A Caribbean Affair

 “An unlawful and contemptible adventure”: the Ducoudray-Holstein expedition against Puerto Rico and US foreign policy in the early 1820s Caribbean.

Through the vantage point of the Ducoudray-Holstein expedition against Puerto Rico (1822), this research delves into the nature of the US foreign policy under James Monroe’s presidency (1817-1825) towards the Greater Caribbean and northern South America in the context of the dissolution of the Spanish Empire, the emergence of independent states in Latin America and the geopolitical competition for political and commercial hegemony between the US and European empires (especially, Great Britain and France). It also examines the place of the Dutch Caribbean in the US diplomacy as a way to further complexify historical understandings of the imperial entanglements that shaped the US foreign policy in the Greater Caribbean and northern South America in the Age of Revolution.

The main objectives of US diplomacy in the Greater Caribbean and northern South America during the wars for independence in Spanish America under the Monroe presidency were to promote the US commercial and political interests in the wake of the dissolution of the Spanish empire, to check European influence in the Caribbean and northern South America, as well as to minimize the impact of foreign privateering and piracy on the US maritime trade. The expanding US consular network in the 1820s across the Americas was instrumental in supporting US goals abroad. US consular dispatches from the Greater Caribbean and northern South America, in particular, were crucial in providing timely information on the conflicts between (Spanish) loyalists and (American) revolutionaries on the Spanish Main, in assessing the viability of the new republics in South America after their independence, and in anticipating and reacting to European actions in the region.

The collection “Dutch-American Diplomatic Relations, 1784-1973” hosted by the RIAS, sheds light on these questions. In this collection, one can examine the instructions provided by the US Department of State (especially by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams) to US consuls in the Dutch Caribbean. Conversely, one can investigate how US consuls posted in the Dutch Caribbean reported back to Washington on the latest developments of the wars of independence in Spanish America while representing US interests in the region.

The Ducoudray-Holstein expedition constitutes a prime vantage point from which to explore the entanglement of US, Spanish and Dutch imperial relations in the early 1820s and the nature of the US foreign policy towards the Americas in the build up to President James Monroe’s annual message in December 1823, which officially instructed European powers not to colonize nor intervene in the affairs of the independent nations of the Americas. It also underlines the expanding role of US consuls (in this case, the US consul in Curaçao, Cortland L. Parker) as essential brokers for geopolitical intelligence during the 1820s, a precious resource at a time of uncertainty regarding the US foreign policy towards Latin America.

In August 1822, a handful of ships departed from New York and Philadelphia under the aegis of Henri Louis Villaume de Ducoudray-Holstein, an exiled French revolutionary born in present-day Germany who had formerly served as officer in both the Bonapartist and Bolivarian armies. Sailing under a pretense of trade, the expedition’s secret target was Puerto Rico, one of the two remaining Spanish sugar gems in the Caribbean. Embarking alongside exiled liberals from Europe, American citizens and free creoles from across the Caribbean, Ducoudray-Holstein’s aim was to take over Puerto Rico after disembarking on its relatively weakly defended western coast. To do so, he had enlisted the support of local revolutionaries who sought to incite the enslaved population to rebel and contribute to the expedition’s success. The vessels first sailed to the Swedish colony of Saint Bartholomew, where the local governor started raising doubts about the alleged commercial character of the expedition. After suffering internal conflicts as well as damages at sea, the expedition was forced to sail to the Dutch colony of Curaçao, where it was thwarted when the local authorities seized two of the expedition’s vessels (including the Eendracht, navigating under forged Dutch papers) and jailed its main leaders, including a journalist from Baltimore and former US representative in Venezuela in the late 1810s named Baptist Irvine.

A few months earlier, in March 1822, the US government had officially recognized the independence of five new states across Latin America (Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Chile and Buenos Aires), much to the indignation of Spanish officials, in particular Spain’s minister in the US, Joaquín de Anduaga. The involvement of US citizens and merchants from the Eastern seaboard as well as Spanish suspicions about suspected backing of the US government were diplomatically explosive. In the aftermath of the incident, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams anxiously sought to reassure Spanish officials (especially a furious Anduaga) of his government’s official neutrality in the conflict that opposed Spain to her former American colonies. The House of Representatives passed a resolution on December 12, 1822, asking from the executive detailed information regarding the expedition, which president James Monroe qualified as an “unlawful and contemptible adventure” when delivering his administration’s report in February 1823. Facing charges of “high treason” (“hoogverraad”) liable to death penalty, Ducoudray-Holstein and Irvine were unexpectedly set free in February 1824 after long judicial proceedings, under the condition of never setting foot again on Dutch territory. The RIAS collections especially include US consul Parker’s correspondence with John Quincy Adams about the expedition (including Parker’s role as legal counsel to the accused in the Eendracht trial) as well as Adams’s instructions to ministers in Spain in his quest to defuse the hostile feelings between the two nations generated by the incident.

This piece was written using the following collection:

– “Dutch-American Diplomatic Relations, 1784-1973”

And two books:

– The American Revolution and the making of a new world empire / Eliga H. Gould (2014).

The Monroe Doctrine: empire and nation in nineteenth-century America / Jay Sexton (2012).

And the following microfilm archives:

– T 197 Despatches from United States Consuls in Curaçao, Netherlands West Indies, 1793-1906 (June 7, 1783- November 13, 1838).

– M 77 Diplomatic instructions from Department of State to Ministers, reel 4 (February 10, 1820 – July 19, 1823).