Questions for a Pole Living in 19th-Century Mexico
small, A Secret Polish History: Questions for a Pole Living in 19th-Century Mexico, Mexico City street market, between 1880 and 1897, photo: William Henry Jackson / Library of Congress, meksyk_19_wiek.jpg
Napoleon's intervention in Mexico involved about 2,000 to 3,000 Poles who served in the cavalry and infantry of the Austro-Belgian and French forces. Making use of letters and other personal written sources, Culture.pl's Alexis Angulo ‘talks’ to the 19th-century Polish soldier Konrad Niklewicz, a member of the Austrian-Belgian Legion in Mexico.
Alexis Angulo: Mr. Niklewicz, I am very pleased that you have agreed to talk about your experiences in Mexico. Unfortunately, not many people know that there was already a Polish presence the country in the 19th century. Why did you go there?
Konrad Niklewicz: Oh, I made a terrible mistake at that time!
Why was it a mistake? Did you not like Mexico?
It was 16th February 1865. The weather on that memorable day was wonderful, a fact that I and many others travelling to Trieste, where the transport steamer ‘Brasilian’ was waiting to take us to the fields of Mexico, very much appreciated. That same day we were to receive orders to proceed immediately to our place of deployment.
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How many of you were there at the time?
There were 1460 peasants, recruited by offices in Vienna and Ljubljana. Kraków and Ljubljana were extremely lively places at the time. The Austrian government was assembling young men experienced with weapons, using them to form regiments and sending them off to the battlefield in Mexico, which was under the rule of Emperor Maximilian I.
They were only children, but when you got to know them better you saw they were filled with an extraordinary energy. Their faces said: 'These children are soldiers, and they need to be taken seriously.'
I myself also was a child soldier. I remember my black curls flowing down onto my shoulders, my long and tanned face, and despite my young age of seventeen, there was a hint of black shiny fuzz on my chin and the beginnings of a moustache, looking from afar like it had been drawn on with a piece of coal. I was very proud of this extraordinary phenomenon of nature, and, every now and then, I tried to twist the ends of the hairs to speed up the appearance of a real moustache.
You were very young. What persuaded you to go off on such an adventure?
It was my friend, Rutowski, who persuaded me. Were it not for him, I would have never seen the land of Montezuma, its romantic mountains, beautiful settlements and, most importantly, those beautiful Creole women. They are quite a sight in Mexico! Pueblan women are the most beautiful Creoles in Mexico ... Well, on par with the Veracruzan women as well.
What about the rest of society?
In larger cities like Cordoba, you would come across Indians, Creoles, Africans, Spaniards and Europeans of different nationalities who came from all over the world, mostly as tourists, who just like us wanted to satisfy their curiosity and greed.
In the more affluent neighbourhoods, you would see completely different types of people: Caballeros in their spur boots, soldiers in well-worn military uniforms, señoritas with mantillas covering their shoulders, aquadores with thick gutta percha jugs filled with water, servants and maids. To be honest, we liked the latter the best.
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You were very popular with the women there...
I would say so. Creole women find blond men very attractive. Probably because blond hair is such a rare sight among all the dark hair in Mexico, so it makes sense that blond men are an attraction, a fun novelty! Or at least that is what my fellow Lithuanian friends claimed, attributing their popularity to their blond hair.
But I had a different view. The Europeans who were visiting Mexico at that time were all enthusiastic, brave men who saw adventure and danger as a good time to be had. The Creole women were attracted to such adventurous, risk-taking men. Understandably, their sharp minds realised the advantage we had over the local men.
How did you get on with the men there?
I did not really bond with them. The Mexican men maintain relations with the outside world, whereas the women rarely encounter strangers. In stores, cafes and restaurants, the service is male. The same in hotels. Even when travelling it is rare to meet women. Mexicans travel in their own or rented carriages, and when they travel by train they rent separate compartments. Women and men stay in separate groups, and if you find any men together with the women, they are definitely relatives.
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Street scenes in Mexico, 1884 or 1885, photo: William Henry Jackson / Library of Congress
Your perspective is very interesting. Was there anything else you found to your liking there?
The capital of Mexico, without a doubt. It proved to be a rich and very well-maintained city, in terms of cleanliness. The pavement and sidewalks were in excellent condition, even better than the ones I have seen in London. The streets and houses were numbered consecutively. There were police officers and couriers-for-hire everywhere. Mexico is a beautiful city, reminiscent of big cities in the United States.
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Did you see the entire city?
We even visited the poorest neighbourhoods in Mexico City. On Sundays and holidays, Native women cook all kinds of tasty dishes outdoors, out in front of their houses and sell them to visitors who come for entertainment, enticing them by calling out: 'Get the best pulque here! Come over and try it!'
Of course! We drank pulque or beer nearly every day. It is an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the agave plant. Very tasty. Now I remember that I was also fascinated with fruits like oranges and pineapples. I could eat as many as eight servings of pineapple a day. I also loved the chocolate and tortillas prepared by the Natives.
What purpose were the Poles actually supposed to serve in Mexico at that time?
In Mexico, we were like a seed that was supposed to sprout and yield the desired fruit over time. At that time, Mexicans were claiming to be a civilised, regulated society ruled by an established government. In reality, their culture was very underdeveloped.
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Well, there were volunteers from lots of countries. Strangely enough, we Poles proved to be the most resilient to the heat, because not one of us fainted, even though we were called ‘sons of the north’. The ones who most often succumbed to the heat were the Prussian Germans. We Poles seemed to fare even better than the Italians and the French, though when it came to cunningness and self-preservation, we fared much worse.
