and ought to work in Mexico too, bringing order and progress, attracting foreign investment and keeping the national territory intact. In French eyes, the justification of this well-meaning imperialism was the unique global mission of France to spread ‘the values of 1789’, if possible by example, but if necessary by the force of what Michelet called her ‘sacred bayonets’.

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