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A Tale of Two Brothers: Haitis Other Revolutions

Vanessa Mongey

The Americas, Volume 69, Number 1, July 2012, pp. 37-60 (Article)

Published by The Academy of American Franciscan History


DOI: 10.1353/tam.2012.0062

For additional information about this article


http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/tam/summary/v069/69.1.mongey.html

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THE AMERICAS
69:1/July 2012/3760
COPYRIGHT BY THE ACADEMY OF
AMERICAN FRANCISCAN HISTORY

A TALE OF TWO BROTHERS:


Haitis Other Revolutions

vre Courtoiss modest ambition was to revolutionize the world. It is


mans holy cause and duty to protect and aid the defense and to establish
Independence in all the Universe, he instructed his brother Joseph in
October 1821.1 At the time, the Courtois brothers were a mere hundred miles
apart; Svre had set up an independent government on Providencia Island, in
the western Caribbean, and Joseph was embarking on a political career of his
own in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Though the two brothers were born in the
French colony of St. Domingue, the tumults of the Age of Revolutions had
swept them away from their native island. At the time Svre penned the letter
urging his brother to support his universal liberation enterprise, Joseph had just
come back from fighting in the Napoleonic wars in Europe. Svre had participated in multiple revolutionary coups and moved from New Orleans to Cartagena, and from there to Texas and then Florida.
This article not only portrays the lives of two outstanding men of the time but
also adopts a transatlantic and trans-Caribbean approach to investigate the different strategies developed by elite men of color after the Haitian revolution to
secure their status in the Atlantic World. Considered as the first truly modern
international crisis of exiles, the uprisings in St. Domingue sent some 15,000
to 20,000 refugees to the shores of Cuba, Louisiana, Guatemala, Florida, and
France between 1789 and 1809. 2 Much remains to be known about the St.
I would like to thank Kathleen Brown, Daniel Richter, and Katie Paugh, the members and participants in the
McNeil Center for Early American Studies, the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Cultures
colloquium, and the Association for Caribbean Historians, as well as the reviewers and editors of The Americas for their comments, criticism, and advice on this piece.
1. Svre Courtois to Joseph Courtois, October 15, 1821, Secretaria de Guerra y Marina [hereafter
SGM], tom. 343, f. 1032, Archivo General de la Nacin, Colombia [hereafter AGNC].
2. Expression is found in R. Darrell Meadows, Engineering Exile: Social Networks and the French
Atlantic Community, 17891809, French Historical Studies 23:1 (2000), p. 647. Most of the scholarship has
focused on the St. Dominguan diaspora in the United States. See Paul Lachance, Politics of Fear: French
Laws and Slave Trade, 17861809, Plantation Society 1 (1979), pp. 162197; Alfred N. Hunt, Haitis Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University
Press, 1988); Ashli White, Encountering Revolution: Haiti and the Making of the Early Republic (Baltimore:

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A TALE OF TWO BROTHERS

Dominguan diaspora in France and in the circum-Caribbean states, especially


about the transatlantic networks that wove the exiles of African descent, the
g en s de cou leur, together across the Atlantic. Exploring the careers of Joseph
and Svre Courtois provides a window into St. Domingues mixed-race elite
diaspora and how its members transitioned to the postrevolutionary era and
responded to ideologies of natural rights and self-determination.
The careers of the Courtois brothers illustrate the multiple avenues by which
ideas of racial and national affiliations crisscrossed the Atlantic. These two men
embodied the contradictions of privilege and marginality defined by their identities as military officers, as French, as Haitian, as Colombian, as republicans, as
politicians, and as persons of mixed ancestry. They reconfigured their affiliations
multiple times, adapting to constantly changing circumstances. In that sense,
the brothers resembled other Black Atlantic Creoles whose lives have been
recently brought to light.3 But the Courtois brothers differed from these
Atlantic creoles in at least two important aspects: they were politically active
supporters of various imperial and national projects, and they also had greater
ambitions. The Courtois brothers were wealthy freeborn men who lost some of
their privileges during the Haitian Revolution but were able to regain and
defend their status at the price of tireless effort. As members of the diasporas
freeborn elite, they fought to increase their wealth and power and to secure a
place for people of mixed ancestry like themselves. Emancipation was not on
their political and social agenda. Svre worked to overthrow the Spanish crown
in different locales around the Caribbean basin and establish a government in
which he would be in power. Joseph, on the other hand, worked to reform the
existing governments of France and Haiti from the inside.
The biographies of these two brothers provide a new angle for looking at the
French, Haitian, and Latin American revolutions. In postrevolutionary France
and Haiti, Joseph continued to fight for recognition, identity, and citizenship.
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010); David Geggus, The Slave Leaders in Exile: Spains Resettlement of
Its Black Auxiliary Troops, Haitian Revolutionary Studies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002),
pp. 179203; and Carl A. Brasseaux and Glenn R. Conrad, eds., The Road to Louisiana: the Saint-Domingue
Refugees, 17921809 (Lafayette: University of Southwestern Louisiana/Center for Louisiana Studies, 1992).
Three essays by Susan Branson and Leslie Patrick, Paul Lachance, and David Geggus appear in The Impact
of the Haitian Revolution on the Atlantic World, David Geggus, ed. (Columbia: University of South Carolina,
2001).
3. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon
Press, 1995); Jane Landers, Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2010); and Rebecca J. Scott and Jean M. Hbrard, Rosalie of the Poulard Nation:
Freedom, Law, and Dignity in the Era of the Haitian Revolution, in Assumed Identities: The Meaning of Race
in the Atlantic World, John D. Garrigus and Christopher Morris, eds. (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2010), pp. 1945.

VANESSA MONGEY

39

Svres military and political activities in various circum-Caribbean regions


highlight the complex role played by Haitians in the Spanish American independence movements. Several revolutionary expeditions (most famously, that of
Simon Bolvar in 1815) passed through Haiti to recruit personnel, sell their
prizes, or purchase provisions. In addition to providing material aid, many
Haitians participated as soldiers, sailors, and officers. With the notable exception of Paul Verna in the 1970s, historians have often recognized the Haitian
participation in these anticolonial struggles, but rarely studied it.4 Their participation in Mexicos independence movement is often ignored altogether.
The careers of the Courtois brothers therefore suggest new ways to think about
the place of Haitians in Atlantic history. If the Haitian revolution has been a hot
topic in recent scholarship, the quasi-majority of these studies end with a
moment of triumphthat is, the declaration of independence in 1804 and the
victory of the slaves who revolted against the French empire.5 In the early nineteenth century, Haiti may have been considered an isolated state, incapable of
having its independence recognized by France until 1825 or by the United States
until 1862, but this isolation was artificial.6 During its early years as a nation,
Haiti remained connected to France and to other American states, including the
United States, Colombia, and Mexico, and the country was an important point
of transit for smuggling, migration, and revolutionary activities.
4. Paul Verna, Ption y Bolvar: una etapa decisiva en la emancipacin de Hispanoamrica (17901830)
(Caracas: Oficina Central de Informacin, 1969) and Tres franceses en la independencia de Venezuela (Caracas:
Monte vila, 1973). More recent works have focused largely on the relationship between the two leaders:
Leslie Manigat, Hati dans les luttes dindpendance du Vnzuela (Ption et Bolvar, naissance du panamricanisme); and Juan Pablo Ramrez, Bolvar et Saint-Domingue: le sens de lappel au Libertador, both in
Bolvar et les peuples de Nuestra Amrica: des sans-culottes noirs au libertador, Alain Yacou, ed. (Bordeaux:
Presses universitaires de Bordeaux, 1990), pp. 2942 and 121130, respectively.
5. See C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint LOuverture and the San Domingo Revolution, 2nd
ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1963). The literature on the Haitian Revolution has grown exponentially in
the last two decades; see John Garrigus, Before Haiti: Race and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue
(London: Palgrave, 2006); Caroline Finck, The Making of Haiti: The Saint-Domingue Revolution from Below
(Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990); David Geggus, ed., The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in
the Atlantic World (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002); and Laurent Dubois, Avengers of
the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University
Press, 2004).
6. France informally recognized Haiti in 1825, but the new nation would have to wait until 1838 for
the definitive and unconditional recognition of its independence. The United States followed suit in 1862.
Alyssa Sepinwall, Les Etats-Unis et Hati: tude historiographique, in 1802, rtablissement de lesclavage dans
les colonies franaises. Aux origines dHati, Yves Bnot and Marcel Dorigny, eds. (Paris: Maisonneuve et
Larose, 2003), pp. 387401; Charles H. Wesley, The Struggle for the Recognition of Haiti and Liberia as
Independent Republics, Journal of Negro History 2 (1917), pp. 369383; and Donald R. Hickey, Americas
Response to the Slave Revolt in Haiti, 17911806, Journal of the Early Republic 2:4 (Winter 1982), pp.
361379. On French-Haitian relations, see Jean-Franois Brire, Hati et la France, 18041848: le rve bris
(Paris: Karthala, 2008); and Robert Stein, From Saint-Domingue to Hati, Journal of Caribbean History 19
(November 1984), pp. 189226.

