Rogue Revolutionaries: The Fight for Legitimacy in the Greater Caribbean

Rogue Revolutionaries: The Fight for Legitimacy in the Greater Caribbean

by Vanessa Mongey
Rogue Revolutionaries: The Fight for Legitimacy in the Greater Caribbean

Rogue Revolutionaries: The Fight for Legitimacy in the Greater Caribbean

by Vanessa Mongey


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In 1822, the Mary departed Philadelphia and sailed in the direction of the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico. Like most vessels that navigated the Caribbean, the Mary brought together men who had served under a dozen different flags over the years. Unlike most crews, those aboard the Mary were in a different line of commerce: they exported revolution. In addition to rifles and pistols, the Mary transported a box filled with proclamations announcing the creation of the "Republic of Boricua." This imagined republic rested on one principle: equal rights for all, regardless of birthplace, race, or religion. The leaders of the expedition had never set foot in Puerto Rico. And they never would.

When we think of the Age of Revolutions, George Washington, Robespierre, Toussaint Louverture, or Simón Bolívar might come to mind. But Rogue Revolutionaries recovers the interconnected stories of now-forgotten "foreigners of desperate fortune" who dreamt of overthrowing colonial monarchy and creating their own countries. They were not members of the political and economic elite; rather, they were ship captains, military veterans, and enslaved soldiers. As a history of ideas and geopolitics grounded in the narratives of extraordinary lives, Rogue Revolutionaries shows how these men of different nationalities and ethnicities claimed revolution as a universal right and reimagined notions of sovereignty, liberty, and decolonization.

In the midst of wars and upheavals, the question of who had the legitimacy to launch a revolution and to start a new country was open to debate. Behind the growing power of nation-states, Mongey uncovers a lost world of radical cosmopolitanism grounded in the pursuit of material interests and personal prestige. In demonstrating that these would-be revolutionaries and their fleeting republics were critical to the creation of a new international order, Mongey reminds us of the importance of attending to failures, dead ends, and the unpredictable nature of history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812252552
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
Publication date: 10/23/2020
Series: Early American Studies
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Vanessa Mongey is a historian based in the United Kingdom.

Read an Excerpt

Foreigners of Desperate Fortune

To talk revolutions, to imagine revolutions, to place oneself mentally in the midst of a revolution, is in some small degree to become master of the world.
—Alejo Carpentier, Explosion in the Cathedral(1962)

In September 1822, The Mary departed Philadelphia in the direction of Puerto Rico, one of the last Spanish colonies in the New World. Many vessels sailed the Caribbean region at this time of the year, transporting sugar, molasses, and rum from the West Indies; wines from Spain and France; textiles from India; silk and porcelain from China; and mahogany, indigo, and cochineal from Honduras and Brazil. Unlike other ships, The Mary was engaged in a different kind of commerce: it was exporting revolution. The ship carried rifles, pistols, and gunpowder. In the hull lay a box filled with proclamations announcing the creation of a new republic. When the expedition ran into a fateful storm, a U.S. admiral celebrated the downfall of these "foreigners of desperate fortune, who, in their imaginations," he sneered, "fancied any project lawful that should put them in possession of . . . a portion of the Spanish colonies, under the pretense of establishing Independent Governments." The admiral mocked these men's revolutionary dreams whose sole purpose, as he saw it, was to take advantage of a volatile situation to conduct contraband trade.

A closer look at the documents stowed in the hull of The Mary tells a slightly different story about these "foreigners of desperate fortune." They not only sought personal fortune but also wished to create a haven of liberty and equality. Although they had never stepped foot in Puerto Rico, they had carefully drafted the blueprints of their new country: "A free, independent, and wise Government [that] will give us happiness, strength, and consistency [in] the new republic of ." The line ended with a blank as if this imagined republic could be transported and implanted anywhere.

This book is a study of the empty space in this sentence: it traces a history of geopolitics to little-known individuals who belonged to the same multinational and multiethnic networks and who repeatedly launched revolutions and claimed territories. This empty space signaled a revolutionary ideology bent on altering the world order fractured by the disintegration of empires. Historians tended to dismiss the republic imagined on The Mary and a host of related polities floating on the blue Caribbean waters in much the same way contemporary authorities did, as quixotic and failed schemes, or, in the words of U.S. officials, "chimeras of the wildest nature." But the floating dream in the hull of The Mary was at the heart of broader transatlantic changes, among them a fierce battle over the right of revolution and sovereignty. It was a contest over legitimacy.

