Rebels and Runaways; Slave Resistance in Nineteenth-Century Florida

 

            In 1821 Florida was ceded by Spain to the US; in 1845 it entered the Union as a state. Nineteenth-Century Florida played a unique role in the evolution of the institution of slavery and its expanding cotton economy in the American South. The expansion of raw cotton production meant a larger work force and hence more slaves. Rivers focuses on what he terms Middle Florida, which includes Leon, Jackson, Jefferson, Gadsden and Madison counties (the Florida panhandle region that abuts southwest Georgia).     Some historians claim the series of wars that we call the Seminole Wars involved this expanding cotton economy.

Florida also played an important role in the resistance to slavery. It’s long seashore and orientation to the North Atlantic economy meant that slaves fleeing Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and the West Indies often ended up in Florida. Florida’s largest towns – St. Augustine, Tallahassee, Jacksonville, and Pensacola – were havens for runaways.

            Rivers argues that contrary to the common perception, there was considerable resistance to African bondage. That resistance took a variety of forms. It included, of course, the slave who absconded to distant places, perhaps with the help of the “underground Railway.” Most often, however, the slave hid out in his locality, wanting not to be separated from his family and community. He had to eat and his master was the most likely source of a stolen hog, the most common food item, or chickens, or a raid on the plantation’s larder. If the slave had been involved in the maritime trade, he begged food off of his fellow sailors.

Slave owners liked to think that runaway slaves were motivated by Northern abolitionists and that their flight was itself a form of thievery on the part of those abolitionists. Ultimately Northern opponents of slavery could provide little help to the bondsmen wishing to flee his bondage. Northerners understood that a disruption of the Southern slave economy resulting from slave flight would seriously injure the cotton economy, which was feeding the New England cotton mills. 

            These runaways were out-and-out thieves, or so the slave owner contended. When caught (or when he returned to his home plantation), the slave was usually severely punished, many lashes with a whip.

The crimes involved in his flight could be more serious: The murder of the overseer who had administered the lashes? The most common way of doing in a hard master was poison, and a suspicious purchase of a poison was often a tip-off to the slave’s intentions.

Rivers describes other forms of slave resistance short of running away. Work slowdowns and faking illnesses were far more common. Often the punishment for the household servant was fieldwork, and stoop labor.

Generally the slave’s flight was not a spur-of-the-moment act. Most of the runaway slaves had planned their flight well in advance, storing up food and clothing for what might be weeks of tenuous existence.

Were these absconding slaves ‘rebels?’ Mostly they were individual slaves planning their own flight from this harsh world of Southern slavery. However, the slaves’ knowledge of Florida’s waterways was a significant assistance to the Union cause during the Civil War.

The Haitian Revolution colored Southern attitudes toward this flight of slaves. Beginning in 1791, Haitian slaves rioted, killed Haitian slave owners, and conducted guerilla warfare for years after that initial rebellion.

Plantation owners knew who, amongst their community, were a source of the brutal treatment of their slaves and hence slave flight. Perhaps to ameliorate the worst practices, they often agreed to help enforce the various codes that regulated the business of capture. The reward for returning a slave was substantial, in the thousands of dollars in today’s dollar.  

Generally speaking, there would be a notice in a local paper with a detailed description of the runaway’s appearance, often flattering. The list of their skills is remarkable: blacksmiths, carpenters, and pilots were the most common crafts listed. Hence their flight meant a significant loss of skilled labor to the Southern economy.

Rivers contends, however, that despite this dependency on slave labor and the economic losses involved in flight, slave owners did little to ameliorate the harness of slavery in the American south. One reads accounts of slaves who fled because their infants and children had been sold to distant plantation owners. Southern slave owners often sold slaves to satisfy their debts, or to finance the purchase of new plantations. Many slaves were leased out, and their owner ceased to have any control over their well-being.

Thus Rivers believes that there were many causes of slave resistance in nineteenth-century Florida and that resistance was not uncommon. He has proven his point that slaves in Middle Florida often took it upon themselves to resist their slavery by Larry Rivers. University of Illinois Press, 2013 paper.

