The Last Emperor of Mexico: A Disaster in the New World 
by Edward Shawcross.
Faber, 336 pp., £20, January, 978 0 571 36057 4
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King Leopold’s Ghostwriter: The Creation of Persons and States in the 19th Century 
by Andrew Fitzmaurice.
Princeton, 592 pp., £35, February, 978 0 691 14869 4
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The Kaiser and the Colonies: Monarchy in the Age of Empire 
by Matthew Fitzpatrick.
Oxford, 416 pp., £90, February, 978 0 19 289703 9
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European monarchies​ and extra-European empires were made for one another, especially in the decades after the 1848 revolutions, when the ancien régime was transformed. Monarchs were increasingly beholden to their subjects: they became charismatic figureheads or emblems for their democratising nations, rather than autocrats answerable only to God. When they looked beyond Europe, however, these monarchs and their advisers could still find a world that teemed with kings, princes and potentates, whose aura seemed largely intact. Stepping into this world, they could put a royal gloss on the ruthless business of economic imperialism by coaxing or browbeating indigenous rulers into bargaining away their sovereignty. For minor kings and junior dynasts especially, the extra-European world was a place to amass wealth or responsibilities denied them at home. But they didn’t get to perform these fantasies of empire under conditions of their choosing: their power rested on legal fictions or brittle symbolism, and was much more dependent than they realised on the faiths and ambitions of those they aspired to make their vassals.

No site captures the allure and vulnerability of these royal ventures better than the Castello di Miramare, a neo-Gothic meringue outside the Adriatic port of Trieste which was confected from not one but two vanished empires. The Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, the Habsburg emperor’s brother, built and decorated Schloss Miramar as a celebration of his ancestry, complete with a painting in which bearded Habsburg faces cluster like strange apples on his spreading family tree. But it is also a relic of his bold decision to accept the imperial throne of Mexico. The rich wallpaper is stamped with the motto he chose to epitomise his rule in the New World: ‘Equidad en la justicia’. Another painting records the moment when on 14 April 1864, Maximilian and his wife, Carlota, left Miramar for Veracruz on board his flagship, Novara. The lengthy voyage gave him ample time to finish editing the hefty etiquette guide that would undergird the majesty of his new court, at which his guards – all six-footers – would wear helmets decorated with a Mexican eagle on a prickly pear cactus, devouring a snake. A mere four years later, however, Maximilian’s crudely mummified body was returned to Trieste after his execution by the republican army, which had never accepted his rule. Carlota, who was in Europe at the time of his capture, never recovered from the shock. By the time she died in 1927, the Habsburg Empire had ceased to exist, Trieste was Italian and Miramar had become Miramare.

Maximilian and Carlota’s downfall is a staple of Austro-Schlock literature, along with the assassination of the Empress Sisi and the suicide at Mayerling of Crown Prince Rudolf. But Edward Shawcross’s pacy, graphic account of the episode is careful to show that their empire began as a Mexican dream rather than a Habsburg folly. The exiled aristocrat José María Gutiérrez de Estrada traced his country’s woes back to the death of Augustín de Iturbide, who had been killed in 1824, a few years after securing Mexico’s independence from Spain and proclaiming himself emperor. De Estrada felt that only an emperor could protect a state of Mexico’s size and ethnic heterogeneity from slow dismemberment by the US. In September 1847, the humiliating arrival of an American army in Mexico City seemed proof that it was time to end Mexico’s experiments with republicanism. But de Estrada needed a collaborator to realise his vision of empire and a candidate for emperor who could displace Benito Juárez, Mexico’s anti-clerical Liberal president. He eventually gained the support of Napoleon III, the upstart emperor of the French, and his Spanish wife, Eugénie de Montijo. It was a long way from Puebla to Paris, but ‘Pan Latinism’ flourished at Napoleon’s court. French thinkers stressed their affinity with ‘Latin America’, a term they coined. They argued that, as Latins, the French resembled the former subjects of Iberian empires in being instinctive monarchists and Catholics, and so were best placed to lead them in resisting the aggression of Protestant, Anglo-Saxon and republican America.

Unfortunately, the French and the Mexicans differed over the kind of empire that was wanted. Carlota called de Estrada a ‘retrograde crayfish’: he and his party were mainly intent on destroying the enemies of the Church. (Mexico belonged to the 19th century, ‘but only chronologically’, according to the exiled archbishop of Mexico, who in 1864 consecrated Miramar’s cosy private chapel.) Although Napoleon was an ally of the papacy, he preferred building boulevards to basilicas and envisaged Mexico as a client kingdom that would promote free trade and by extension the trade and prestige of France. When they finally met, de Estrada unwittingly snubbed Napoleon’s progressive self-image by explaining that Mexico needed ‘a dictatorship on the pattern established in France’. But this didn’t prevent the two men from plotting regime change. French forces were to accompany a British naval operation aimed at punishing Juárez for defaulting on Mexico’s debts; they would then march inland and install a new emperor. The British, while welcoming the prospect of a monarchical barrier against American expansionism, were content for the French to bear the risk of an invasion from which they abstained.

