Mongey on Pérez Morales, 'No Limits to Their Sway: Cartagena's Privateers and the Masterless Caribbean in the Age of Revolutions'

Edgardo Pérez Morales
Vanessa Mongey

Edgardo Pérez Morales. No Limits to Their Sway: Cartagena's Privateers and the Masterless Caribbean in the Age of Revolutions. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2018. 248 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8265-2192-7.

Reviewed by Vanessa Mongey (Newcastle University, UK) Published on H-LatAm (July, 2019) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

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As the Spanish American empire disintegrated after the Napoleonic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808, juntas from Mexico to Buenos Aires began to pass declarations of independence and constitutions. They also turned to the early modern legal tradition of privateering, or private prize-taking, which had allowed British, Dutch, French, Portuguese, and Spanish subjects to prey on the enemy’s merchant fleet since the late sixteenth century. Privateers sailed with the permission, or letters of marque, to engage in maritime warfare. In this well-written and succinct book, Edgardo Pérez Morales tells the story of the anti-Spanish privateering project engineered by the Republic of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. In doing so, he shows how privateering became an unexpected tool of revolutionary politics in the Atlantic world. Privateering, Pérez Morales argues, was not only a legally sanctioned practice that targeted the enemy’s merchant fleet; it also reflected Cartagena’s radical open-door policy. At a time when racial equality was associated with revolutionary Haiti in the minds of many white Creoles, a coalition of egalitarian free men of color and white Creoles pushed for the adoption of one of the most radical constitutions in the Atlantic world in 1812: not only was slavery abolished and racial equality proclaimed, but the new republic allowed foreigners to settle in the port city and become naturalized citizens, thus ending existing Spanish colonial restrictions. The recruitment of European and Afro-descendent Caribbean privateers was part of this strategy to turn Cartagena into a cosmopolitan haven. Privateering also served, according to Pérez Morales, as an “act of sovereignty” that revealed the existence of alternative communities before larger national states crystallized (p. 13). 

By looking at Cartagena’s seafaring practice, this book sheds new light on the hemispheric and maritime dimensions of Spanish American independence. Although the Republic of Cartagena only lasted from 1811 to 1815, it played a key role in early struggles for independence in Spanish America because of “its growing maritime connections, increasingly radical anti-Spanish leaders, and vibrant cosmopolitan dynamics” (p. 6). The book concludes with the fall of Cartagena after a prolonged Spanish royalist siege. Many privateers, including the French Louis-Michel Aury, who is at the center of Pérez Morales’s account, moved their operations to the coast of the United States. When independence was finally secured in the 1820s, Simón Bolívar, as the president of Gran Colombia, turned away from privateering for fear that the new nation would be accused of sponsoring piracy and collaborating with Haiti.

The book, like its subjects, navigates in two directions. It ebbs and flows between a study of Tierra Firme—Cartagena and the United Provinces of New Granada—in chapters 3, 5, and 8, and a study of the masterless Caribbean at sea—emphasizing Cartagena’s interactions with the United States (chapters 4 and 9), Cuba (chapter 6), and Haiti (chapter 7). The first two chapters provide some background material with interesting details about how privateers forged a different culture at sea than those who remained on land. The book opens with a list of key figures . Pérez Morales never explains how the decision to adopt privateering was made (it does not appear in the 1812 Constitution), but the first mention of mention of letters of marque appeared during the visit of the first diplomatic envoy to United States in October 1812. While the Cartagena government initially recruited US privateers, it soon extended its offer to other nationalities. Privateers became valuable assets in assisting the new Spanish American republic against metropolitan Spain. They also brought in much-needed money, commodities, and personnel into the former Spanish colonial port. Two outside influences played major roles in this history of Cartagena's privateers. The first was Cuba, which remained loyal to Spain and committed to plantation slavery. By making Cuba the main target of their attacks, Cartagena's privateers undermined Spanish power and acquired subtantial incomes when they seized Spanish slave ships and sold the enslaved survivors in the US South and other slave societies. The second foreign power that looms large in this history of Cartagena is Haiti: the former French colony had already abolished slavery and proclaimed the equality of all men. Haiti was, in Pérez Morales's words, the "natural ally" of the Tierra Firme privateers. It supported the privateers—many of them were Haitians—and even became the refuge of many republicans when Spanish forces closed in on Cartagena in 1815.

By looking at privateering as a revolutionary tool wielded by Cartagena, Pérez Morales’s book offers a window into conceptions of international law (or Law of Nations), liberalism, and sovereignty. In discussing these topics, Pérez Morales also centers the role of free men of color both on land and at sea. He uses privateering to trace the discrimination Afro-Caribbean people faced after independence and why Latin American histories have ignored Cartagena’s maritime story and the privateers who participated in it. While racial equality remained an essential part of Colombian republican identity, politicians and historians were eager to dissociate their revolutionary past from Haiti. By breaking ties with Haiti and erasing its role in these earlier privateering efforts, Colombia stood a better chance of having its independence recognized and at fashioning itself as a legitimate (and whiter) country. 

