Liberty in Spanish Florida

I was perusing books on early America. It’s one of my favorite topics, as it involves so many issues and influences. There were many interesting books I found, of course. But one in particular grabbed my attention. It is Black Society in Spanish Florida by Jane Landers. Here is the synopsis:

The first extensive study of the African American community under colonial Spanish rule, “Black Society in Spanish Florida” provides a vital counterweight to the better-known dynamics of the Anglo slave South. Jane Landers draws on a wealth of untapped primary sources, opening a new vista on the black experience in America and enriching our understanding of the powerful links between race relations and cultural custom. Blacks under Spanish rule in Florida lived not in cotton rows or tobacco patches but in a more complex and international world that linked the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, and a powerful and diverse Indian hinterland. Here the Spanish Crown afforded sanctuary to runaway slaves, making the territory a prime destination for blacks fleeing Anglo plantations, while Castilian law (grounded in Roman law) provided many avenues out of slavery, which it deemed an unnatural condition. European-African unions were common and accepted in Florida, with families of African descent developing important community connections through marriage, concubinage, and godparent choices. Assisted by the corporate nature of Spanish society, Spain’s medieval tradition of integration and assimilation, and the almost constant threat to Spanish sovereignty in Florida, multiple generations of Africans leveraged linguistic, military, diplomatic, and artisanal skills into citizenship and property rights. In this remote Spanish outpost, where they could become homesteaders, property owners, and entrepreneurs, blacks enjoyed more legal and social protection than they would again until almost two hundred years of Anglo history had passed.

One part stood out to me. It is the statement that, “Here the Spanish Crown afforded sanctuary to runaway slaves, making the territory a prime destination for blacks fleeing Anglo plantations, while Castilian law (grounded in Roman law) provided many avenues out of slavery, which it deemed an unnatural condition.”

That touches upon a key difference between English and Spanish societies. It is a difference, as pointed out, that is ancient. Spanish culture and legal traditions were more influenced by the Roman Empire. England was more mixed in its influences, but a major influence was Germanic tribes. (I’ve written about this before.)

This demonstrates the power of ideas, as something beyond mere abstractions and ideals. Ideas are rooted in entire social orders and worldviews. In Germanic tribes, to have been free meant being born into and as a member of a free society. It was your birthright. Liberty in Roman society, however, wasn’t a given right for being born and so not the automatic default state.

Thinking about it that way, it seems obvious that being born free is better. But there is a dark side to this. If you aren’t born as a free member of a free society, then your freedom is as if non-existent. In Roman and Romanized societies, even if born a slave, it wasn’t necessarily a permanent state. Many regular citizens would find themselves temporarily enslaved, which was more along the lines of indentured servitude. Even a captured prisoner of war could work their way out of slavery.

The English in adopting a Germanic view of freedom also inherited the opposite side of the coin. To be a slave was a permanent condition you were born into. Even if you were enslaved as an adult, it was assumed that there was something inferior about you and your people that allowed you to be enslaved. It was conveniently ignored, of course, that Europeans were being enslaved at the same time by non-Europeans )(e.g., Arabs).

So, in Spanish Florida, an African-American would find more hope in a society more fully based on the social norm of liberty. Simply being of African ancestry wasn’t considered a mark against your inherent moral worth and character. You’d likely still experience prejudice, but it still allowed more opportunities.

This isn’t about just the past. The Anglo-Saxon view of freedom is still being used to justify prejudice and oppression of African-Americans. Every generation of racists and racialists, bigots and supremacists comes up with new rationalizations. There are new reasons that are popular today, but it is the same basic justification of racial hierarchy. Instead of being marked by God as the descendants of Cain or whatever, the permanent underclass of minorities is assumed to have inferior genetics or culture.

Many white Americans, especially right-wingers, talk about liberty. But they don’t really believe in it. Yes, in its original form, liberty did arise out of a slave society. Yet it wasn’t one of a racial hierarchy. Being enslaved didn’t inevitably imply anything about you as an individual or your people. That is different today. No matter how an African-American may struggle to get out of poverty, they can never escape their blackness and all that it symbolizes. It is a permanent yoke around their neck.