Maximilian was the perfect pawn for Napoleon’s ambitions. With his height, forked beard and protruding jaw, he was the spitting image of an early modern Habsburg emperor. A teenager at the time of the 1848 revolutions, he had been made powerfully aware of the challenge posed by insurgent nationalisms to imperial rule. The re-establishment of Habsburg authority at Vienna had involved not just military force but a dynastic switch: Maximilian’s elder brother, Franz Joseph, replaced their uncle Ferdinand on the throne. A dreamy romantic, Maximilian did not approve of his brother’s repressive instincts and was shunted into command of the Austrian navy – a punchline in search of a joke. He planted a luxurious exotic garden at Miramar and set to work on his Schloss. A harsh winter promptly killed the plants. Though Franz Joseph grudgingly made him regent of the resentful provinces of Lombardy-Venetia, Maximilian’s initiatives towards reconciliation were discouraged. He could only watch when, in 1859, Napoleon III defeated Franz Joseph in battle and delivered Lombardy to the Piedmontese.

Maximilian was so depressed he dreamed of becoming Belgian, like his father-in-law, King Leopold. A Saxe-Coburg princeling whose first wife had died in childbirth before she could inherit the British throne, Leopold had been installed as king of the new Belgian state created by the 1830 revolutions. Having married a daughter of Louis Philippe, the king of France, Leopold ensured that his new dynasty survived 1848 by positioning himself as a friend to moderate liberty and economic progress. Leopold’s daughter, Carlota, encouraged Maximilian in his belief that Mexico could be his Belgium. The 1848 uprisings had been traumatising for her too. Her grandfather Louis Philippe had been chased off the French throne and her mother, Louise, had died – finished off, Louise’s niece Queen Victoria thought, by chagrin. Carlota, who had no wish to hang around the gardens at Miramar moping over the cacti, leapt at the chance of an empire in the New World. With her father’s blessing, she persuaded Maximilian to ignore the many warning signs. They set sail even though the French invasion had stuttered, the plebiscite organised to justify his reign was transparently unrepresentative and the British were offering no assistance. Maximilian had to take heart from the assurances of Confederate Americans that their ongoing civil war would distract Juárez’s allies in the northern states long enough to ensure his defeat.

Could or should Maximilian and Carlota become Mexican? Franz Joseph’s answer was clear: Habsburg and Mexican identities were mutually exclusive. He demanded that his brother renounce his claim to the succession before he left Europe, for fear that the seat of Habsburg power might at some future date migrate from Vienna to Mexico City. There was an angry exchange of telegrams between Paris, Vienna and Miramar. Franz Joseph’s decision was a major blow to his brother, who nearly abandoned the mission he believed would revive his family’s sway over the New World and give new meaning to its motto: ‘Plus Ultra’. When he put on the venerable Order of the Golden Fleece to receive Mexico’s offer of the crown, he too showed that he belonged only ‘chronologically’ to the 19th century.

Yet Maximilian also aspired to be a representative king, a Leopold rather than a Charles V, even drafting in a Belgian Protestant engineer to head his civil cabinet. The ruling couple’s uncertain style betrayed contradictory impulses. Life at Cuernavaca, Maximilian’s favourite retreat, was a blend of tropical lassitude and Biedermeier stolidity. Maximilian demanded schnitzel for breakfast and was so desperate for port that he paid his officials for their contraband supplies. Yet when his secretary queried why he was betraying Carlota with the daughter of his gardener, he claimed that sometimes one got tired of fine dishes and preferred ‘hot Mexican food’ and the ‘white liquor of the country’. He liked to wear a sombrero and a red cravat when riding around, but locals thought he looked like a drink salesman. Carlota did her bit, enduring endless hugs with society ladies – the abrazo – and throwing gigantic parties which the creole elite enjoyed much more than the hosts. She made a great show of recruiting an indigenous woman in waiting, while Maximilian published decrees in Nahuatl and enthused over Aztec remains.