Legitimacy is never self-evident or inevitable; it tentatively coalesces, as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote, "only as the result of dogged confrontations." Prime among these "confrontations" are revolutions, which create voids and represent transitional and transformative moments. Revolutions are unlawful by definition: they involve a violation of the law in existence when the uprisings take place. They become lawful only in hindsight as revolutionaries replace the legitimacy of existing regimes with a new legitimacy of their own making. Success depends heavily not just upon the mobilization of resources and supporters but also upon the ability to monopolize, or at least secure, the language of legitimacy. Tracking the instances when revolutionaries sought recognition but failed demonstrates that legitimacy was a process produced by a history of discourse and practice rather than an ahistorical attribute. New countries could no longer turn to tradition or even divine rule to justify their existence, and legitimacy became the sine qua non for state sovereignty. These men were state-entrepreneurs who never turned into statesmen. They lost the battle for legitimacy, paving the way for the reordering of the international system to the detriment of projects labeled "piratical" and to the advantage of a select number of nation-states.

The age of revolutions was a nearly century-long "world crisis" triggered by intensified warfare, expanding trading routes, new technologies, and debates about rights. This was a moment in which new social contracts were forged between people and states, in which the great winner was the modern state. Yet, as the men on the decks of The Mary remind us, this quintessential moment that witnessed the rise of modern nation-states also saw the rise of failed revolutions and ephemeral states. The desire for change ricocheted back and forth across the Atlantic world. Political legitimacy was up for grabs, and a wide range of groups and individuals claimed it: wealthy slaveowners in North America, bourgeois merchants in France, enslaved laborers in the Caribbean, and creole priests and intellectuals in South America.

Upheavals tumbled into the nineteenth century and prompted intense debates on the right of revolution (the right not just to overthrow governments that no longer met the needs of the people but also to establish new regimes). The absence of clearly codified precedents made it difficult to decide under which circumstances overthrowing a government was acceptable and who had the right to do so. In the Anglo-American world, the debate over the legitimacy of the 1688-1689 Glorious Revolution created the fear that a right of revolution would lead to continual turmoil. In Two Treatises of Government, revised in 1689, English philosopher John Locke argued that people could instigate a revolution against the government when it acted against their interests. In some cases, Locke deemed revolution an obligation to safeguard against tyranny, and the 1776 Declaration of Independence of the United States cited this idea of people's collective right to cast off an arbitrary king. The right of revolution was included in article 35 of the French Constitution in June 1793: "When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people, and for every portion thereof, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties," but this constitution was never officially enacted. The revolution led by enslaved Africans in 1791 on the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue proved a crucible for testing the right of revolution, and governments around the world promptly shunned the new black-led independent country of Haiti. The right of revolution became emblematic of the possibilities and limitations of popular sovereignty: it legitimized insurrections—and the birth of new countries and new governments—retrospectively but also had the potential to unleash a torrent of revolutions and revolutionaries.

The demises of older systems and competing power structures brought contingency to the fore. The actors of this book and the states they attempted to create might have been outliers, but they were not anomalies. In the first half of the nineteenth century, many polities throughout the Americas were evanescent and their existence contested. The list is too long to be exhaustive: Madawaska on the border between the United States and Canada, Tucumán and Entre Ríos in Argentina, Riograndense in Brazil, and Franklin, Muskogee, West Florida, and Texas in the United States, among others. Gran Colombia survived for about ten years before being replaced by the independent states of Venezuela, Ecuador, and New Granada. Even the United States was a weak and tentative state whose survival was by no means certain. All countries in the postcolonial America, often with weak foundations, inherited the same challenges to their authority as their predecessors and faced a challenging path toward consolidation. Even if some colonies did secede, European imperialism remained a strong presence in the Caribbean while other regions in the Americas experienced a resurgence of royalism.

We need a more expansive definition of revolution that includes various attempts to forcibly overthrow regimes and generate alternative social, economic, and political orders. Exploring the multiple forms that revolutions take and the actions and ideologies of those who conduct them shows that even so-called failed revolutions that did not create lasting states initiated significant changes on local and regional societies and on the wider international system.


The best way to understand how a system came to exist is often to listen to voices from the outside, from the perspective of failure: here, a cast of a dozen individuals with interconnected stories. By recovering these individuals' ambitions and their evanescent polities, Rogue Revolutionaries makes four overarching points. First, these men created a space of political experimentation and innovation in the Greater Caribbean. One of the earliest and most completely globalized regions in the world, the region was a fertile ground for the cross-pollination of goods, ideas, and peoples; it was a revolutionary rendezvous. In the absence of internationally recognized and enforceable norms and laws, these men created entities that held an ambiguous position between states with a legitimate chance of recognition and pirate nests conducting contraband trade.

