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Six Emperors - Part Three

Cymon is a geeky historian with a passion for finding out and researching peculiarities and historical coincidences and unsung heroes.

The third stop on my look at six lesser known Emperors and Empires keeps us in Latin America. Whilst Haiti was forged into an Empire by slaves and Brazil by the royal house of its colonial mother country, here we see firstly a colonial, landowning native and secondly a royal, European interloper.



The expanding Spanish Empire first arrived in what is today known as Mexico in 1518, just twenty-six years after Colombus first "discovered" the new world. It didn't take long for them to realise that this new territory was worth taking and in 1519, perhaps the most famous conquistadore of them all, Herman Cortez, set about defeating the legendary, native Aztec Empire. The story is full of illustrious names that resound to this day.

The Spanish not only had a technological advantage over the Aztecs, it also had in its arsenal disease, with which the invaders unintentionally infected the natives, who had no immunity. The number who died is not known but it certainly ran into the millions and severely weakened the indigenous people.

Within two years Cortez had easily defeated the Aztecs. New Spain was established, as part of the Spanish Empire, as a territory in its own right in 1535.

For the next three hundred years the territory grew in wealth and became one of the jewels in the crown of the Spanish monarchy.

The First Mexican Empire

One of only three former colonial countries in the Americas to adopt a monarchy, Haiti (Six Emperors Part One) and Brazil (Six Emperors Part Two), being the others, the man who eventually took power and led Mexico to independence was not the first choice for the role.

A civil war, with a difference, began in 1810. Initially this was to support King Ferdinand VII of Spain in his fight against Napoleon but it also served to oust the people who had taken control of the country, albeit in the King's name.

The revolution lasted eleven years and during that time it morphed into a movement that, although still supporting Ferdinand, yearned more and more for independence. Once victory had been attained a delegation was sent to Spain to request that either Ferdinand himself or a Prince of House of Bourbon accept the throne of the independent Kingdom of Mexico.

The Spanish government refused this request on both fronts and therefore it fell upon the people of Mexico to find a new ruler.

Agustin de Iturbide, First Emperor of Mexico


Agustin was born into a landed family in Valladolid, today called the town of Morelia, on 27th September 1783. His family, originating in the Basque lands of northern Spain, were ennobled in the first part of the fifteenth century. Augustin's father, being a younger son and therefore unlikely to inherit anything meaningful, emigrated to New Spain to set himself up as the head his own dynasty. His mother's lineage is less clear, she claimed to be Criolla, who were people with mostly Spanish heritage, though not always exclusive, but born in Mexico. It is likely that she was of mixed Spanish and indigenous blood. Agustin claimed to be Criolla himself.

Agustin had a successful career in the King's army but at the end of the civil war led a faction that was to call for an independent Mexico, with a King of Spanish, royal blood.

The Plan of Iguala, written by Iturbide in February 1821, appealed to the majority of Mexicans and therefore gained universal support. It promised that the people, regardless of ethnicity, would enjoy equal rights, that the Catholic religion was protected and indeed that it was to be the only religion in the country and, importantly, that Mexico would be ruled independent of Madrid.

The Plan was rewritten and extended by the Treaty of Cordoba in August of the same year. This was a much more formal document and included a clause which stated that if there was no suitable candidate from the House of Bourbon available then it was stated that the people could elect their own monarch. The treaty was signed by the Viceroy, Juan O'Donoju and therefore it was recognised to be official Spanish government policy.

Juan O'Donoju O'Ryan The last Viceroy of New Spain

Juan O'Donoju O'Ryan The last Viceroy of New Spain

Once that had been agreed in the legislature a delegation was sent to Spain and Inturbide was named as regent until the new King arrived. He also held the position of commander of the army and as regent effectively appointed his own government to run the country. Of course he filled the ministries with his own supporters. He also ensured that his army, (for it certainly was his army!), received everything that it needed and more.

The Plan of Iguala was placed before the Spanish Congress in February 1822 which voted it down stating that it was illegal and therefore could not be ratified. King Ferdinand also refused to take the throne and forbade any member of his family from so doing.

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Soon after the response from the Spanish government was received the army proclaimed Augustin to be Emperor. The people quickly followed suit. Augustin resisted these calls but by 1822 he had become accustomed to his position of power and the trappings of wealth that it brought with it.

In May 1822 a crowd gathered outside his palace in Mexico calling for him to become Emperor. It is a matter of fact that this crowd included many from his old regiment and it has been subsequently suggested that he did in fact organise this acclamation himself.

