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The journey of Africans to St. Augustine, Florida and the establishment of the underground railway

2 January 2008 at 08:00 | 8328 views

By Derek Hankerson.

The journey for Africans, and African-Americans did not originate in the east with the 1619, arrival of Africans in Jamestown, Virginia, as is commonly believed, portrayed, or taught but began a century earlier, and further south in St. Augustine, Florida.

Matter of fact, Africans participated in all the Spanish explorations and settlements in and around Florida.
In 1492, Juan Las Canaries, a black sailor served on Christopher Columbus’s flagship the Santa Maria with other blacks who came to the new world, and in 1511, Ponce de Leon obtained title to explore the areas north of Cuba. In 1513, Ponce equipped three ships at his own expense, and set out on his voyage of discovery, and conquest, which include free and enslaved Africans. in 1527, Estevanico an African slave accompanied Andres de Dorantas on an expedition around Florida, and a free African Spaniard served as interpreter on Coronado’s’ expedition through southwest north American.

In 1565, Pedro Menendez de Aviles(photo) established San Agustine (St. Augustine), the first permanent European (Spanish) settlement in Florida under the terms of King Philip’s Asiento (agreement to colonize Florida), Menendez had three years to import 500 Africans slaves to Florida, and evidence suggests that African slaves from Havana, Cuba, were among St. Augustine’s first settlers.

Ironically, St. Augustine was named after the North African - Moor San Agustine of Hippo. On a side note: it is prophetic to consider that the Spanish were so grounded in doing the right thing, or either led by faith, high spirit, or other epiphany that city founder don Pedro Menendez de Aviles came ashore on September 8, 1565, and named a stretch of land near the inlet san Agustine - feast day of Augustine of Hippo.

Spain like other European countries were dominating, and conquering, and the Spanish destroyed the existing north Florida French settlement of Fort Caroline, but they continued to feel threatened by both European competitors, and native Floridians, such as the Timucuan Confederation, and in 1672, the Spanish crown decided to build a coquina fortress, the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine.
This fortress in the center of town served as the military outpost for the Spanish, and later served as the location when British or other invading troops converged upon St. Augustine.

During this time of building of Florida the Spanish used three types of enslaved workers. The first were Native Americans who served on Spanish haciendas (farms). The second were Ladinos, skilled slaves brought from Spain who was allowed to work apart from their owners in exchange for payment under an arrangement, and the third were African Bozales, who performed heavy labor in the fields. And, it was this system and international acceptance that attracted many runaway slaves most of whom were Gullah from the British Colony of South Carolina and Georgia.

Prior to other African’s making there way to Spanish Florida on November 7, 1693, King Charles II of Spain, issued the first official edict, or civil rights legislation proclaiming the Spaniards would be "giving liberty to as well as the that by their example, and by my liberty others will do the same," and make their way to Spanish Florida.

The English were not excited about the proclamation, and over the next few years, the English hotly debated with the Spanish about how that proclamation would destroy the English colonist’s economy, which was based heavily on slave labor how could the English ever succeed if their slaves continually ran away to St. Augustine?

And run they did, the slaves went to any means needed to leave the oppression, and enslavement of the English to gain their liberation in Spanish controlled Florida. They stole horses, boats, and walked the many miles to freedom. The Spaniards decided they needed to keep a firmer hand on their cheap labor they had wanted to keep the black settlers closer to the town, as they had the Indians, but, the blacks had already established their own community, yet were still closely entwined with the Spanish.
However, a new Spanish Governor, Antonio de Benavidez decided he didn’t want to follow the official edict giving runaway slaves freedom in Florida. He originally said that this was to keep peace with neighboring English colonies, and he began selling refugee slaves, and ’reimbursing’ their English owners. As a result, even the English governor of Carolina charged Benavidez with selling the slaves only to make a profit for him. This meant that many slaves during the tenure of Benavidez were betrayed. They had gone to the Spanish colony seeking sanctuary, only to be sold into slavery again.
The King of Spain was very displeased with Benavidez actions, and made two new proclamations. The first said that there would be no more reimbursements to the British, and no slaves could be sold to private citizens. He also reassured the runaway slaves would be granted their freedom if they became catholic, and promised to join with the Spanish.

Second Proclamation - Royal Proclamation - 1736
The second proclamation commended the blacks for bravery in their fights against the British, but tacked on a little statement that all runaway slaves that came to Florida would have to serve 4 years military service before they would be granted their freedom.
Large slave rebellions began occurring in the English colonies. The slaves would desperately tried anything to reach freedom in Florida. But, this angered the English colonists who began raids against the Spanish to try, and reclaim their stolen property. They demanded that the Spanish stop giving freedom to runaway slaves, but the Spanish stood by their decision to give religious sanctuary to any who asked for it, and agreed to be baptized in their faith.

Whereas English slavery allowed for harsh treatment of African slaves with no rights or hopes of emancipation and included indentured servitude with Europeans serving a 7-year contract. Both sides experienced painful results in their dealings with Native Americans, indentured servants, people of mixed blood, pirates and runaways.

