Academic journal article Early American Studies

Defining Freedom in the Atlantic Borderlands of the Revolutionary Southeast

Academic journal article Early American Studies

Defining Freedom in the Atlantic Borderlands of the Revolutionary Southeast

Article excerpt

Historians of slavery have argued that North America lacked a significant tradition of marronage when viewed against instances of maroon settlement and rebellion in the Caribbean and South America.1 This perception has endured in part because it is difficult to find good cases of successful or viable maroon communities in the southern British colonies or, later, the southern United States. North American slaves faced immense obstacles in sustaining themselves as maroons and most maroons on the continent were nothing more than desperate bands of runaways. During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, however, a large and well-organized maroon community emerged on the Apalachicola River in Spanish West Florida. Because of the intersection of exceptional geopolitics, tradition, and the Age of Revolution, the inhabitants of the "Negro Fort," as it was known in popular parlance, were able both physically and intellectually to define a version of freedom that fully rejected their earlier enslavement.

The Negro Fort has been mentioned in a number of studies that examine race on the southern frontier.2 The community, however, is generally portrayed as of secondary importance to the broader drama of the black and Indian history of the southeastern borderlands, or it is overshadowed by the better-known example of Fort Mose, Florida's free black community of the 174Os and 175Os.3 This is remarkable, considering the size, duration, and significance of the Negro Fort. For two years, between 1814 and 1816, hundreds of former slaves took advantage of their freedom in an organized community that was defended by a large militia that sent ripples of fear across the South. This article will detail the history of the maroon community, examine how its members carefully defined their freedom, and assess its significance.

The origins of the Negro Fort belong firmly within the unique geopolitical environment of the Spanish Floridas. The Spanish Floridas were an intimate part of the North American mainland, the circum-Caribbean, and ultimately the Atlantic world - or what could be termed the "Atlantic Borderlands."4 This was reflected by the regions' geography, population, government, military, economy, culture, and society. At the very edge of the Anglo and Spanish Atlantic empires lay a region that was populated by various Europeans, Indians, and blacks who crossed borders freely, traded across the hemisphere, maintained political and military links with Spain's colonial holdings, carefully followed world developments, and reflected a culture that was simultaneously European, African, and Native American. Not only did both free and enslaved blacks enjoy enhanced mobility and elevated status commensurate with life in the borderlands, but they were aware of the revolutionary ideas that were sweeping the hemisphere, which would have been scarcely known to residents of more remote borderlands.5 The black population of the southeast enjoyed great potential for both physical and intellectual agency that was a result of their unique surroundings.

Central in the creation of this environment was the fact that, for centuries, slaves and Indians had sought sanctuary in the borderlands of Spanish East and West Florida in an effort to escape the harsh and rigid racial realities of Anglo-America.6 The Spanish, chronically undermanned in their Florida possessions, and ever ready to antagonize the plantation economy to the north that threatened their borders and security, officially and unofficially welcomed fugitive slaves into their domain. Sometimes, as in the case of Fort Mose, which was a black town that had been created by official Crown policy, the fugitives lived near official Spanish settlements, but runaways also frequently took advantage of the vast and remote interior of Florida.7 There they formed autonomous communities or established close links with the Native populations, which were of scant interest to Spanish officials.8 This endemic state of flight and sanctuary deeply troubled the slave-owning classes of British America, and later of the young United States. …

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