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A TALE OF TWO BROTHERS

Since Joseph and Svre Courtois belonged to this military diaspora, their biographies illustrate how masculinity, patriotism, and citizenship became intrinsically tied to the process of state-formation. In the Age of Revolutions, military
service became crucial for the construction of republican citizenship.7 Although
they adopted different strategies, both brothers military careers became tied to
their political aspirations: while Joseph capitalized on his service in France to
build his reputation as a politician in Haiti, Svre relied on sundry networks of
Latin American revolutionaries and European expatriates in the Gulf of Mexico,
particularly on French mercenaries. The tale of the Courtois brothers demonstrates how men of color gambled on the opportunities created by the tumults
of the revolutionary Atlantic.

A MAN

OF

TWO COUNTRIES: JOSEPH COURTOIS

Joseph Courtois was born in 1785, in the town of Ouanaminthe (also known
as Ciudad Mndez) in northeastern St. Domingue, just across from the border
of the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo. He was born into a family whose
prominence and political connections crossed the Atlantic. The family owned
lands in St. Domingue, and his grandfather had received the royal and military
order of Saint Louis in Paris.8 The prominence of the Courtois family might
explain why Joseph, not yet 15 years old, was selected as one of a group to study
in Paris with the financial support of the French government. Before Joseph was
shipped eastward in 1799, Toussaint LOuverture, then governor of the colony,
organized a small reception during which he instructed the departing youth
that France was their patrie, that St. Domingue had brought them into the
world, and it was to St. Domingue that they should return to transmit the
knowledge that the motherland would give them. 9 Mere teenagers, Joseph
and his companions, nicknamed the lves de la patrie, carried on their shoulders the hopes, dreams, and ambitions of the French republican empire.
At the time of Josephs Atlantic crossing in 1799, the uprisings in the French
Caribbean had dramatically strained the relationships between the metropolis
and its colonies. The Institution nationale des colonies, the boarding school in
7. The study of the importance of military service for the construction of citizenship and male political
participation, for whites and blacks alike, remains underdeveloped for the postrevolutionary periods. Exceptions are Mimi Sheller, Sword-Bearing Citizens: Militarism and Manhood in Nineteenth-Century Haiti,
Plantation Society in the Americas 4 (1997), pp. 233278; and Jennifer Heuer, The Family and the Nation:
Gender and Citizenship in Revolutionary France, 17891830 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005).
8. Information regarding Joseph is drawn from his file in the Service historique de la defense, Archives
de larme de terre [hereafter SHD], Joseph Courtois, sous-lieutenant, series 2YE, file 943, and from the
Archives nationales, F2C13. See also Dants Bellegarde, Histoire du peuple hatien (Port-au-Prince: Collection
du Tricinquantenaire de lIndependance dHati, 1953), pp. 155156.
9. Thomas Madiou, Histoire dHati (Port-au-Prince: Courtois, 1847), vol. 3, p. 331.

VANESSA MONGEY

41

Paris where young Joseph received his education, was the brainchild of progressive-minded men like Lger-Flicit Sonthonax, Julien Raimond, and Toussaint LOuverture. Designed as a symbol of republican integration, the school
was, as French scholar Bernard Gainot characterized it, a search for a shared
destiny between colonial and metropolitan elites.10 A few handpicked children,
often from prominent local families, were educated at the states expense.
Joseph Courtois rubbed shoulders with the sons of wealthy black planters and
army officers, including the progeny of Toussaint LOuverture, Andr Rigaud,
and Henri Christophe. During his three-year stay, the multre Joseph was
reported to be a very quiet pupil, ambitious, studious, and excelling in
ancient languages and mathematics.11
Once the symbols of a republican integration, these lves de la patrie became
swept up in yet another national and imperial project following Napolon Bonapartes coup dtat in 1799. Napolon put an end to the advances men of color
had gained during the First Republicnotably full political and civil rights.12 In
1802, Bonaparte sent an expedition under Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc to
St. Domingue to reestablish absolute colonial rule. The same year, he ordered
the demilitarization and deportation of nearly 1,000 soldiers and officers of
color from the republican armies in the West Indies.13 Six hundred blacks and
mulattoes from the colonies were placed under the leadership of white officers
in the newly minted Bataillon des Pionniers Noirs. The French Revolution had
heightened the political significance of militia service in the French empire, and
the place of men of color in the military was thus tied to the broader question
of their place in the French polity.
Napolons desire to control the place of free men of color was not limited to
the public, military, and political spheres but also extended into the private realm.
In 1802, he reissued a ban on nonwhite immigration to metropolitan France and
resurrected another on interracial marriages.14 For 16 years, Napoleonic policies
10. Bernard Gainot, Les officiers de couleur dans les armes de la Rpublique et de lEmpire (17921815)
(Paris: Karthala, 2007), p. 155.
11. Michel Roussier, Lducation des enfants de Toussaint Louverture et lInstitution nationale des
colonies, in Toussaint Louverture et lindpendance dHati, Jacques Causa, ed. (Paris: Karthala, 2004), p. 235.
12. Sue Peabody, There Are No Slaves in France: The Political Culture of Race and Slavery in the Ancient
Regime (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); Florence Gaultier, Laristocratie de lpiderme. Le combat de
la Socit des Citoyens de Couleur, 17891791 (Paris: Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 2007). On
the limits of the assimiliationist project of the revolutionary period, see Miranda Spieler, The Legal Structure
of Colonial Rule During the French Revolution, The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd. series, 66:2 (April
2009), pp. 365408.
13. According to Leo Elisabeth, 1,071 were deported from Guadeloupe and St. Domingue: Dports
des petites Antilles franaises: 18011803, in Bnot and Dorigny, 1802: rtablissement, pp. 694.
14. Arrt portant dfense aux Noirs, multres et autres gens de couleur dentrer sans autorisation sur le
territoire continental de la Rpublique, July 1802, reprinted in Bnot and Dorigny, 1802: rtablissement, p. 564.

42

A TALE OF TWO BROTHERS

curtailed the rights free men of color had gained during the Revolution. Unsurprisingly, in 1802, the Institution nationale des colonies became another casualty
of Napolons program. The words of the Minister of the Navy and Colonies
when he came to close the school were clear: The government no longer wants
to provide for [your] education: it has already done too much for creatures like
[you].15
From one of the rising stars of the French patrie, Joseph was turned into one of
these creatures. The lveseight blacks and seven mulattoes (including
Joseph)were scattered among different regiments. However, the Napoleonic
wars in Europe provided Joseph with an opportunity to follow his grandfathers
footsteps. Despite the restrictions placed on men of color, Joseph joined the
imperial guard, an elite fighting force directly under Napolon. He rose
through the ranks and became sous-lieutenant of infantry in Napolons Grand
Army, serving during the Prussian campaign and the Spanish peninsular war.16
He was captured and held prisoner in England until 1814, when a peace treaty
was signed. The Bourbon regime then refused to let Joseph join the French
army, or collect the Legion of Honor he had been promised. This left Joseph,
age 30, isolated and unemployed and set the stage for a dramatic realignment
of his national loyalties.
He was not alone. The upheavals in St. Domingue scattered more than 30,000
exiles after 1793. Shortly after his release from the British jail, Joseph married
another native of St. Domingue, Juliette Bussire-Laforest, who had been
brought from the colony at the age of three in 1795, when her father, a free
man of color and a wealthy planter, was elected a deputy to the Council of the
Five Hundred, the lower house of the legislature in Paris.17 Juliette later worked
as a reader (lectrice) for Napolons sister, Pauline.18 The marriage of Joseph
and Juliette joined the grandson of a recipient of the military Order of St. Louis
and the daughter of a landowning planter and political representative, both
uprooted members of St. Domingues wealthy landowning class.19
The conduct of the Courtois household hints at the persistence of an elite community among the St. Dominguan diaspora. Joseph and Juliette considered
15. These words were reported by one of the pensionnaires, Blaise Lechat, to Placide and Isaac LOuverture, July 10, 1814, and reproduced by G. Le Gorgeu, tude sur Jean-Baptiste Coisnon (Vire: A. Gurin,
1881), p. 67.
16. Certificate of captain commandant Moreau, n.d., SHD.
17. Laforest, citoyen de couleur, dput de Saint-Domingue, son collgue Gouly, dput de lIsle de France
(Paris: De limprimerie de lUnion, an IIIe de la Rpublique [1795]).
18. Dants Bellegarde, Ecrivains hatiens (Port-au-Prince: Socit dditions et de librairie, 1947), p. 53.
19. Stewart King, Blue Coat or Powdered Wig: Free People of Color in Pre-Revolutionary Saint Domingue
(Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001).

