Italians Crossing the Caribbean: Two Case Studies

By Miriam Franchina

For early nineteenth-century Italian patriots, the Atlantic connected their divided homeland to the revolutionary Americas in a cosmopolitan quest for national independence that defied the order imposed by the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815.[1] Postcolonial nations in the Americas – whether they had already achieved independence or were battling for it – attracted such “itinerant patriots,” as they pursued revolutionary ambitions that seemed forestalled in their native peninsula.[2] Several Italians took their patriotic aspirations in exile, a temporary or lasting choice dictated by political convictions, economic opportunities, and other contingencies.[3] A judiciary trial from Spanish Santo Domingo (1810) and a never-written history of Haiti shed light on a specific route of such exile – the Caribbean crossing. Active as non-imperial subjects within shifting colonial empires, Italians of patriotic leanings encountered forms of patriotism that were deeply entangled with anti-colonial and race issues in the Caribbean.

Emilio Pezzi and the “Revolution of the Italians” in Santo Domingo

All we know about Emilio Pezzi stems from judiciary records from Santo Domingo.[4] There, on September 26, 1810, a firing squad executed the 26-year old for conspiring in the so-called “Revolución de los italianos.” The war between Spain and revolutionary France (1793-95) as well as the intertwined Haitian Revolution across the border (1791-1804) sparked turbulent times in Santo Domingo. France obtained Santo Domingo from Spain and annexed it to its neighboring colony of Saint-Domingue (1796). When Saint-Domingue proclaimed independence in 1804 as Haiti, Santo Domingo became the last French stronghold on the island. To retake France’s most valuable colony, Napoleon Bonaparte dispatched Pezzi to Santo Domingo in 1805 as a member of the legion du midi. Pezzi was from another newly-acquired French territory: Piedmont, in Northern Italy, which France annexed in 1802. The legion du midi was entirely recruited in French-controlled Piedmont to foster voluntary enlistment based on a sense of national identity. Despite long-standing cultural ties between France and Piedmont, however, French soldiers in Santo Domingo found Piedmonteses too close in manners and mentality to Spaniards to be counted on as trustworthy allies.[5]

Belatedly paid, decimated by hunger and yellow fever, the legion du midi eventually found little reason to keep fighting for France. In 1809, Pezzi and his comrades joined Santo Domingo’s “Reconquista,” a patriotic movement that ousted French forces and reunited Santo Domingo with Spain.[6] Spanish grip on its oldest colony was, however, far from firm. The metropolis was again at war with France, and its empire creaked under independentist upheavals.[7] Pezzi was accused of yet another volte-face for allegedly organizing a revolt to proclaim Santo Domingo’s independence. Pezzi was to ensure his unit’s help in liberating local jails whence imprisoned Dominican patriots would join the revolt against Spanish authorities. These prisoners were to be the only Dominicans in the plot; Pezzi schemed alongside a “mulatto from Saint-Domingue” and two agitators from other Spanish colonies – a “pardo” from Venezuela and a “blanco” from Porto Rico. Pezzi and accomplices further confessed to seeking military aid from southern Haitian President Alexandre Pétion.

Map of the island of Hispaniola.
The island of Hispaniola in the Age of Revolutions

The patriotism behind this conspiracy was, therefore, particularly complicated to disentangle given the defendants’ composite national background and their ties with either Haitians across the border or patriots in other Spanish territories.[8] In his defense, Pezzi aimed at retorting accusations of disloyalty and emphasized his devotion to Spain instead. He reminded the judges of his previous desertion from French troops to reinstate Spanish rule in Santo Domingo. All this was to no avail. Whereas Pezzi was the only executed Italian, others faced interrogation on suspicion of their previous alignment with France. Judges discharged a Sardinian after proving he worked for a notorious Genoese corsair enrolled by Spain against South American independentists. Pezzi himself knew that fellow Italians may harbor pro-Spanish sentiments and left some of his comrades out of the conspiracy for their apparent Spanish sympathies. As a whole, his Piedmontese comrades were acquitted of conspiring but found guilty for mingling with potential revolutionaries of all sorts, the most dangerous being free people of African descent.

