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A People's History of Florida 1513-1876

Book Excerpts
People's History

Chapter 2 Excerpt

In 1693, King Charles the Second of Spain pronounced an important edict declaring freedom for fugitive slaves seeking refuge in St. Augustine:

It has been notified … that eight black males and two black females who had run away from the city of San Jorge, arrived to that presidio asking for the holy water of baptism, which they received after being instructed in the Christian doctrine. Later on, the chief sergeant of San Jorge visited the city with the intention to claim the runaways, but it was not proper to do so, because they had already become Christians....As a prize for having adopted the Catholic doctrine and become Catholicized, as soon as you get this letter, set them all free and give them anything they need, and favor them as much as possible. I hope them to be an example, together with my generosity, of what others should do.” 1

            Almost a century before the Spanish Crown’s proclamation of freedom, slaves were occasionally escaping from St. Augustine and making their way inland or down south. In December of 1603, seven runaway African slaves absconded from St. Augustine and found a safe-haven in the Ais tribe of South Florida. The Spanish slave patrols captured five of the runaways but the other two married into the Ais and received protection from the tribal chiefs. Runaway slaves already seemed aware that intermarriage was a way to form relations with native allies, guaranteeing their protection through family and social ties. The Spanish were as incensed as the British would eventually be, threatening war if the fugitives were not returned. After two years of negotiations with the Spanish Florida government, the Ais finally caved in, returning the two blacks to the Spanish as a gesture of good will and alliance. 2 The symbolic importance of this small event far outweighed its recognition. Florida’s dense swamps and sparse settlement made it ideal for runaway slaves. It foreshadowed centuries of natives and blacks cooperatively defending each other from whites, as Floridian natives and runaway slaves continued to integrate and develop intimate social relations. In the 1680’s, Spanish Florida commissioned their Yamasee native allies on numerous slave raids in Carolina. The influx of slaves became larger as it was circulated around the underground slave network that the Spanish governor repeatedly refused to return them to the British planters. For this, among other reasons such as trade access, the British sought to take possession of Spanish Florida. On February 24, 1688, Governor Quiroga reported the arrival of fugitive slaves with eight males, two females, and an infant child who escaped by boat. By 1689, the Lords Proprietors of Carolina were already instructing Governor James Colleton to prevent slaves from deserting to St. Augustine. 3 As Spanish Florida suffered increasing threat of British penetration, it found a weapon to simultaneously protect itself and undermine its colonial rivals. The Carolinian plantation economy was completely dependent on slave labor for its prosperity, the Spanish Florida sanctuary compromising the stability of the British colony.

            Slaves had more opportunities for freedom as the geopolitical exertion of Spanish Florida’s colonial rivals made the sparsely populated territory more dependent on free people of color for defense. But other than the strategic advantages of providing refuge to runaways, the Spanish held a significantly different concept of slavery than Anglo planters in the British colonies. The rigid legal codes that prevented breathing room under a system of chattel slavery were virtually absent. Slaves were viewed as human beings with certain inalienable rights, not property to be utilized and dispensed with as pleased. Slaves were granted certain rights and protections under Spanish law and custom, i.e. there were even legal mechanisms by which to escape a cruel master. A slave had the right to own and transfer property and initiate lawsuits; which in accordance with a liberal manumission policy, granted them the right of self-purchase. Spanish religious and social values promoted honor, charity, and paternalism towards the “miserable class,” including the enslaved. The liberal characteristics of Spanish slavery gave slaves the ability to “work the system,” essentially achieving freedom through their own personal merits and actions. This made it possible for a large free black class to eventually form and thrive in the Spanish American colonies. A number of aspects of Spanish Florida slavery mitigated some of the most oppressive features of chattel slavery: 1) It was organized by a task system, giving slaves more free time to engage in social and economic activities 2) Slaves were able to utilize the resources of both the frontier and coast to their advantage 3) There was never a massive slave trade, given that Spain never utilized Florida’s soil to produce vast quantities of cash crops 4) The paternal mode of plantation management prevailed. 4 Taking this into consideration, the Spanish Crown’s promise of freedom for British slaves escaping the Carolinas is not as surprising as it may seem at first glance.