VANESSA MONGEY

43

Paris their home and never left the city except for Josephs European campaigns.
Since Juliettes father had passed away in Paris, neither she nor her husband
had close family in France, except for an aunt. There is evidence however that
the couple reconstituted ties with other members of the St. Dominguan diaspora. Lacking a birth certificate, Joseph obtained the certified testimony of two
other St. Domingue exiles of color: Joseph-Michel Colom, a worker in the lottery office, and Thomas Michel Poitevien, an apprenticed jeweler.20
The formation of these social networks demonstrates a fragile yet persistent
sense of identity and solidarity among St. Domingue exiles of color in Paris.
Although they had left the former French colony at a young age and probably
had very little memory of it, St. Dominguans in Paris recreated a small but relatively close-knit and homogenous community along color and socioeconomic
lines. They formed a minor segment among the people of African descent in
metropolitan France, whose numbers during the first half of the nineteenth century probably never exceeded 2,000.21
The ambiguous legacy of the French Revolution for free men of color can be
found in the letters and petitions Joseph sent to the Ministry of War. He repeatedly petitioned the ministry to reintegrate him into the army after he was
released from jail. The absence of memoirs and biographical accounts produced
by St. Dominguans of color, as opposed to the number produced by white
refugees, turns Josephs petitions into one of the rare glimpses at how the
French Revolution transformed the lives of free people of color.22 After
Napolons demise and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, Joseph found
himself in a straitened situation. He had only a modest pension and could not
obtain a residence permit to remain in Paris. As he explained:
I am a landowning colonist from St. Domingue who came to France to receive a
good education, I had barely started when the fatal disasters erupted in my patrie
in 1802 and deprived me of any helpalthough sheltered in the mother country,
yet I found myself as in a foreign country. Young, without parents, without acquaintance, I have been left at my own devices since the age of fifteen, I embraced the
noble career of arms, a career that had bestowed its honors to my fathers; my good
conduct and bravery as a good Military [man] have served as my Protector.23
20. Acte notari, June 14, 1817, SHD.
21. A census in 1807 recorded 821 men and 461 women who were noirs ou de couleur in metropolitan France. Michael Sibalis, Les Noirs en France sous Napolon: lenqute de 1807, in Dorigny, 1802:
rtablissement, pp. 95106. The census is in the Archives nationales, Paris, F7-8705 and F7-8444, and did not
include Paris, where the majority of nonwhites lived.
22. For an analysis of the memoirs written by white St. Dominguan exiles, see Meadows, Engineering
Exiles, pp. 9296; and Laurent Dubois, An Atlantic Revolution, French Historical Studies 32 (2009), pp.
655661.
23. Joseph Courtois to Ministre de la Guerre, October 10, 1815, SHD.

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A TALE OF TWO BROTHERS

Like white exiles from St. Domingue, Joseph cast himself as the victim of the
events that simultaneously tore the colony from its metropolis and the colonists
from their native land. But unlike many of the accounts written by white St.
Dominguans, Joseph chose not to conjure up any image of black savagery and
bloodshed. His choice of the year of 1802 as a traumatic turning point in his
life is notable: it is unclear if the fatal disasters he mentions refer to the
LeClerc expedition or to Napolons decision to close the Institution nationale
des colonies, where he was schooled. His emphasis on 1802 shows how he distinguished between the troubles that started in 1790-1791 and eventually
resulted in full civil and political rights for men of color like him, and the very
different situation in 1802, when the metropolis decided to reaffirm its authority over its colonies and its mixed-race populations.
While many white exiles foregrounded the emotional trauma of being uprooted
from their native land of St. Domingue, the situation was different for Joseph.
His trauma stemmed not from being uprooted but from being unable to return
to his native land. Josephs articulation of his status, as sheltered in the mother
country, yet I found myself as in a foreign country, blurs the distinction
between foreign and domestic: Joseph had become homeless. This mother
country was also a foreign country. Likewise, as Haiti proclaimed its independence and severed ties with France, Josephs native land also became foreign. St.
Domingueand by extension, St. Dominguanswere no more. Away when
independence was proclaimed, Joseph was not a Haitian citizen. On the other
side of the Atlantic, following on the legal changes implemented by Napolon
against people of color, he no longer enjoyed the rights attached to French citizenship. Josephs liminality expressed itself in the ways he used patrie equivocally, to refer to both St. Domingue and France. In other letters, however, he
expressed his identity in potent patriotic and Franco-centric terms: To shed my
blood until the last drop, for [the patries] independence and its Integrity: This
is the duty of any good Frenchman. He boasted, I consider myself a good
Frenchman and I dare say one of the Best.24
Josephs desire to preserve the legacy of the French Revolution can be easily
understood: Joseph and Juliettes presence in France was the direct consequence of the universalist principles of the Revolution. Joseph was destined for
a position of power in the French republican empire, while Juliettes father was
one of the first French citizens of color to be elected at the National Convention. At the ages of 15 and three respectively, neither Joseph nor Juliette had
made the decisions that moved them to Paris, Frances political and cultural
center. They were privileged initially but still pawns in a wider geopolitical chess
24. Joseph Courtois to Ministre de la Guerre, June 23, 1815, SHD.

VANESSA MONGEY

45

game. Josephs experiences shaped what it meant for him to be French in a


period of social and political upheaval and in a country where he had no family,
few rights, and few career opportunities. Liminality characterized Josephs experience: if his patrie was twofoldSt. Domingue and Francehis identity was
equally twofold. I am a man of the Military paralleled I am a colonist
rfugi, emphasizing both his belonging to the French nation through his
status as a military man, and his tenuous connection to it as a refugee. What
education was supposed to accomplish with the Institution nationale des
colonies, the military was to accomplish in a political sense by attaching Joseph,
reluctantly, to his motherland. The military was also an instrument of subjugation of other groups. Joseph used to belong to an army that was subjugating
populations in Russia, Prussia, and Spain, yet that same army was an institution
that allowed for social promotion. Despite the restrictions placed on soldiers
and officers of color, Joseph rose through the ranks until his ascension was cut
short by the downfall of the Napoleonic Empire. As his two patries and his affiliations intertwined and overlapped, so did his identities: he was both a military
man and a colonial, both an imperial and a subject.
The petitions to th e Ministry of War reveal how adroitly Joseph attempted to
shape his identity and his pas t to appeal to royal authorities for reinstatement.
Joseph emphasized his loyalty to the French patrie above other existing political
attachments and fashion ed hims elf as even more F ren ch th an the French. In a
nod to the Bourbon government, he sometimes added an aristocratic-sounding
particle to his name, signing his letters Joseph de Courtois. In a memoir, he
mentioned that his father had received the military order of St. Louis, a royalist order abolished in 1791 and resurrected by th e Bourbons in 18 14.25 None
of these arguments convinced the Bourbon regime. Rejected by France and looking for a way to earn a living, Joseph turned his attention to his native island.
Although the volume of trade had significantly declined following independence,
Haiti remained a Caribbean hub for commerce, smuggling, and migration, and a
point of transit for travelers, exiles, and migrants of different races and nationalities, thanks to its location at the heart of the Greater Antilles. The return of the
Bourbons with their more liberal racial policies simultaneously forced and facilitated the Courtois return to Haiti. In 1818, the Minister of Justice quietly lifted
the Napoleonic ban on travel by free people of color; they could now freely travel
in and out of France.26 If the Bourbon reign had put an end to Josephs military
25. Mmoire Mrs les Membres de la commission charge dexaminer la conduite plus ou moins
active des officiers depuis le 20 mars 1815 au mois de juillet suivant, November 16, 1815, SHD.
26. Jennifer Heuer, The One-Drop Rule in Reverse? Interracial Marriages in Napoleonic and Restoration France, Law and History Review 27:3 (2009), p. 29. The same year, the Minister of Justice lifted the
Napoleonic ban on interracial marriages.

