Empress Carlota of Mexico is often seen as a secondary character in the history of Mexico, always behind her husband Maximilian. However, she was quite an active figure in the politics of the Empire and was the first woman to rule in Latin America.
Imagine being a royal who will never ascend to the throne. That means that, even though you have royal blood, you’re too far down the line to ever become an important figure in history. Now, imagine that, all of a sudden, a group of people from a foreign country contact you, begging you to go to their country to reign as their sovereign. Would you accept? Of course you would! That was pretty much what happened to Archduke Maximilian of Austria, who, without thinking about the real nature of this sudden invitation, decided to venture, along with his wife, Princess Carlota, into what would be their doom.
Maximilian and Carlota are well-known figures in the history of Mexico, but not precisely seen in a positive way. On the contrary, Maximilian is seen as one of the antagonists of Mexican history, and Carlota as just a pawn in a terrible scheme against the sovereignty of the country. However, her story, tragic as it is, is one of the most interesting of all the women in Mexico’s history books. Born in 1840, Carlota was the fourth and only daughter of King Leopold I (King of the Belgians) and his second wife, Louise of Orléans. From birth, she got the title of Princess, but ruling would never be her fate. Basically, she was destined to marry a royal and produce heirs for her family, which she did in 1857, when she married her second cousin, Archduke Maximilian of Austria, the younger brother of Emperor Francis Joseph I, and future uncle of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination would spark WWI (but that’s another story). Since his brother Francis was already Emperor, it wasn’t very likely that he would ascend to the throne, something that he dreamed of. So, how did two European royals become the Emperors of Mexico?
In the early 1860s, after President Benito Juárez decided to stop paying Mexico's debt to Britain, Spain, and France, the three countries decided to invade. After losing a few battles and winning others (including the famous Battle of Puebla, best known as the Cinco de Mayo battle), the Mexican government managed to negotiate with Spain and Britain, but Emperor Napoleon III had other plans, and the debt was just the perfect excuse to make them happen. He wanted to expand his empire throughout Latin America, and Mexico, being right next to the US and having many resources, was the perfect spot to invade. The French troops reached Mexico City in 1863, setting up a provisional president and a whole government called the Regency, while president Juárez moved his entire office north in order to avoid capture and consolidate an army of reformists.
Now, the Regency was just a temporary government structure, since Napoleon III’s plans were to establish a monarchy in the country that would answer to him directly. Years before the intervention, Maximilian had been reached by a group of Mexican conservatives who longed for a monarchy in the country and thought he was the best man for the job. At first, he was a bit reluctant because he wasn’t very sure about the legitimacy of these people’s intentions, and he said that he would only accept if the people of Mexico agreed. After three years of negotiations, during which he was convinced that everybody was looking forward to his arrival, he agreed and saw it as the best opportunity to play an active role in history despite his brother’s advice to refuse the offer (actually, he lost his nobility rights in Austria the moment he left). Not very convinced, Carlota accompanied her husband anyway in a very long and difficult journey to the American continent. Still, despite the hesitation, they were both excited to arrive in a country that they thought was anxiously waiting for them. The reality was totally different. When they arrived at the port of Veracruz in 1864, they were received by a small group of enthusiastic conservatives because, actually, Veracruz was a highly liberal state who didn’t mind letting the royal couple know they weren’t welcome in their country. Still, after another terrible journey to Mexico City, they finally arrived ar Chapultepec Castle, where they were received more enthusiastically.
The problem with these new emperors was that they had the title, but they weren’t allowed to do as much as they wanted. Quite soon after their arrival, the first clashes would begin. Maximilian and Carlota decided to have a liberal government, as those they were used to, and replaced all the conservative ministers and deputies with moderate liberals. The Imperial couple really had genuine intentions to make of this country a better one since it would be their legacy. Carlota, despite being the only woman in her family, and thus, very unlikely to rule, was given a great education worthy of a monarch, and soon, she got very involved in politics. For that reason, she’s often considered to be the first woman to ever rule on the American continent, and she would take Maximilian’s place whenever he left the city (which was quite frequently). She signed laws to improve working conditions in the fields, abolishing corporal punishment and implementing a one-day break for workers to rest. Also, for the first time ever, Maximilian and Carlota encouraged religious tolerance and created an office of indigenous affairs.
Now, as you saw from the title, her life changed completely when she arrived at her new home. It’s said that Carlota had shown signs of madness since she was a little girl and asked for her mother’s grave to be placed right next to her room, so she could play with it. However, her mental health got worse in Mexico. Fernando del Paso, the author of one of the most important novels about the Empress, News from the Empire, claims that Carlota had four main frustrations that worsened her condition. First, a political frustration: no matter how eager the Imperial couple was about improving things (they would even sit outside their castle and let people tell them about their worries and concerns), all of their ideas had to pass through many filters, including that of Napoleon III.
Her other three frustrations were more personal. It is said that she fell madly in love with Maximilian from the moment she saw him and had to work really hard to convince her father to allow her to marry him. Maximilian, on the contrary, saw her only as the perfect way to pay his many debts and become a more powerful royal. For that reason, she knew that her husband wasn’t really committed to her, and not feeling loved back made her really anxious. Then, the third frustration was that, according to gossip from the time, they never had intimacy, which was the reason they failed to produce an heir - her fourth frustration and the main weakness of their empire.
By 1866, the French empire became involved in a war against Austria that required all of their troops. Knowing that Juárez's troops were getting bigger and bigger, Carlota knew that if the French withdrew their army from Mexico, their Empire would fall apart. She decided then to pay a visit to Napoleon, and her madness would become more evident. It’s said that while meeting him and his wife she was offered a beverage that she threw away and started yelling that they wanted to kill her. Her paranoia increased after she failed to make Napoleon commit to their cause and travel to the Vatican to convince the Pope. She wasn’t granted a visit, but she was determined (or as many historians believe, already at the peak of her mental disorder) and entered the Pope’s private room. He was having breakfast, and she grabbed a cup of hot chocolate, dipped her fingers in it and licked them (she was starving since she hadn’t eaten anything, fearing she'd be poisoned). The only person she trusted at the time was actually the Pope, and being so anxious and afflicted, she refused to leave his room, becoming the first and only woman (at least known publicly) to sleep at this “holy” place. From this moment on, she lost it completely. Her brother went to get her and sent her to Belgium, where she would spend 60 years lost inside her own mind.
Maximilian was eventually imprisoned, tried, and executed in 1867 (well, according to the official story; there’s also a theory that he managed to escape to El Salvador, where he became an active politician). It’s said that she knew her husband had died, but she never knew why or how it happened. The documentary Maximilian and Carlota: an Imperial Dream makes a very interesting observation. When she abandoned Mexico she was only 26 years old and got lost in her own mind at that moment in history of great carriages, candlelit mansions, and great monarchies ruling the world. However, she died in 1927, ignoring that she had become one of the richest women in the world. She lived all that time in obscurity, while the rest of the world saw important events like the invention of cars, Einstein’s relativity theory, WWI, the consolidation of the communist party, and, as del Paso claims, she could have even returned to Mexico by plane.
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