By Gary Oswald
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write short stories on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The theme for the 27th contest was Escape.
Joseph Courtois had only been six when the Slaves rebelled but even by that age he’d known he was a man caught between two worlds. As a member of a free rich family, he was someone who had a lot to lose if the slaves won, but the local white children had already made it clear that as a free coloured he was not one of them, either. Joseph did not recall precisely the desperate walking of type ropes the Courtois family had done in those early years, but he remembered the man they’d ultimately put their hopes in. Papa Toussaint.
Toussaint, his father had told him, was a man they could trust. A man who’d fought under the banner of the republic, for the rights of all men. Who would free the slaves and right the wrongs of the old racial code but without ruining the economy, without destroying everything they’d built. That’s why it was so important that Joseph lived up to the faith Papa had put in him and acted as his voice in the metropole. He must study harder, learn more than any white student Saint-Domingue had ever sent before.
This would be the first time he’d ever left the Island he’d been born in. He was barely 15 years old, loaded up with the other sons of notables off to the French academy to fight for the Republic and spread liberty to the poor peasants of Europe. He caught sight of Papa Toussaint that day at the dock and watched him as he slowly dwindled into the distance as the ship left. The towering figure remained visible long after Joseph’s own father had dwindled into nothing.
By the time Joseph was to return, both men would be dead and the Island would not be what he remembered.
Sévère was still a boy when his elder brother Joseph had been chosen to be sent to France but he had still been allowed to attend the feast held in their honour. And for long afterwards he remembered the words Papa Toussaint had told the departing teens. That France was their mother and so they must help it fight for Liberty. It took him many years to work out why he disagreed with that. Surely everyone deserved their liberty, family or not?
Admiral Decres was not a particularly fearsome man but the staff treated him with absurd deference as he arrived at the Academy. The Students had been gathered for his inspection as they had every government official but this time they knew things were different. If rumours were to be believed, Decres was here to shut them down entirely. Still not even the worst of the rumours, could prepare Joseph for what Decres was to actually say.
“I have come to announce that as of next week, your training is over. This building is to be shut down and its teachers reassigned to the front, the Government no longer wants to provide for this education. It has already done too much for creatures like you.”
“We will however do you one last kindness. A flotilla is prepared to bring you back to your home in Saint-Domingue. You should be ready to depart soon.”
Joseph’s grandfather had been a member of the Imperial Guard and it had been his ambition to follow in this footsteps, but his grandfather had been white and Joseph was a ‘creature’ and he felt his dreams crumble to dust around him.
After Decres had left, the shell-shocked students had been mostly allowed to pack themselves, though Joseph could not help notice that Toussaint’s sons were under close watch by government officials. He felt tears gathering in his eyes unbidden when a hand was laid on his shoulder and he turned to see one of the instructors standing there.
“I shouldn’t tell you this, boy,” the man said in that familiar gruff voice, “but your name wasn’t on the list that was required on the boats. I’ll be back in the Regiments tomorrow and it’d be a shame for a sharp boy like you to miss out. Reckon you’re white enough to pass if you have an officer vouching for you.’
Joseph thought about why he’d come to Europe in the first place, about spreading freedom and liberty, about proving the worth of his family and, for the first time that day, he smiled.
Sévère had not been in Saint-Dominique when the French had turned on Toussaint and set the Island aflame with war, he had already found work in Nouvelle-Orléans, but he had heard about it, people talked about little else. Sévère could not bring himself to hate the French, not when his brother was the best Frenchman there was, but did not Saint-Dominique deserve Liberty, did not Louisiana?
Joseph had once had two countries, but now he had none. Saint-Dominique had long since destroyed itself in fire and war and France had firmly disowned him.
For over ten years he had fought for the Republic, where he had done things in Spain he wished he could forget, but had proven his loyalty time and time again. He had at last earned even the Imperial Guard uniform he’d so desired but the Emperor had fallen and now the Monarchy was back and they’d entirely disowned him, even as they claimed his white compatriots. His British captors, who’d he surrendered to outside Barcelona, were eager to be rid of him but the Monarchy had laws that restricted the movement of coloured people to the metropole and wanted him sent to the colonies instead.
So instead he’d joined up with a band of English Abolitionists. The King of Haiti himself had invited them to his court to help prove that, despite what their owners said, the slaves could indeed build a country if allowed to. And Joseph was going to travel with them, back to the home he hadn’t seen for fifteen years. Back to the home his Empire had sent an armada against and so reduced to barbarity.
Sévère had found his just cause in the form of Joseph Savary. L’Ouverture had exiled Savary for opposing him years ago but that only meant he fought for Liberty in other ways. In hushed tones they’d discussed their new goal over dusty maps. Why should only Haiti be free, why not all the Americas, why not … Tejas?
Sévère was a man now. Joseph knew that in his heart he had to be, they’d exchanged letters often enough and he’d long since learned that his younger brother was a blooded veteran, but it was one thing to know it and another thing to see the child he once knew as a swaggering soldier in his prime.
The New World was at war. The Spanish who Joseph had fought in their own home, Sévère had fought in their colonies. Every week another rebel would dock in Haiti, taking more soldiers and guns off to fight for Mexico or Colombia or Chile or Texas. There was no shortage of men who knew how to fight and wanted a quick coin. It had been his brother’s war for six years now, he was here serving a pair of pirates working for Mexico to recruit an army to attack Spanish Florida and annex it.
And the first name on his wanted list was his brother’s.
