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Yes, plural. But first, other things.

When I diary events, I can use the approach of the timeline to scaffold events -- reasons, people doing things, order, all of that.

But the Underground Railroad is not an event. It is a concept. And concepts provide a challenge and an opportunity for writers: How are you going to present this? You can stick by the relative rhetorical safety of the timeline, or you can just see what else you can do.

I discovered about five seconds into researching this diary that presenting "the story you don't know" would take all the days I have left. There are, gloriously, simply too many stories of heartache and haven. I will present them in a separate diary because I want to focus on something else here: Spanish liberation of runaway slaves.

When I went hunting for successful Underground Railroad stories, I happened upon one from 1842. A few minutes later, I went hunting for just a shade into the previous century -- for two reasons:

1) That guy in the 1842 story is old. Where he found the cause just, others must have as well, so go back at least 30 years.

2) Semantically, centuries are big deals. We break up time in centuries (and decades, obviously). So I wanted to see if I could say that the Underground Railroad began in the 18th century, which is not how most sources present it.

I found this and knew I had to go further back.

1780s provided many hits, most of them useless. 1770s was marginally more helpful.

Then I tried 1760s and blew the lid off the thing.

"Fight for Spain, become a Christian and you will be free."
If you have just been put through the "hell would be an upgrade" experience of being taken from your homeland, marched miles in chains to the ocean, sat on a boat with death and vomit and flies and lonely night, then sold in a new and unfamiliar everything, ... freedom is all you need to hear.

But this was not "anything's got to be better than slavery":

First recorded escaped slave enter St. Augustine, eight men, two women and a three year old nursing child. Florida governor refuses to return them to Carolina and puts the men to work on the Castillo de San Marcos for wages [ed. note: The women earned half as much]. Runaway African Americans accept the Catholic faith.

King Charles II of Spain approves official sanctuary for runaway foreign slaves.

... official sanctuary for runaway foreign slaves:
giving liberty to all ... the men as well as the women ... so that by their example and by my liberality others will do the same.
You're wondering what the edict says. The collection isn't online, so someone would have to go to St. Augustine and fetch it.

Meanwhile, so successful was this pitch for liberty that the South Carolina colonial government knew of it quite unhappily:

In 1719, officials from South Carolina wrote that the Spanish were making pitch and tar with the help of black slaves stolen "by their Indians from our frontier settlements."
But getting paid to make pitch or metal objects in semi-frontier territory is small potatoes compared to:
African American slave militia formed in Florida. This group participates in the defense of St. Augustine in 1728 and in attacks on the Carolina province.

Royal edict reiterates freedom for African Americans who reach Florida from Carolina, but requires conversion to Catholicism and four years of service to the Spanish crown.

Now, you are rightly thinking that this was amazing -- freedom for runaway slaves. Happiness is a more nuanced understanding of Spain back in the day:
That runaways became free in Spanish Florida was not in itself unusual. Frank Tannenbaum's early comparative work shows that freedom had been a possibility for slaves in the Spanish world since the thirteenth century. Spanish law granted slaves a moral and juridical personality, as well as certain rights and protections not found in other slave systems. Among the most important were the right to own property, which in the Caribbean evolved into the right of self-purchase, the right to personal security, prohibitions against separating family members, and access to the courts. Moreover, slaves were incorporated into the Spanish church and received its sacraments, including marriage.

... the acknowledgement of a slave's humanity and rights, and the lenient attitude toward manumission embodied in Spanish law and social practices, made it possible for a significant free black class to exist in the Spanish world.

And cue everyone wondering what might have happened had Spain controlled America. (Hint: It gets a little worse for nonwhitey as you read on.)

Several other parts of this story confirm the free blacks' freedom and happiness:

1) A stone fort community was formed for them, with food aid from the Spanish. They also raised and caught their own food. Meanwhile, they were also on guard -- on Spanish behalf -- for attackers. And since those attackers were part of the movement that had ripped them from their lands and enslaved them, they were pretty motivated. Indeed, their labor and martial ability was an asset, not a detriment. And they were vital to Spanish defense:

[Black and Indian militias on St. Augustine's frontiers'] role in the defense of the Spanish colony has not yet been appreciated. They were cavalry units that served in frontier reconnaissance and as guerrilla fighters. They had their own officers and patrolled independently, although Spanish infantry officers also commanded mixed groups of Spanish, free blacks, and Indians on scouting missions.63 The Florida garrison was never able to maintain a full contingent, and these militias constituted an important asset for the short-handed governors.64 Because England and Spain were so often at war during his administration, Governor Montiano probably depended on the black troops more than did subsequent Florida governors.
2) When the British acquired Florida, in 1763, the free blacks moved to Cuba to avoid living as slaves again -- or, likely at least in some cases, as slaves for the first time. The first slaves (a three-year-old girl among them) had moved there in 1687. Assuming that girl had children, three generations of free blacks lived in or around St. Augustine. Further, among Mose's population in 1763 were more than a dozen children. Slavery for thus at least a few blacks was, at worst, something they saw other people live in -- some unscrupulous Spanish leaders were, well, unscrupulous.


A group of twenty-three men, women, and children arrived from Port Royal on November 21, 1738, and were sent to join the others at the new town. Among the newcomers were the runaway slaves of Captain Caleb Davis of Port Royal. Davis was an English merchant who had been supplying St. Augustine for many years, and it is possible that some of the runaways had even traveled to St. Augustine in the course of Davis's business. Davis went to the Spanish city in December 1738 and spotted his former slaves, whom he reported laughed at his fruitless efforts to recover them.49 The frustrated Davis eventually submitted a claim against the Spanish for twenty-seven of his slaves "detained" by Montiano, whom he valued at 7,600 pesos, as well as for the launch in which they escaped and supplies they had taken with them. He also listed debts incurred by the citizens of St. Augustine. Among those owing him money were Governors Antonio Benavides, Francisco Moral Sanchez, and Manuel de Montiano, various royal officials and army officers, and Mose townsmen Francisco Menendez and Pedro de Leon.50 There is no evidence Davis ever recouped his losses.
His former slaves laughed at him. What wonderful security and community they must have felt.

Spain and England had been battling for years, and Spain didn't win.

Although noted for its poverty and the misery of its people, Mose survived as a free town and military outpost for St. Augustine until 1763, when, through the fortunes of war, Spain lost the province to the British. The Spanish evacuated St. Augustine and its dependent black and Indian towns, and the occupants were resettled in Cuba.
Sanctuary, begun in 1693, lasted less than one hundred years. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was the reason Spain "abrogated the policy in 1790," lest Georgia's wish for invasion become reality:
Having received the king’s order to permit, on no account, that the slaves of the U.S. introduce themselves into this province (Florida) as free persons, I avail myself of the first occasion which presents itself to me to forward you notice of it. It seems to me useful, as well to preserve in part the interests of both parties, as that it may be a means of preventing wars, and finally shews [ed. note: shews became shows] that they are eradicating every where the remains of those laws which subsist to our shame.
(See page three for the three main options for free blacks when Spain gave Florida to America in 1821.)

Unfortunately for everyone who wished that slaves have no escape hatch, a 16-year-old tailor's apprentice had gotten on the case three years before Jefferson. His Tales of Oppression and more, next time.

Originally posted to iampunha on Thu Jan 16, 2014 at 09:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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