Proud and Free in Spanish Fla.: Juan Bautista Whitten Led a Black Militia

Hidden History: Alongside his wife, María Rafaela Whitten, Juan Bautista Whitten escaped slavery to establish himself in Florida as a skilled craftsman and valued soldier.

Depiction of Florida’s black Spanish militia in the 18th century
Depiction of Florida’s black Spanish militia in the 18th century

On a summer’s day in 1798, María Rafaela Whitten stood in the doorway of a house in St. Augustine, Fla., owned by Don José Sánchez, one of the wealthiest Spanish planters in the community. Whitten, a free black woman in her early 40s, was waiting there for a young female slave apprenticed to her.

Don José’s wife asked Whitten to state her business. Whitten ignored her. The wife asked again and was again met with silence. After a third attempt, Whitten finally responded. According to her later testimony in court, she said, “Madam, I have not come to rob anyone of anything.”

On hearing this dispute, Don José entered the fray in order, he later stated in court, to uphold the honor of his wife, who had been insulted. He scolded Whitten and beat her until her nose and mouth were bleeding.

Whitten, seeking redress, immediately filed suit in court. Although she was illiterate, her son, Francisco Domingo, was not, and he wrote a petition that his mother signed with an “X” on Aug. 27, 1798. The Spanish colonial court accepted and heard the case, in which Whitten testified that she did not deserve such unprovoked abuse, since she was in the neighborhood on business and was causing no harm to any person.

Significantly, she identified herself in the legal documents as a vecina, a property-holding member of the community. But Whitten did not follow the Spanish custom of stating her race or legal status, even though she had been free since entering Florida from South Carolina as the fugitive slave Judy Kenty 12 years earlier.

It seems that Whitten was making a point to the court that she should be viewed as the legal and social equal of the Sánchezes. Don José Sánchez admitted under oath that he had berated and beaten Whitten, but he said that he was justified in doing so because she was guilty of “incorrect behavior and an inappropriately free way of speaking to white women.” He also disputed Whitten’s testimony, claiming that she had answered his wife by stating, in English, “I’m not doing anything, you damned bitch.” The court agreed with Sánchez, dismissed Whitten’s case and admonished her to “abstain in the future from lack of due respect to white persons.”

Although she lost, María Whitten’s court case is revealing of the legal rights enjoyed by people of color in Spanish Florida at the end of the 18th century. Such a case would have been unimaginable in her native South Carolina at that time, where such “lack of due respect to white persons” would no doubt have ended in more than a bloody nose for Whitten. Her belief that a court case was viable in Florida was strengthened by her recent marriage in St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic church to Juan Bautista Whitten, a leader of the local black militia and a successful and widely respected carpenter.

Juan Bautista had been born in West Africa around 1758 and around the age of 15 was brought on a British slave ship to South Carolina. There he became known as Big Prince Whitten and met Judy Kenty on a neighboring plantation. The couple began living as husband and wife around 1777 and had two children, Glasgow and Polly, before they were swept up in the chaos of the American Revolution.

The Whittens then became the property of Col. William Young, a British officer, either as “spoils of war” or because they believed that freedom would be more likely on the loyalist side. It is likely that the “6 feet high, strong built and brawny” Prince, a skilled carpenter, would have been an asset to the British forces and gained military experience with them, but the full details of his service are not known. By 1782 the Whittens and Young had moved to Savannah, Ga., when the British abandoned South Carolina. Three years later, the couple had been acquired by a patriot slaveholder named Jacob Weed, who brought them to Point Peter in Georgia, just across the St. Marys River from Florida.  

Like most slaves in the area—and their apprehensive owners—Prince and Judy would have known that Florida had been restored to Spanish rule at the end of the Revolutionary War, and that since 1693 the Spanish had offered sanctuary to runaway slaves. After failing three times, the Whittens and their children finally escaped to freedom in December 1785. Weed attempted to recover them by posting a detailed runaway advertisement, which correctly stated that Prince had fled to Florida “to avoid a separation from his family to which he is much attached.” Given Judy/María Whitten’s later forthrightness in her court case, it is perhaps notable that Weed described her as a “smart, active wench.”