- The Battle of Negro Fort: The Rise and Fall of a Fugitive Slave Community by Matthew J. Clavin
Matthew J. Clavin. New York: New York University Press, 2019. x and 253 pp., figs., bibliog., notes, and index. $24.95 hardcover (ISBN 9781479837335).
Two centuries after the destruction of Negro Fort, there is little evidence of its prior existence in Florida. However, during its brief existence, the maroon community at Prospect Bluff, referred to as “Negro Fort,” embodied a Black freedom and alliance with Indigenous peoples that powerfully challenged the foundations of American society in slavery and settler colonialism. To remove this refuge for escaped slaves, the US military, under the command of General Andrew Jackson, invaded Spanish Florida, destroying the free Black community. Through this extra-territorial extension of its authority, the US entrenched its commitments to slavery and white settler colonialism, foreclosing Black spaces of freedom and securing the interests of white slave owners.
In The Battle of Negro Fort, Matthew Clavin examines the history of the maroon community on Prospect Bluff, from its creation, through its destruction, to its eventual legacy in debates over abolition. Clavin presents the narrative chronologically, beginning with its formation during the War of 1812. At the end of the war, the British left the fort to the maroon and Choctaw families that had joined the war effort. Clavin relays the limited information available on life in the fort. However, the bulk of the narrative details American perceptions of the fort as a threat to the security of white settler society and the brutal violence that the US military employed to destroy it and hunt down any survivors. The epilogue closes the narrative by detailing how the abolitionist movement used the story of the destruction of Negro Fort in its campaigns against slavery.
Clavin’s book resonates with themes in recent geographic scholarship on Black and Indigenous geographies. While studies of maroon communities have historically focused on Latin America, recent scholarship by figures such as Millett (2013), Diouf (2014), and Sayers (2016) has emphasized the defiantly free communities built by fugitive slaves in the US. Thinking through marronage, critical geographers have sought to stress the importance of Black struggles for autonomy, as well as how these struggles have been shaped by particular morphologies of landscape, frequently associated with swamps and jungles (Bledsoe 2017, Wright 2020). The Battle of Negro Fort further [End Page 193] extends consideration to the political geographies that conditioned the possibilities and constraints that shaped maroon life.
Foundationally, the historical emergence of Negro Fort was structured by the context of imperial and colonial rivalry in the borderlands. Thus, the early chapters of The Battle of Negro Fort follow Adelman and Aron’s (1999) classic argument regarding how the overlap of different imperial regimes increased the agency of oppressed communities, which could leverage competing colonial interests against one another. While Adelman and Aron highlight how Indigenous peoples negotiated the spaces between empires, Clavin documents how the British conflict with the nascent American republic in the War of 1812 created the conditions for the maroon community at Prospect Bluff to come into existence. In its southern offensive along the Gulf, the British originally established the fort on the Apalachicola River within the Spanish territory of West Florida. Spanish imperial power was waning and it had limited capacity to control its claimed territory, as well as a shared interest with the British in containing the American regime. In the war, the British recruited fugitive slaves to fight against the US, forming the Corps of Colonial Marines. At the cessation of the conflict, the British discharged these troops, leaving substantial weaponry to its former allies, who then established a free Black community around the fort. It would become the largest and most heavily fortified maroon community in the history of the territory that would become the United States.
Clavin’s recounting of the story of Negro Fort and its eventual destruction demonstrates the complex political geographies that emerged in the borderlands, as fugitive slaves negotiated relationships to Indigenous peoples as well as colonial and imperial regimes. In...