The very next day the Congress met and voted on the way forward for the country - republic or monarchy, and if a monarchy, who was to be the new Emperor. The result was that Augustin was to be elevated to be Emperor of a constitutional monarchy. The validity of the vote has been put into question, with claims that the Congress had not carried his elevation by sufficient numbers, this despite the fact that his appointment was carried by a majority of nearly ten to one.

Emperor Agustin's realm stretched from the borders of Panama in the south to Oregon in the north and included the modern day US states of California, Colorado, Utah,Texas, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. It was more than two and a half times larger than the total land area of modern Mexico.

Almost immediately the new Emperor came under attack both from republican factions and royalists who supported the principle that the monarch should be from European royalty and not a Mexican, in particular not Agustin. As soon as late October the Emperor replaced the elected Congress, which was now opposing him with a Junta.

HIs early actions reflect those of many a dictator. Firstly he had former members of Congress, who now opposed him, arrested. This did not quell the dissent. He went on to censor the press but steadily the opposition began to gel together, putting forward the opinion that the Empire was not the way forward and that Mexico should become a republic.

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna

Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna

An opposition leader emerged in the form of Lopez de Santa Anna, a politician, general and former insurgent leader. Santa Anna introduced the Plan of Veracruz, which called for the reinstatement of the old Congress in order for it to reassess the future of the country.

Military action could ne be avoided and Santa Anna fortified himself at Veracruz. Several other rebel generals were quickly defeated by Agustin's General Echavarri and, it must be said that it looked for a while as though Santa Anna would be standing alone.

However the old colonial master was flexing its muscles. King Ferdinand, with desires to re-conquer his colony of Mexico, persuaded most international powers, particularly European, not to recognise the new Empire. As a result trading links were cut and Emperor Agustin found himself without money to either progress the country or pay his army.

At the head of in increasingly disaffected army Echavarri soon turned against his Emperor, taking many officers with him. Additionally the United Provinces of Central America was formed (modern day Honduras, El Salvadore, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Nicaragua) in opposition to rule from Mexico City and the growing despotism of Emperor Agustin.

Santa Anna led his forces toward Mexico City, winning several small battles on the way. The Emperor sent out troops from the city to confront them but in almost every case, instead of fighting them, Santa Anna managed to flip them to his side.

In March 1823 Emperor Agustin personally re-opened the Congress that he had closed only a year before and immediately tendered his abdication. However Congress refused to accept it and instead passed a vote nullifying its own election of Agustin as Emperor and the creation of the monarchy itself.

Emperor Agustin de Iturbide enjoyed, though given his troubles I very much doubt that there was much enjoyment to be had, the trappings of Imperial status for less than a year.

Agustin made his escape from the city, in part his carriage being dragged by an adoring populace. He boarded a British ship, The Rawlins, bound for Livorno. In Tuscany, with little money to speak of, Inturbide attempted to find a way back to Mexico and his Imperial position but under pressure from Spain he was soon forced to leave and made his way to England.

There were factions in Mexico that still supported him and in July 1824 he made his return. He was soon arrested by the local military commander of Nuevo Santander, General Felipe de la Garza. Actually it is difficult to tell who actually arrested who, de la Garza flipping sides several times before he eventually sided against the former Emperor. De la Garza gave Augustin command over his own arresting escort, with orders to present himself for trial in Padilla.

The court found him guilty of treason, though in his final words the former Emperor declared that he was no traitor and that what he had done was purely in the interests of the country and people. He was executed by firing squad.

His remains were placed in the church of Padilla, where they remained for fourteen years. Nine years after his execution President Santa Anna, Augustin's former foe, declared him a hero of independence and sought to have his remains re-interred in the capital. It took a further five years for this to occur.

An urn, containing the ashes of Emperor Augustin 1st were ceremonially brought to Mexico City and the Congress that he abolished and subsequently re-established, honored him as a Hero of Independence.

Today his remains can be found in The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Mexico City. The inscription on his resting place reads:

"Agustin de Iturbide, autor de la Independencia Mexicana. Compatriota Iloralo, pasajero admiralo.Este monumento guarda las cenizas de un heroe. Su alma descansa en el seno de Dios"

Just for fun, I'm going to leave you to translate that yourselves.

The Second Mexican Empire

Following the first Emperor's demise Mexico endured forty years of instability. Wars, both internal and from invading forces, including the wonderfully named "Pastry War", destabilised the political, social and economic life of the country. King Ferdinand made repeated attempts to regain his richest possession. Whereas the First Empire was built on the foundations of the Spanish Empire, the Second Empire owed its existence to another European colonial power. This time it was France.

