"A Class of People Neither Freemen nor Slaves": From Spanish to American Race Relations in Florida, 1821-1861

Article excerpt

With a history of multi-national colonial experiences, Florida presents unique opportunities for students of comparative slavery and race relations. Under Spanish rule from 1565 until 1763, Florida became British for two decades, an interlude highlighted by African slave importation, plantation development, and warfare spilling south into loyalist Florida from the rebellious colonies to the north. In 1784 Spain resumed control, using its vast unoccupied lands to attract foreign planters with African slaves. Also attracted were American adventurers who fomented rebellions and invasions, prompting Spain to cede the province to the United States in 1821.

This essay examines northeast Florida after Spain departed in 1821. It argues that Americans replaced a mild and flexible system of race relations with a severe definition of slavery which viewed African Americans as degraded members of a despised race, and which erected institutional and social barriers between whites and all persons of African descent. African American slaves were seen as inferior beings incapable of existing independently in a civilized society. Free blacks were thought of as aberrations: inherently inferior like their slave brethren, according to the dogma, yet feared as threatening contradictions to pro-slavery theory and incendiary inspirations for slave insurrections. Social control laws passed to regulate slaves were generally applied to free blacks as well. The United States brought a harsh, two-caste system of slavery with rigid racial dimensions to the new Florida territory.

Spanish Three-Caste Race Policies

Jane Landers' recent study of race relations in Spanish St. Augustine, 1784-1821, provides a solid base for comparisons. Following in the tradition of Frank Tannenbaum, Landers shows that slavery in St. Augustine was regulated by a complex code of laws sanctioned by ancient precedent. An African slave in St. Augustine was considered a victim of fate or war, an unfortunate whom the Almighty created and endowed with a precious soul and a moral personality. Spanish laws protected slaves and gave them rights; courts and judges in St. Augustine enforced these laws. Some Spanish Florida slaves owned property and initiated lawsuits against their owners. (1)

Landers shows that Catholic priests in St. Augustine baptized slaves, sanctified their marriages, and accepted them as church members. Both Church and Crown encouraged owners to free their slaves. Miscegenation was not unusual in the provincial capital, and the children born of these unions were often freed, acknowledged and educated by their white fathers.

Slaves in St. Augustine were freed by the government and by their owners for meritorious acts or for military service. They could also initiate manumission proceedings under the Spanish principle of "coartacion"--the right to freedom through self-purchase--and could appeal to the courts if owners refused to cooperate. The 1794 case of Philip Edimboro, a slave of wealthy planter and merchant Francis Xavier Sanchez, is instructive. As father to eight mulatto children, Sanchez might have been expected to show sympathy to a slave seeking freedom, but self-interest led him to obstruct Edimboro's initiative. Edimboro appealed to the governor, who conducted an inquiry and prescribed conditions for self-purchase. As a free man Edimboro became the owner of land and slaves, and a member of the free colored militia. Landers' evidence is convincing that Spanish laws and institutions were effective avenues to freedom. (2)

The free blacks of East Florida lived mainly in St. Augustine, yet they also became owners of rural settlements and of slaves. Some claimed land under Spanish "homestead" policies. Others had escaped from British loyalist owners during the hectic evacuations of 1783-84 to the unsettled frontier, where some joined bands of Seminole Indians. In addition, there were black refugees from South Carolina and Georgia who, prior to 1790, were granted freedom under a Spanish sanctuary policy dating back to the seventeenth century. …