5/3/13 - the odd origin of cinco de mayo

In today's selection -- the odd origin of Cinco de Mayo. In 1861, Mexico was an independent but highly fragile country unable to pay its creditor nations, with the largest of its debts owed to France. The French, encouraged by the pope, seized upon the situation as an opportunity to expand their colonial empire and to install Maximilian von Habsburg as the emperor of Mexico. The French first took the Mexican port of Veracruz as collateral, then began a march of conquest. It was a victorious invasion with only one defeat along the way, when on May 5, 1862, soldiers of the elite French Foreign Legion succumbed to Mexican troops in the small town of Puebla. This Mexican victory, though futile, is still celebrated as Cinco de Mayo:

"[To collect its overdue loan from Mexico], France proposed taking over [the Mexican port of] Veracruz and collecting customs receipts until the debt was repaid. This was the standard 19th-century way of deal­ing with debtor nations -- creditor nations would simply occupy the debtor country's ports and pay themselves out of tax receipts. The Mexican government offered to negotiate with its European creditors, but the Europeans expected some kind of security while payment terms were worked out. Reluctantly, Mexican forces were withdrawn from Veracruz. The port was basically turned over as collateral on the outstanding loans and a joint force of the creditor nations landed in December 1861. ...

"France had less business in Mexico [than England and Spain], but claimed much larger debts. ... Napoleon III, like his uncle [Napoleon Bonaparte], wanted to expand France, and Europe was out of the question. France had conquered a large part of North Africa and was establishing colonies in Indochina and Africa. Mexico was a tempting target for several reasons. ... Mexican silver mines and farms appeared to be a good investment; the United States, in the middle of its own civil war, was in no position to interfere and the French government listened to the exiles who still believed in a king. ...

"There was Napoleon III's wife, the Empress Eugenia. ... Eugenia -- with her less than royal background -- was a strange woman for a Bonaparte. She was ultra-aristocratic [sic] and Catholic. For her, monarchy was the only proper form of government and the older the Catholic aristocratic family, the better. She knew there was a member of the oldest, most aristocratic and Catholic family in Europe who needed a job. Who better for Emperor of Mexico than Maximilian von Hapsburg? ...

Photo of young Archduke Maximilian and Archduchess Charlotte

Photo of young Archduke Maximilian and Archduchess Charlotte

"His older brother, Franz Josef, was Emperor of Austria, but no one had found a suitable job for Max. ... Maximilian was viceroy of the Austrian territories in northern Italy, but it wasn't working out. ... [Maximilian's wife] Charlotte, for her part, was a king's daughter. The daughter of the king of Belgium, granddaughter of the queen of France and Queen Victoria of England's first cousin, was not happy being only the sister-in-law of the Emperor of Austria. She believed she should be at least a queen. An empress would be even better.

"There was one more European player: Pope Pius IX. The Pope was fighting his own war against Italian guerrillas, and the once important Papal States were protected only by French soldiers. His entire kingdom would be reduced to a few acres in Rome within a few years. Pius saw monarchy as the Church's best defense against republics [which he viewed as a threat to the Church]. The French revolution had nearly destroyed the Church, and only the first Emperor Napoleon had saved it. France, and another Napoleon, had to come to the Pope's rescue when the short-lived Roman Republic ran Pius out of his own kingdom. The Mexican Republic [was yet another threat to the power of the Church]. A republic was bad enough, but these reformers had attacked the Church and even separated it from the State.

"The Mexican conservatives [whose power had been diminished by the rise of the Mexican Republic] wanted a strong central government that would restore them to power. The Pope and Eugenia wanted to strengthen the Church. Charlotte wanted a crown. Franz Josef wanted his younger brother eased out of Italy and out of a possible future as ruler of Austria. Napoleon III wanted to make money out of his occupation of Mexico. Maximilian wanted an election!

"The French occupation was much more expensive than Napoleon expected. Winfield Scott had invaded with ten thousand men, and the United States Army of the 1840s was considered one of the world's worst by the standards of the time. The French Army in the 1860s was the world's best, and four thousand soldiers should have been more than enough. The army bogged down attempt­ing to capture Puebla, which Archbishop Labastida had assured Napoleon was overwhelmingly conservative and would welcome the French without a fight. On 5 May 1862, Mexican troops, led by Ignacio Zaragoza surprised themselves and beat the best army in the world. [Mexican President Benito] Juarez declared 5 May a national holiday -- Cinco de Mayo, although he knew ... that this was only a temporary victory. The French replaced their commander and sent thirty thousand reinforcements. ...

"With still more troops, the French were finally able to claim control. ... Once more, President Juarez had to ask for emergency power, and once more, Congress had fled the Capital. With the foreigners in control of most of the major cities, the French organized Maximilian's election, and not surprisingly, Maximilian was elected Emperor of Mexico."


Richard Grabman


Gods, Gachupines, and Gringos


Editorial Mazatlan


Copyright 2008 by Richard Grabman


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