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Ft. Mose

Africans in America: Fort Mose

The Arawaks



Haven for the Runaway


Imagine the most daring escape you could ever make. You are a slave in 17th century America, and life on the plantation is unbearable! You are separated from your family and work daily for another man's food. One day, after the person next to you is whipped to death for taking a rest, you decide that there's no sense in waiting for your turn to die a slave.

But how do you leave? The plantation owner has teams of dogs and men with guns whose job is to track down "runaways." You have heard from an old man on the plantation about a magical land where no one owns your life. It's a long treacherous route, but hundreds of miles away lies Spain's Florida, and if you can reach there, you will have your freedom.

Late one night you sneak out, waiting until the watchman has begun to doze. Then, just as you are passing the main house, you step on a twig and a dog starts barking furiously. You frantically start running as shouts ring out.

And you keep on running, for days and days, never sure which moment is going to be your last. Every approaching sound could be a team of slave chasers sent to bring you home dead or alive. Then finally, after traveling through the swamps and thick forests to avoid detection for what seems like months, you come upon a small city at the edge of a river. The flags flying above it are red and yellow and you recognize them from the stories the old man told. You've reached Florida; you are about to be free.

More than 250 years ago, hundreds of African-born slaves attempted this perilous journey. They risked their lives to escape from forced labor on English plantations in South Carolina. They traveled south, toward Spanish Florida, where they hoped to find freedom in the town of St. Augustine. Some of them made it, and these brave men and women created the first "legally sanctioned" free black community in the future United States of America.

In the year 2000 though, there is nothing left to see there. What was once the setting of their small fort, which provided Spain's first line of defense against the British, is now nothing but nature. Today these tidal wetlands offer homes to scurrying crabs and mosquitoes by the millions, the great bald eagle, and lush, marsh vegetation. There is no monument to memorialize or plaque to tell the tale of this site, although there are certainly dreams to someday build them.

While there was nothing tangible to show us where we were, the power of this place was inescapable. Standing on this trail, (sometimes creek), getting eaten alive by blood-thirsty insects, scratching and slapping at the red bumps swelling on our legs and arms, Neda and I knew that we were near the 18th century site of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose. A quarter of a mile from us, sunken underneath the water, laid the remains of this Spanish fort whose incredible importance could not be overlooked as we piece together the history of our nation.

The fort's name was shortened to Ft. Mose, and it offers a reminder to our Caucasian-dominated history books of the critical role free blacks played in the story of the Americas. For too long we have focused on the "slave experience" as the story of how all blacks arrived and lived on our continent. The truth is though, that "the first slaves in the Americas were not African, and the first Africans in the Americas were not slaves." What? If the first slaves were not blacks forced on to slave ships in Africa and brought here across the Atlantic Ocean, then who were they?

The people, who unfortunately earn the distinction of "first," were actually the native people, or Arawaks, that Christopher Columbus encountered when he arrived in the West Indies. As early as 1495 Columbus had taken these Indians from their homes in the Caribbean and shipped them to Spain to be paraded before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella at court. Columbus wrote in his journal that the Arawaks "would make fine servants...With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want."

The first blacks in the Americas, on the other hand, were free men. They were sailors, soldiers, servants and settlers arriving in the 15th century along with the earliest Europeans. "These first black colonists were from Spain rather than Africa, and were known as 'ladinos." This free-black experience is important to learn about, and is what places like Ft. Mose help us to understand.

Slavery certainly existed in Spain and her colonies, but it was very different from the British idea of slavery. Spanish slaves were allowed to earn money, buy their own freedom and sue their masters in court for improper treatment. Remember how Spain was the first European country to set up permanent colonies in the "New World?" (see my dispatch on Spanish colonization for more info. In the 16th and 17th centuries, they lay claim to all of Florida and Georgia. England, at this time, had set up colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth, claiming the northeastern coastline, but had land-hungry eyes set on the Spanish territories as well. Blacks, both free and enslaved, were pushed into the middle of this struggle between two enemy countries wanting the same land.

Partially in order to bother the British, Spain decreed that any English slave who made it to Florida would have the chance to be freed as a Spanish citizen. To do this, the escapees would have to pledge allegiance to the Spanish crown and convert to Catholicism. Since this was definitely a better option than remaining enslaved as another man's property, many southern slaves attempted to "steal themselves" from English plantations. By 1738, over 100 African refugees had arrived in St. Augustine, Fl. That same year, Spain gave them land to build their own community and fort just north of the city.

Since there is no information at the Mose site itself, Neda and I learned the story of their fort from a trip to a local shopping mall. Nestled between nail salons and clothing stores, the Ft. Mose exhibit stands in a small room for people to happen upon as they go about their daily routines. We walked through the exhibit taking in the details of this incredible settlement, and wondered how any US history book could exclude this information.

Wandering through the maze-like exhibit, we learned that the men and women of Mose faced difficult living conditions as they built their new homes. They encountered terrible sand instead of fertile soil to grow crops, aggravating insects (sand flies, mosquitoes) and a hot, humid climate. Even with all of the hardships of life at Ft. Mose though, we thought that these men and women must have cherished the fact that their lives were their own, and made the most of this tough situation without complaint.

Besides building their new city, the men of Mose trained as a militia. They were to be St. Augustine's first line of defense against invasion from their British neighbors to the north. In 1740, England moved into Florida to capture the land for their own use. Since the militia could not hold out against the large British army led by General Ogelthorpe, the residents of Mose were evacuated to St. Augustine itself. The militia then helped the Spanish army to launch a surprise counterattack against General Oglethorpe's men. They were able to recapture their fort and drive the British back north out of Florida! In the battle, however, the town of Mose was destroyed. The free blacks moved into the city of St. Augustine itself to live for the next 12 years before being relocated to the rebuilt Ft. Mose.

After all of this building and farming and moving and fighting, the men and women of Ft. Mose were uprooted again eleven years later. The British had eventually "won" Florida from the Spanish, and the Spanish residents were relocated to Spain's closest territory in the area, the island of Cuba. Most of these men and women never returned to the mainland, even when Spain retook control of Florida in 1784. (Florida would remain Spanish until the United States convinced Spain to swap Florida for Texas in 1819)

Although it has been sunken beneath the Florida marshland for centuries, the amazing story of Ft. Mose needs to be uncovered and told again and again. It is the story of men and women who believed in their human right to freedom at any cost. They would risk their lives to escape, face terrible conditions to live, and fight bravely against the British to remain free. Their time line reminds us of the tragic brutality of American-English slavery, and of the important contributions free blacks were able to make to the history of Florida. We hope that someday soon the incredible exhibit will be moved from its waiting room at the shopping mall and housed instead on the land where it belongs. Then visitors will arrive at the creek where Neda and I stood and know it as the site of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose... America's first free black town.


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


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MAD - Reparations: Payback for slavery
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