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.