History of slavery in Florida under the Spanish Empire and the pre-war South

Editor’s Note: This is the 25th in a series of articles to be published in the Pensacola News Journal to celebrate Escambia County’s 200th anniversary. Look for these stories every Monday in print.

Florida’s formal acquisition from Spain in 1821 immediately transformed the region and its people. For centuries, Florida was part of the Spanish Empire. It had been subject to Spanish laws and customs, and its occupants have carved out a place for themselves within this framework. The arrival of the United States, however, turned these power structures upside down, and they were remade as the plantation system extended across the landscape.

Issues of slavery were at the forefront of this change. Although the Spaniards implemented movable slavery in Florida, they were never able to take advantage of it the same way they did in Cuba, just 90 miles away, where the cane plantations sugar mills fueled by slave labor from Africa generated huge profits for the Spanish crown. The Spaniards also couldn’t stop the growing influence of cotton planters from neighboring Georgia and South Carolina who saw Florida as a site to expand the thriving plantation system. As a result, the United States took possession of Florida in 1821 after an agreement was reached with the Adams-Onis Treaty two years earlier. This article briefly discusses some of the main differences between slavery in Florida under the Spanish Empire and slavery in Florida after 1821, when it was part of the United States of Antebellum South.

Staging:Our Pensacola is the fifth Spanish colony on the bay of Pensacola

One important difference is that Spanish practices in Florida allowed slaves to exercise more freedom and autonomy than in southern Antebellum, as well as other European-based slave economies such as British Jamaica and the Colony. French sugar factory in Saint-Dominique (Haiti). This does not mean that the Spaniards were more human than other slave nations. The brutality of Spanish methods was clearly visible in Cuba, where for hundreds of years millions of African slaves endured the most difficult conditions and labored at breakneck speed in the sugar fields. The driving force behind Spanish slavery in Florida had nothing to do with humanity, and everything to do with necessity. Unlike Cuba, Florida is large and the Spanish population was small and isolated from each other. Spanish planters did not have the numbers to have overseers in the fields leading slaves from sunrise to sunset as in the plantation system that engulfed Florida after 1821. Instead, the Spanish slave owners used a task system. The enslaved peoples were given a number of tasks which they had to accomplish every day. Once these were completed, the remaining time belonged to the slave. This allowed them to engage in activities such as hunting and fishing, tending to small gardens, doing side jobs, and spending time with the family. Such freedom and autonomy were beyond the reach of the vast majority of the peoples enslaved in Antebellum Florida.

What Census Data and Land Records Tell Us about Spanish West Florida

Interbreeding was also a common practice in Spanish Florida. It was usually a black woman marrying a Spanish man and raising her family side by side with his Spanish wife and children. Black members of these families enjoyed more freedoms under Spanish law and a higher social status in their communities. In contrast, interracial marriage was illegal throughout the southern United States, and maternal slavery laws dictated that a child born to a female slave would also be enslaved. It was certainly common for slave owners to impregnate their female slaves, but these women, along with their children, were considered nothing more than the property of the slave owner.

Many black slaves in Spanish Florida also entered military service, which resulted in more freedoms and better stature. This was again motivated by necessity, mainly the lack of ethnic Spaniards in the region. Slave militias helped the Spaniards protect the Florida border from English looters throughout the 18th century, and service in the Spanish Army was a means of emancipation for people of color throughout the Spanish Empire, including Florida. Black soldiers, many of whom were once slaves from Florida and Cuba, were even sent by the Spaniards to aid American revolutionaries against Britain in the late 1770s. Interestingly, although about 5,000 in 8000 black slaves were able to gain their freedom thanks to the military service of General Washington and his continental army during the American Revolution, it would be only after the proclamation of emancipation by President Lincoln in 1863 abolishing slavery. in the rebel states of the Old South that the United States would slowly begin to allow people of color to serve in the military.

Overall, slavery in Florida was very different between the Spanish period and the pre-war era. By examining these differences, further, we can better understand the circumstances that these individuals endured and overcome, as well as the legacies they left behind.

Andy Barbero is Assistant Professor of History and Humanities at Pensacola State College.

Catch up with the rest of the series

Part 1:Preparing the ground: Our Pensacola is the fifth Spanish settlement on the bay of Pensacola

Part 2:How did Pensacola come back under Spanish control for the second time?

Part 3:How Andrew Jackson Established “Good Government” for Pensacola and Florida

Part 4:From newspapers to circuses, Escambia County and Pensacola have many “firsts”

Part 5:How Pensacola treated early epidemics and the role of healthcare

Part 6:Cultural survival on the run: the story of Pensacola shaped by Native Americans

Part 7:Life in the 1820s in Pensacola was primitive, but cosmopolitan. A look at our early years.

Part 8:How the Sampler Project Aims to Connect Us with Our Pensacola Ancestors of 1821

Part 9:Dances, Patgo and “Star-Spangled Banner”: How Pensacola Embraced Early Entertainment

Part 10:How mail was (and often was not) delivered in the early days of Pensacola

Part 11:More than a name: meet some of the residents of Pensacola from 1821

Part 12:The historic Saint-Michel de Pensacola cemetery is home to a memory paradise

Part 13:A closer look at the fascinating Spanish colonial heritage of Pensacola | Part 1

Part 14:What Census Data and Land Records Tell Us about Spanish West Florida | Part 2

Part 15:The food that the early settlers of Pensacola ate reflected the diverse cultures of the region

Part 16:What a typical house in Pensacola looked like during the Spanish colonial period

Part 17:Forts and bricks: how the military and industry evolved in the early days of Pensacola

Part 18:Archaeological traces of late colonial buildings persist in Pensacola

Part 19:How the indigenous workers of Mexico built and rebuilt Pensacola

Part 20:The shift from Spanish rule to American rule opened doors for Pensacola companies

Part 21:From primitive roads to stranded steamboats, transportation problems abounded in early Pensacola

Part 22:Watermills like Arcadia played a key role in the development of the early Pensacola

Part 23:How steam helped build the community of Baghdad

Part 24:The early religious landscape of Pensacola laid the foundation for a community of many denominations

How to get involved

What: An interactive web-based mosaic of faces from our modern community honoring the community of 1821.

Why: Celebrate our rich and diverse heritage through a reflection of our modern community.

Who: Residents of the region, of all ages, ethnicities and sexes.

How? ‘Or’ What: Fill out the form on 1821sampler.com. and upload your photo to represent a member of the 1821 Pensacola community (use a clean background, clearly showing the face and shoulders, no hat please, and names optional.

So far, researchers at the West Florida Genealogical Society have identified more than 2,000 people who were here when Florida moved from Spain to the United States. They were more than names; each person had a rich life and history. By honoring a community member of 1821, you are participating in this celebration of our rich and diverse Florida heritage.

Edward K. Thompson