The truth, Joseph had to admit, was he’d achieved nothing upon his return from Europe. He’d dreamt of running a newspaper or a school, of holding a senate seat, of bringing a bit of Paris back to the cities of his youth as Toussaint had asked him to. But Papa Toussaint was dead and so were his men. The French had killed Dessallines, Belley and Rigaud. They had, it seemed, killed any man who was willing to build and not merely tear things down.
Saint-Dominique had produced things, there’d been trade at the ports and money flowing into the cities. Haiti just had a thousand naked farmers, oh they fed themselves well enough, the workers councils ensured that but man could not live on bread alone. He’d hoped to help build a state and had found instead nothing but a series of competing tribes, Fon speakers and Kongolese and coloured and whites all split up and separated running their own provinces as privates kingdoms. Nobody owned enough land to build anything on, it was all split into private plots and King Scylla was bound to not act unless the sub chiefs and councils approved.
The European abolitionists had set up their own schools and hospitals, at the King’s invitation and staffed them with those notables who hadn’t been killed by the French in 1802, but they viewed Joseph with a patronising superiority. He had no desire for their charity, they who had destroyed his Republic.
At least, in Florida he’d be there from the start and could help build from the ground up.
It felt right to have his brother back from Europe. Joseph’s letters had made it clear that there was no place for men like them in France anymore, if indeed there ever had been. But in the Americas they could build something for themselves. And with the two of them working together, what could stop them?
Florida, Early 1819
Biassou, one of the early leaders of the slave revolt in Saint-Dominique, had gone to exile in Florida with many of his men and commanded the black militia of St. Augustine, but he’d died long ago and few of the Haitian Maroons remained.
It felt to Joseph like a poor place to die. It was a hostile land and, since Spain had too many other priorities to enforce much control over a land mostly populated by natives, criminals, escaped slaves and political exiles, one that was a lawless anarchy with little in the way of government. It was probably only a matter of time before the United States arrived to take control of it but President Clinton wasn’t interested in Expansion or War, he’d proved that against the British. If the Mexicans could take control of it quickly, he’d be happy to recognise the new status quo.
By the time the Courtois brothers arrived, the last remnants of Spanish control was limited only to a number of forts around St. Augustine and the US border and Ameila Island was firmly under the control of an uneasy alliance of filibusters made partly of Haitians, Louisianans and Cubans under Lafitte’s brother and partly West Floridans under Reuben Kemper. The two groups had worked together to fight off the Spanish but the ultimate aims of the Rebellion, that is whether Florida, when free, should join Mexico or the USA, hadn’t really been revolved and the arrival of more coloured people only helped raise the tension.
Eventually it was agreed that the Americans and Louisianans would besiege St. Augustine while Joseph and the rest of the Haitians would head into the swamp to recruit the escaped slaves who littered it. This way if the Americans did prove false, the Mexicans would have reinforcements.
It was a fool’s errand, in truth. The rebel’s maps of Florida were poor, and their supplies low but both Joseph and Sévère were used to foraging up supplies.
The Black Seminole had welcomed the rebels into their villages and provided them with food and water. They were used, it seemed, to escaped slaves in much worse conditions turning up seeking refuge. In private conversations, however, they’d made it clear to Sévère that the power to make decisions was held elsewhere.
Florida, late 1819
Joseph was a lifelong soldier and he had learned to hide his fear long ago while marching through the rugged hills of Spain. But there was something about the Red Men he was being presented to that unnerved him. It was clear, that it was here, not in the bedraggled villages of escaped slaves or Spanish smugglers, that the true power of this land was found and the chiefs stared at him with the quiet certainty of those secure in their power.
Joseph’s Spanish was not as good as his English, let alone his French and he had no clue at all what the Red Man spoke about among each other in their own harsh languages. So he let his brother and old man Savary lead the conversation, while he kept his eyes straight and wondered if today would be the day they died.
The old Chief, Kinache, seemed to be asking primarily why they’d come to his land with armed men bringing war against the white Spanish he’d often traded with. Joseph was glad he didn’t have to answer that, he knew he had no noble motives. He’d shipped on with Lafitte’s freedom fighters for the same reason men from all over the Island had shipped on with rogues and rebels for every cause imaginable, it was simply a way to escape the Kingdom of Haiti and a home he wasn’t welcome in anymore.
“It is man’s holy cause and duty to establish liberty in all the Universe.” Sévère had told Kinache when asked to justify his presence here and he could feel his brother rolling his eyes when he said it, but wasn’t it true? Wasn’t a free Florida, free from American Slavery or Spanish Domination, wasn’t that worth fighting for?
There was no escape this time.
Twice before Joseph had watched nations of his crumble and be destroyed and twice he had escaped to fight for liberty elsewhere. But this time, as he watched the American army approach, he knew there was nowhere left to go and he wasn't even sure he had the energy left to try if there was. Everything he touched seemed to turn sour on him and he couldn't quite work out why.
Killing the West Floridan Filibusters had been a mistake of course, but there hadn't been much choice there after their revolt and then the Louisianans had largely left. And suddenly instead of being a multi-cultural alliance of freedom fighters they'd become a mob of Blacks and Indians and Monroe had sent down the Army. They'd fought it of course, but alone and outgunned there was only one way this would this end.
"You need to leave, Sévère," he had said, days before, "the Seminole are still fighting in the swamps and they could do with more guns."
"I'll hold them here. The Imperial Guard do not run."
Let them kill him, let them burn his country to the ground again, he would not go easy and meanwhile all his hopes and ideals would have the chance to get away, to escape.
When the fort fell Sévère was far enough away that he could not hear the gunshots, but he still felt them in his heart.