Just seven years later, in 1693, the Spanish king, Charles II, seeking systematically to undermine the economy of the Carolinas, decreed that Florida would be a religious sanctuary for fugitive slaves seeking “the true faith”; his royal proclamation declared that he was “giving liberty to all … the men as well as the women … so by their example and by my liberality others will do the same.” Virtually overnight, this new, and unprecedented, route to freedom was established, and we can think of it as the first metaphorical “underground railroad” — the slaves’ first route to freedom, and it ran south.
The black slaves fought against their English owners in a variety of ways, including running away to join the Native Americans, as when the Yamasee Indians fought their war against the English settlers between 1715 and 1717. But Florida was a much more popular and preferable alternative. A second royal edict, issued in 1733 (the year that James Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia) reiterated the promise of religious sanctuary for fugitive slaves fleeing the English colonies. More and more black fugitives escaped by land and by sea from Charleston in the 1720s and then from that city and Savannah in the 1730s — so many, in fact, that in 1738, the new governor, Manuel de Montiano, formally granted unconditional freedom to all fugitive slaves who managed to escape to Florida.
Spain later extended this offer of religious sanctuary to any slaves fleeing from Protestant colonies, which led to slave escapes all over the circum-Caribbean. Soon slaves from Jamaica were fleeing to Cuba, slaves from Curacao fled to Venezuela, and even some runaways from Catholic and French Saint Domingue (which would become the independent Republic of Haiti in 1804) found safe harbor and their freedom at the other end of the island of Hispaniola, in Spanish Santo Domingo. This policy would remain in place in Florida until Spain was forced by the English to abandon its settlements there in 1763.
But so many fugitives had arrived by 1738 that Spain founded the all-black fort and settlement of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, just two miles north of St. Augustine. It was known as Fort Mose. And for several decades it bravely stood as the first line of defense between the Spanish settlers and their enemies, the English colonists from the north.
As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root.