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1821: How Slavery Changed From Spain To America

Public Domain
African American family standing next to former slave cabins made of tabby concrete at the Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island in Jacksonville.

As part of the bicentennial of Florida becoming a U.S. territory, here’s a look at how slavery changed from Spanish to American rule.

“The Spanish had been really fighting to hold on to their status as a global power; this was at the time that there were independence movements popping up throughout Latin America,” said Andy Barbero, an historian at Pensacola State College.

Part of the Spanish attempts to cling to their world standing was trying to hold onto Florida. But Barbero says they didn’t have the people to take advantage of the land, as they did in Cuba with sugar cane. As a result, slaves in Spanish Florida actually had more autonomy than those in other slave states.

“They used a ‘task system,' meaning that enslaved people would be assigned a certain amount of tasks each day, and when they were done with those things, they had time on their own,” he said. “Likewise, many of these enslaved people, they were farmers, they were artisans, and they developed skills.”

Under Spanish law, slaves were also allowed to have guns and purchase ammunition. One of the differences between the American plantation system and Spanish slavery, says Barbero, is that there are a lot more rules involved for the latter.

“There’s a lot more autonomy for enslaved people, and there is an incentive -- or an ability for them to become free,” Barbero said. “And in some cases, become slaveholders themselves.”

While the majority of black slaves were brought by force to the New World from Africa, it was Cuba under Spain that became a center focus of the slave trade, according to Barbero. Many of the slaves that came to the United States did so through Cuba and other Caribbean islands such as Jamaica.

Andy Barbero July 4th.jpg
Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
Dr. Andy Barbero - historian, Pensacola State College

“So the slaves are in many ways coming from the same places; and the Spanish in particular also attempted to enslave many of the Native Americans as well,” said Barbero. “But the thing is, the Spanish are not really able to turn Florida into this cash economy [with cotton], the way they are in Cuba with sugar.”

American slaves had to wait for the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to win their freedom; but decades before that, slave under Spanish rule could earn theirs in a number of ways, military service for instance.

“There were enslaved blacks who fought under the Spanish flag in support of the revolutionaries during the U.S. Revolution against the British,” Barbero said. “There were several other ways that allowed for enslaved people to be able to purchase their freedoms.”

Another path to freedom was mysogenation, which Barbero says was a common practice among Spanish slaveholders.

“It was very common for slave owners to take on mixed race, or Black wives, and to raise their children side-by-side with their white children,” he said. “Likewise, there wasn’t a necessarily a matriarchical system in the U.S. plantation system. It means that if your mother was a slave, you’re going to be a slave too. That wasn’t necessarily the case in Spain.”

The American plantation system came into being in Florida after Spain ceded the territory to the United States in 1821. Barbero places the first such properties in and around what’s now Tallahassee, by out-of-territory origins.

“Plantation owners in South Carolina, in Georgia, and Virginia had long looked at Florida as a possible place to expand slavery and the growing cotton kingdom, said Barbero. “And they immediately pushed inroads into it.”

For free persons of color, former Black slaves, mixed race, native Americans, Mexicans and others, says Barbero, were pushed into the U.S. plantation system and the racial dynamics that went with it. But in Pensacola and the surrounding area, he says things went a bit differently.

“Because when the United States formally takes control of Florida from the Spanish, there’s only about 600 enslaved Blacks and about 100 free Blacks in Pensacola at the time,” he said. “At least initially, they were able to hold on to many of their Spanish customs. And so what happens is the rise of the plantation system is a much smaller process in west Florida.”

And, Pensacola’s primary crops were fruit, vegetables and trees — the latter supplying the various logging and timber operations in the area.

“Pensacola is not part of that kind of cotton-cash boom; and that’s another reason why it’s able to hold onto a lot more of its Spanish influence in that process of switching from a Spanish-style slavery, to the American plantation is much slower and more gradual.”

And PSC’s Andy Barbero adds that the man who became the first territorial governor of Florida – future U.S. president Andrew Jackson — was himself a slaveholder at his Hermitage plantation outside Nashville, Tennessee.

“He very much believed in slavery as a system; he was very much a proponent of it,” said Barbero. “And he was very much attempting to foster a white democracy in the United States — that was in many ways largely predicated on the backs of its slave people.”

And after nearly a quarter-century as a territory, Florida ratified the U.S. Constitution and joined the union at the 27th state on March 3, 1845.