Spanish colonial authorities had granted freedom to enslaved men who took up arms against France during the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and now feared an insurgency by the enslaved stoked by Haitian example. Rumors that local black veterans might cooperate with the conspirators certainly did not help Pezzi’s cause. Like the most prominent black auxiliaries recruited about 15 years before,[9] Piedmontese soldiers in Santo Domingo were divided and eventually relocated to other imperial territories. Whereas scholars downplay the role of the “Italians” in the failed 1810 conspiration,[10] the measures taken against them indicate that their involvement may have been substantial (hence the sobriquet “revolución de los italianos”) and their presence seen as an additional strain on the tense Dominican political landscape.

Pezzi’s interrogation reveals his knowledge of local political tensions. Despite confessing to political naiveté and his poor command of Spanish, he presented his entreaties to Haitian President Pétion as an attempt to thwart occupation of Santo Domingo by his rival, King Henry Christophe in the North. Both Haitian heads of state were interested in extending influence over neighboring Santo Domingo in a bid to oppose one another and fight French threats of re-colonization. Pezzi did not elaborate on his political leanings but plausible reasons for his preference of President Pétion over King Christophe may be found in the prevalent republicanism that animated volunteers in Napoleonian armies. Nothing is known of Pezzi’s views on the issue of race. Pezzi and other Italian suspects secretly convened at his “mulata francesa” lover’s, who was in turn questioned for invoking Pétion’s intervention in Santo Domingo. Pezzi may not have anticipated sailing to the Caribbean when he enlisted as a volunteer in the legion du midi. Once in Santo Domingo, however, he navigated local independentist aspirations and lent his fervor to a conspiracy where all participants, regardless of race and background, would allegedly “be equal in the effort.”   

Giacomo Costantino Beltrami and the Book on Haiti that Never Was

Bergamo-born aristocrat Giacomo Costantino Beltrami was involved in conspiracy before he arrived in the Caribbean. He rose in arms and proclaimed a local republic in 1797, thereafter incorporated by France in its system of sister republics.[11] Beltrami then served as a judge in one of the several kingdoms established by Napoleon in the Italian peninsula (1805-1815). When the Congress of Vienna reinstated pre-revolutionary boundaries in Italy, he faced trial for refusing to swear loyalty to the reinstalled Habsburg monarchy and for his republican convictions. He left Europe behind and traveled as a self-appointed explorer through the Americas for about 17 years. Beltrami published extensively – and controversially – about all of his transatlantic travels except the last, which took him to Haiti in 1826.[12] The island was by then unified into a single republic under President Jean Pierre Boyer and included formerly- Spanish Santo Domingo. The black republic represented the culmination of Beltrami’s itinerary through postcolonial American republics. As in Mexico and the U.S., in Haiti, he found a place where political and moral regeneration were unfolding under his eager eyes.

Beltrami never wrote his planned history of Haiti but from the sources he gathered for it, we can infer why the island may have constituted an inspiring example for fellow Italian patriots.[13] He reached the island from the U.S. – his last-known stay being in Philadelphia – and thereafter traveled by horse between 1826 and 1827. We know about some of his local contacts: a Mr. Reid and a Mr. Blain, Scottish tradesmen – who further illustrate the complexity of Caribbean demographics[14] – and Haitian President Boyer.[15] Beltrami allegedly discussed with him the ongoing negotiations for a concordat with the Holy See. Beltrami was a well-informed partner on the Catholic Church: he had been a magistrate in French-occupied territories that formerly belonged to the Papal States, and corresponded with the pontifical secretary of State once Pope Pius VII regained possession of the State of the Church.[16]