Maximilian and Carlota were fussing with the superstructure of their power before they had completed its foundations. Fascinating as court semiotics are to historians, they cannot instantiate the world they proclaim. The French, whose own empire-building ran in parallel and often in tension with Maximilian’s, understood that empire requires a monopoly on violence. They increased the ruthlessness of their invasion, bringing in veterans from the conquest of Algeria who were experienced in terrorising the countryside. Maximilian, though he raised his own force of Belgian, Austrian and Confederate volunteers to prosecute the war against the Juaristas, preferred to kill opposition with kindness. That meant ruling as he supposed Napoleon III did: from a moderate centre. The problem was that he could only win over liberals by consenting to the confiscation of church property. The clericalist right was enraged. Maximilian couldn’t count on the Vatican to calm them down, since Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors had just excoriated the liberalism with which he was flirting. Nor could Maximilian rely on prosperity to neutralise dissent. Mexico City acquired boulevards and parks, but elsewhere the condition of the roads frustrated the roll out of what he revealingly called ‘Le Programme de l’Empire’.

Napoleon regarded his hapless pupil simply as his debtor. He had opened up his rule to greater scrutiny at home, and needed to defuse allegations that he was squandering France’s wealth abroad. His court made Maximilian’s empire pay its own costs by contracting French loans. Napoleon met appeals to defer payment or postpone the return of French troops with mounting irritation, judging that he was dealing with fantasists whose decrees had no authority beyond their palace.

It is easy to overdetermine the fall of kings or collapse of empires. Shawcross shows that Maximilian did win over sections and regions of Mexico, especially when he changed his mind on church property. Tomás Mejía, one of the prisoners eventually executed alongside the emperor, typified these pro-Maximilian constituencies: a fervent Catholic, he was also an indigenous leader from a historically independent region. What destroyed Maximilian was the North’s victory in the American Civil War. Although Juárez was a resilient enemy, he had survived only by retreating as far as he could go, to the stronghold on the northern border now known as Ciudad Juárez. The French could not press him further, for fear of dragging the US into the conflict. Before long, shipments of American revolvers were powering his relentless recovery. America’s renewed commitment to the Monroe Doctrine, which frowned on foreign interference in either hemisphere, severed Maximilian from foreign help. Franz Joseph, who had no appetite for military confrontation with the US, stopped a furious mob of Austrian volunteers from taking ship for Mexico at Trieste. After the withdrawal of French troops, the points were set for disaster, though Maximilian vacillated to the end. Captured after an impulsive decision to command from the front, he even ruined his own planned escape. He refused to render himself unrecognisable by cutting off his forked beard, and by the time he agreed to tie it back instead, his bribed jailers had been replaced.

Shawcross reminds us that Maximilian’s execution mattered primarily not as a dynastic reverse for the Habsburgs but as an event in French politics. A photograph of his timid firing squad shows that they looked nothing like the strapping soldiers in Manet’s famous painting of the scene. Manet’s realism lies rather in his sly portrayal of the squad’s commanding officer as Napoleon. As the historian David Todd has argued, this foreign policy disaster exposed the hollowness of the emperor’s promises to promote the trade and influence of France throughout the world. After Napoleon’s overthrow in 1870 and death in exile at Chislehurst in Kent, the fate of his directionless son, Louis-Napoleon, was an eerie echo of Maximilian’s. Having accompanied a British army to Zululand and been speared to death, the prince became in death a pious emblem for another country’s imperialism.

Carlota’s brother Leopold, who succeeded their father as king of Belgium in 1865, had joined Napoleon in averting his eyes from her plight. His compassion extended only to ensuring she vanished after her composure cracked on a European tour to rally her husband’s promoters. When Napoleon stonewalled her, Carlota became convinced that Eugénie was poisoning her orangeade. Journeying to Rome, she baffled imaginary assassins by keeping chickens to be killed and cooked in front of her, insisting on drinking only from the Trevi fountain and camping out in the Vatican Library. By the time news of Maximilian’s death reached Europe, Leopold had removed her from Miramar to confinement in the family’s castles.

Leopold​ may have been unwilling to help maintain his sister and her husband in Mexico, but he was intent on creating what Steven Press has called a ‘rogue empire’ of his own. Driven by a sociopathic craving for wealth and power, Leopold wanted to be a despot, not a minor constitutional king. Andrew Fitzmaurice deepens our understanding of the deviousness with which he created a colony in the Congo to funnel the profits of mass murder not to Belgium but to Leopold himself. Leopold knew that Belgium’s free-trading parliament would not tolerate the extension of his sovereignty abroad, so after attempting to buy up various private fiefdoms created by European adventurers in Borneo and East Africa, he hit on a deadly idea. He would sponsor philanthropic associations to work against the slave trade in Africa, whose agents would trick or force local chiefs into treaties that handed over rights to territories along the Congo River. But before Leopold could announce that these burgled sovereignties formed a new, tame state, he needed to jump some tall hurdles. In international law, you couldn’t just announce you were a state and join the international community. Nor could private individuals or companies contract to take sovereignty from others. There was also the problem of Portugal: its vague but expansive claim over the Congo suggested that indigenous rulers might not even have sovereignty to give away.

