Karol Beneski: The Pole at the Centre of Mexican History
Culture.pl presents the little-known story of a Pole who was a key witness to some of the most significant moments in Mexico’s history. A close friend of the first emperor of Mexico, Karol Beneski’s life may now offer answers to questions that have bothered historians for over a century.
Throughout most of the 19th century, Mexico was in conflict about whether to be a monarchy or a republic, especially after it finally became an independent country in May 1822. Liberals wanted a republic using the USA as an example, while conservatives wanted a government with a strong army and a dominant Catholic church.
Dated 15th July 1822, Karol Beneski (also known as Charles de Beneski or Carlos Beneski), a Pole living in Mexico wrote a letter addressed to Agustin de Iturbide, the new emperor of Mexico.
Beneski certainly had no idea that this letter would end up being the first step to becoming one of the Mexican Emperor’s closest friends, and an important source for Mexican historiography.
Karol Beneski, originally from Poland, lieutenant colonel retired from the Prussian Army, living here, has the honour to lay at the feet of your Majesty my respects and sincerely declare: that impressed by the good news of your Majesty’s heroic actions and doings at freeing your great country, along with (...) the hospitality shown to foreigners, I have decided to stay and live in Mexico, including my person to this generous nation and subjecting myself to its law and government.
Beneski showed full commitment to Iturbide, writing that he was aware, that in order to settle in a foreign nation, he had to prove having professional skills or the ability to serve to it.
I offer everything to your service and firmly swear to demonstrate faithfulness until the loss of my life.
Beneski claimed he had lost all his documents during the trip to Mexico, but this was actually a lie. This was the perfect moment to make up his own CV and escalate within the hierarchy of the Mexican Army. He was assigned as a Lieutenant Colonel, but quickly became an aide-de-camp to General Anastasio Bustamante, who would put him closer to Emperor Agustín de Iturbide.
Why come to Mexico?
Beneski first tried to settle in the United States of America. But when he arrived, he was told they didn’t need any more soldiers. So he decided to head south and try his luck in Mexico. He arrived in Veracruz, the oldest port in Mexico and where most travellers in the early 19th century made their first stop. A trip from Veracruz to Mexico City – which today takes around five hours – took them around four days with some stops overnight.
Travellers were usually amazed with the nature of the country, its natural resources, hospitality and of course social divisions and poverty. There was a varied offer of fruits and vegetables, as well as tortillas, beans, chilli and pulque, a foamy alcoholic beverage.
Some readers may already know that relations between Poles and Mexicans started in the 16th century with Jan Dantyszek, a diplomat for Sigismund I, King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Lithuania. Dantyszek began a correspondence with Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico. However, few people are aware that the interaction between the two countries included a lot more than the odd letter here or there.
Independent Mexico: a monarchy or a republic?
In June 1808, Charles IV abdicated from the Spanish throne, passing it down to his son Fernando VII. But upon his resignation, Napoleon seized power of Spain, leaving the two in a power struggle. All these conflicts, along with the European revolutions at the beginning of the 19th century had Europeans distracted, making it the perfect time for Mexico to gain independence.
But at that time in Mexico, ‘creoles’ (Spanish descendants born in Mexico) weren’t thinking about building a republic – they were still thinking in terms of New Spain, the enormous colonial territory that took up most of North America, and who should become its new king. It wasn’t until 1821 when the newly-formed Mexican Empire became an independent monarchy supported by the church and an army. In July 1822 Agustin de Iturbide, one of the heroes of Mexican independence, was crowned emperor.
Iturbide’s foundations for Mexican independence came from the Plan of Iguala, a document he co-wrote which stated that the monarchy in Mexico had to be moderated by a congress. Turbulence arose though when the members of that congress could not arrive at a consensus. There were three main factions: the monarchists, the republicans – who feared that Iturbide’s reign could turn into an absolutist regime – and the Bourbonists, who were something in-between but still wanted Mexico to be part of Spain.
The will to gain independence was shared by many, but not everybody had the same plan on what the new system should look like. Most of the people in power saw in Iturbide an opportunity to apply their own plans.
Both congress and the emperor were to adjudicate themselves Mexico’s sovereignty, but it was clear they had different perspectives. Iturbide ended up getting rid of the every congress member, accusing them of being conspirators and imprisoning some of them.
This behaviour caused so much tension that he had to re-establish the institution anew. But this new congress was reluctant to recognise him as emperor and stated that the coronation of Iturbide would only be a mistake. Mexican politician and writer José María Torbel y Mendívil wrote in the 19th century that the conflict between federalism and centralism was a matter of interests, not opinions.
Everything in the political order was in the hands of a small but dominant minority, who were ostensibly the heirs of the colonial system of power. According to Mexican historian Luis Alberto de la Garza, the delay in setting up an effective centralised power had less to do with the fear of tyranny, and more to do with vested interests’ fear of a centralised government that could actually become impartial and fair.
Iturbide was exiled and supposedly warned that if he set foot in Mexico City again, a death sentence would be awaiting him. Meanwhile, his closest allies back home were imprisoned – among them Karol Beneski. The Pole rebuffed the accusations, stating that he was a man of honour ‘born and brought up in an enlightened nation’.
The famous Prussian geographer Alexander von Humboldt learned about the threat and thought the same death penalty was awaiting Beneski. Asked by Beneski’s family, Humboldt wrote a letter to the Mexican authorities begging them not to kill his compatriot from the partitioned Polish-speaking part of Prussia.