Well yes, and there are even signs that Poles were in Mexico centuries ago, but unfortunately no one has written anything about them. Among the ruins in Tula they found a quadrangular basalt tile with a carved figure and an inscription on the bottom, supposedly written in hieroglyphics and Latin. But when we looked at it, we found out that the supposed Latin inscription was actually the Polish word cholewa, meaning the part of a shoe! And the figure carved in the stone was wearing an ancient Sarmatian fur hat on its head, dressed like a Polish nobleman during the Jagiellonian Dynasty.
This tile, experts say, could be between 800 and 1,000 years old. So four centuries before the conquest of Mexico, some Poles somehow ended up on that side of the world, and who knows, they may have been the first to bring Christianity to those parts. As it is a known fact that the Aztecs believed in a God of all Gods, and in an mortal virgin who gave birth to a divine being. They even practiced a certain form of confession.
Is there any way you can prove this?
A Native Indian once spoke to me in Polish. He was a Juarista, so he was on the enemy side. We found him wounded. It was my fault, and you know it would not have been very Christian of us to leave these poor men there in the forest, to be devoured by wild animals. So we helped him and he thanked me in Polish, saying: Dziękuję!
You can imagine my surprise when I heard a Polish word come out of the mouth of a Juaristan soldier, who was now nearing death thanks to me. Oh, how guilty I felt then! I looked up to the heavens and folded my hands as if to pray. I felt I had killed my own countryman...
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I would like to return to the question of why you consider your trip to Mexico a mistake?
I realised it was a mistake when talking to the Juaristas. One of them asked: ‘Which Poland are you from?’ And then, after a moment, he added, ‘the Russian, Prussian, or Austrian one?’ Even though the general's geographical and historical knowledge did not extend much beyond his own homeland, he knew what he was talking about.
‘I am from Russian Poland, and he is from Austrian Poland,’ I replied, pointing to Szulc.
I am not surprised that he came here with Maximilian because he is Austrian, but you... Why would you want to leave your country and fight for Maximilian? From what I know, at one point Poland was a republic, just like Mexico, so Poles must have Republican hearts beating in their chests. I see now how people can change over time.
Oh, what a bitter truth he spoke, and how difficult it was to respond to that! Not having anything to say in my defence, I replied: ‘General, Maximilian is the most liberal man on earth!’
Refugio González waving his hand disapprovingly, said: ‘But he is still a monarch,’ and walked away.
But did you come to this conclusion while you were still in Mexico, or only after you came back to Poland, sorry ... to Austria?
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'General Bazaine attacks the fort of San Xavier during the siege of Puebla on 29 March 1863' by Jean-Adolphe Beaucé, photo RMN-Grand Palais / G. Blot
Napoleon's intervention in Mexico involved about 2,000-3,000 Poles who served in the cavalry and infantry of the Austro-Belgian and French forces. Some of them fought or deserted to stand on the Juarez side. Although the majority supported the Second Mexican Empire, they were all sent to fight in the Mexican military forces.
According to Krzysztof Smolan, the Austrian-Belgian Volunteer Corps was the most important formation in which the Poles served. The protagonist in Konrad Niklewicz's memoirs belonged to the Austrian-Belgian Legion.
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Recruitment began in June 1864:
Recruitment offices opened in the most important cities of the Empire, with Lubljana serving as the central gathering place for all the units, from which troops would sail to Mexico via Trieste. Poles accounted for just over 11% of those who volunteered for the Corps and were sent to Mexico (7,400 people).
One of the officers of the Corps, Stanislaw Wodzicki, noted that in Mexico, every member of this corps was referred to as an Austrian.
The commanders were German, the drill officers Austrian. Despite very successful recruitment, Austrian propaganda seemed to be particularly interesting in the internment camps of the January insurgents in Olomouc, Königsgrätz, Iglawa and Teltsch.
For Smolan, the motives behind this propaganda were rather political, because the Austrian authorities were troubled by the large number of Galicians interned in the camps in Austria, and this posed 'a potential opportunity for the outbreak of an anti-Austrian uprising.' A total of 945 Poles joined the Corps in the end. Of those, 541 had been interned by the Austrians after the January Uprising, and 404 were volunteers from Galicia. However, only 824 of them reached Mexico. Some deserted during the transfer in Europe.
When the Austrian Corps arrived in Mexico at the beginning of 1865, the French army had already experienced a defeat. At the time the United States was actively supporting the liberals, as the US Civil War had ended, and in 1866 Napoleon III had to withdraw his support for Maximilian. But the emperor opted to remain in Mexico and fight on. The soldiers could now decide whether they wanted to fight with him or return to Europe.
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On 19th June 1867, Maximilian was shot dead in the Cerro de las Campanas in Queretaro, where, Niklewicz's memoirs indicate he was also imprisoned, then later freed by the liberals. In his article, Smolan writes about the fate of the Poles:
All of the 78 Poles who were captured returned sooner or later to the Corps, either through the exchange of prisoners, having been released by the Mexicans, or some even having escaped. There were 111 Poles who lost their lives on this expedition, but not all of them died the death of a soldier. Two were killed on the journey there, one was swept from the ship's deck into the sea, seven committed suicide, and 41 died of various diseases. 'Only' 49 perished in battle, died of wounds they had sustained, or were shot for desertion. Another 20 ended their careers as unfit for further service, most likely invalids.
Sources: 'Wojna Orła Przeciw Gryfom: Aspekty międzynarodowe, społeczne i kulturowe interwencji francuskiej w Meksyku (1861-1867)' (The War of the Eagle Against Griffon: The International, Social and Cultural Aspects of French Intervention in Mexico) by M. J. Kozłowski, Warsaw 2006.
Originally written in Polish by Alexis Angulo for the Polish Embassy in Mexico's 'Biuletyn' magazine, 2015; translated by DS, Jun 2017