Two years later, despite the heroic efforts of the African-American militia at Mose, English forces destroyed the fort in an attack on St. Augustine. Rebuilt in 1752, the new Fort housed mostly African-American soldiers and their families until abandoned for the last time when Florida became an English colony in 1763.

Fort Mose’s inhabitants were mainly runaway black Gullah slaves from the British colonies of South Carolina and Georgia, who escaped to freedom to Spanish, Florida in small groups at least as early as 1687.
In 1738, a member of one of the units, Francisco Menendez, a Mandingo from Africa, petitioned Governor Manuel de Montiano for a grant of land, and in 1738, Governor Montiano authorized a settlement, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose approximately 100 free black men, women, and children moved and erected a fort. Fort Mose guarded the northern land and water approaches to St. Augustine, and the Fort Mose militia, a community-based free black militia, had primary responsibility for scouting and information gathering on the frontier. They mastered the intricacies of European warfare, and integrated elements from their own traditions Residents of Fort Mose came from diverse cultures in the Caribbean, and West Africa their skilled labor, technology, art, music, ideas, and traditions served as valuable resources to the Spanish residents of nearby St. Augustine.

A mosaic of people with diverse origins in Africa, the Caribbean, Florida, and the Carolinas made Mose their home. Documents tell of intermarriage among Indian, African, and European peoples at Mose, a common practice throughout the Spanish colonies in America. Most people lived with their families, although some resided in all-male households. Soil stains marked the remains of their oval palm-thatch houses. Measuring an average of twelve feet in diameter, they provided living quarters that we would find too cramped to tolerate. Contemporary European observers thought they were poorly built. They called them “huts” to distinguish them from European style houses, and noted that they looked similar to the huts erected by local Indians. Despite Europeans’ disregard, the houses met the needs of people who preferred to live and work outdoors.

The Spaniards in St. Augustine wanted people at Mose to farm, to raise food for themselves as well as a surplus for the colony. They grew corn and maybe rice, but documents make it clear that they did not harvest enough to feed their families. Some men hunted and traded with native allies. Other families relied on government rations. The remains of the fish, shellfish, turtles, rabbits, and deer on which they dined survive in the ground. Plant remains did not preserve as well in the soils of Mose, but archaeologists did recover seeds and other remains of oranges, figs, nuts, squashes, gourds, melons, beans, blackberries, blueberries, huckleberries, plums, persimmons, grapes, and maypops. Clearly the residents of Mose came to know their environment well, and invested considerable time and effort in hunting, fishing, and gathering wild plants and animals in nearby woods and streams.

They also came to know each other well, and shared what they knew about everything from cooking to religion. The corn grinding stones and pottery cooking pots, spoons, and storage jars found by archaeologists show that many households at Mose adopted local Indian ways of preparing and storing food. On the other hand, imported buckles, thimbles, pins, and homemade bone buttons tell us that residents dressed much like other St. Augustine colonists. This sharing of life ways didn’t mean that people no longer showed pride in their own heritage, and people likely still displayed African ornamental features such as scarring and hairstyle to identify themselves with particular social and ethnic groups.

In May 1740, the British governor of Georgia, General James Oglethorpe, launched an invasion of Florida. Fort Mose’s troops fell back to protect the civilian settlers. On June 26 a 300-man force of Spanish troops, black militiamen, and Yamasee Indians took back Fort Mose, killing 68 of Oglethorpe’s men and taking another 34 prisoner.
It wasn’t very long until it was no longer safe to live in Fort Mose, and many returned to the safety of St. Augustine. Others tried living in the nearby Native American villages, and still others would return from time to time to try and live at the fort. Eventually, the fort was destroyed during the bloody battle of Fort Mose on June 26, 1740.

By all accounts, blacks, whites, and Native Americans seemed to have integrated well for many years, but the Spaniards were still the elite of the residents. But they did conduct business with blacks. Blacks were integrated into the catholic culture, and this meant that excellent records were kept of who married who, when a child was baptized, and where everyone was born.

Records show that many slaves were re-enslaved upon reaching St. Augustine, but did eventually gain their freedom. They married other former slaves from the English colonies, married blacks who had always been free, and married former slaves from the other Spanish colonies who had somehow made their way to St. Augustine and many intermarried with the Seminole’s.

Records show that most of the slaves had originally come from either the Carolina colony, or from the Congo in Africa. Many of the free blacks arrived from Spanish colonies in South America.

Rebuilt in 1752, the new Fort housed mostly African-American soldiers and their families until abandon for the last time when Florida became English Colony in 1763. In defending their freedom and Spanish Florida in the middle decades of the 18th century, the black inhabitants of Fort Mose played a significant role in the geopolitical conflicts between Britain and Spain in the Southeast.
This harmony existed until the economy at St. Augustine began to fail, and the poorer residents resented that the blacks were doing as well, or better than many of them. They did not like the idea that people who were born into slavery could achieve a higher status than a Spanish person.

