Sammelrez: Mobility, Subversion, and Power in the Revolutionary Caribbean

: Rogue Revolutionaries. The Fight for Legitimacy in the Greater Caribbean. Philadelphia 2020 : University of Pennsylvania Press, ISBN 9780812252552 288 S. $45.00

: In a Sea of Empires. Networks and Crossings in the Revolutionary Caribbean. Cambridge 2020 : Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9781108779289 204 S. £75.00

Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Jan Jansen, Universität Duisburg-Essen

It is often said that the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), as a watershed event, had been silenced by a Eurocentric vision of the past and its moving agents, only to be “rediscovered” by scholars over the past two decades. The multidisciplinary study of emancipatory struggle, warfare, and their aftermath in the western part of the island of Hispaniola (Haiti, since 1804) has also brought to the fore a highly dynamic and contested area during an era of continuous revolutionary upheaval and war: the Greater Caribbean, stretching from the Lesser Antilles and the Greater Antilles to the coastal regions of the US South and Spanish America. Already in the 1980s, the late Julius S. Scott’s seminal thesis Common Wind cracked a window to take a glimpse at this area, but only in recent years has a steady stream of excellent scholarship emerged on the revolutionary-era Antilles – from Haiti’s larger neighbours, Cuba and Jamaica, to smaller islands, like Dutch Curaçao and St. Eustatius, Swedish St. Barthélemy, and Danish St. Thomas, along with other British, French, and Spanish colonies – and their connections with the American continent.

Among these studies, Vanessa Mongey’s Rogue Revolutionaries and Jeppe Mulich’s In a Sea of Empires stand out owing to their wealth of empirical insights and methodological originality. The two short books share a set of common ideas about the revolutionary-era Caribbean as a world shaped by multifold connections and mobilities across islands and – free and enslaved – communities, by the spread of news and rumours, by privateering and the illegal trade in enslaved humans and goods, and by Haiti as both a beacon of emancipation and a source of fear. Yet, the two authors also diverge in their choice of methodologies and source material; thus reading their works alongside each other can help us get a better grasp of the possible approaches to the revolutionary-era Caribbean and their particular analytical benefits and limitations.

Mulich’s In a Sea of Empires is a theoretically informed, important study of the often-overlooked Leeward Islands, the northern chain of the Lesser Antilles, during the revolutionary era. Through the regional approach, Mulich brings into view a world of small colonial possessions of a variety of imperial powers – including Denmark and Sweden – that often had to rely on their inter-colonial connections rather than their imperial metropole. At a time when historical narration and microhistorical case studies reign, Mulich’s approach stands out due to its declared theoretical ambitions. What others may refer to as an imperial “borderland”, Mulich elaborates upon and considers as an “inter-imperial microregion”, an area “inhabited by multiple polities, with a particularly high density of relations and interactions between and across the formal boundaries of these polities” (p. 16). In this perspective, the Leeward Islands are but one instance of a dense cross-border regional integration that formed, in Mulich’s view, the backbone of early nineteenth-century globalization. Even if its distinction from borderland studies (which he tends to reduce to “frontier”-style histories) appears slightly forced and some of its core elements such as “networks” underdeveloped, Mulich’s concept of an inter-imperial microregion is certainly a thought-provoking addition to concepts of imperial statehood and sovereignty. Future research will have to ponder whether the characteristics of an inter-imperial microregion describe a particular type of state-building or rather core features of imperial, or early modern, statehood in general.

In any case, Mulich convincingly uses the concept of inter-imperial microregion as a framework to tease out some of the general patterns of colonial rule and economic activity across the region. In five thematic chapters, he shows the high degree of official and illegal trade activities between various islands, in particular the free port entrepôts (St. Eustatius, St. Barthélemy, and St. Thomas) (ch. 2); the mix of collaborative “intercolonial security practices” (p. 59) and pervading inter-imperial rivalry and warfare, including sustained periods of foreign (British and French) occupation, which, however, only impacted local governance to a limited degree (ch. 3); the importance of the islands as launching pads for privateering expeditions, bases for prize courts, and the transshipment of prize cargoes, as well as stirring conflicts over jurisdiction and the openly politicized practice of privateering in the period of Latin American independence struggles (ch. 4); the crucial importance of slavery as an economic and social institution, as well as the rising role of free communities of colour and spaces of inter-colonial flight from slavery (ch. 5); and the inter-colonial practices that sustained the trade of enslaved humans after the formal abolition of the slave trade (ch. 6).

Each of the chapters boasts a wealth of interesting insights into economic and political activities and imperial governance in the small colonial possessions of the Leeward Islands. The book’s analysis is at its best when it comes to the British, Danish, and Swedish islands; other imperial powers in the region, in particular France and the Netherlands, play a less conspicuous role. Despite this (pragmatic) focus, the benefits of Mulich’s inter-island perspective come out very clearly, for example when he highlights the crucial role of small and neutral islands in the sprawling business of prize courts and agencies or their importance for the continued practice of illegal slave trading in the 1810s and 1820s. Other aspects – such as the cross-island collaboration in suppressing slave rebellions, pervasive contraband trade and maritime marronage, and the ascendancy of free trade and British naval power during the period – have been described in very similar terms for other parts of the Greater Caribbean, leading the reader to wonder in what way these aspects were particular to the Leewards’s inter-imperial microregion. Mulich’s inter-island perspective should thus be of interest for readers well beyond a “microregional” scope. It is a must-read for everyone interested in the history of the Caribbean, of imperial borderlands, and of inter-colonial and comparative colonial history in general.

