Aiming for Pensacola is a superb addition to the growing body of scholarship on black lives in Florida before the Civil War. Matthew J. Clavin focuses on the late colonial period and the dramatic events associated with the Negro Fort, then provides abundant evidence of escapes from bondage by those who saw Pensacola as a destination in a reverse-direction Underground Railroad, a flow south to the Gulf coast as a port of exit from slavery.
This is almost two books. The first chapters are a synthesis of conditions and events that allowed the British to succeed in their effort to recruit black and Native allies in Spanish Florida to fight against the United States during the War of 1812, leading to the major assertion of black freedom at the Negro Fort. These first chapters are exciting reading, with vivid descriptions of black escape and resistance coupled with Native and foreign support that threatened white control of the early southwestern borderlands of the United States.
Middle and later chapters make a case for Pensacola as a unique location and destination for enslaved Americans seeking freedom, before and after the United States acquired Florida in 1821. With the deepest natural harbor on the Gulf coast, Pensacola had long been important as a naval base. Navy and army installations in Pensacola [End Page 285] provided working opportunities for leased slave labor and self-hired bondsmen, and the enslaved working at the military, naval, and commercial centers created a community of black laborers who could behave as if they were at least partially free.
The Spanish legacy of broader tolerance for free blacks as part of the normal workings of the city also daunted white American authorities. In short, Pensacola had more than its share of “freemen and free-women of various races who subsisted on the margins of society and had no vested interest in maintaining slavery or white supremacy” (p. 6). In addition, the nature of the populations of sailors and soldiers, many from outside the South and with substantial nonwhite ship crews, along with the natural flow of commerce through the port, provided the means and sometimes collaborators for escape.
To live in Pensacola was to be in a place where slavery took many forms, where race could be indistinct, where languages were multiple, a place that was still more Catholic than not, where memories of Spanish times persisted, and where land met sea. It was a place of ambiguity and change, where the flow from bondage to freedom might be undetected or hard to control.
The author presents a wealth of examples of escapes, using newspaper advertisements for recovery of escapees and well-detailed accounts of trials of whites who assisted bondsmen and women to find freedom. What comes through clearly is the courage and determination of black bondsmen and women and, in some cases, the boldness of white collaborators on the paths to freedom.
One may wonder how conditions in Pensacola compared with other ports with similar histories, such as Galveston, St. Augustine, and Fernandina. One may also ask if the chapter titled “Underground Railroad” suggests more systematic organization than truly existed. These questions aside, Aiming for Pensacola presents powerful evidence of the moral tenacity and bodily sacrifices of black Americans who found in this place a theater of opportunity to reach freedom. [End Page 286]
PHILLIP M. SMITH teaches in the Department of History, Texas A&M University–College Station.