The blacks in St. Augustine during this time were now all-catholic, and with fears of retribution in their heads, the blacks made sure to celebrate every catholic holiday, and feast they insisted, however on celebrating these holidays in decidedly African ways.

The Spanish shaped African American culture in another crucial way by requiring that all runaway slaves given refuge at Mose must convert to Catholicism. Rosary beads and hand-made St. Christopher medals symbolized the converts’ new faith, although they never completely abandoned their African spiritual heritage.

St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, had special significance at Mose for those who believed he had guided them along the path to freedom.
Soon, the Spaniards were doing their own attacking on neighboring English colonies and running back to the protection of their enclave. During these raids, they would steal valuables, including slaves, AND would entice slaves, and free blacks to follow them back to St. Augustine.

When the Spanish abandoned its lands, it did not abandon its people. They took ALMOST everyone, including the Natives, and blacks to Cuba with them. The Spanish crown granted them lands, tools, and even gave them money. Fort Mose was officially gone, but slaves still made their way to the area trying to escape. Many lived in the woods, and some joined the Seminole’s in the swamps.
Spain lost Florida to Britain in 1763, under terms of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the French and Indian War (Seven Year War). Eight transport ships took Spanish Floridian refugees to Cuba in March 1764. Spanish officials noted that 420 (13.5%) were of African origin. Within the group, 350 were slaves, but 80 (almost one-fifth) were free. The French and Indian war, which was part of a wider European conflict (known as the seven year war) had pitted England, and Prussia against France, Austria, Russia, and Spain.

The Treaty of Paris concluded the French and Indian War, and England, France, and Spain signed it. In the treaty France lost Canada in favor of Great Britain, and all claims to territory east of the Mississippi, while Spain, in order to recover Cuba, which Britain had taken, ceded Florida. New Orleans went with Louisiana to Spain, but with these exceptions England now held the whole of North America east of the Mississippi.

During the British colonial period from 1763-1783, the British intended to make Florida successful like the Carolinas, so they established plantations to grow profitable crops, including sugar, indigo (blue dye), sea-island cotton, and rice. The crops required large numbers of workers, and to meet the demand for labor, the British mixed recently imported Africans with "seasoned" slaves born in the West Indies, Carolinas, and Georgia plantations.
But spread through remote rural areas, like the Mosquito Coast (near modern Daytona Beach).

During the American Revolution, additional free blacks, and slaves moved into Florida. Black soldiers who helped Bernardo de Galvez recapture the port of Pensacola in British west Florida settled there as "free men of color." in contrast, during the closing days of the American Revolution in 1782, Tories fled from the Carolinas to Florida, bringing 13,000 slaves with them.
An undetermined number of these slaves escaped from their owners before the Tories relocated to the Bahamas, many settling with fugitive Seminoles in the interior of Florida, and assisted the Seminoles during the Seminole wars in Florida.

Starting in 1784 - 1821 or the second Spanish period the Spanish reinstated their 1693, fugitive slave policy, reaffirmed their liberal stand on the "education, treatment, and occupation of slaves," and freed 250 slaves who were baptized as Catholics.
Most of these free blacks lived in St. Augustine; many were skilled craftspeople, including tanners, barbers, butchers, ministers, and trader-translators between the Seminole, and Spanish merchants.

St. Augustine’s 1789, census revealed a total population of 1,592 residents, 483 slaves (30.3%) and 102 free blacks (6.4%).

Florida’s demand for African agricultural workers was much higher during the second Spanish period because of the plantation economy. Yet, in 1787, half of the plantations had fewer than four slaves. Nearly 70% of slaves sold in west Florida (Baton Rouge) were African-born. Most worked according to the "task system," wherein, once slaves completed daily assignments, they were free to work in their own garden plots, hunt or fish, or work in their own households sewing, or cooking. However, task loads could be heavy, and free time was scarce.

Fort Mose, a National Historic Landmark and the only site of its kind in the United States, symbolizes the courage and vision of African Americans who made selfless sacrifices for freedom when no choices seemed possible. Like Colono Ware pots, Fort Mose reminds us that colonial African-American history is not just a story of slavery and oppression. Kathleen Deagan led a team of archaeologists, historians, scientists, teachers, and politicians at Fort Mose to unearth the history of African Americans in the Spanish colonies. Their research interweaves evidence from documents, the fort remains, and fragments of weaponry, Indian pots, Catholic medals, bottles, food bone, and tools into a compelling story of a people’s pursuit of freedom.
Fort Mose is a precursor site of the Underground Railroad, demonstrating that resistance to slavery was both early and fierce, and that it arose decades before abolitionism became organized and influential. The fort, established as part of the northern defense line for Spanish St. Augustine during the mid-18th century, was the earliest known legally sanctioned free black community in the present United States.

Its site contains archeological evidence of Native American occupations and the later British, second Spanish, and American presence.