- The Maroons of Prospect Bluff and Their Quest for Freedom in the Atlantic World by Nathaniel Millett
Until recent decades, Florida historians minimized, misrepresented, or ignored the contributions and experiences of Africans and African Americans. Beginning in the 1960s with the work of Joe M. Richardson, however, that situation slowly began to change. Over the following decades, excellent scholarship from Daniel L. Schafer, Jane L. Landers, Larry E. Rivers, and others has altered perspectives in dramatic fashion. Progress has come so far as to spark a backlash of sorts, with commentators here and there insisting that emphasis on black agency and black involvement has been overblown. Within the community of Florida scholars, this reaction seems to reflect a response similar to the one that occurred within the political sphere after Barack Obama’s election as president.
The combination of progress and backlash interestingly and happily has served as catalyst for the emergence of several dynamic researchers, thinkers, and contributors. Frank Marotti in recent monographs has exploded myths about the paucity or unavailability of pertinent source materials. Meanwhile, journalist T. D. Allman has offered an articulate narrative history of the state that, sometimes sounding the thunderous tone of a jeremiad, takes on directly and powerfully the naysayers of the past and of the present. Despite grumbling from the usual quarters, Allman’s effort has garnered him a National Book Award nomination.
Now, Nathaniel Millett has stepped forward with his path-finding volume The Maroons of Prospect Bluff and Their Quest for Freedom in the Atlantic World. Millett’s focus centers on what history has called the “Negro Fort,” which, in 1815 and 1816, stood on the Apalachicola River’s [End Page 456] east bank in Florida’s Panhandle region about fifteen miles from the Gulf of Mexico. The outpost’s story and the facts surrounding its destruction by United States military forces on a sweltering day in July 1816 have remained clouded. A 1990 Gulf Coast Historical Review essay by James W. Covington constitutes the principal study, and although scholars have supplemented Covington’s contributions, only Millett has undertaken the in-depth research in domestic and foreign archives necessary for truly meaningful understanding.
Millett’s phenomenal discoveries will change our understanding of why Andrew Jackson perceived Prospect Bluff as a sufficient threat to order its elimination despite the necessity of crossing an international border. “It was an empowered anti-slavery community,” Millett explains, “located within a combustible Atlantic-borderland area that divided two other nations’ territory” (185). Further, it represented “materially the wealthiest maroon settlement in the history of the Western Hemisphere” (175). So powerful was Prospect Bluff’s “economic might” that it was regarded as “undermining the entire economy of Spanish West Florida” (181). The fort and much of the wealth—mostly in guns, ammunition, and supplies—were the gift of British colonel Edward Nicolls. In the aftermath of the War of 1812 and the Battle of New Orleans, Nicolls, a fervent abolitionist, conveyed his personal antislavery ideology to Prospect Bluff’s residents, leaving them with a “multi-dimensional version of freedom” and adamant at “claiming their perceived rights as British subjects” (195).
The author has taken admirable care to place his findings and conclusions solidly within the context of hemispheric maroon experience. Not only did the settlement’s wealth set it apart, so, too, did its worldview and size. The respect held by Prospect Bluff residents for Nicholls provided a key element. “No maroons in Atlantic history,” Millett explains, “developed even a vaguely similar relationship with whites” (101). Moreover, the fort boasted “one of the largest black military units in the Western Hemisphere” (104). A formidable bastion of freedom, indeed.
All of this will make scholars rethink our understanding of Prospect Bluff, English recruitment efforts in the Southeast, American reactions to perceived threats, the magnitude of slave resistance, black agency, and—as Millett notes—southern slavery itself. The text addresses two “central questions” about Cotton South slavery: “what were slave rebels aiming for?” and “how...