6 thoughts on “Liberty in Spanish Florida

  1. This might explain why eugenics was first developed and popularized in the Anglo-American countries, specifically the UK and US.

    Eugenics is based on the idea of ethnic and racial groups have an inborn nature. This was often used to justify who deserved rights and freedom and who didn’t. Eugenics, Jim Crow, and the Indian Wars all developed during the same era.

    Eugenics was particularly a focus on in the Northern states that were dealing with issues of large immigration and diversity. These were states, it could be noted, that had the highest rates of English and German ancestry in the country.

    It is also probably unsurprising that the German Nazis were so inspired by this American eugenics and developed even further into an entire political system. The dark side of ‘freedom’ can be very dark indeed.

  2. This goes beyond major issues like slavery and eugenics.

    It also would seem to relate to why Anglo-Americans have always been obsessed with categorizing and labeling groups of people. An obsession that persists to this day. But an obsession absent from many other Western countries such as France.

    It took until the mid 20th century for the melting pot ideology to take hold. And initially it only applied to light-skinned Europeans. Not African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans.

    I suspect this relates to why Roman-influenced French and Spanish settlements led to more hybrid communities (e.g., Creoles).

    As a worldview and a social order, liberty allows more mixing than freedom. Liberty is potentially more fluid than freedom and allows more shades of grey. Whereas freedom has clear and often stark demarcations. An individual person is only free among their own free people in their own free community.

  3. I just read some of your very insightful comments on the ThatDevilHistory blog and I followed you here to your own blog (slightly creepy, perhaps). I wanted to say that I enjoy reading your thoughts and writing.

    • I try to be insightful. I sometimes succeed in that endeavor.

      I’m glad you found your way to my blog. I prefer to be easy to find. I have no reason to want to hide, at least for the moment.

      Feel free to comment on any of my posts. I like to hear the views of others.

  4. “In Germanic tribes, to have been free meant being born into and as a member of a free society. It was your birthright. Liberty in Roman society, however, wasn’t a given right for being born and so not the automatic default state.”

    I wonder how many Germanic tribes had a permanent hereditary slave caste, as the mainland Saxons apparently did (like certain groups of the African Sahel; Mali and Senegal, and some in Polynesia). In Norse (Northern Germanic) culture, caste barriers seem to have been weaker, giving slaves (roughly) equal free status after two generations of freedom.
    Iceland’s Norse settlers genetically absorbed their Celtic slave girls within a few generations with little known stigma (Though Iceland’s low numbers were surely part of this.) The Celtic rank system (In Gaul, Ireland and Britain) was also less rigid.

    • Thanks for the thoughts and info.

      I noticed in the link that a Scandinavian thrall was a slave or a serf. In much of Europe, there was a big difference between a slave and serf, but I don’t know about early Scandinavia. Plus, racialized slavery hadn’t yet developed at that time.

      It reminds me of some Native American tribes. Captured enemies or their children could be made slaves or adopted into families. Or else taken as wives/concubines.

      Daniel Boone when a young man was captured by Shawnee and adopted into a family that lost a child. For the rest of his life, Daniel Boone maintained connections with his adoptive family and was treated as Shawnee by them. To be Shawnee was a cultural rather than a racial identity.

      The difference I see. Is in tribal societies, ethnocentrism is important and so assimilation is central. It would depend on conditions on how quickly an individual or family could assimilate, sometimes generations or longer, but sometimes fairly quickly such as if a slave became a wife.

      In an imperial society like Rome, assimilation was less relevant as it was a multicultural society. As long as you obeyed laws and submitted to imperial authority, you could gain liberty. This is why the Jews were initially allowed great freedom to have their own semi-independent communities. You still see a similar thing in modern Spain with semi-autonomous communiities, e.g. Basque.

      It’s a difference between social models of assimilation and multiculturalism. This might relate to why eugenics was first developed and most strongly took hold in societies with Germanic ancestry: Britain, United States, and Germany.

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