A concordat with the Catholic Church was part of Boyer’s attempt to end Haiti’s diplomatic isolation. Haiti’s acceptance as a sovereign nation impinged on the provisions of the Congress of Vienna and on long-standing visions of Africans and their descendants as incapable of running an independent state. Beltrami likely endorsed Haitian anti-colonialism, for it weakened the order set up at Vienna, the same one that prevented Italian unity. He was critical of the Holy See for not immediately drafting a concordat with Mexico upon independence.[17] He had personally met another high-ranking opponent of new European colonial interventions in the Americas – U.S. President James Monroe. The many Haitian newspapers he assembled suggests Beltrami’s receptiveness to Haitian anti-colonial struggles; he selected articles that urged diplomatic recognition for the island and triumphantly reported on the recent agreement reached with France.

Beltrami’s take on Africans’ fitness to rule a nation can also be gleaned from the documents he collected. National education, international trade, and scientific progress were routinely identified as markers of “civilization,” and Beltrami acquired evidence of Haitian compliance with all. His collection of sources included King Christophe’s correspondence with doctors, the curriculum of Haitian lycée nationale, and import and export data. Coeval Italian patriots theorized that progress could only be attained if a nation achieved national unity and liberation from all foreign governments. Beltrami’s patriotic pen touted his view of Italian cultural supremacy – by then lamentably lost – rooted in his forefathers’ ability to learn from ancient Egypt, the country wherein early Haitian writers located the roots of their African civilization.[18] The explorer secured copies of Haiti’s latest republican constitutions (1806, 1816) and some propaganda from Pétion’s government. Despite his republican beliefs, he might have had some words of praise for former King Christophe. In a handwritten note from Beltrami’s archive, a Haitian nobleman compared King Christophe to Sultan Saladin: both leaders were “barbarous only by birth” and deserved their peoples’ respect for their military endeavors and wise policies.[19] Specifically, the encomiastic piece extolled the advantage of enforcing religious tolerance. In Haiti, private cults other than the Catholic were allowed. Furthermore, King Christophe recruited suitable educators and doctors from Great Britain, regardless of their Protestant faith.[20] Beltrami – who decried the hegemony of the Catholic Church as the primary hindrance to Italian national unity and progress – certainly admired this approach.

Why, then, did the first history of Haiti in Italian never come about? A note scribbled by Beltrami provides a clue: he “swore not to give any more discovery nor honor to miserable and denationalized Italy.” While he had witnessed Haiti’s unique program to sponsor African Americans’ relocation and extend to them the benefits of citizenship, he saw European powers repeatedly join forces to crush patriotic and republican upheavals in his native Italy. Recognizing that “the world is now America,”[21] he eventually retired to rural life in Italy and hoped that his heirs might one day take an interest in the documents from the “black republic”. Even without his intended history of Haiti in hand, we can imagine Beltrami spreading knowledge of the young republic in the many scholarly circles he attended around Europe, presumably informing coeval Italian works on Haiti.

Miriam Franchina received her Ph.D. in 2017 from the University of Halle, Germany, with a dissertation on European intellectual history (“Writing an Impartial History in the Republic of Letters: Paul Rapin Thoyras and his Histoire d’Angleterre, 1724-27”, under revision for publication). She is now a research fellow for the project “Religion, Slavery and Race in the Age of Revolutions: Catholicism from Colonial Saint-Domingue to Independent Haiti, c1700 to c1830” funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

Title image: Giacomo Costantino Beltrami (detail from an 1861 painting, six years after Beltrami’s death, by Enrico Scuri).

Further Readings:

Bonvini, Alessandro. “L’avventura nel Nuovo Mondo. Cospiratori, rivoluzionari e veterani napoleonici nell’indipendenza della Nuova Granada, 1810-1830.” Contemporanea. Rivista di storia dell’800 e del ‘900, Vol. 21, No. 1 (2018): 3–26.

Burini, Emanuela. Terre indiane: Giacomo Costantino Beltrami nel Nuovo Mondo, 1823-1830. Verona: Ombre corte, 2019.