In a Sea of Empires is populated by a variety of historical actors. Yet, Mulich’s primary interest remains in the practices of colonial governance on the ground and its protagonists. Whereas Mongey’s long-awaited Rogue Revolutionaries shares Mulich’s keen eye for small island settings and their interconnections, her microhistorical gaze is not turned to a particular (micro)region, but to a particular set of mobile actors that moved across the Greater Caribbean, and in particular the Gulf of Mexico, in the 1810s and 1820s. While Mulich centres on British, Danish, and Swedish cases, most of Mongey’s protagonists hail from the Francophone and Hispanic imperial spheres, including quite prominently free and enslaved men of colour, in particular from newly independent Haiti and the French Antilles. Like Mulich, Mongey builds on familiar ground – in her case, the intercontinental mobility of military personnel, foreigners joining Spanish American independence struggles, and multinational liberal diasporas in the post-Napoleonic period – but she manages to push the debate in important new directions. Unlike most of the literature, Mongey focuses not on those who consistently joined the ranks of emerging Latin American armies and naval forces, but on those who sought to carve out their own state-building projects in the volatile geopolitical situation of the disintegrating Spanish American empire, described by Rafe Blaufarb as “the Western Question”.1 Through Mongey’s skilful analysis, the stories of failed military ventures and forgotten state founders, which have often been sidelined as cases of mere “adventure” or “piracy”, turn into a thought-provoking discussion of what constituted legitimate claims to statehood during a moment of upheaval and uncertainty.

In five beautifully crafted chapters, Mongey not only introduces us to a number of key actors and episodes but also highlights key dimensions of legitimate and failed state-building during the age of revolutions: Louis-Michel Aury’s and Sévère Courtois’s efforts to legitimize their semi-autonomous privateering states in Amelia and later the archipelago of Providencia through privateering commissions, declarations of independence, and constitutions (echoing Linda Colley’s recent work on modern warfare and constitution-making 2) (ch. 1); the role of multilingual cross-border print and oral communication cultures in the case of Juan Bautista Mariano Picornell’s and Manuel Cortés Campomanes’s involvement in various anti-Spanish schemes across Venezuela, Texas, and Mexico (ch. 2); the involvement of Haitian-born Joseph Savary and Marcelin Guillot in military expeditions and state-building projects from Colombia to Louisiana and their struggle to carve out a place for themselves as free people of African descent (ch. 3); the multiracial expedition against Spanish Puerto Rico in 1822, commonly known as the Doucoudray-Holstein expedition, and the sweeping inter-state interactions it triggered (ch. 4); and the shaping of nationalist and decidedly un-cosmopolitan post-revolutionary memories by Costante Ferrari and Agustín Codazzi in the course of their various military engagements between Western Europe and Spanish America (ch. 5).

Each chapter presents both a colourful account of dramatic episodes that drew their contemporaries’ full attention but did not leave a lasting imprint on political history or later accounts of the era, and a reflection on the preconditions, strategies, and patterns of successful geopolitical subversion and state-building. Against a trend to romanticize multinational and multiracial revolutionary “cosmopolitanism”, Mongey pushes her readers to ponder the inherent ambiguities of her “freedom fighters”, including their material involvement in the trafficking and enslavement of humans, their upholding of racial stereotypes and hierarchies, and their ideological flexibility. In some cases, her dramatic retelling of events and biographies, however, risks to undercut her own argument by scaling back the protagonists’ ambiguity and slipperiness. In her effort to reinstate them as serious historical actors, she almost consistently refers to them as “revolutionaries” and seems to imply clearly articulated political projects and convictions, even when evidence of the role and the form of their political convictions in the sources may be rather flimsy. Instead of inscribing these historical actors in a rigid binary of “revolution/counter-revolution”, her deft case studies should also urge us to rethink the formation and porosity of political camps, as well as the role of political ideas and convictions for action in the revolutionary era. The most powerful argument that emerges from Mongey’s analysis, however, is about how to tell the history of the age of revolutions in a way that does not fall into the trap of later quasi-official accounts that would reduce this era to an automatic movement from empire to nation-state. Against the teleological version of the past as told by the victors, she brings back to life the many alternative visions and schemes, expectations, and “futures past” (Reinhart Koselleck) that swirled around and that many contemporaries regarded as no less likely than the paths eventually taken. Her book invites us to think more systematically about what were the major ingredients of success and failure during a historical moment of major uncertainty.

In a Sea of Empires and Rogue Revolutionaries are intriguing and challenging books that will inspire further scholarship on the region during this dramatic period. Each in their own complementary way, Mulich and Mongey thus urge us to bring into account a number of new sites and actors. They demonstrate that microscopical perspective and broader conceptual ambitions can, and should, go hand in hand. Against the grain of nationalist and colonial visions of the past, they highlight that those at the helm of colonial government, as much as those subverting or navigating it, saw the Greater Caribbean as a highly integrated space of cross-border movement and action. One of the directions, only alluded to in both works, is on how much this integrated space was also fragmented and subdivided and how, during this very moment of heightened mobility, a variety of actors also worked at immobilizing people through border controls, identification and categorization processes, and practices of incarceration and forced removal.

1 Rafe Blaufarb, Bonapartists in the Borderlands. French Exiles and Refugees on the Gulf Coast, 1815–1835, Tuscaloosa, AL 2005, pp. 61–85.
2 Linda Colley, The Gun, the Ship and the Pen. Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World, London 2021.

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