Spain rears its vengeful head
Beneski was freed, and swiftly joined Iturbide in Veracruz where he was waiting to leave the country. They travelled together to Europe. There, Beneski often took care of Iturbide’s family. Iturbide strategically enrolled his children at different schools around Europe to protect them.
Rumours abounded that Spain wanted to reconquer the Mexican Empire with the help of the Holy Alliance, the recent coalition between the monarchist powers of Prussia, Russia and Austria. The trio, which had worked together to partition Poland in the late 18th century, had a lot of experience trying to silence revolutionary movements against absolutism in Europe. But in the end, Spain was left alone in its failed attempt to reconquer Mexico.
In 1824, compelled by the threat of Spanish rule returning, Iturbide came back to Mexico. He arrived in a boat along with his wife, two sons, a printer, a priest, and, of course, Karol Beneski. This information is confirmed thanks to the chronicles of José Malo, who described the last days of Iturbide as well as the actions of Beneski.
Before coming back to Mexico, Beneski had fought against Austria, Russia and France. In Mexico, he was highly valued due to his experience working in the Prussian army. During his return to Europe, he had been awarded an Iron Cross by Prussia, while in France he was even a candidate for the Legion of Honour.
A trap is laid
When they came back to Mexico, Beneski was in charge of tracking down a person Iturbide trusted: Felipe de la Garza. But according to Beneski’s later pamphlet A Narrative of the Last Moments of the Life of Don Augustin de Iturbide, De la Garza had actually set a trap for Iturbide.
When he saw Beneski, knowing the Pole was a close ally of Iturbide, De la Garza told him:
You know sir, that I am a man of honour. Speak to me candidly. Has Iturbide sent you?
Beneski replied that he was merely on commercial business for mercantile houses in London. When asked about Iturbide, Beneski replied he ‘had left him well and tranquil in London, where he led a retired life.’ In reality, Iturbide was waiting in the boat.
De la Garza showed so much interest in seeing him again, expressing that Mexico needed Iturbide back:
Just as Napoleon went back to France from Egypt, Iturbide needs to come back to Mexico.
Upon Beneski’s return to the boat, Iturbide heard what had happened. He thought De la Garza might be right and decided to go to visit him. But it was all a lie. When they went back to De la Garza, they were both captured. A few days later, Beneski was deported, while Iturbide was executed.
By the end of 1824, Beneski decided he had had enough of the army and began to work for a US corporation. During this time, he wrote the previously-mentioned pamphlet about his friend’s death. In 1826, Gazeta Lwowska wrote about Beneski going back to the US to confirm an agreement to create a canal across Nicaragua that would connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific. The project, a clear precedent of the Panama Canal, did not come to fruition.
In 1829, he came back to Mexico and was imprisoned. But he was soon freed thanks to help from his old boss General Bustamante, who just a year later would be made President of Mexico. A few months after Beneski’s arrival, the Pole fought against the Spanish invasion in Tampico. As a reward, he was given a top position close to the then President of Mexico, Antonio López de Santa Anna. Beneski had various intriguing positions over the next few years, and even went on to become governor of Colima for 18 months, though his rule was unpopular due to him being a foreigner and due to the excesses of some of the officers he commanded.
In late 1835, it became clear that the state of Texas was rebelling. Beneski felt impelled to join the ranks to defend what he felt was Mexican soil. In January 1836, the Pole headed to Saltillo where forces were gathering and preparing to fight. There, most likely recognising the poor preparation and impending disaster for the Mexican side ahead, Beneski took a pistol to his own head and committed suicide. He was buried in the Catedral de Santiago in Saltillo.
Historians revive an important character
In his 1981 book O Niespokojnym Życiu i Smutnej Śmierci Karola Beneskiego (editor’s translation: The Restless Life and Sad Death of Karol Beneski), Witold L. Langrod writes that learning about Beneski was an illness for him – it dominated the scholar’s work for many years and made him do exhaustive research in many libraries and archives around the world. He read – among many other sources – all the correspondence between Beneski and Iturbide, as well as official army documents from different countries. As Langrod recalls:
This character did not find a place in the history of Poland.
But now, in the 2010s, the Mexican civil association La Orden de Guadalupe is taking all possible steps to conduct a thorough research about Beneski’s life in order to bring the relevance of the Pole to Mexican historiography. The association’s director, Hugo Ketzel Cuellar, said in an interview:
The need to study the life of Beneski comes up as an opportunity to offer a new source that could complement one of the less comprehensive epochs of the national history in Mexico: the consummation of independence.
Ketzel Cuellar claims that an external source such as Beneski would allow Mexicans to stay away from the ideological attachments of that epoch.
It is clear that this would help to understand that the internal processes are far away from being isolated from global circumstances.
In fact, it turns out he was not the only Pole in the thick of 19th-century Mexico’s identity struggle. Nearly three decades later in 1864, Mexico again became an empire for a short period, with Maximilian I coming into power. During the so-called Second Mexican Empire, there were a few Poles among the army, including one Konrad Niklewicz, who left memoirs about his time as a soldier. But that is another story...
Either way, it is the Pole who ‘enjoyed the dignity of an imperial suite and knew the darkness of prison cells,’ as Langrod puts it, that may offer the most answers. One of the main questions is trying to understand why Iturbide returned to Mexico – were his intentions simply to steal power back, or to truly take care of the nation? Perhaps the increasing research about Karol Beneski’s life will finally put this key question in Mexican history to rest.
Written by Alexis Angulo, June 2017