Review: THE LAST EMPEROR OF MEXICO by Edward Shawcross

Published by Faber & Faber – ISBN: 978-0-571-36057-4


Apologies for such a long period of silence – work has been keeping me from blogging for a while.

Today I have to review a book which has held me completely spellbound for the last week. This book, subtitled “A Disaster in the New World” tells a story so – well, far-fetched, really – as to beggar belief. After all, who would believe that in the 1860s a member of the Austro-Hungarian Imperial family would cross the sea to go to Mexico, convinced that he would be welcomed by that republic with open arms? Who would think that he would have been persuaded to do so by a French Emperor (Napoleon III) in order to help Mexico pay back debts to the French exchequer? Or that France would advance money and an army to support the new emperor to subdue the lands? 

All this only a short time after the USA had stolen vast tracts of northern Mexico, annexing Texas, then fighting an entirely unjustified war and stealing “all or parts of (Alta) California, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado.” Mexico was in tatters, and her past greatness was a source of pride – but her politics were a mess. Conservatives wanted a return to a royal family ruling the state and the aristocracy taking control, with the Catholic Church reinvigorated; the opposing forces of liberalism wanted nothing to do with monarchy, but instead demanded democracy, a break with the Church, and an end to colonial institutions.

In 1855 the liberals won and Mexican society was reformed. The Church saw vast tracts of her lands confiscated and nationalised – the archbishop threatened excommunication to any who supported the new constitution. The disputes led to a coup d’etat and three years of civil war, with the US supporting the republicans with weapons and warships. It was an unequal fight, and as the president, Juarez, took over control, many of the conservatives fled to Europe, where they started to lobby for money and arms to return and retake their country.

One of the first acts of the new Mexican congress was to halt all foreign debt repayments. Significant sums were owed to Britain and France. 

At the same time, the US lost interest for a time. A few months after the end of the Mexican civil war, America began her own, and European nations saw an opportunity. They conceived the Convention of London, agreeing to send a force to Mexico to recover the debts. And many of the Mexican conservatives who had fled to Europe saw their chance. They petitioned the French Emperor, and he saw an opportunity for gaining control of Mexico and its riches. But who could he install to take over responsibility for it? He needed a compliant candidate, and in Maximilian of Austria, he found the perfect man. An aristocratic gentleman, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, good-natured, “affable and charismatic” but also a dreamer, who dreamt of “a time when Spain, under the wings of the eagle [the Habsburg emblem], was on the highest pinnacle of power, and the greatest empire of the world …”

When Napoleon III offered to help him win and hold the Mexican throne, it must have seemed that his dreams were to come true.

This book reads superbly – Shawcross is one of those blessed historians who has the instincts of a thriller writer. That is in no way a negative criticism. His knowledge of his subject is clearly enormous. He has a feel for the people involved, and after intensive research into private letters and official documents, has brought the terrible events of the period to life. 

As a book about Mexican troubled history, as a book about the Habsburgs, as a book about American imperial expansion, and about French declining authority, this is a book that really cannot be beaten. I was enthralled and fascinated by the book and by the period Shawcross explains so succinctly and with wonderful clarity. I have not read any of his other books – yet – but I will. I will!

A brilliant book, and very highly recommended.

Michael Jecks

North Dartmoor


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