As the New York Times noted recently in a blockbuster issue of its magazine, African slavery started in America in 1619. That’s true, but only if you ignore a significant chapter of American history: the Spanish-Afro-American historical experience in Florida.
In many parts of the United States, including Florida, Texas and New Mexico, Spanish speakers arrived first. That matters not just for historical accuracy. It also helps reframe the current rhetorical and political upheaval that surrounds immigration from Spanish-speaking nations to the United States, by reminding us how Spanish-speaking black slaves helped build the nation that we now have.
There is a tendency of many people who write the history of America to have a view of the world centered on Jamestown and the Anglo American experience. When history fixates on the 13 original American colonies, the rest of the map, including Florida, seems to fall away. But it’s worth expanding that picture to include Spanish-occupied territory in what is now the United States.
When we consider those lands, we see that slavery actually dates back a full century before 1619. Slavery in Florida reveals how a multinational slave trade built on personal greed and white supremacy forced Africans and African Americans to build North American wealth in which they would not be able to share. Then, adding insult to injury, these early black slaves were erased from the standard narrative of American history.
In 1511 Spain’s King Ferdinand instructed his subjects in the New World to “get gold, humanely, if you can, but at all hazards, [to] get gold.” Spanish explorers heeded their king’s call. Florida was named by Juan Ponce de León, who claimed it for Spain in 1513 when he was searching in vain for the Fountain of Youth and gold.
Spanish empire-building in the era was driven in part by desire for greater territory. Conquests in Mexico by Hernan Cortés in 1521 and in Peru by Francisco Pizarro between 1531 and 1534 had also produced an insatiable lust for gold that fueled the treasure hunt in the New World. Ponce de León, however, had to settle for merely claiming the land of Florida for Spain, since there was neither gold nor mythical fountains to be found.
On the heels of Ponce de León’s claiming Florida, the Spanish empire tried to create settlements in its new territory. For example, in 1526 another Spanish explorer, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, tried to establish a Spanish settlement at San Miguel de Gualdape in what was then La Florida (the current Georgia or South Carolina coast.) The Ayllón group included both Spaniards and African slaves who were brought as mining and agricultural laborers. But the settlement collapsed. First, some of the Spaniards mutinied against Ayllón. Then the African slaves burned down the mutineers’ housing and went to live with Native Americans in the area.
While the historical record on early slavery in Florida is thin, scholars have uncovered the ways in which it was endorsed and exploited by the Spanish crown, while being challenged and resisted by the very slaves forcibly brought across the Atlantic through the slave trade. In 1539, slavery arrived in present-day Florida when the slave trader and Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto attempted to establish a permanent settlement and claim more territory for Spain.
We know very little about the black slaves with DeSoto. A letter from Spain’s King Charles V dated April 20, 1537, gave DeSoto permission to take 50 Africans, a third of them female, to Florida. According to historian Jane Landers, DeSoto’s slaves included both Moors from Northern Africa and sub-Saharan Africans. Many of them deserted him to live with the Native Americans in Florida. We know that DeSoto abandoned some black slaves during his expeditions, including two with known names. One named Robles, who apparently was Christian, was left at Coosa, Ala., because he was too ill to walk. And another slave named Johan Biscayan was left at Ulibahali in present-day Georgia.
Over the succeeding decades, black slaves helped build the Spanish colonial infrastructure, including most notably St. Augustine, Fla., in 1565, the oldest city in the United States. As historian Edwin Williams reported in a 1949 article that uncovered this history, “Negro slavery was first introduced into what is now the United States . . . many years before the ‘first’ Negroes were landed at Jamestown, Virginia.”
The history of slavery was shaped by the battle between Spanish authorities keen on exploiting African labor and African resistance, resulting in documented episodes of fleeing and arson like the ones noted above.
But there were also short periods in which Spanish authorities offered slaves freedom if they professed the Catholic faith. During the mid-1700s the Spanish king allowed a town of freed blacks to flourish outside of St. Augustine as part of the struggle against Protestantism in the New World. This town was sometimes referred to as Pueblo de Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, Fort Moosa or the Negro Fort. It existed from 1738 until 1763, when the British took over Florida and all of the black free residents of Fort Moosa fled, mostly to Cuba. Today known as Fort Mose, it is part of a historic state park.
Florida came under British rule thanks to the treaty ending the French and Indian War. And it was then that the plantation slavery of the American colonial South began to take root. On the eve of the Revolutionary War, the population in Florida was roughly 1,000 white people and 3,000 black slaves. Spanish rule returned over the period from 1784 to 1821 as the result of battles during the American Revolution that allowed Spain to recapture territory.
The United States purchased Florida in 1821. By the time it became a state in 1845, roughly half its population was black and enslaved, though there were a few hundred free blacks as well. The 1845 Florida constitution ensured that emancipation would remain illegal, even giving the state the power to forbid the entrance of new free blacks from other states.
While this history has largely been lost, American abolitionists certainly did not ignore slavery in Florida. In 1844, abolitionist Johnathan Walker was caught trying to free seven slaves from Florida. He was convicted and sentenced to stand in the pillory and to be branded on the hand with the letters S.S. (for slave stealer). Similarly, according to Julia Floyd Smith, in 1848 a group of “slave stealers” was caught in Tallahassee and hanged.
Sometimes Florida slaves would steal themselves, as Frederick Douglass once put it. In a daring escape in 1854, 12 slaves escaped Florida by boat, making it to the Bahamas. This fight over slavery would continue over the next two decades, with newspapers routinely promising bounties for the return of runaway Florida slaves.
The New York Times did a great service in placing black history in a central place in our narrative of the past. But it left out a chapter. The year 1619 is certainly important. But so too is the more complicated historical narrative of slavery in Florida that predates it, and that the state of Florida officially recognized only in 2008.
Just like the British colonists to the north, the Spanish imperial project also fed the demand for forced labor with Africans, though with the carrot dangled that they might gain freedom by adopting the king’s religion. Perhaps a greater appreciation of this history of cultural and racial complexity, which includes blacks and whites speaking English, Spanish and other languages as America was developed and explored, would assist us in having a more nuanced discussion about it means to be an “American” today — because from the start, America was multiracial and polyglot.