Calargé, Carla ed., Haiti and the Americas. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013.

Ferrer, Ada. Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Franchina, Miriam. “Atlantic Ripples in the Mediterranean: Early Nineteenth-Century Patriotic Readings of Haiti in the Italian Peninsula.” Atlantic Studies (September 3, 2020): 1–21.

Gaffield,Julia. “The Racialization of International Law after the Haitian Revolution: The Holy See and National Sovereignty.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 125, No. 3 (2020): 841–868.

Gaspar, David B. and David P. Geggus, eds. A Turbulent Time: The French Revolution and the Greater Caribbean. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

Isabella, Maurizio. Risorgimento in Exile: Italian Émigrés and the Liberal International in the Post-Napoleonic Era. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009.

Mongey, Vanessa. Cosmopolitan Republics and Itinerant Patriots: The Gulf of Mexico in the Age of Revolutions, 1780s–1830s. PhD Diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2010.

Nessler, Graham T.  An Islandwide Struggle for Freedom: Revolution, Emancipation, and Reenslavement in Hispaniola, 1789-1809. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.

Pinto Tortosa, Antonio J. Santo Domingo: una colonia en la encrucijada 1790-1820. Madrid: Foro para el Estudio de la Historia Militar de España, 2017.

Serna, Pierre and Manuela Albertone, eds. Républiques sœurs: le Directoire et la révolution atlantique. Rennes: Presses Univ. de Rennes, 2009.

Thibaud, Clément, Gabriel Entin, and Alejandro E. Gómez, eds. L’Atlantique révolutionnaire: une perspective ibéro-américaine.Bécherel: Les Perséides, 2013.

Yacou, Alain, ed., Saint-Domingue espagnol et la révolution nègre d’Häiti, 1790 – 1822. Paris: Karthala, 2007.


[1] Miriam Franchina, “Atlantic Ripples in the Mediterranean: Early Nineteenth-Century Patriotic Readings of Haiti in the Italian Peninsula,” Atlantic Studies (September 3, 2020): 1–21.

[2] Vanessa Mongey, Cosmopolitan Republics and Itinerant Patriots: The Gulf of Mexico in the Age of Revolutions, 1780s–1830s (University of Pennsylvania, PhD Dissertation, 2010). Other Italians in the Caribbean were: the merchant Paolo Mantegazza from Verona (Saint-Domingue, 1802); the army doctor Antonio Savaresi from Naples (Martinique, 1802-1804), and the botanist Carlo Bertero from Turin (Guadeloupe, Porto Rico, Haiti, Santo Domingo, Jamaica, 1816-1821).

[3]  Maurizio Isabella, Risorgimento in Exile: Italian Émigrés and the Liberal International in the Post-Napoleonic Era (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009).

[4] AGI/21//ESTADO,4,N.1. Printed in: Socrates Barinas Coiscou, “La Revolución de los italianos,” Boletín del Archivo General de la Nación, no. 58, (1948), 215–289; and no. 59 (1948), 400–431. I am thankful to AGN’s staff for sending the issues.

[5] Gilbert Guillermin, Journal historique de la Révolution de la partie de l’est de Saint-Domingue (1810), 307. “Il est extrêmement dangereux de confier la défence des colonies à des étrangers toujours disposés à sacrifier la nation qui les paye à celle qui veut les payer advantage. […] Il y avait entre les Piémontais et les Espagnols une identité de mœurs, de langage et de caractère, qui semblait les confondre, les uns avec les autres. Envain le general Ferrand […] les avaient-ils amalgamés dans les différents corps […] un très-petit nombre, resta fidel aux drapeaux de l’empire.”

[6]  The term “Reconquista” fist indicated the eight-century long campaigns by Christian states on the Iberian Peninsula to recapture territory from the Muslims. See Luis A. Escolano Giménez, “Reconquista en Santo Domingo (1808-1809): una lucha por la continuidad histórica,” Boletín del Archivo General de la Nación, no. 125, (2009), 635–659.

