Friday, May 2, 2008

The Cactus Throne: the Tragedy of Maximilian and Carlotta by Richard O'Connor

Originally published in the Times of Northwest Indiana

An early episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show has Rob giving Laura a huge, ornate necklace once belonging to the Empress Carlotta. Laura is appalled, but copes politely with Rob's awful taste. There is a kernel of history in this episode, which it seems the show's writers expected an early 1960s audience to grasp.

The Cactus Throne is an excellent introduction to that history. The Emperor Maximilian and the Empress Carlotta were, respectively, an Austrian prince and a Belgian princess, married young and shipped off to become the rulers of Mexico at the behest partly of the Mexican upper classes, but mostly of the French government, who hoped in this way to collect an outstanding debt owed by a disgraced Mexican regime to several powerful French banks. (The Mexican president, Miramon, who had signed off on the loan, had decamped to exile in Cuba.) All this was in the middle 1860s, while the United States was too busy fighting the Civil War to keep jumped-up European monarchs from settling south of the border. " 'I'm not exactly skeered,' " Abraham Lincoln said, " 'but I don't like the look of the thing.' "

Of course, the thing was absurd and impossible. Maximilian and Carlotta lasted a little more than two years on their throne. Mexico had another president at the time, Benito Juarez (Miramon's opposite number) who had been recognized by the United States and whose mass-supported guerrilla army was partly funded by American money. While the Emperor and Empress hosted receptions and handed out medals and ribbons in their palace in Mexico City, a French army harried Juarez' thousands as efficiently as it could, and French officials patrolled the ports, collecting import taxes to pay both the debt and the occupying troops. Cinco de Mayo, in fact, celebrates a Mexican victory over French troops won at about this time.

Maximilian saw himself as an enlightened liberal prince whom the Mexican people would soon come to love, and Carlotta seems to have seen herself simply as an Empress in a bejeweled cloud. But the Civil War ended, leaving the United States free to deal with Europeans to the south. Acute homesickness, the climate, marital problems, and the terror of living under siege among a hostile armed population took their toll on the couple. Maximilian's signing of the "Black Decree," an order condemning to death all Mexicans who helped "the bandit" Juarez, doomed him.

The French began to withdraw their army. Carlotta returned to Europe to rally support for the pointless adventure, but the two young rulers had already been hung out to dry. Carlotta went insane at twenty-six, and was locked up for the next sixty years in a Belgian castle. Maximilian, believing that a prince does not flee, stayed behind in Mexico and was captured and shot by Juarez' troops a year after his wife's departure. They were only two casualties among thousands who fell around the Cactus Throne.


  1. This is a brilliant blog-idea. I love everything about it, the Emily Dickinson quote (I love all that she's written), Martha's choice of books (as Omar Khayyam would have said, a jug of wine, a book of poems, and thou, Martha,...BLISS). I have read Fear of Flying and the later Fear of Fifty. And also Room with a View. I'm not much of a history reader though, but these ones, esp the one on the East India Company seem interesting.
    And I'd definitely love to read Diary of a Provincial Lady.

  2. I am so pleased you noticed Vellum! (And Martha, too.) The Provincial Lady is simply perfection.