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A TALE OF TWO BROTHERS

career in France, it also allowed him to travel more freely.27 The Courtois brothers resettled in Haiti and Joseph reinvented himself once again.
When they returned to Port-au-Prince, Joseph and Juliette Courtois had not
seen their native land for almo st 20 years and much had changed in the interval. Joseph collaborated with President Alexandre Ption in the south to encourage the return of the exiles who had settled in France. With the lifting of the
travel ban, Ption also received the tacit support of the Bourbon government. In
August 1816, 27 people of color were allowed to leave Bordeaux for Haiti. In
November of the same year, 183 others received passports for St. Thomas. A few
weeks later, 93 travelers, including a few whites, embarked for the same destination. From the then-Danish island, some 500 miles from Haiti, the migrants, like
the Courtois, passed to Haiti.28 The networks of family and friendship that St.
Dominguans had recreated in Paris extended across the Atlantic. While Joseph
was organizing the repatriation of the St. Domingue diaspora to Haiti, he succeeded in recruiting his friends. Thomas Michel Poitevien, for example, left Paris
and became a judge in Port-au-Prince. Joseph and Juliette, as well as the other
migrants who were raised or had lived in metropolitan France, had been
metropolized. They brought their skills and their knowledge with them but
also carried a very Franco-centric vision of what Haiti should be.
Joseph probably remembered the injunction of Toussaint LOuverture, uttered
as he had boarded the ship for France as a 15-year old: it was to St. Domingue
that the young students should return to transmit the knowledge that the
motherland would give them. As a former lve de la patrie, Joseph believed in
the importance of education to change the future of a nation. Private institutions played an important role in Haitian education at a time when the government could not provide educational opportunities. The couple embraced a new
career and opened a coed school, the Maison dducation. Since Juliette was a
brilliant musician and piano player, she was in charge of teaching girls music and
literature. Public secondary schooling for women was extremely rare at the
time.29 How Joseph and Juliette financed their reinvention in Haiti is not clear:
27. Serge Daget, La rpression de la traite des Noirs au XIXe sicle: laction des croisires franaises sur les
ctes occidentales de lAfrique, 18171850 (Paris: Karthala, 1997), pp. 3438, 5153; Robert Stein, The French
Slave Trade in the Eighteenth Century: An Old Regime Business (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press,
1980), p. 198; and David Geggus, Haiti and the Abolitionists: Opinion, Propaganda, and International Politics in Britain and France, 18041836, in Abolition and Its Aftermath: The Historical Context, 17901836,
David Richardson, ed. (London: Frank Cass, 1985), p. 117.
28. Thomas Madiou, Histoire dHati (Port-au-Prince: Imprimerie de Joseph Courtois, 1847), tom. 4,
p. 351 and tom. 5, p. 214
29. Joe B. Clement, History of Education in Haiti: 18041915, Revista de Historia de Amrica 88
(July-December 1979), pp. 174; Madeleine Bouchereau, Education des femmes en Hati (Port-au-Prince:
Imprimerie de ltat, 1944).

VANESSA MONGEY

47

Joseph was apparently successful in convincing the French government to pay


him a military pension, although not at the rank he demanded. He might also
have regained claims to lands his family lost during the revolution.
In France and in Haiti, Joseph and Juliette used education and military service
to fashion a transatlantic respectability. The couple operated as business and
intellectual partners, working together to regain the elite status both their families had occupied at the time of the Haitian revolution. After the school closed,
Joseph became committed to political life in his rediscovered patrie. He
fo unded th e newspaper La Feuille du Commerce on a printing press his
brother Svre had sent him from Colombia. The newspaper often criticized
the government, and Joseph was repeatedly accused of several dlits de
pres se, or acts of defamatio n. Just as Juliette had been instrumental in getting
the school going in 1818, she worked closely with Joseph on the La Feuille du
Commerce, taking control of the paper when Joseph was briefly sentenced to jail
for defaming the president, Jean-Pierre Boyer. She is often considered as the
first Haitian female journalist. It is also very likely that Juliette managed all of
the couples mercantile and business activities while Joseph was imprisoned.
After a coup dtat deposed Boyer in 1843, Jo seph embarked on a political
career that took him from the state assemb ly to the senate. As Napoleonic
army officer, promoter of immigration, educator, journalist, and politician,
Joseph embodied the ideals and dedication of the eighteenth-century French
philosophers. He added yet another feather to his cap when he edited and publis hed Thomas Madious Histoire dH ati in the 1840s. This ambitious historical narrative aimed at repairing the image of Haiti, or as Madiou explained,
The genius of Haiti is that we have the pride of raising us to the height of most
civilized nations.3 0 Madiou notably presented the Haitian revolution as a justified rebellion against the terrible oppression of slavery. Joseph constantly
strove to reform his patrie, whether through education, the press, politics, or
writing historical accounts.
Josephs political ambitions were cut short in 1847 when the black general
Faustin Soulouque assumed the presidency and purged mulattoes from the government. Joseph was sent to prison until the French consul intervened and
commuted his sentence to exile. He remained outside of Haiti for 11 years.
Once again, Juliette replaced him as the head of La Feuille du Commerce. She
died a few years later at the age of 64, and the couples son Joseph Alcibiade
Courtois took the reins of the paper. After a coup dtat against Soulouque in
30. Madiou, Histoire d Hati, vol. 1, p. 6.

48

A TALE OF TWO BROTHERS

1859, Joseph finally returned to Haiti. When he died at the age of 92, he had
spent half of his life outside the island of his birth.31
Josephs presence in France was not the direct result of subjugation and persecution; he was sent to Paris as one of the rising stars of the French patrie. As he
lost his rights and status, he joined an army that was striving to subjugate
diverse populations in the name of the French nation. Stripped of his military
career, Joseph built his life around Haitis continuing cultural orientation
toward France, as an educator, journalist, and publisher. After moving to Haiti,
he used education, print, and politics to diffuse his ideas and principles. Joseph
spent most of his life carefully negotiating issues of political and national loyalties. As he kept being sent away from his native land, first by the French, then
by Haitians, he kept coming back.

A MAN WITHOUT

COUNTRY: SVRE COURTOIS

A s Josephs testimony informs us, the Courtois brothers came from a family
who had used military experience to acquire a certain social prestige during the
colon ial era. As many scholars hav e noted, the participat ion of free me n of
color in the military was a crucia l factor in shaping their identities as active citizens and proved import ant to their claims for expanded rights. 32 More than
any other respectable profession available to them, the army provided men of
color with the possibility of social mobility that came with promotion through
the ranks.33 Both brothers used armed service as an avenue for their ambitions,
but unlike Joseph who thought his duty was to fight for French national glory,
Svre believed his duty was to fight for the republican cause wherever he could.
As they did to Joseph, the 1790s uprisings in St. Domingue sent his younger
brother away from his native Ouanaminthe and marked the start of his peri31. In France, an ordinance of April 1833 gave political and civil rights to free blacks (a reinstatement
of the April 4, 1792, decree that had granted full citizenship to free blacks, but was reversed by Napoleon).
32. Notable among contributors to the literature are Peter Blanchard, The Language of Liberation:
Slave Voices in the Wars of Independence, Hispanic American Historical Review 82:3 (2002), pp. 499523;
Theodore G. Vincent, The Blacks Who Freed Mexico, The Journal of Negro History LXXIX:3 (1994), pp.
257276; Aline Helg, Our Rightful Share: The Afro-Cuban Struggle for Equality, 18861912 (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1995); and Ada Ferrer, Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution,
18681878 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999). See also Ben Vinson III and Stewart R.
King, Introducing the New African Diasporic Military History in Latin America, Journal of Colonialism
and Colonial History 5:2 (2004), pp. 1-22.
33. For strategies adopted by free blacks to gain political recognition in the United States, see Caryn
Cosse Bell. Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana, 17181868 (Baton
Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997); and Rebecca Scott, The Atlantic World and the Road to
Plessy v. Ferguson, Journal of American History 94:3 (2007), pp. 726733.