[7] Spanish American wars of independence began in 1808, after French occupation of mainland Spain. After 1836, Cuba and Santo Domingo remained the only Spanish colonial possessions in the Americas. See Anthony MacFarlane, War and Independence in Spanish America (New York: Routledge, 2014).

[8] See David B. Gaspar, and David P. Geggus, eds. A Turbulent Time: The French Revolution and the Greater Caribbean (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1997).

[9] Spanish authorities in Santo Domingo recruited several slave insurgents during the early phase of the Haitian Revolution to fight against France in Saint-Domingue (1793-1795). Part of these Black Auxiliary Troops were resettled to various imperial locations at the end of the war. See Miriam R. M. Erickson, The Black Auxiliary Troops of King Carlos IV: African Diaspora in the Spanish Atlantic World, 1791-1818 (Vanderbilt University, PhD Dissertation, 2015).

[10] Anne Eller, “‘All Would Be Equal in the Effort’: Santo Domingo’s ‘Italian Revolution’, Independence, and Haiti, 1809-1822,” Journal of Early American History, vol. 1, no. 2 (2011): 105–141.

[11] See Pierre Serna, and Manuela Albertone, eds. Républiques sœurs: le Directoire et la révolution atlantique. (Rennes: Presses Univ. de Rennes, 2009).

[12] Beltrami claimed to have discovered the headwaters of the Mississippi River against coeval American explorers. See his La découverte des sources du Mississippi (1824).

[13] Beltrami collection at the Biblioteca civica Angelo Mai, Bergamo, 3r-245v. All unreferenced notes hereafter are taken from here. Information about his prospective history of Haiti are found in Beltrami’s Le Mexique, vol. 1 (1830), 26–28; vol. 2, (1830), 251.

[14] See Kate Hodgson, “Franco-Irish Saint-Domingue: Family Networks, Trans-Colonial Diasporas,” Caribbean Quarterly, vol. 64, no. 3-4 (2018): 434–451; Klaus Weber, “Deutschland, der atlantische Sklavenhandel und die Plantagenwirtschaft der Neuen Welt,” Journal of Modern European History, vol. 7, no. 1 (2009): 37–67; Jessica Roitman, “Creating Confusion in the Colonies: Jews, Citizenship, and the Dutch and British Atlantics,” Itinerario, vol. 36, no. 2 (2012): 55–90.

[15] See Beltrami, Le Mexique, vol. 1 (1830), 27-28, 41, and vol. 2 (1830), 251. Boyer thanked Beltrami for delivering his works and for his “sentimens libéraux”, in Balthazar Inginac to Beltrami, 6.03.1826, in Archivio Beltrami, fascicolo 267, busta 38 at Archivio di Stato di Macerata. I am grateful to Diana Settepanella for sending a copy of this and other documents in the collection.

[16] See the correspondence in Archivio Beltrami, fascicolo 264, busta 38, at Archivio di Stato di Macerata.

[17] Beltrami, Le Mexique, 2 vols. (1830).

[18] In his L’Italia, ossia scoperte fatte dagli Italiani (1834), 6, 10

[19] “Portrait de Saladin Sultan”, written by Prince Eugène for King Christophe, 21.09.1816. In Beltrami Collection, cc.131r-132v, Biblioteca civica Angelo Mai.

[20]  See Julia Gaffield, “Complexities of Imagining Haiti: A Study of National Constitutions, 1801-1807,” Journal of Social History, vol. 41, no. 1 (2007): 81–103; Karen Racine, “Imported Englishness: Henry Christophe’s Educational Program in Haiti, 1811–1820,” in Learning from Abroad: The Reception of Liberalism in Education, Religion and Morality in Post-Colonial Latin America, edited by Marcelo Caruso and Eugenia Roldán-Vera (London: Peter Lang, 2007), 205–230.

[21] To the Public of New York, and of the United States (1825), 22.

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