- A Tale of Two Brothers: Haiti’s Other Revolutions
Sévère Courtois’s modest ambition was to revolutionize the world. “It is man’s 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; Sévère 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 Sévère 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. Sévère 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. [End Page 37] Dominguan diaspora in France and in the circum-Caribbean states, especially about the transatlantic networks that wove the exiles of African descent, the gens de couleur, together across the Atlantic. Exploring the careers of Joseph and Sévère Courtois provides a window into St. Domingue’s 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 diaspora’s 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. Sévère 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. [End Page 38] Sévère’s 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 Bolívar 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...