- Aiming for Pensacola: Fugitive Slaves on the Atlantic and Southern Frontiers by Matthew J. Clavin
Matthew Clavin provides an insightful study of fugitive slaves in Pensacola, Florida, by offering a corrective on the prevailing narrative of the Underground Railroad and situating it within the historiographies of the Atlantic world, the southern frontier, and interracialism. Clavin explores the development of Pensacola from the colonial period through the Civil War, emphasizing the roles of African Americans in the development of a multiracial society on the fringes of the southern frontier. Importantly, [End Page 578] he shows that Pensacola offers an excellent place to study the effects of the Underground Railroad despite the historiographical emphasis that has centered on the Underground Railroad in the Upper South.
Clavin argues that, over the course of the nineteenth century, Pensacola became an important destination for fugitive slaves who wished to escape slavery but were too far from traditional routes further north. He shows that Pensacola inhabited a space in the minds of slaves and slaveholders alike with a reputation for being both a "launch and a landing for runaway slaves" (1). Furthermore, although Pensacola was in the Deep South, it was also on the fringes of that society, and slave owner control was weaker there than elsewhere. This weakness allowed the fugitive slave issue to become and remain an issue in Pensacola from the colonial period through the Civil War.
Clavin places the expansion of the Underground Railroad and the fugitive slave issue in Pensacola into three historiographical frameworks. First is the Atlantic world, through which he attempts to offer a more cosmopolitan view of a small seaport that illustrates both the nature and role of slavery and just as importantly, slave flight. This framework is especially strong in the first chapter, which explores colonial Pensacola. He shows that, although Pensacola was a backwater relative to its larger neighbors along the Gulf coast, it operated within the Atlantic world, particularly the Black Atlantic. The exposure to the Black Atlantic, in the form of African American sailors, forced "contestation and negotiation" upon the free and enslaved men and women along with their white neighbors (4).
By the early nineteenth century, these negotiations and contestations occurred in a city that was being rapidly integrated into the orbit of the American South. Clavin's second historiographic approach, the southern frontier, is interwoven throughout his study, but is especially relevant in his discussions of the War of 1812, the Negro Fort, and the integration of Florida into the United States. He effectively shows that although Pensacola integrated with the United States, it maintained the "multiracial and multinational" characteristics of an Atlantic community due to the dearth of immigration from the United States (66).
Clavin's treatment of interracialism in Pensacola is perhaps the most engaging area of his study. This third component of his historiography is evident throughout his study, particularly in his discussions of mixed-race worksites, his discussion of the operation of the Underground Railroad in Pensacola and the region surrounding the city, and the Civil [End Page 579] War. Clavin looks at the role of slaves in industry, the use of slaves by the American military, and the mingling of blacks and whites during everyday life. He also examines the importance of interracial cooperation in the functioning of the Underground Railroad and the aiding of fugitive slaves who escaped in and around Pensacola. Clavin convincingly shows that Pensacola inhabited a space in which an "enduring interracial assault on slavery … had always existed on the Southern frontier" (146). His examination of the Civil War in Pensacola emphasizes both the cooperation and tensions bred by interracialism in this region.
Clavin does an excellent job of using Pensacola to show the relatively tenuous control that slave owners had, particularly on the edges of the southern frontier. Moreover, his treatment of interracialism is valuable to understanding southern society, slavery, and the fugitive slave issue as it existed in Pensacola and beyond. Perhaps the weakest part of this study is its...