Napoleon III was at the peak of his powers, having successfully emulated his uncle by becoming Emperor of the French (not Emperor of France, as he is often referred to) and defeating the Austrian Empire in the Franco-Austrian War of 1859, he was bent on expanding his sphere of influence and the unstable Mexican position led him to believe that it was an excellent opportunity for him to achieve this.

The weak governments that followed the first Mexican Empire resulted in the country reneging on its international debts and as a result in 1861 the French, British and Spanish landed military forces in order to exact the monies that were owed to them. The British and Spanish withdrew after only a few months, realising that Napoleon III was set on taking control of Mexico for himself.

The liberal government had also weakened the control that the Catholic Church had enjoyed, selling off the church's land and ending its power in the politics of the nation. This provided Napoleon with a further excuse as he intended to restore that power and thus establish a strongly catholic country in Central America, to challenge the protestant United States to the north.

Unwilling, however to go to Mexico himself, he scoured Europe to find a suitable royal head on which to place the crown and pull the strings. His recent victory over Austria left the House of Habsburg in his debt.

Maximilian 1st, Emperor of Mexico


Once the republican Mexican regime had been defeated by Napoleon's forces, due in great part to an act of treachery by a republican officer, the Emperor of the French turned to imposing the younger brother of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria on the new imperial throne of Mexico.

Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph Maria von Habsburg-Lothringen was not only suitable as a senior European royal but his mother, Princess Sophia of Bavaria, had been involved with Napoleon II and there were rumours that he was actually his son. This has been fairly conclusively disproved and from the likeness between him and his actual father, Archduke Franz Karl, it appears fairly obvious that they were indeed biologically father and son.

Princess Sophie of Bavaria

Princess Sophie of Bavaria

Maximilian had enjoyed an illustrious career as Commander in Chief of the Austrian Navy and had also been Viceroy of Lombardy-Venetia, although he had been removed from that post by his brother after only two years in the position, due to his liberal tendencies.

To add further to his credentials for the position, the Habsburgs had ruled New Spain before the Spanish throne had fallen to the Bourbons. Maximilian had in fact been previously approached by Mexican royalist officials to take the throne in 1859 and 1861. It wasn't until 1863,on the request of Napoleon III and following a referendum in Mexico, which came out in favour of a return to Empire that he accepted the throne. In so doing he had to renounce his Austrian titles and any claim that he may have to that realm. This did not please him but as there was little hope of him reigning in Europe, it was clearly the best offer that he was going to get.

Never crowned as Emperor, due to the continuing instability in the country, Maximilian's reign was doomed from the start. Not only did his Imperial master in France support him in a fairly half-hearted way, being more concerned with the rise of the power of Prussia under Bismark, but the United States never recognised his regime, openly supporting his liberal political opponents.

Opposition in the country also grew rather than receded. The result was that this liberal man found it necessary to impose ever more conservative policies to bolster support from loyalists. His fatal, literally, decision to issue his "Black Decree" in October 1865 further strengthened his opponents. The decree made it punishable by death to be a member of an armed force apart from the legitimate military, even if the perpetrator had not even taken up arms. As a result more than ten thousand people were summarily executed.

Napoleon III Emperor of the French

Napoleon III Emperor of the French

In 1866 Napoleon III realised that his dream of bringing Mexico into the French fold as a client state was ill-fated and withdrew his forces inan effort to bolster his military position against Prussia. Maximilian's wife, Empress Carlota returned to Europe in a failed attempt to find support for him there. She never returned.

Urged to quit his fledgling Empire by Napoleon, Maximilian refused and decided to stay and fight with his loyal troops. It was a brave but foolhardy decision. After several defeats he found himself under siege in the city of Queretaro.

As a book end to the treachery that had given Napoleon III victory in 1863, less than four years later, Emperor Maximilian was similarly betrayed. A royalist officer left a gate to the city unguarded and let the enemy know.

Maximilian was captured, court martialled and sentenced to death by firing squad. A plan was hatched to enable him to escape, but this would involve him taking on a disguise and shaving off his beard, which he refused to do.

The Emperor was executed, along with two of his generals on the morning of 19th June 1867. In his last words, spoken in Spanish, he asked for forgiveness for his actions and forgave his executioners. After a period of time on display in Mexico City his body was returned to Vienna, where it lays in rest today within the Imperial Crypt.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Cymon Snow

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