Second, whether these revolutionaries intended to turn these experiments into durable states is difficult to determine with any degree of confidence. In their own time, these men did not necessarily see the ephemerality of their efforts as failure. Sometimes revolutions founded independent nation-states that endured. Most often, however, revolutions created transient polities that remind us not to naturalize the transition from empires to nations as inevitable. The attempts at revolution planning and state making were not staging grounds for the eventual rise of sovereign nation-states. Looking at contending political futures peels back the calcification of entrenched states to reveal the chaos of the coalescing international order.

Third, by stigmatizing alternative projects as piratical, anarchical, and conducive to racial conflicts, the states that survived the revolutionary era were those that successfully constructed an endogenous and exclusionary system, notably through the principle of diplomatic recognition. Recognition was not just about how states accepted one another; it was also about how they invented and defined the new international system. A few European and American powers recognized each other as belonging to the same group, separating themselves from their illegitimate rivals. Legitimacy became produced and reproduced by the practice of states themselves.

Fourth, this group biography is an intellectual prosopography that reveals the political dimensions of mobility and dislocation. One of the benefits in following individuals across borders is that they shatter the walls of insular histories. Their stories were fragments of a mosaic formed by people who shaped their ideas on the move. Situating these revolutionaries in their regional, global, and intellectual contexts also supports the idea that the emergence of nation-states was a contingent and hazardous development. The processes of legitimation at the individual and national levels did not simply mirror each other: they were dynamically linked and mutually constitutive. Shifting attention to personal trajectories offers the possibility of writing a history of the revolutionary era in which individuals were as much the products of a larger canvass of global forces as they were the instruments in producing global forces.

To construct a veneer of legitimacy for their political projects, revolutionaries drew on a repertoire of legal principles and historical precedents and adapted it into an eclectic blend that reflected their reality and served their political and economic interests. One of the strongest influences on these revolutionaries was their experiences in the maritime world. Life at sea was a space of solidarity and cooperation but also of hierarchy and violence. Ships created mobile international communities that amounted to polities in their own right. Starting in the late eighteenth century, revolutions revived the practice of privateering, a form of naval warfare conducted by privately owned ships authorized by a government, through commissions or letters of marque to attack and capture enemy vessels. North American leaders commissioned privateers to fight Britain during the war of independence and the War of 1812. The French revolutionary government did the same. After the breakdown of the Iberian Empire following Napoléon's invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808, Latin American insurgents turned to privateering in their war with Spain. Thousands of foreigners joined the Latin American independence movements.

Certain of these foreigners sought privateering commissions from Latin American agents and reinterpreted them as licenses to export revolution. They used them not only to avoid prosecution for maritime predation but also to justify territorial seizure over Spanish colonies. Mobilizing privateering commissions as tools of revolutionary politics, they scripted their revolutions as part of a hemispheric fight against European imperial tyranny and displayed an often-strategic attachment to Spanish American independent movements. This autonomy gave them a greater degree of freedom and a greater latitude for action.

Another influence on these revolutionaries originated in the French revolutionary and the Napoleonic wars. Many of the actors in this book fought in militaries on land and at sea, in Europe and in the Caribbean. They drew from the brief but powerful moment (1792-1799) when France's revolution metamorphosed into an expansionist mission through the forcible annexation of foreign territories. They claimed the right, or rather the duty, to liberate people from the yoke of despotic Spain. Sailing the tempestuous tide of revolutions, these men believed that the cause of liberty was the cause of humankind.

These revolutionaries articulated a philosophy I call "cosmopolitan patriotism." It was "patriotism" to the extent that the authors of this revolutionary propaganda intended to create independent republics out of New World colonies. When most people lacked an identifiable national consciousness and keenly felt local ties, revolutionaries redefined the concept of patriotism, turning it into a capacious concept. This patriotism was "cosmopolitan" in that it consistently claimed to advocate for the welfare of humanity rather than a particular national or ethnic group. These men fused a moral cosmopolitanism—the view that all human beings belong to a single community—with a political cosmopolitanism, the attempt to establish a new, worldwide order. Yet the cosmopolitanism these men practiced and conceptualized was not emancipatory for all. They often sponsored their exciting quest for liberty, equality, and fortune from slave trading or from products produced by slave labor.


