Review of Black Society in Spanish Florida by Jane Landers

JANE LANDERS. Black Society in Spanish Florida. Forward by Peter H. Wood. (Blacks in the New World.) Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999. Pp. xiv, 390. $29.00.


Cover for LANDERS: Black Society in Spanish Florida

Black Society in Spanish Florida is the first book written by Jane Landers, colonial Latin Americanist, historian of the Caribbean and the Hispanic southeast, and assistant professor of History at Vanderbilt University. Inthe text, Landers presents the first English-language, conceptual history of black society on the Florida peninsula during the first and second Spanish tenures (1565-1763, and 1783-1821). After addressing precedents for Afro-Floridian history on the Iberian Peninsula and in the Spanish Caribbean, and covering activities through the British interregnum (1763-1783), Landers organizes her study into six conceptual chapters on the remaining years: entrepreneurs and property holders, religious life, the lives of women, slaves and the slave trade, crime and punishment, and military service. Landers then ends with a critical chapter and afterward on “the demise of Spanish Florida,” and its historical consequences, as a result of American expansionist policies. Overall, Black Society recaptures not only the shared, tri-racial history of Spanish Florida and the extraordinary “cultural diversity and adaptation” of its black inhabitants, but it documents the conquest of a better model of multiculturalism by the prolonged, racist imperialism of Anglo-American societies.


For sources, Landers relies upon military, criminal, civil, notarial, manifest, petition, and census records, as well as parish registers (separated by race after the year 1738) that fastidiously document baptisms, marriages, and burials. In this regard, Landers benefits from the “meticulous” and “distinct” record keeping of the Spanish Crown, inspired by its corporatist/state structure and its medieval traditions of cultural assimilation and integration. Landers also draws upon Florida land grants for the second tenure, housed at the Florida State archives at Tallahassee. Also within these archives are the East Florida Papers, which include the unpublished letters of the Spanish governors and other officials. Landers has also culled much from the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History at the University of Florida, the St. Augustine Historical Society, the Florida Museum of Natural History, and other colonial archives in Madrid, Simancas, Seville, Havana, Matanzas, and Mexico. Finally, Landers draws upon archaeological and zoo-archaeological findings from excavations at such historic sites as Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé and the “Negro Fort” at Propsect Bluff on the Apalachicola River.

Historiography and Area of Expertise:

Black Majority

Landers has identified Peter Wood as the American “historian whose work has most influenced” her own. The signal achievement of Wood’s career was Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (1974), a monograph which casts its shadow upon Black Society, particularly in the first few chapters. Among other achievements, Black Majority recaptured the unique contributions that West Africans made to the plantation culture of the Carolina low country (such as introducing rice cultivation). In a similar way, Landers devotes herself to uncovering the contributions that people of African descent made to the history of Spanish Florida. Also, like other historians of the black colonial experience, such as Ira Berlin and Matthew Restall, Landers is motivated by Frank Tannenbaum’s controversial thesis about the “relative severity of slavery” in different colonial models. For this reason, a direct and critical comparison between Anglo and Iberian slave systems is central to the thesis of Black Society.

In the first third of Black Society, Landers sketches a rough chronology of the black presence in colonial Florida during the first Spanish tenure. Although she acknowledges that “records for the first Spanish period are less complete than those of the second,” it should be noted that Landers wrote her dissertation on “Black Society in St. Augustine,” the provincial capital on the St. John’s River, during the second Spanish tenure (1784-1821); given this fact, readers should not be surprised to discover that the bulk of her study focuses on these four, twilight decades. A quick browse through the twelve appendices of tables, replete with individual names and relationships, will suggest that almost no information can be gathered for the first one hundred and twenty years of Spanish rule, and very little can be obtained before the year 1752. Similarly, although the majority of the peninsula was unoccupied by Spaniards during the colonial period, readers cannot help but wonder whether the northeast corner—St. Augustine, Amelie Island, Fort San Nicholas, and Fort Mosé—receive special attention as a result of Landers’ expertise.

Historical Chronology:

The black presence in Spanish Florida began during the first European expeditions of 1513 and 1521, with free black servants, slaves, and conquistadores like Juan Garrido, Juan González Ponce de León,and Esteban de Dorantes. When Florida became an official Spanish province in the year 1565, under the governorship of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, blacks began serving in St. Augustine as captured or condemned slaves [esclavos forzados], servants and domestics, artisans, soldiers, and laborers. These individuals ranged from “country-born” Africans [bozales], to African-Americans [criollos], to Spanish-speaking, Catholic Africans [ladinos]. They played crucial roles in the clearing of arable land, the harvesting of crops, the building of fortifications (like the coquinaCastillo de San Marcos), and the colonial defense against privateers, slave catchers, and pirates.