At this point Leopold turned for help to the English lawyer Sir Travers Twiss, the subject of Fitzmaurice’s book. Twiss was a leading authority on international law, who adduced precedents for what Leopold was trying to do and rubbished Portugal’s claims. He was an expert member of the British delegation to the 1884-85 Congress of Berlin, which catalysed the recognition of the Congo Free State by the European powers. In Twiss’s view, the Knights of Malta, the Hudson’s Bay and East India Companies, and Rajah Brooke, the British adventurer who founded a dynasty in Sarawak, were all examples of private enterprises that had absorbed or created sovereignty, becoming something like states and achieving eminent domain. He supplied Leopold with the suggestion that the Congo River should become an international but not neutralised protectorate, which meant he could keep sending his armed trading vessels there.

Fitzmaurice argues that Twiss’s precedents were unconvincing or misunderstood. Chartered companies were hybrid rather than independent entities, which acted for sovereigns or were finally absorbed by them – the very relationship which Leopold wished to obfuscate. In supporting Leopold’s claims, Twiss was also performing a gigantic flip-flop. He had made his name in 1846 with a book which denied that the American pioneers who first occupied the Oregon Territory could declare themselves a state. An Oxford high-flyer who later joined the court of Doctors’ Commons, Twiss had worked tirelessly to master ecclesiastical and marriage law. Because both fields descended from canon law, they were based on civil rather than common law principles, encouraging him to seek chairs in international law. Like many bright young professionals, he had been an intellectual conformist: mingling with bishops, whose credentials it was his job to verify, it suited him to profess a church-and-state Toryism as heavy as his mutton-chop whiskers. In a voluminous correspondence with Metternich, the deposed Austrian chancellor (another victim of 1848), Twiss had connected his disbelief in self-starting states with a fogeyish objection to the European nationalists who had caused Metternich and Maximilian so much grief.

Twiss only came round to Leopold’s position because the king covertly paid him to do so at a time when he was desperate for money. The first third of Fitzmaurice’s book is an impeccably documented account of Twiss’s dull ascension; the second is a Wilkie Collins novel in miniature, recounting his disgrace after he was caught trying to manufacture a false identity for his wife. Pharaïlde van Lynseele was a Belgian prostitute Twiss had met during forays into London’s demi-monde. When he married her in Dresden, they claimed she was the daughter of a noble Dutch colonel. So confident was he in bamboozling society about her origins that he aspired to present her to Queen Victoria. However, a libel case the couple brought against one of Lady Twiss’s former clients sensationally collapsed and Twiss was forced by the archbishop of Canterbury to disgorge his lucrative ecclesiastical positions. Ruined, he was getting by writing law textbooks when Leopold came calling. In Berlin, Twiss secretly drafted the Congo Free State’s constitution to suggest that its sovereignty was independent of Leopold.

Fitzmaurice, who recounts Twiss’s collapse with mordant verve and excellent control of archival material, tries too hard to weave it into a consistent intellectual history of the Congo. He repeatedly suggests that Twiss’s attempt to make Pharaïlde into a new person converted him to a liberal belief in the fluidity of personality and so prepared him to ascribe legal personality to Leopold’s illegal gains. Yet it is not clear whether the homology between the two cases even occurred to Twiss (about whose self-destructiveness much remains inexplicable), still less to Leopold. Fitzmaurice does vividly evoke the king’s ability to sniff out the lackeys he needed, especially when they also needed him. He also traces sinister parallels between the two men. When Twiss tired of his wife, he asked Leopold whether he could lock her up in a Belgian lunatic asylum. Leopold, who had form disappearing inconvenient women, duly obliged.

To the scandal of Belgian society, Leopold showered his Congo profits on Caroline Lacroix, an ex-prostitute he ennobled as Baroness Vaughan and later married on his death bed. He might not have been King of the Congo, but she was known as its ‘Queen’. Leopold sought impunity for his viciously exploitative rule, but, like Twiss, met disgrace. Twiss’s constitution coyly styled Leopold as ‘Duc de Saxe, et Prince de Saxe-Coburg et Gotha’ rather than ‘roi des Belges’, yet the vocal campaigning of missionary and humanitarian groups pinned the horrors on him and on Belgium all the same. In 1908, the rogue emperor was forced to sell his ‘private’ colony to the Belgian state; he sank back to the level of a constitutional king.