               A runaway slave was granted freedom on the preconditions that they defended St. Augustine, pledged loyalty to the Spanish King, and converted to the Catholic faith. The former slaves were more than willing to strategically accept this if it secured them freedom in the mean time. The dialogue of some Carolinian slaves reflected this tacit alliance: “I heard him say somethin’ like ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ He was talkin’ ‘bout the Spanish down in Florida. Jemmy said if we struck out together we could make it to St. Augustine.” 5 During the Queen’s Anne War, the Spanish commissioned Yemassee slave raids on the Carolinas. Free blacks and natives were establishing their first contacts in these frontier raids. A report steamed at the loss of “property”: “The slaves themselves at length, taking advantage from those things, deserted of their own accord to St. Augustine, and upon being Demanded back by this Government, they were hot Returned, but such rates paid for those that could not be concealed as that Government was pleased to set upon them.” 6 The British raids on Spanish Florida in 1704 were partially motivated to retrieve runaway slaves who took refuge at St. Augustine. The incensed British planters angrily protested the Spanish government for this violation of accepted standards. They sent multiple agents requesting that the Spaniards return their “property.” In 1716, Major James Cochran was sent from the Carolinas to demand that the Spanish government return the slaves, but to no avail: “Their refusing to deliver up those slaves has encouraged a great many more lately to run away to that place.” 7 In 1719, a captain and twenty men were garrisoned at the inland water passage from St. Augustine to prevent any further slaves or white people from deserting. 8 In 1724, Governor Nicholson of the Carolinas wrote to the governor at St. Augustine with surprise that a messenger Capt. Wilson was treated with such contempt when he made demands for some of the runaway slaves and that a party of natives raided Charles Town, killed some whites, and stole a slave. 9 The Spaniards, along with their native and black allies, made numerous raids onto the British colonial settlements, devastating the frontier plantations. On June 13, 1728, Governor Middleton of the Carolinas wrote to the Duke of Newcastle:

I am sorry we are obliged so often to represent to the Government the difficulty we labor under, from the new situation of St. Augustine to this place, whom without any regard to peace or war, do continually annoy our southern frontiers. The hostilities they commit upon us may be rather termed robbery, murders, and piracies, they acting the part of bandittis, more than soldiers, their chief aim being to murder and plunder. We formerly complained of their receiving and harboring all our runaway negroes, but since that they have found out a new way of sending our own slaves against us, to rob and plunder us; They are continually fitting out parties of Indians from St. Augustine to murder our white people, rob our plantations and carry off our slaves, so that we are not only at a vast expense in guarding our southern frontiers, but the inhabitants are continually alarmed, and have no leisure to look after their crops. The Indians they send against us are sent out in small parties headed by two three or more Spaniards and sometimes joined with negroes, and all the mischief they do, is on a sudden, and by surprise: and the moment they have done it, they retire again to St. Augustine, and then fit out again, so that our plantations, being all scattering, before any men can be got together, the robbers are fled, and nobody can tell how soon it may be, or where they intend to make their next attempt.” 10