Although I work among several fields of historical research about the revolutionary Atlantic—the crisis of the Iberian Atlantic, the role of nonelite groups, and the rise of new sources of political legitimacy—I position my study specifically at the intersection of two literatures. The first centers on the interconnectedness of multiple revolutions. This book not only brings new voices to this narrative but also uses these voices to flip our perspective and place the margins at the center. A few scholars have moved beyond the revolutions that founded enduring independent nation-states to examine imagined possibilities. What this book emphasizes is the contested production of legitimacy in these liminal sites and how European and American powers depicted them as deficient and illegitimate. The transformation of these imagined possibilities into anomalous ventures is part of an enduring stigmatization of large parts of the world and their populations.

This book not only adds depth to accounts of the revolutionary Atlantic but also analyzes these revolutionaries through insights drawn from international relations. Spurred by the end of the Soviet Union and the rise of radical Islam in the 1990s, a vast literature now exists on so-called failed and unrecognized states. Failed or weak states, in particular, are defined as enjoying external sovereignty without or with only limited internal sovereignty, while unrecognized or contested states survive without external sovereignty and claim to have achieved internal sovereignty. What such labels have in common is that they designate deviations from the ideal type—sovereign nation-states—and are almost entirely located outside the Global North.

Recent postcolonial scholarship has shown that Western-centric norms of state development have uncritically framed the failed state narrative. "Failed state" is not simply a label but a powerful ideology that often justifies military interventions based on a Western ideal of what a state should look like. Rather than adhere to a successful/failed and ideal/defective state binary, scholars have adopted a more flexible, divisible, and multifaceted continuum of legitimacy. The fact that recognized and sovereign states are perceived as the norm in the international system reflects this Western-centric global imaginary. This book shows that the narrative construction of certain political projects as deviations from the norm, as failures, and as illegitimate dates back to the age of revolutions.

Eschewing a purely chronological approach, each chapter weaves the stories of two or more revolutionaries into an analysis of larger historical processes. This approach emphasizes themes and topics that crossed the revolutionary Atlantic. It also stresses the role of human agency in geopolitical transformations and reminds us that "revolutions are fundamentally about people." Chapter 1 examines what made a government legitimate. It looks at such blueprints of ephemeral states as privateering commissions, declarations of independence, and constitutions to show that the road to sovereignty did not run smooth. Looking at legal, political, and practical issues of state creation, this chapter traced the efforts of revolutionaries to gain both local and global acceptance. Tackling the question of what made information legitimate in a world where rumors were rampant, Chapter 2 traces the circuits of communication created by a mobile and multilingual print culture. It explores the materiality of intellectual production. Printing presses followed or even blazed trails of revolution around the Atlantic world, enabling revolutionaries to disseminate their radical cosmopolitan beliefs. Chapter 3 asks what made equality legitimate when circumscribed by structures of racial disenfranchisement. Revolutionaries structured their revolutions around equal political and civil rights, yet they often preserved slavery and profited from slave trading. The pursuit of self-determination and anticolonial solidarity grew out of an exploitative soil. Chapter 4 examines what made a revolution legitimate, particularly in legally and jurisdictionally contested spaces such as the Caribbean. This chapter traces what happened when revolutionaries failed to secure support internationally and received instead the labels of pirates, outlaws, and instigators of race wars. It shows how this stigmatization paved the way for international cooperation to stifle this type of political and social subversion. Finally, Chapter 5 raises the question of what made a historical memory legitimate. It studies vehicles of historical self-presentation—memoirs, maps, petitions—as meeting points between the personal and the structural. These vehicles show that affiliations and political identities were repeatedly performed, reproduced, and challenged. Entangled in a relation among history, memory, and political power, revolutionaries wrote their own stories within a context of narrowing alternatives and triumphing nation-states.

The globe is covered today with a multitude of countries branded as failed or fragile states that achieved de facto independence but failed to gain widespread international recognition. Some exist for decades while others disappear after a few years. Like the "chimeras of the wildest nature" denounced by U.S. officials, these places never established themselves in the international system. They rarely, if ever, appear on official maps or in schoolbooks. Yet they beg the question of whether our understanding of successful revolutions and states is not deeply flawed. Is a revolution only successful if it creates an enduring state? Is a state successful because it is long lasting? Is it because it is recognized by others? Who is the source of this legitimacy? The answers to these questions have shaped our understanding of political fragility and stability to this day.

Table of Contents

List of Key Figures

Introduction. Foreigners of Desperate Fortune
Chapter 1. Ghostly Governments: Statehood and Sovereignty
Chapter 2. Traveling Words: Communication Circuits
Chapter 3. American Freedom Fighters: The Struggle for Equality
Chapter 4. Revolutionary Dreams: Diplomatic Games and International Politics
Chapter 5. Crocodiles and Country Houses: Revolutionary Memories
Conclusion. Monitoring the Contagion of Revolution

List of Abbreviations

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