Although​ Leopold had made international law into a weapon of the strong, his arguments were weak. By the time of the Berlin Congress, opinion was turning against pursuing colonisation by means of treaties with African kingdoms that one Cambridge lawyer dismissed as no more than ‘transient agglomerations effected by savage Napoleons’. The great powers succumbed to the ‘haze’ Twiss generated only because it suited them. Bismarck, who had convened the congress, realised that if he endorsed Leopold’s project, he could close off a swathe of Central Africa to France, a prospect which also appealed to the British. The German political classes were beginning to espouse imperialism – as Matthew Fitzpatrick’s monograph establishes, Germany’s expanding empire owed little to its emperors. Kaiser Wilhelm II talked loudly about the need for brutal dealings with the extra-European world, but was too skittish to fashion a Weltpolitik of his own. His most flamboyant moves were scripted for him. On 31 March 1905, he came ashore from his yacht at Tangier and rode through the town in solidarity with the sultan of Morocco at the request of Von Bülow, his chancellor, who was worried about French efforts to crowd out German economic interests. Wilhelm, who had a disabled arm, fretted about being thrown off his jittery Berber horse. On his three visits to the Ottoman Empire, he preferred sightseeing to strategising: he failed to co-ordinate his actions with German businessmen and disappointed evangelical settlers in Haifa. Theodor Herzl’s lobbying of the kaiser failed not because of Wilhelm’s antisemitism but his reluctance to confront Ottoman resistance to Jewish settlement. His responsibility for colonial crimes, such as Lothar von Trotha’s genocide of the Herero people in what is now Namibia, lay mainly in a callous failure of oversight.

The kaiser mattered most as the ‘royal metonym’ for the ‘expansionist German nation’. This crowned ‘puppet’ could help cultivate, browbeat or even supplant indigenous rulers in territories eyed by colonial lobbies, becoming for instance the titular king of Samoa. The idea that Germany might advance its empire in a cheap, frictionless way through Wilhelm’s friendships with indigenous rulers came naturally: at home, he wasn’t just emperor but king of Prussia, first among royal equals in a federated state which had absorbed territorial sovereigns without annihilating them. Fitzpatrick does not want us to confuse this monarchical imperialism with what David Cannadine has called ‘Ornamentalism’: a ceremonious intercourse between consenting elites which passed over asymmetries of power and race. The kaiser could be an oafish suitor. His donation of gifts from Africa or the Pacific to his anthropological museum shows where he placed his new friends on the scale of civilisation. Two indigenous princes managed to visit him only by enlisting themselves as exhibits in touring human zoos.

Sovereigns from Asian civilisations more legible to German thinkers commanded greater respect. When the Germans bullied a member of the Chinese imperial household into visiting Berlin to apologise for the murder of the German ambassador, the move backfired. The Chinese prince refused the kaiser’s improvised demand that he ‘kowtow’ to him, pointing out that this practice had only ever been appropriate when directed to the emperor of China, a divine being. The kaiser – no one’s idea of a god – backed down, demonstrating that the Germans could lose control of the symbolic exchanges they had initiated. More broadly, Fitzpatrick’s sensitive evocation of the agency of indigenous rulers makes clear how they often managed to exploit German attention to magnify their own status, defeat local rivals or deflect settler exploitation. On the grasslands of Cameroon, King Njoya of Bamum flirted with Germany by donning the resplendent uniform the kaiser sent him, but reverted to Islamic dress and his former alliances when it became clear that no German rifles would be forthcoming.

This was still a hazardous game. Chulalongkorn, the king of Siam, returned from trips to Berlin with the insight that Europe was an overpopulated, overfarmed continent whose hunger for land and resources could be stalled but not stopped by courtly diplomacy. The German regime was interested in princes, but did not scruple to sell out, overthrow or even kill them if the geostrategic weather changed. In August 1914, the Germans hanged the Duala prince Rudolf Manga Bell in Cameroon. Though educated in Germany and initially sympathetic to its interests, he became a problem after Germany decided to develop his coastal lands. Panicked by the outbreak of the First World War, the colonial secretary Wilhelm Solf rushed through his judicial murder. In the decades before the war destroyed both the German and Habsburg empires, monarchy had been inextricably linked to the violent global extension of European peoples and economies. Yet as Archduke Maximilian had no less cause than Rudolf Manga Bell to reflect, monarchs were often pawns and victims of material processes much larger than themselves.

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