Monday, April 8, 2013

The Memoir of Maximilian's Gardener, Wilhelm Knechtel

An important and very handsome book has just been published by Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Antropolía e Historia: Las Memorias del Jardinero de Maximiliano, the personal memoirs of Maximilian's gardener, the botanist Wilhelm Knechtel, of his years in Mexico, 1864-1867. The text, originally published in German a century ago, has been translated for the first time  by noted scholar Susanne Igler (author of Carlota de México) and introduced by one of Mexico's leading experts on Maximilian and the Second Empire, Ampáro Gómez Tepexicuapan. The edition also includes a cornucopia of rare photographs, cartes-de-visites, full color illustrations, maps, and an extensive bibliography.

As Tepexicuapan writes in her introduction (my translation into English here), "to be the Gardner to the Court was, and surely will continue to be, an enviable title. The garden is the recreation of Eden and, at the same time, an expression of power." Maximilian, an avid botanist himself, considered his gardens a public display of elegance, order, and learning, and in almost all his many residences, he worked closely with Knechtel: herein lies the importance of this wonderful, anecdote-filled book.

Knechtel was first employed by Maximilian as gardener for his and Carlota's rustic retreat on Lacroma, a small island in the Adriatic. Later, for some five years Knechtel worked under the head gardner, Antón Jelinek, at Miramar, Maximilian's main residence in Trieste. Upon Maximilian's acceptance of the throne of Mexico, Knechtel was named Maximilian's chief gardner, and as such, accompanied the imperial party on their voyage to Veracruz. 

Knechtel's memoir provides a bouquet of detail about the imperial voyage to Mexico, an odyssey of over 50 days that included sailing near Stromboli, a visit to Rome, and stops in Madeira, Martinique, and Jamaica. Of the many episodes of the voyage, he records a vividly peculiar one: the crew's ceremony to "baptize" those crossing the line of the Tropics for the first time (my translation from the Spanish translation):

The carnival began at about 2 in the afternoon. The voice of Neptune, which boomed from the front of the boat, requested permission to board, which the official guard granted, and the boat stopped. The curtain fell and the god's entourage slowly marched toward the aftercastle. The line was headed by the Master of Ceremonies, a sailor of Hurculean stature, wearing a tricorne with gold decorations, furthermore, with an impressive beard and a wig of cigar butts painted black, and wearing only a red loincloth. His entire body was painted very artistically with a mixture of soot and vinegar so that it was impossible to distinguish him from a true Negro. In his hand he carried a long rod. Following after came three fantastically dressed musicians playing happy melodies. Then came the triumphal carriage which consisted of a gunstock of a cannon festooned with banners and baubles, pulled by eight devils who were also painted black and with golden horns and dressed in loincloths. The climax was the divine family: the god Neptune, his wife and child. Neptune, who was fantastically dressed as a sailor, was a short and fat crew member who wore a golden crown, a white beard, long and wavy and made of hemp, with a fishing harpoon as his trident in his right hand and in his left, a thunderous horn. Neptune's consort, the beautiful Amphitrite, was represented by a very tall and thin waiter, a sailor from the Dalmatian coast dressed in tresses of hemp, a tiny crown on his head, and bare chested and bare shouldered as god made him, but dressed in an enormous crinoline. In his arms he carried the child: it was the smallest cabin boy, dressed in diapers, with a tiny crown on his head and purple cape on his shoulders. Frequent pinches produced the desired baby cries.   

Throughout the book Knechtel treats the reader to vivid anecdotes-- I was astonished to find so many scenes and personalities and episodes well known yet rendered fresh and surprising through his point of view. One more example: the visit of the Kickapoos in March of 1865:

...five men and four women, one of them with a child. They were wrapped in red and blue serapes, fantastic head ornaments of feathers, leather, ribbons and glass, and they walked with solemnity through Chapultepec Park, the women with their heads bare. The chief was an old man. From his neck hung a symbol of his authority: a great silver medallion with an engraving of a jaguar and a commemorative coin of Louis XV of France. .. They brought with them three black men from Texas as their translators. These spoke the Kickapoo language, but no Spanish nor French, only English, a language which the emperor and empress spoke perfectly. The emperor received them very kindly and then had them served a meal in the park, at the entrance to the grand boulevard; the plates were put directly on the ground. In a circle, the Kickapoos knelt down and ate with their hands.
Though this memoir is one any armchair reader might savor for its wealth of colorful detail,  its author takes his place among the rare company of those who have left us invaluable eyewitness testimony to this strange, violent, theatrical, and fleeting episode in Mexican history: Dr Samuel Basch, Charles Blanchot, José Luis Blasio, Marie de la Fere, Henry R. Magruder, Prince von Khevenhuller, Prince and Princess Salm-Salm, Sara Yorke Stevenson, Countless Paula von Kollonitz, journalist William Wells, and the reports of Baron Magnus to Bismarck. In short, Knechtel's memoir is both enjoyable and essential reading for anyone interested in Mexico's Second Empire / Maximilian / French Intervention.


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