Seventeen years after the Barbadian colonization of the Carolinas in 1670, runaway slaves began “voting with their feet,” and entering Florida through its northern border. The Spanish Crown issued a royal edict [cédula] of sanctuary for these slaves in the year 1693 (a proclamation which the monarch reiterated in 1733 and did not abolish until 1790). On a consistent basis, fugitive slaves relocated to the approved mission/satellite village [doctrina/reducción] of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé (just two miles north of St. Augustine), where they served as a crucial military buffer against Anglo expansion from the Carolinas and Georgia.

After decades of cross-border warfare, Fort Mosé was finally destroyed by the English and their Indian allies in 1740, and its black inhabitants relocated to the urban environment of St. Augustine, where they received town lots [solares]. In 1752, the Spanish government rebuilt Fort Mosé, and the black community returned until the British acquired Florida as a trade for the confiscated Cuba in the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ War. At this time, the black community relocated to Cuba, where they became new citizens [nuevos pobladores] and received plots of destitute, uncultivated land [caballerias] near the provincial capital of Matanzas. As far as the record indicates, none of these individuals returned to Florida when Spain received the province again in 1784.

The second Spanish tenure was defined by increased activity in the Florida slave trade. This occurred, first legally and then illegally, through the Atlantic port of Fernandina on the northern corner of Amelia Island at the St. Mary’s River. The second tenure was also defined by regular military conflicts with the fledgling republic of America and their Indian allies; these included the French-inspired Genêt invasion (1795), the Indian wars (1800-1803), the Patriot Rebellion (1812-1813), the Creek War (1813-1814), and the First Seminole War (1816-1818). These conflicts were fueled by renewed waves of runaway slaves who established feudal, “Black Towns” alongside Seminole Indian settlements. By 1821, black and white forces in colonial Florida were defeated on both coasts, and the peninsula was transferred to American ownership. At this point, black individuals either relocated to Spanish Cuba for the second time, or else they remained in the American province to test their odds against a new regime of white supremacy, plantation monoculture, chattel slavery, Indian removal, and a strict racial system that undermined the existing free black class.

Who Were Blacks in Spanish Florida?

As Landers argues, blacks in colonial Florida, whether free or enslaved, were highly politicized international travelers of the Atlantic and circum-Caribbean world. They traveled as “Atlantic creoles” (Ira Berlin’s definition of people with “linguistic dexterity, cultural plasticity, and social agility”) through a geographic region that Landers calls the “circum-Atlantic periphery of Florida.” This region includes places like Santo Domingo, Saint-Domonique, Cuba, Yucatán, Savanah, Charleston, Louisiana, New York, Trinidad, Guatemala, Mexico, and the Bahamas. Moreover, these individuals leveraged their military, “linguistic, diplomatic, and artisanal skills into citizenship and property rights” on the contested frontier of a Spanish borderland. Although they were constantly uprooted by political turmoil, and often restricted by the general prejudice of slavery, they managed to obtain a legal and social standing in Spanish Florida that was unprecedented in the Anglophone colonies of the Caribbean and North America. Sadly, this status would be destroyed and written out of history after the American acquisition of Florida finally eradicated the international border in 1821.

Caribbean and Atlantic diving destinations map

Black individuals played a litany of roles in Spanish Florida: carpenters, masons, ironsmiths goldsmiths, stonecutters, cartwrights, coopers, lumberjacks, farmers, orchardists, trackers, foragers, cobblers, hostelers, hosts, hawkers, hucksters, venders, prostitutes, musicians, fishermen, turtlers, boatmen, sailors, pilots, butchers, stevedores, officers, militiamen, translators, Indian agents, ranchers, cooks, servants, maids, laundresses, shop owners, clerks, sawyers, tailors, soldiers, and even slave owners. In addition, they petitioned for titles, posts, salaries, subsidies, pensions, tax exemptions, and land grants, which they often won. Many of them were literate, held personal property [peculium], attended school, received baptism, celebrated festivities, loaned credit, were allowed to carry weapons in public (a mark of significant distinction in Spanish society), and were provided legal recourse to sue their masters for manumission or abuse, testify in court, and purchase their own freedom [coartación]. Additionally, slaves were organized around the task system (as opposed to the gang system), which allowed them spare time to cultivate a social life and tend to their personal needs. Others were allowed to hire themselves out and collect day wages [jornal] in their spare time. Although slavery was still punctuated by brutalities, and legal systems tended to favor the white Spanish elite, Landers reminds us that all of these privileges were virtually unknown in the English colonies.