VANESSA MONGEY

49

patetic career. Svre Courtois settled in Louisiana, probably after passing


through Cuba. A lthough Louisiana prohibited the entran ce of free blacks,
many nonetheless eluded immigratio n authorities by slipping into the territory through Barataria, a coastal black-market settlement just west of the Mississippi River, where the governor of Louisiana noted the presence of St.
Domingos negros of the most desperate characters.34 Among those who managed to find their way to the Gulf Coast were about 200 veterans, includ ing Lt.
Col. Joseph Savary, a former republican officer who had opposed Toussaint
LOuverture and fled to Cuba in 1799.35 Savary became involved with independence movements and joined the Gutirrez expedition, filibusters who
fought against the Spanish in Texas in 1812-1813 and set up a short-lived republic in San Antonio.36 Svre Courtois later claimed that he had been working for
the just cause of America since 1812; it is therefore very likely that he arrived
in Louisiana with Savary and participated in the failed Republic o f Texas.37
While Savary, Courtois, and others were supporting the emancipation of Texas,
the United States was waging an anti-European war of its own. In 1812, the
United States declared war against Great Britain. The return of the St. Domingue
refugees to Louisiana coincided with the British attempt to capture New Orleans
in December 1814. Most of them still remembered the blockade of the coasts of
St. Domingue by the British fleet and the aid given to slave insurgents in 1792
and 1793. The lingering rancor of the refugees against the English explained why
most of them answered Andrew Jacksons call to arms to protect the Crescent
City. Savary organized the Second Battalion of Free Men of Color, composed of
volunteers from St. Domingue. Svre Courtois enlisted as a sergeant major in
Savarys battalion and played a key role in the Battle of New Orleans.38
Soon, many of these foreign soldiers, including Svre, grew dissatisfied with
U.S. authorities. Savary, Courtois, and other officers from the Second Battalion
34. Cited in Bell, Revolution, p. 56.
35. Ibid., p. 42. Roland McConnell asserts that Colonel Savary raised a battalion of 256 free men of
color, mostly veterans of the French republican army. Negro Troops of Antebellum Louisiana, A History of the
Battalion of Free Men of Color (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968), p. 70.
36. David Narrett, Jos Bernardo Gutirrez de Lara: Caudillo of the Mexican Republic in Texas,
Southwestern Historical Quarterly 105 (October 2002), pp. 194228; Julia Garrett, The First Constitution
of Texas, April 17, 1813, Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 40 (1937), pp. 290308. The presence of armed
black men in the expedition made some U.S. Americans uncomfortable and a campaign was launched through
papers and pamphlets in the Louisiana/Texas region to undermine Gutirrezs legitimacy, overplaying the
influence of foreigners, Napoleonic agents, and his association with men of color like Savary.
37. Svre Courtois to General Santander, May 30, 1823, cited in Verna, Ption, p. 295.
38. War of 1812 service records, 2 Battn [DAquins] Militia, National Archives, Service records of volunteer soldiers who served during the War of 1812 in the state of Louisiana, Washington, D.C., roll boxes 47
and 87.

50

A TALE OF TWO BROTHERS

sent a petition to Andrew Jackson asking him to intercede in their favor with
the state of Louisiana and to grant them a protection which will put them
beyond a prejudice which allways excised in this country towards them.39 The
state legislators had passed laws designed to control the free black and colored
population; these measures included the prohibition of interracial marriage as
well as the obligation to treat white people with deference.40 Andrew Jackson
never answered the officers petition. Offended at being treated like secondclass citizens, many soldiers of color abandoned their posts and redirected their
efforts to support the independence movements in the Span ish colonies.
Often considered as the United States second war of independence, the War of
1812 might more accurately be considered another Atlantic war for independence. The activities of many participants before and after the Battle of New
Orleans make it clear that this war represented only one moment in their eventfilled, transnational revolutionary careers. Their attachment to the United
States was provisionalwhen U.S. authorities failed to grant militiamen of color
the rights they desired, they exported their valuable military skills elsewhere.
Napolons rise to power had cut Joseph Courtoiss career short, and it also had
crucial repercussions for Svre. The Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808 set
in motion the process that shattered the ties between the metropolis and its
American colonies. The replacement of the Spanish monarch by Napolons
brother precipitated the collapse of metropolitan power and increased discontent in Spanish America. The juntas of Venezuela, New Granada, and Mexico
eventually proclaimed their independence in 1810.41 Over 7,000 foreign volunteers from Europe, North America, and the Caribbean joined the efforts to
free Spanish America of monarchical rule.42 Svre Courtois was one of them.
He left New Orleans and crossed the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea to
put his military expertise to the service of the Republic of Cartagena in Colombia. In desperate need of funds and support, the government transformed
Cartagena into a haven for French and Haitian sailors. The Republic of Carta39. Joseph Savary et al. to Andrew Jackson, New Orleans, March 16, 1815, in The Papers of Andrew
Jackson, Harold Moser, David Hoth, Sharon MacPherson, and John Reinbold, eds. (Knoxville: University of
Tennessee Press, 1991), vol. 3, p. 315.
40. The prohibition of interracial marriages can be found in the Louisiana Civil Code (1808), title IV,
section 8, and the law regulating black-white interactions in Acts Passed at the First Session of the First Legislature of the Territory of Orleans (New Orleans: Bradford & Anderson, 1807), sec. 40, pp. 188190.
41. The best overview of the Spanish American wars of independence is Jaime Rodrguez, The Independence of Spanish America (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
42. E. T. D. Lambert, Voluntarios britnicos e irlandeses en la gesta bolivariana, 3 vols. (Caracas: Ministerio de Defensa, 1983); Matthew Brown, Adventuring through Spanish Colonies: Simn Bolvar, Foreign
Mercenaries, and the Birth of New Nations (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006); and Moiss Enrique
Rodrguez, Freedoms Mercenaries: British Volunteers in the Wars of Independence of Latin America, 2 vols.
(Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).

VANESSA MONGEY

51

gena eliminated color distinctions and guaranteed suffrage rights to all free men
with independent means of support. As French and Haitian sailors and officers
became a common sight in the city, men of African descent became members of
the constitutional assembly, war council, and parliament.43
Svre did not have time to take advantage of this legal breakdown of racial barriers and fulfill his political ambitions in Cartagena. When the royalists put an
end to the republic in December 1815, the independence leaders, defeated, left
the port city in privateering ships and found refuge in Ptions Haiti. Svre and
other revolutionaries gathered in the port of Aux Cayes, in the south of Haiti.
It is apparently in Cayes that Svre met Louis-Michel Aury, another traveling
republican whose ambitions were a perfect match for his. Born in a Parisian
suburb, Aury joined the French navy around the age of 15 and deserted in the
West Indies. As soon as the Latin American movements broke out, Aury set up
expeditions to support Colombia in its fight for independence, often recruiting
St. Dominguans and Haitians.44 Having escaped the royalists in Cartagena,
Aury clashed with Simon Bolvar, opposing the Liberators autocratic leadership
and advocating a joint commanding committee instead.45 It is therefore no surprise that when Aury received an invitation from Joseph Savary, Courtoiss
fellow St. Domingue exile and former commanding officer in the War of 1812,
to join Mexican republicans, his friend Svre was ready to go. In early 1816,
just a few months after finding shelter in Haiti, Aury, Courtois, and Savary left
the island with 400 soldiers, about 50 foreign officers, and eight ships and took
control of Galveston Island, off the Texas coast.46
Svre apparently felt that he had more opportunities in Louisiana, Colombia,
or Texas than in his native land. His attachment to Haiti was more ambivalent
than that of his brother. Despite maintaining family and political ties with the
island, Svre preferred to try his luck in various circum-Caribbean regions,
even after his brother and his wife relocated to Port-au-Prince. While Joseph
thought along national lines, first in France and later in Haiti, Svre continuously crossed national boundaries and thought of himself as a patriot regardless of the country he was serving. Failing to liberate the rest of Mexico, Aury
43. On the First Republic of Cartagena, see Marixa Lasso, Myths of Harmony, chapt. 4; and Adelaida
Sourdis de la Vega, Cartagena de Indias durante la Primera Repblica, 18101815 (Bogota: Banco de la
Repblica, 1988).
44. In 1810, for example, Aury engaged Louis Crispin, a subject of the Empire of Hayti, to help capture a Spanish slaver off the coast of Cuba and sell the slaves in Louisiana. Case 376, Records of U.S. District
Court for Eastern District of Louisiana, 18061814, New Orleans Public Library, Reel 9.
45. William Lewis, Simon Bolvar and Xavier Mina: A Rendezvous in Haiti, Journal of Inter-American Studies, 11:3 (1969), pp. 458465.
46. H. L. V. Ducoudray Holstein, Histoire de Bolvar, par le Gn. Ducoudray Holstein; continue jusqua
sa mort par Alphonse Viollet (Paris: Imprimerie de Auguste Auffray, 1831), vol. 1, pp. 279281.

