Thursday, March 17, 2011
Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions
Jane Landers book, Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions, is an excellent overview of the relationship between the bourgeois-democratic wave that swept across Western Europe, United States of America, and the Spanish American colonies and the populations of African descent. Atlantic Creoles, or peoples of African descent who were creolized, responding to the Age of Revolutions in varying ways. Blacks from Florida, the Carolinas, Cuba, and Haiti responded to these tumultuous times by allying themselves with forces of revolution, counter-revolution, monarchism, republicanism, and in some instances, with indigenous groups, such as the Seminoles of Florida. By choosing to fight for monarchism, as represented by Spain, France, or Britain, or liberal republics such as Revolutionary France, peoples of African descent in the years between 1776 and 1848 fought for their own interests and parties that they believed would best preserve their freedom.
One thing I enjoyed in this book is how Landers shows how related and transnational the worlds of African Creoles truly were during this period. The widespread use of black militia units in the Spanish colonies and the development of cofradias and cabildos de nacion promoted black corporate identity. Black militia units were exempt from civilian courts because the fuero militar was extended to them. This made joining the militia more prestigious for blacks and offered them tangible opportunities for social mobility. The cofradias evoled from the associations blacks and pardos developed through the Catholic Church and the all-black militias. Cabildos, or associations developed for both slave and free blacks based on African ethnic groups. Membership in both types of organizations often overlapped and both supported the fusion of African and Spanish cultures and religious traditions. However, the cofradias and cabildos were stronger in Cuba than elsewhere.
However, Biassou and Jean Francois, the early slave leaders of the Haitian Revolution, who sided with Spain and served as royal black auxiliaries against the French and British, were dispersed in the late 1790s when France and Spain made peace. Some were dispersed to Florida, which remained a Spanish colony until the 1819 Adams-Onis Treaty sold the territory to the US by 1821. Then when the Americans took over Florida, many blacks who had served in Florida's black militias for Spain, chose to come to Cuba where they joined free black militias of Cuban descent in Matanzas and Havana neighborhoods. So blacks from Saint Domingue/Haiti, Florida, the nascent US, and Cuba mingled, intermarried, and fought for revolution and counter-revolution simultaneously.
When one takes into consideration the fact that the republican US wanted to expand slavery and US territory in North America, it makes sense that free blacks in Florida allied themselves with Spain and the Seminoles to resist US expansion. Spanish colonies' looser race relations made life easier for free blacks if they accepted Catholicism and took Spanish names. Indeed, prior to the 1790s and even into the early antebellum period, Spanish Florida was a sanctuary for runaway slaves, which obviously infuriated southern elites. Furthermore, one can understand why Biassou and Jean Francois, the early slave military leaders of the Haitian Revolution, would remain allies of Spain instead of Toussaint L'Ouverture, who switched to Republican France. Spain provided the slave rebels with arms, food, and protection from slavery while Britain attempted to occupy the colony to restore slavery and the situation in revolutionary France probably seemed to precarious. Besides, people of African descent across the Americas often identified with kings, even Louis XVI or the kings of Spain, since the metropolitan governments issued slave codes and were more likely to protect slaves from the excesses of white colonists. Indeed, as Macaya, one of the African-born slave leaders of the Haitian Revolution said, "I am the subject of three kings: the King of Kongo, the king of France, and the King of Spain." Slaves and free people of color in Cuba also identified with kings, which makes sense when one remembers that the US and Britain were still pushing for slavery, although both officially ended the slave trade.
The paradox of free black Floridians choosing Cuba rather than staying and becoming African-Americans lies in the increasingly racist society that was developing in Cuba at the time. For instance, between 1790 and 1820, over 300,000 enslaved Africans were imported to toil on sugar plantations and sugar mills for white elites. Prior to the 19th century, Cuba possessed a large free black population with access to social mobility through militias. They played a vital role defending Havana from the British in the 1760s and because of their military service, the special status it conferred on black men, and free black representation in many trades, free people of color in Cuba were socially superior to free blacks in most Caribbean islands. However, the rise of sugar, which is made with blood, depended on the Africanization of Cuba.
As one can probably imagine, the horrible spectacle of an independent black state to the east (Haiti), a large free black population used to some social mobility and independence, and massive numbers of enslaved Africans with little knowledge of the Spanish language and culture frightened white Cubans. This entailed the effective curtailment of military exemptions and autonomy for free blacks. So its interesting that free blacks from Florida chose exile in Cuba in 1821 while the colony had already turned to African slave labor for the growth of sugar plantations. Free blacks and mulattoes still had cofradias and cabildos to increase social cohesion and for mutual aid, but they could no longer expect the old 3-tiered racial system. In fact, Cuba became similar to the 2-tier racial order extant in the United States. Blacks could no longer move as freely, associate with others autonomously from the Church or white authorities, move freely, carry arms, associate themselves with abolitionist sentiments from Britain or the US, etc.
In summation, Landers book is a success. She efficaciously elucidates black actions and reactions to the wider world around them during a revolutionary phase in world history. In fact, she demonstrates the importance and historical agency of Afro-descended groups in resisting American expansionism in Florida, slavery in Haiti, Cuba, and Florida, and their multiple tactics for doing so. Blacks from the American South fled to Florida since it was a southern underground railroad, and they defended and fought for Spanish colonial officials and indigenous groups to preserve their liberty. However, one should never assume these free blacks and maroons always fought as subaltern groups for Indians and Spaniards. Black men such as Abraham formed their own villages and towns in the midst of Indian villages and often led indigenous groups because of their relationships with chiefs. For example, Abraham led Indians against Andrew Jackson in the Seminole Wars, and played a huge role in the eventual resettlement of the Seminoles and their black allies to Oklahoma in the Trail of Tears. Of course American records from the 1810s and 1820s refer to powerful black leaders like Abraham as "slaves" of the Indians yet the writers don't seem to notice the contradiction of black "slaves" leading Indians. Landers's coverage of the Haitian Revolution was unfortunately incomplete, but she does get across the importance of recognizing other lesser-known heroes and leaders of the movement. Men like Biassou played a huge role in organizing the early revolts in 1791 into a larger movement in the northern plains of Saint Domingue. His decision to fight for Spain against France and Britain was pragmatic, given the chaos of the times.
All things considered, kudos to Landers for writing this good overview of black Creoles in the circum-Caribbean area during this time. Fighting for the US was irrational to most blacks since they all knew their only role in American society was slavery. Therefore blacks took the initiative and chose allies who would best protect their interests and liberty. This entailed violent revolution in Haiti and fighting for distant monarchs who were counter-revolutionary. However, some blacks embraced aspects of the Age of Revolution, such as abolitionism and liberalism. Abolitionist newspapers and letters were read by literate blacks in Cuba, for example, who would become targets of repression by the Cuban government after several slave revolts and conspiracies shook the island.