What Factors Contributed to the Unique Position of Blacks in Spanish Florida?

Black society in Spanish Florida had precedents in the Castilian slave law, known as the Siete Partidas, as well as the official sanctioning of black barrios, black religious fraternities, and Indian satellite villages [cofradías, cabildos, andreducción]. It also drew upon the multicultural nature of reconquista Spain, which incorporated subject Muslims [moriscos], converted Jews [conversos], and gypsies. In this context, Africans existed as both registered citizens [vecinos] and members of the unemployed underclass [gente de mal vivir]. Moreover, Spanish culture attached great value to a life of stable urban communities [vida politica] as well as an official policy of populating [repoblación] empty territories [tierras baldias] threatened by foreign encroachment. Finally, Spanish society was built around reciprocal obligations of extended kinship groups [parentela and clientela], god-parentage [compadrazgo], and military exemptions [fuero militar]. Taken together, these institutions and traditions created social mobility, and relative freedom, for blacks in Spanish Florida.

funeral procession

But to fully understand the relatively privileged nature of black society in Spanish Florida one must also understand the political situation of the province. Florida was both chronically underfunded and undermanned throughout the colonial period. Unlike Peru and Mexico, the peninsula yielded no mineral wealth, and so it survived upon a subsidy [situado] that was acquired from the taxation of Peubla, a province in the Viceroyalty of New Spain, and brought annually on royally chartered ships of the Havana Company. As a result of regular hurricanes and incessant warfare, the province was often forced to go without this subsidy for years, and the metropolis lived in a state of perpetual bankruptcy. Also, as a marginal and underdeveloped province, Florida received the dregs of military and naval forces. When they actually filled their posts [plazas], the Third Battalion of the Infantry Regiments of Santiago and the Hibernia Regiment from Cuba were described as cowards, deserters, incorrigibles, and ne’er-do-wells.

To make matters worse, massive native depopulation as a result of enslavement, disease, warfare, and overwork created vacuums of space that the Spanish administration struggled to fill throughout both of its tenures. In fact, most of the province’s history was defined by a three-pronged military pressure: Indian nations to the West, Anglo-American forces to the north, and European forces to the south. After plantation agriculture was introduced to the peninsula during the British tenure, the Spanish government had to contend with internal agitators of Anglo and protestant extraction. All of these obstacles inspired the colonial government to encourage the unrestricted importation of African slaves (even though this importation was extraordinarily minor in comparison with other colonies, especially before 1763) and the continued enfranchisement of free black militias and independent black homesteaders.


To conclude, Black Society in Spanish Florida is a comprehensive history, woven together with personal narratives of dynamic historical figures who helped to shape “interest-based communities” against tremendous odds. Readers will learn about Francisco Menendez, who ran away from slavery and served as the captain of the Fort Mosé militia for more than forty years. They will learn about Felis Edimboro, who worked as a maidservant but also hosted balls and dances for the black community on the upper floor of her house on St. George Street. And they will learn about Jorge Biassou, the Haitian revolutionary leader [caudillo] who drank regularly, practiced vodun, dressed in military regalia, and relocated to St. Augustine with an entourage of twenty-five personal attendants. Lastly, while the demise of Spanish Florida is an unfortunate story of military violence, forced relocation, legal disenfranchisement, and historical erasure, Landers is sensitive to end her work on a positive note. After regaling her readers with contemporary advancements in public history, she assures us that the experiences of black individuals in colonial Florida are “neither anonymous, lost, nor irretrievable.”

* For more work written by this author, please visit his personal blog, The Zamani Reader: A History Blog from a History Student.


One thought on “Review of Black Society in Spanish Florida by Jane Landers

  1. “… 1513 and 1521, with free black servants, slaves” It is interesting to read that there was such a thing as free black people in the time predating black “emancipation” which despite Lincoln’s credit was more of a political gambit than being driven by a recognition of humanistic principles. However, the Catholic church always was more inclusive than most Protestant denominations (with the notable exception of e.g. the Quakers) on questions of race (and still is – while there has yet to be a black president in the US born from slave ancestors, the Catholic church might well one day have a black Pope). Consequently one would not think of such a construct as black “society” back then – and actually showing us in the same mirror as the slave holders viewed blacks historically.

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