52

A TALE OF TWO BROTHERS

and his collaborators left Galveston and sailed to Amelia Island, off the Florida
coast, proclaiming the Republic of the Floridas in September 1817. The motley
republican constitutional government approved a constitution that made no
reference to race and allowed every free inhabitant to vote after swearing to
truly and faithfully . . . support the cause of the Republic of Las Floridas.47
The constitution also called for a free press and freedom of religion. After the
United States invaded Amelia Island, Aury and Svre looked for another
region to revolutionize and eventually directed their campaign to Providencia
Island, off the coast of Nicaragua.
A former Puritan colony, Providencia had become part of the Spanish empire in
the late seventeenth century. Spain had recently assigned the archipelago of
Providencia and San Andrs to the viceroyalty of New Grenada, whose center
was about 480 miles south of the islands.48 Like Galveston and Amelia, Providencia was located at the edge of the crumbling Spanish empire and had experienced various waves of migration, making its attachment to the Spanish crown
more than slightly tenuous. In Ju ly 1818, Aury, Courtois, and their followers
captured the island with very little resistance from the English-speaking white
population and their 350 slaves. They turned the island into their revolutionary
headquarters, attacking Spanish ships, selling goods in Jamaica, and laun ching
sever al unsuccessful liberation campaigns against the continen t. Svre Courtois was in charge o f the naval forces in an attack against the Spanish in the
Gulf of Honduras in 1820. A fter Aury s death in August 1821, Svre Courtois was named his successor and became the commandant of the army and
nav y on Providencia.
A controversy soon erupted when Aury s French secretary Lou is Peru de
Lacroix accused Svre of illegally arming his sailors and the peop le o f color
on Providencia and planning an attack again st Cub a.49 According to Lacroix,
Svre had formed a fraudulent government at Providencia that was neither
dependent [on], nor protected by any government, and had proclaimed himself the head of a political and criminal party of armed men . . . devised without any respect for the rules of civil society and of the Law of Nations.50 More
importantly, Lacroix argued, Courtois never had any intention to recognize the
authority of the Colombian government.
47. Proclamation, November 16, 1817, miscellaneous manuscripts, 281, Georges A. Smathers Library,
University of Florida.
48. James Parsons, San Andrs and Providencia: English-Speaking Islands in the Western Caribbean
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1956).
49. SGM, tom. 343, fol. 1019-1032, AGNC.
50. Relacin reservada del Coronel L. Peru de Lacroix, January 20, 1822, SGM, tom. 343, fol. 1020,
AGNC.

VANESSA MONGEY

53

The controversy accelerated the implosion of the government at Providencia. In


a proclamation in the Gaceta de Cartagena, Courtois invited any foreigner who
desired to defend that Patria that has admitted us with sweet hospitality to
settle in Providencia.51 In a letter to the vice president of Colombia, Courtois
explained that he had always been animated by patriotic feelings . . . since the
political transformation of Colombia, my neighbor, as hijo del Gurico francs
[son of French St. Domingue].52 Courtois defined himself as Colombian and
St. Dominguan (but not, interestingly, as Haitian) at the same timehis patriotism was multinational. Sensing that the winds were turning, Svre publicly
stressed his affiliation with the Republic of Colombia and proclaimed the Constitution of Ccuta on Providencia in June 1822.
Indeed, the line between fighting alo ngside independents and fighting for
independen ce could be a bit blurry. In a letter written to his comre (lady
friend in Creole) in Haiti, Svre invited her to join him wherever he would set
up [his] Government.53 In a sense, both Joseph and Svre continued the kind
of revolution members of the elite free colored community such as Andr
Rigaud, Julien Raimond, and Vincent Og jeune had imagined in the 1790s.54
They fought for the rights of creoles of mixed ancestry and their place in the
new postcolonial order in the Americas.
The controversy set off by Lacroixs accusations did not stop Svre in his efforts
to export revolution and promote political and social equality for free people of
color. The dream of setting up his own independent regime led him to travel
around the Caribbean Basin. In 1823, he participated in the Soles y Rayos de
Bolvar conspiracy in Cuba. With the help of local freemasons, Svre collaborated
with white Colombian officials and free men of color to create the Republic of
Cubanacn. Leaflets were distributed among free blacks to convince them to join
the movement. The Republic of Cubanacn had planned to allow them a place in
the government of Cuba: We do not recognize any other distinction than that
owned to true merit, one pamphlet claimed.55 Spanish authorities squashed the
conspiracy but these false doctrines had seduced, according to the captain-gen51. S vre Courtois Proclama a los estranjeros, Gaceta de Cartagena 21 (December 1822).
52. Italics are mine. Gurico was often used to refer to St. Domingue/Haiti at the time. Courtois to
Santander, n.d., Providencia, Correspondencia dirigida al General Francesco de Santander, Roberto Cortzar,
ed. (Bogota: Editorial Voluntad, 19641970), vol. 5, p. 211.
53. Courtois to Mademoiselle Mimi Florette, October 19, 1821, SGM, tom. 343, fol. 1038, AGNC.
54. For biographies on these three figures, see John D. Garrigus, Opportunist or Patriot? Julien Raimond (17741801) and the Haitian Revolution, Slavery and Abolition 28:1 (2007), pp. 121; and Thy
Coming Fame, Og! Is Sure: New Evidence on Ogs 1790 Revolt and the Beginning of the Haitian Revolution, in Garrigus and Morris, Assumed Identities, pp. 1945.
55. Clement Lanier, Cuba et la conspiration dApunte en 1812, Revue de la Socit Hatienne dHistoire, de Gographie et de Gologie 23 (1952), p. 29.