            In 1821 Florida was ceded by Spain to the US; in 1845 it entered the Union as a state. Nineteenth-Century Florida played a unique role in the evolution of the institution of slavery and its expanding cotton economy in the American South. The expansion of raw cotton production meant a larger work force and hence more slaves. Rivers focuses on what he terms Middle Florida, which includes Leon, Jackson, Jefferson, Gadsden and Madison counties (the Florida panhandle region that abuts southwest Georgia).     Some historians claim the series of wars that we call the Seminole Wars involved this expanding cotton economy.

Florida also played an important role in the resistance to slavery. It’s long seashore and orientation to the North Atlantic economy meant that slaves fleeing Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and the West Indies often ended up in Florida. Florida’s largest towns – St. Augustine, Tallahassee, Jacksonville, and Pensacola – were havens for runaways.

            Rivers argues that contrary to the common perception, there was considerable resistance to African bondage. That resistance took a variety of forms. It included, of course, the slave who absconded to distant places, perhaps with the help of the “underground Railway.” Most often, however, the slave hid out in his locality, wanting not to be separated from his family and community. He had to eat and his master was the most likely source of a stolen hog, the most common food item, or chickens, or a raid on the plantation’s larder. If the slave had been involved in the maritime trade, he begged food off of his fellow sailors.

Slave owners liked to think that runaway slaves were motivated by Northern abolitionists and that their flight was itself a form of thievery on the part of those abolitionists. Ultimately Northern opponents of slavery could provide little help to the bondsmen wishing to flee his bondage. Northerners understood that a disruption of the Southern slave economy resulting from slave flight would seriously injure the cotton economy, which was feeding the New England cotton mills. 

            These runaways were out-and-out thieves, or so the slave owner contended. When caught (or when he returned to his home plantation), the slave was usually severely punished, many lashes with a whip.

The crimes involved in his flight could be more serious: The murder of the overseer who had administered the lashes? The most common way of doing in a hard master was poison, and a suspicious purchase of a poison was often a tip-off to the slave’s intentions.

Rivers describes other forms of slave resistance short of running away. Work slowdowns and faking illnesses were far more common. Often the punishment for the household servant was fieldwork, and stoop labor.

Generally the slave’s flight was not a spur-of-the-moment act. Most of the runaway slaves had planned their flight well in advance, storing up food and clothing for what might be weeks of tenuous existence.

Were these absconding slaves ‘rebels?’ Mostly they were individual slaves planning their own flight from this harsh world of Southern slavery. However, the slaves’ knowledge of Florida’s waterways was a significant assistance to the Union cause during the Civil War.

The Haitian Revolution colored Southern attitudes toward this flight of slaves. Beginning in 1791, Haitian slaves rioted, killed Haitian slave owners, and conducted guerilla warfare for years after that initial rebellion.

Plantation owners knew who, amongst their community, were a source of the brutal treatment of their slaves and hence slave flight. Perhaps to ameliorate the worst practices, they often agreed to help enforce the various codes that regulated the business of capture. The reward for returning a slave was substantial, in the thousands of dollars in today’s dollar.  

Generally speaking, there would be a notice in a local paper with a detailed description of the runaway’s appearance, often flattering. The list of their skills is remarkable: blacksmiths, carpenters, and pilots were the most common crafts listed. Hence their flight meant a significant loss of skilled labor to the Southern economy.

Rivers contends, however, that despite this dependency on slave labor and the economic losses involved in flight, slave owners did little to ameliorate the harness of slavery in the American south. One reads accounts of slaves who fled because their infants and children had been sold to distant plantation owners. Southern slave owners often sold slaves to satisfy their debts, or to finance the purchase of new plantations. Many slaves were leased out, and their owner ceased to have any control over their well-being.

Thus Rivers believes that there were many causes of slave resistance in nineteenth-century Florida and that resistance was not uncommon. He has proven his point that slaves in Middle Florida often took it upon themselves to resist their slavery

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