               Carolinian slaves, mostly recent arrivals from Portuguese-speaking Angola, voluntarily ran off the plantations with the numerous excursions of free blacks and natives. The Angolans were able to take advantage of the underground slave network that was established by runaways in St. Augustine, because of the characteristics that Portuguese and Spanish culture closely shared. They formed into militias and successfully defended St. Augustine from parties of slave raiders that entered Florida to seize them: “the Spaniards had grounded their hopes of success upon the strength of the runaway negroes, who are now very numerous, and grown much more insolent upon their having lately defeated a considerable party sent out to reduce them.” 11 In 1732, Georgia was chartered as an all-white buffer state between the Carolinas and Spanish Florida. In 1735, it was instituted as a free state: “for rendering the Colony of Georgia more Defencible.” 12 Over a century later, white frontier settlers were still used as a buffer to prevent runaway slaves from passing into free sanctuaries. This would be the precedent for the Armed Occupation Act of 1842 in Florida. As runaway slaves continued flocking to St. Augustine, the Spanish government increased their rights and freedoms. The ties between the Spanish and runaway slaves were strengthened as the blacks pushed the Spanish to come through with their promise of liberty. On March 3, 1738, the refugee slaves demanded their complete liberty on the authority of royal edicts. On May 31, Governor Mantiano fulfilled the promise of the King’s edict and granted them unconditional freedom. Even with the King’s edict, they had not been truly granted their liberty up until this time. 13 In that same month, a group of slaveholders from the Carolinas assembled to meet Mantiano and demand that he return their slaves. Mantiano regretfully claimed that he was under no authority to return them and referred them to the King’s orders. 14 In 1738, Mantiano granted a settlement for the runaway slaves about two miles north of St. Augustine and named it Gracia Real de Santa Teresa De Mose, or Fort Mose. Its strategic location made it essential for the defense of St. Augustine. Mantiano hired a Spanish military officer, Don Sebastian Sanchez, to oversee the construction of the settlement. A young Franciscan priest was appointed to advise the freedmen in religious matters. 15 In some sense, the free black settlement was formed in almost a similar fashion to the tribal mission outposts characteristic of Spanish Florida, being only semi-autonomous. The blacks were expected to farm and provide a portion of their crop for the sustenance of St. Augustine. On November 21, an additional 23 runaways arrived at St. Augustine. 16 Even though the freedmen that established the settlement numbered only 38, Mantiano was optimistic that they could form a successful village. The total population of men, women, and children eventually numbered somewhere around one hundred. The free blacks at Mose incorporated into their community incoming fugitives, natives from local villages, and urban slaves from St. Augustine. 17 In the mean time, the free blacks ensured the King that they would faithfully defend St. Augustine to the fullest extent: “That we shall at all times be the most cruel enemies of the English; and that we shall risk our lives in service to Your Majesty until spilling the last drop of our blood in defense of the Great Crown of Spain and Our Holy Faith.” 18

               A report from the Carolinas gave the most detailed description of Mose: “This fort…made in the middle of a Plantation for Safety of the Negroes against Indians; it was 4 Square, with a Flanker at each Corner, banked Round with earth, having a Ditch without on all sides, Lined round with Prickly Palmetto Royal, and had a well and a House within, and a lookout.” 19 Mose was the first autonomous free black settlement in North America. In the mean time, the British Carolinas were imagining that the maroon uprisings of Jamaica had now arrived at their doorstep. A fugitive slave notice around this time applied the term “nation” to the free black community at Mose, a word that was mostly used to describe the maroon settlements that constantly revolted in Jamaica: “As there is an abundance of negroes in this Province and as there is [an] abundance of that Nation, [my runaway] may chance to be harboured among some of them.” 20 Over time, the Spanish sanctuary fermented slave insurrection in the Carolinas. The Spanish sent emissaries among the slave population to offer them freedom if they defected. A Carolinian slave organized an elaborate system of escape to Florida, considered the first “Underground Railroad” in North America. In August 1739, a native ally reported to Mantiano that the English had attempted to establish a fort in the Apalachee province with about one hundred slaves. The slaves revolted, killed all of the English soldiers, hamstrung their horses, and scattered afterwards. Four slaves were reported to have been seen in a native village before they disappeared. The English sent two large bodies of allied natives to track down and recover the rebels. The blacks encountered several Apalachees in the woods and asked them for directions to St. Augustine. Fifty were eventually seized and executed but only speculation exists for the remnants of the slaves who fled to St. Augustine. 21 In 1739, a group of twenty Carolinian black slaves assembled near the Stono River and marched to St. Augustine in hopes of the Spanish promise of liberation. Along the way they burned several plantations down and killed 23 whites. Their numbers increased to eighty as more and more disaffected slaves fled from the reduced plantations. The slave revolt, which officially became known as the Stono Rebellion, was successfully suppressed before they could reach Spanish territory. A report concluded: “The Negroes would not have made this Insurrection had they not Depended on St. Augustine for a place of Reception afterwards was very certain.” 22 Before they began their march to freedom, the slave insurrectionists avidly discussed escaping to Spanish Florida:

Dellah, she took a newspaper from Mastah Boswell’s study, and Jemmy asked me to read it, which I did, tellin’ ‘em ‘bout slaves who fled to the Presidio at St. Augustine, Florida, was free. Jemmy listened real close when I read that newspaper. His eyes got real quiet. Then he told the others what I said in Portuguese.” 23

2009 Adam Wasserman

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