54

A TALE OF TWO BROTHERS

eral of Cuba, a lot of the youth, hombres de campo, and some negroes on which
[foreign adventurers] rely to spread the word of independence.56
After the failure of this revolutionary conspiracy in Cuba, Svre put his ships at
the service of Colombia and asked vice-president Santander for official recognition of his rank as commandant and for a carta de naturaleza. Svres political
ambitions as leader of a semi-independent government in Providencia might
have failed, but he knew how valuable his military and naval skills were for the
struggling Colombian republic. Courtois possessed three valuable ships that he
used as bargaining chips. He offered to put his fleet at the service of Colombia
in exchange for military ranks and Colombian citizenship for his collaborators.57
Always an ambitious man, Courtois took advantage of the situation to recommend the creation of a special tax to assemble a national navy. The navy, he
explained to the vice president, is the pride of any government.58
Svres career illustrates his commitment to spread revolutionary fervor around
the Caribbean Basin, regardless of national boundaries. Scholars have observed
that the revolutions of England and North America and the postrevolutionary states that fo llowed, for all their internationalis t intentions , did little to
promote revolutions abroad, unlike the French Revolution.59 Much has been
written on the Haitian revolution as an object of fear and inspiration across the
region, but less is known about the exact role of Haitians in the decolonization
process in the Americas. When they declared independence, Haitian leaders
pronounced themselves neutral in the fight for independence and emancipation elsewhere in the New Wo rld. Yet, the Republic o f the South under
Alexandre Ption became , in fact, a haven for liberals and revolutionaries .
Ptio n supported Simon Bolvar in 1815 and 1816; his aid came with a promise to abolish slavery.60
56. Vives to Ministro de la Gobernacin de Ultramar, September 28, 1823, in Jos Franco, Documentos para la historia de Venezuela existentes en el Archivo Nacional de Cuba (Havana: Archivo Nacional de Cuba,
1960), p. xcv.
57. Svre Courtois to Santander, November 15 and November 30, 1823. Request accepted by Santander, December 29, 1823, Correspondencia a Santander, vol. 5.
58. Svre Courtois to Santander, May 30, 1823, Cartagena, in Correspondencia a Santander, vol. 5,
p. 214.
59. See Fred Halliday, Revolution and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power
(London: Macmillan Press, 1999).
60. That is, until the Congress of Colombia reestablished slavery in 1821 under the cover of the free
womb (libertad de vientre) principle. Bolvars decision was as ideological as it was practical: both independents and royalists offered freedom to the slaves who joined their side. The free womb measure vientre freed
the unborn but conferred only a conditional freedom on the freed slaves, who could be pressured to perform
further service for the master or the state; they were often forced into military service. Slavery was not definitively abolished until 1852 in Colombia and 1854 in Venezuela. See Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 17761848 (London and New York: Verso, 1988), p. 348.

VANESSA MONGEY

55

However, Svre s case reveals th at Haitians did not fight for the same principles defended by the Haitian state. If emancipation was on e of the cornerstones upon w hich Haiti was built, it never prevented Svre from smuggling
slaves. He made his fortune seizing slaves as well as significant amounts of
su gar, coffee, and tobacco from Spanish sh ips. For example, when the slaver
Cathalina was captured and brought to Providencia, Courtois received nearly
$2,000 (US) as one of the ship-owners.61 Joseph also appears in the list of
Svres collaborators. As Joseph was growing rich in Haiti, rumors started to
fly. The editor of a rival newspaper, Le Tlgraphe, accused Joseph of acquiring
and selling goods seized [from] some poor souls whose throats were sliced
out at sea. Smuggling coffee, indigo, and other goods in and out of Haiti,
Joseph often used his own newspaper to advertise his merchandise.62 Svre
apparently transported the Spanish merchandise to Haiti, where Joseph was in
charge of selling it. The clandestine trade in which the two brothers participated was an illicit but vital part of the Atlantic economies. In addition to
maintaining strong ties with his family in Haiti (especially with his brother and
one of his cousins), Svre had a lover in Aquin, in the south of the island.63
Although the brothers came from Ouanaminthe in the North, they gravitated
to Ptions Republic of the South rather than Christophes kingdom. Josephs
Francophile leanings and mixed-race status would have hindered his political
and economic ambitions in the north. For Svre, Ptions republic was more
closely connected to the circum-Caribbean world, through trading routes as
well as revolutionary alliances.
If Haitian leaders attempted to present Haiti as an asylum for those oppressed
by the colonial system, Svre remained unable, or unwilling, to think in strictly
racial terms. He lived in an interracial and international environment and in
some ways remained more St. Dominguan than Haitian: as a descendant of a
rather elite family of color, he had little in common with the African slaves he
sold to the highes t bidder s. Svre stood at a crossroads betw een the early
modern and modern worlds. The colonial sy stem had ingrained in him a
sense of superiority and deep prejudice against slaves; at the same time, his participation in various wars of independence had taught him to challenge racial
hierarchies and aspire to complete political and social equality for himself and
his social class.

61. Louis-Michel Aury, Settlement of Estate, September 1, 1821, Luis Aury Papers, box 1, folder 9,
U.S. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
62. Tlgraphe, October 12, 1828, in Henock Trouillot, Les origines sociales de la littrature hatienne
(Port-au-Prince: Imprimerie N. A. Theodore, 1962), pp. 102103.
63. Svre Courtois to Mademoiselle Mimi Florette (sic), October 15 and October 19, 1821, SGM,
tom. 343, fol. 1036-1038, AGNC.

56

A TALE OF TWO BROTHERS

Nowhere is the central contradiction of the Age of Revolutions between desire for
universal freedom and reliance on human oppression better embodied than in
Svres lack of interest in emancipation. Svres slave smuggling reveals the tensions between the rhetoric of universal revolution and the centrality of slavery to
sponsor the liberation enterprises that might bring that about. When Lacroix
accu sed Svre of planning an ex pedition ag ainst Cub a, he claimed th at Svre
wanted to grant s laves th eir freedom, and was therefore look ing for help from
Hait i. But Svres letters to Presid ent Boy er and to Joseph did not support
that poin t. He emphasized tha t no caus e was more sacred than that of Liberty and Independence and portrayed his go al as giving their liberty to the
populations who are now under Spanish yoke. Svres rhetoric w as broad and
vagu e enough to appeal to the Haitian government while offering no formal
commitment to emancipation, and it is very unlikely that it was one of his concerns. Multinational expeditions like those in which Svre participated, cultivated
contacts in Haiti; their crews, with a high proportion of blacks and mu lattoes,
embraced a spirit of egalitarianism that did not always include African slaves.
Svres revolutionary and egalitarian rhetoric also teems with ideas drawn from
freemasonry.64 Svres signature, with its distinctive three dots forming a triangle, identifies him as a Freemason. His use of this mark in both public and
private records was a way to publicly assert his belonging to the craft and to privately create ties with others of its members. Courtois was surrounded by
Freemasons: among the 11 other men who witnessed Aurys will in August
1820, six signed with a clearly distinguishable Masonic symbol.65 In 1823,
Svre worked with Cuban Freemasons to orchestrate the independence movement Soles y Rayos de Bolvar; his rhetoric reflected concepts of Masonic teachings on internationalism, peaceful coexistence, and social and philanthropic
responsibility and the conviction that the world was the patria of
humankind.66 Joseph also belonged to the craft.67 The rhetoric of equality and
64. On freemasonry and free people of color in St. Domingue, see John D. Garrigus, Before Haiti: Race
and Citizenship in French Saint-Domingue (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), pp. 291297; and Jacques
de Cauna, Quelques aperus sur lhistoire de la franc-maonnerie en Hati, Revue de la Socit Hatienne
dHistoire, de Gographie et de Gologie 52 (September-December 1996), pp. 189190. By 1843, Haiti had 23
lodges. For freemasonry in antebellum New Orleans, see Cosse Bell, Revolution, pp. 145185.
65. Giorgio Antei, Los hroes errantes: historia de Agustn Codazzi, 1793-1822 (Bogota: Planeta Colombiana Editorial, 1993), p. 196.
66. Giuseppe Giarrizzo, Massoneria e illuminismo nell Europa del Settecento (Venice: Marsilio, 1994);
Nancy Vogeley, Spanish-Language Masonic Books Printed in the Early United States, Early American Literature 43:2 (2008), pp. 337360.
67. Steve Bullock, Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American
Social Order, 17301840 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); R. William Weisberger, Wallace McLeod, and S. Brent Morris, eds., Freemasonry on Both Sides of the Atlantic: Essays Concerning the Craft
in the British Isles, Europe, the United States, and Mexico (Boulder, Colo.: East European Monographs; New
York: Distributed by Columbia University Press, 2002).

