Last week images of the execution of Saddam Hussein were beamed around the world. News travelled much more slowly in June 1867, when a political execution took place under very different circumstances: the idealistic emperor Maximilian of Mexico, who had been installed three years earlier by a French intervention, faced a firing squad of resurgent nationalists. Learning the news, Edouard Manet made some of the greatest of all political paintings.
In January 1862 – exactly 145 years ago – the news of the day was that over 10,000 British, French and Spanish troops were disembarking at the port of Veracruz, Mexico, with the aim of forcing Mexico to pay its foreign debts. However, it soon became clear that France had something else in mind: regime change. Britain and Spain had the sense to withdraw quickly from what was turning into an ugly imperialist adventure, on Napoleon III’s part, in search of mineral wealth abroad and prestige at home. The news, then, of what happened to the French on May 5 was utterly unexpected: the most renowned army in Europe was humiliated by the ferocious resistance of the forces of Benito Juárez. But this, of course, was only the beginning.
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