Although Pérez Morales’s biggest intellectual debts come from the work of Julius Scott and his “masterless Caribbean” and the work of Marcus Rediker on the importance of looking at entangled histories from below, this book is a welcome addition to the growing and exciting scholarship on state building during the revolutionary era, including studies on Colombia and Pérez Morales’s own work.[1] In a comparative perspective, this book expands on the works of Laurent Dubois on revolutionary Guadeloupe, Lauren Benton on Artigas, and Julia Gaffield on Haiti.[2] Many revolutionary governments used privateering as a tool of sovereignty to assert their existence as independent states and as tool of recognition to forge relationships with other states. No Limits to Their Sway also contributes to the growing bibliography on the participation of foreign volunteers in the Spanish American wars of independence. While others have focused on the Anglophone side of the story, Pérez Morales highlights the importance of privateering for the construction of Cartagena as an independent state.[3] He is also careful to untangle the motivations of the individuals who engaged in privateering and who allied opportunism with idealism.

No Limits to Their Sway opens new avenues of research into the implications of mobility as generating new practices and ideas. Although the book offers valuable insights into the role of privateering in building states and in defining citizenship rights, it could have gone further in complicating our understanding of the revolutionary era. Privateering involved multiethnic and multinational crews in a flexible but still hierarchical organization with strict specialization of tasks and command structures. Although Cartagena declared free men of color to be citizens when it declared independence in 1811, privateer captains, like Aury, were of European or US origin, raising questions on the truly emancipatory potential of privateering. The privateers of Cartagena might have been eager to recruit sailors of African descent, but so were other imperial and royal navies at the time. Cartagena required foreign officers and sailors to become naturalized citizens, but it remains unclear how this naturalization was obtained. Most sovereignties issuing privateering commissions required naturalization, as this could shield the privateers from accusation of piracy by other countries. Presumably naturalizations in Cartagena did not include racial restrictions like in the United States, but did it require evidence of seafaring, military, or any useful expertise? Were these naturalizations in the 1810s used to obtain national Colombian citizenship in the 1820s, for example?

The idea of privateering as an act of sovereignty and as a safeguard for independence in the revolutionary Atlantic world is a fascinating one. Because Cartagena’s maritime archives did not survive, Pérez Morales cannot really delve into the economic impact of privateering for the embryonic state formation of Cartagena. He nevertheless highlights the often neglected importance of maritime activities in international relations. A crucial part of the state-formation process was international recognition, including diplomatic or semi-diplomatic relations with other recognized states. Having used privateers during their revolutions against Europe and possessing small navies, many countries in the Americas associated privateering with the continued defense of their independence and sovereignty. It is worth noting that although Bolívar ended privateering in 1827, Colombia remained attached to the practice. After the demise of Bolívar and his Gran Colombian project, the Constitutions of 1832 and 1843 gave the Colombia Congress power to deliver privateering commissions. With the world’s two largest navies, Britain and France had little use for privateering and pushed for its abolition in the Paris Declaration of 1856, but the United States, Mexico, and Venezuela refused the sign this treaty. Colombia, or the Republic of New Granada at time, did. These minor quibbles aside, No Limits to their Sway elegantly emphasizes the shifting political ideologies and geopolitical context that promoted the kind of opportunities for a cosmopolitan privateering to emerge. Even if its existence was short-lived, its radical potential, especially for Afro-Caribbean sailors, lived on.  


[1]. Alfonso Mùnera, El fracaso de la nación: región, clase y raza en el Caribe colombiano, 1717-1821 (Bogotá: Banco de la República, 1998); Aline Helg, Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770-1835 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Marixa Lasso, Myths of Harmony: Race and Republicanism during the Age of Revolution, Colombia, 1795-1831 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007); Daniel Gutiérrez Ardila, Un Nuevo Reino: Geografía política, pactismo y diplomacia durante el interregno en Nueva Granada (Bogotá: Universidad Externado de Colombia, 2010); Edgardo Pérez Morales, El gran diablo hecho barco. Corsarios, esclavos y revolución en Cartagena y el Gran Caribe. 1791-1817 (Bucaramanga: Universidad Industrial de Santander, 2012); Johanna von Grafensetin Gareis, “Revolucionarios americanos en el Circumcaribe hispano, 1810-1827,” in L´Atlantique révolutionnaire: une visión ibéro-américaine, ed. Clément Thibaud et al. (Rennes: Les Perséides, 2013); and Ernesto Bassi, An Aqueous Territory: Sailor Geographies and New Granada's Transimperial Greater Caribbean World (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

[2]. Laurent Dubois, “The Price of Liberty: Victor Hugues and the Administration of Freedom in Guadeloupe, 1794-1798,” William and Mary Quarterly 56, no. 2 (1999): 363-92; Lauren Benton, “Una soberanía extraña: la Provincia Oriental en el mundo Atlántico,” 20/10 El Mundo Atlántico y la Modernidad Iberoamericana, 1750-1850 1 (2012): 89-107; and Julia Gaffield, Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

[3]. Matthew Brown, Adventuring through Spanish Colonies: Simón Bolívar, Foreign Mercenaries and the Birth of New Nations (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2006); Matthew McCarthy, Privateering, Piracy and British Policy in Spanish America, 1810-1830 (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2013); and David Head, Privateers of the Americas: Spanish American Privateering from the United States in the Early Republic (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015).

Citation: Vanessa Mongey. Review of Pérez Morales, Edgardo, No Limits to Their Sway: Cartagena's Privateers and the Masterless Caribbean in the Age of Revolutions. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. July, 2019. URL:

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