VANESSA MONGEY

57

international fraternity found a particular resonance with men like the Courtois
brothers who aspired to positions of political power. The values articulated by
this military and Masonic culture also shaped Svres presentation of himself in
a series of articles he sent to the Gaceta de Cartagena. The volatility of the
Atlantic revolutions created the need for strong and charismatic leaders. In
asserting his place on the world stage, Svre drew on widely accepted ideas of
masculinity and military authority. While Joseph emphasized his loyalty to the
French army, Svre wished to fulfill the role of a paterfamilias for the troops
and the population of Providencia. His love for humanity, as well as his leadership abilities, he wrote, made him a man able to order, and to preserve the
subordination of corsairs.68
Then and during the Battle of New Orleans, Svre knew that his legitimacy
rested on being perceived as an honorable man. He also knew that as a man of
color his status was precarious. At any time that he perceived his honor to be
under attack, or suspected he was experiencing some form of legal or extralegal
racismwhether it was Andrew Jackson sending him to fortify an outpost in the
Louisiana swamps, or a subordinate calling him by a racial epithetSvre carefully manipulated racial expectations and fears to protect his reputation. In his
confrontation with Lacroix, Svre was the one with connections and wealth.69
Using his patron/client relationships in Cartagena, he sued Lacroix for defamation of character and won his trial.70 However, the rift between Lacroix and
Courtois did not follow strict color lines. Marcelin Guillot, for example, another
member of the St. Dominguan diaspora who had fought with Svre in the
Battle of New Orleans and worked alongside him and Aury in Texas, Florida,
Guatemala, and Providencia, sided with the white officer.71 Svres ambivalent
relationships with other members of the Haitian diaspora reveal the shifting role
of the color line in this postrevolutionary world. It also found an echo in
Josephs frequent clashes with Jean-Pierre Boyer, Haitis acutely color-con68. Gaceta de Cartagena, January 4, 1823.
69. Svre Courtois accused one of Lacroixs followers of calling him a mulatto. Deposition of JeanLouis Dutrieu aboard the Amazon, August 9, 1822, SGM, fol. 1041, AGNC.
70. Acusacin documentada que hizo al tribunal de censura el da 26 abril de 1823, Severo Courtois
del artculo firmado El Censor (Cartagena: Imprenta del Gobierno, 1823), Archivo Histrico Restrepo,
fondo II, vol. 51, fol. 106-107.
71. Repblica, Hoja de Servicios, tom. 19, fol. 1019, AGNC. Jealousy might have played a role, since
Guillot started his military career at a higher rank: he was a captain in the War of 1812 while Svre was a sergeant major. At the time of the petition to Jackson, Guillot is listed as Capt. Gers, Courtois as Ensign 2nd
Bon. Courtoiss career took a turn after meeting Aury. He became commandant and owned three ships.
Guillot also rose through the ranks but was merely a colonel on Providencia. Aurys settlement of estate,
August 30, 1820, Luis Aury Papers, folder 9, U.S. Library of Congress. Marcelin Guillot signed the petition
sent by the officers of the St. Domingue battalion requesting Andrew Jacksons protection from Louisiana discriminatory legislation: From Savary et al., Papers of Andrew Jackson, p. 315.

58

A TALE OF TWO BROTHERS

scious mulatto president.72 Like Joseph in metropolitan France, Svre


expected that his military service would protect him against racist discrimination and clinch his claims to equal rights within and beyond national affiliations.
Many white Amer ican leaders were unsure of th e place o f influential peop le
of color in the new republics.73 Although white patriots had gained blacks
decisiv e military support with promises of equality, they resented the military
prestige of black and mulatto officers and feared th at an independence war
could escalat e in to a race war as had happened in Hai ti.74 Bolvar, in particular, feared the anarchical, violent forces triggered by the independence struggle.
He was obsessed with preventing pardocraciaa government that might result
from a successful revolution by pardos (colored) and blacks against the white
elites who continued to rule after independence. Bolvars obsession with preventing pardocracia became a driving force in his military and political decisions,
including the execution of former lieutenants such as Manuel Piar.
The ambitions displayed by military men of color like Svre Courtois were
threats to the social and racial order. In his correspondence with Colombian
authorities, Lacroix repeatedly played on the specter of a race war.75 Revolutionary expeditions like Aurys relied on men of color not only in military and
naval matters but also to provide legal expertise. Observers often commented
on this inclusion of men of color among the tats-majors of these expeditions;
when a Spanish passenger was captured near Havana aboard a U.S. merchant
ship and taken to Galveston, he noted that the legality of the capture was
appraised by Aury and a committee composed of various negroes in military
uniforms, who eventually declared the capture illegal and had the ship and the
crew released.76 A U.S. newspaper, commenting on the Republic of las Floridas
at Amelia, reported that Aurys collaborators of color insist[ed] upon equal
rights and privileges with the whites, and otherwise [were] very insolent; indeed
[even] so as to assume equal command.77 Another article published in the
72. David Nicholls, From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour and National Independence in Haiti
(Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979)
73. Marixa Lasso, Myths of Harmony: Race and Republicanism during the Age of Revolution, Colombia
17951831 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007), chapt. 3.
74. Blackburn, Overthrow, pp. 34060; Marixa Lasso, Threatening Pardos: Pardo Republicanism in
Colombia, 18111830, in Transatlantic Rebels: Agrarian Radicalism in Comparative Context, Thomas
Summerhill and James C. Scott, eds. (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2004), pp. 117135;
Aline Helg, Simn Bolvar and the Specter of Pardocracia: Jos Padilla in Post-Independence Cartagena,
Journal of Latin American Studies 35:3 (2003), pp. 447471.
75. Lacroix, Relacin.
76. Copia de la declaracin de Tiburcio Lpez, June 6, 1817, New Orleans, in Cuba 1900, Archivo
General de las Indias.
77. The Weekly Recorder, November 12, 1817.

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59

Alexandria Gazette in 1819 described how a captain Courtwan (certainly


Svre Courtois), a native of Haiti, and his all black crew had captured a U.S.
merchant ship from Vermont, accusing the ships officers of transporting Spanish goods and then taking the vessel to Providencia.78 These scenes were particularly striking for observers who were not used to seeing men of color in positions of authority and decision-making. The observers testimonies were
reprinted in newspapers across the Americas and fueled the perception that such
expeditions subverted the existing social and racial order. Captain Courtwan
and his interracial crew of followers embodied a dangerous alternative world for
the Americas. Their ambitions had to be controlled and curtailed.

CONCLUSION
Joseph Courtoiss double exile and Svre Courtoiss perpetual revolutionary
quest provide an important counterpoint to existing studies on racial and
national affiliations: the Courtois brothers were both ready to die for the
patriewhether it was Hait i, France, th e United States , or Colombia. They
were looking for a patrie and a career at the same time, pursuing any opportunity to advance their own wealth and power. Both brothers were abl e to shif t
their national allegiances wi th the political w inds of the revolutionary Atlantic
world. While Joseph switched from a fervent French nationalism to a newfound
reverence fo r the Haitian state, Svre became a revolutionary mercenary and
engaged in transnation al struggles against monarchical regimes. While Joseph
opted to fight for freedom at home , in France and then in Haiti, Svre chos e
to batt le for freedom wherev er he could , regardless of national boundaries.
Their stories reveal the importance of military institutions as ladders of advancement and military experience as an opportunity to associate with new ideas.
Their trajectories and their experiences along the way were influenced by political and national boundaries, but not determined by them. Their overlapping
business, personal, and political networks crossed the Atlantic Ocean. While the
instability of the revolutionary Atlantic offered possibilities of liberation, it
could just as likely bring about vulnerability and invite danger.
The military world of the militia and the naval world of the corsair fleet provided crucial opportunities for the social advancement of free men of color.
Most itinerant patriots of color came from one or the other, and for clear reasons. First, these institutions had already created a leadership structure. Second,
they laid the groundwork for networks of friendship and trust with white officers through common military service or shared values. Finally, they elevated
78. Alexandria Gazette, December 28, 1819.

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A TALE OF TWO BROTHERS

the social and economic position of their members within their own community
and within the society at large. Men like Svre Courtois, Marcelin Guillot, and
Joseph Savary seized the opportunities offered by multinational revolutionary
expeditions to hone their leadership skills. The intersecting stories of the Courtois brothers also show a variety of other strategies deployed by free men of
color to secure their place in Atlantic geopolitics. Although both brothers used
military and militia service to fulfill their ambitions, they also turned to education and patron/client relationships to attain social and economic status. The
lives of the Courtois brothers underscore the complexity and expressions of
racial and national identities in the revolutionary Atlantic. Both Joseph and
Svre successfully preserved their familys elite prerevolutionary status into a
new era while fighting for the right of people of mixed ancestry to play leading
roles in postcolonial America.
Rhodes College
Memphis, Tennessee

VANESSA MONGEY