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ch a p ter 1 Self-Emancipators across North America Although a slave without men’s right am I, My will of steel can reach the starry high. —antar ah [To organize in America] would greatly endanger the liberty of thousands of self-emancipated persons. —henry bibb Sam Castle (son): What are Borders? Maurice Castle (father): It’s where one country ends and another begins. —gr aham greene Most fugitive slaves in nineteenth-century continental North America did not leave the colonial or independent polity. Slave escapees in British Canada, Spanish Florida and Mexico, and independent Mexico stayed within national/ colonial boundaries. Most scholars agree that fugitive slaves escaped southern U.S. slavery for local, regional, or northern destinations during the antebellum era.1 Whether they traveled near or far, slave runaways carved out niches of freedom within the territorial confines of the colonial society or nation-state. Their search for the starry high was confined to national parameters, albeit ones in which borders between bondage and freedom were constantly shifting. At the same time, however, a significant number of self-emancipators crossed national borders in search of permanent freedom. Some crossed international borders in continental North America.2 We begin with examples of self-liberators crossing borders in search of individual liberation. During the nineteenth century, territorial conflict abounded between the British, Spanish , Americans, and Mexicans. This conflict provided a gateway to freedom for thousands of self-emancipators who gravitated toward free areas beyond the borders of the U.S. republic, including Spanish Florida, independent Mexico, and British Canada. This demographic undercurrent deserves greater attention than it has received thus far. The second section of this chapter examines the 22 freedom’s seekers consequences of these activities in the diplomatic arena, especially attempts to agree on international treaties to extradite and prevent fugitive flight. The role of self-liberators in provoking these agreements has not been sufficiently understood, and the conventional treatment of these treaties within national frameworks ignores their transcontinental context. The third part analyzes the contributions of self-emancipators to antislavery mobilization across borders. These organizing efforts in different nations, colonies, and territories took place because such efforts were either illegal or difficult to accomplish within the existing confines of the nation-state. The concluding section examines the creation of free settlements across borders, especially in Florida, Canada West, and Mexico. These black communities served as beacons of freedom and were among the first post-emancipation settlements on the North American continent.3 This chapter’s major objective is a cross-national examination of movement, law, activism, and community-formation in support of the practice of transnational history. i. south and north of the border During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, imperial tensions between the British and the Spanish facilitated self-emancipation from the British mainland colonies of South Carolina and Georgia to Spanish Florida. In 1688 and 1689, for instance, colonial officials noted that fugitive slaves had sought refuge in the Spanish colony.4 In 1728, English planter Thomas Elliott and others requested government assistance because they had “fourteen Slaves Runaway to St. Augustine.” That same year, the colonial governor of South Carolina complained to the London colonial office that the Spanish were “receivieing [sic] and harbouring all our Runaway Negroes.”5 The extent of this flight, together with the usefulness of fugitives as laborers, translators, and settlers, encouraged the Spanish to establish a fugitive slave settlement near Saint Augustine called Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose in 1739. Although the English established the colony of Georgia as a buffer during the early 1730s, this simply transferred the fugitive “problem” to the southern border of the new colony. The fugitive “problem” disappeared with the British annexation of Florida in 1763, when fugitive slaves were no longer able to seek Spanish asylum, until Florida was returned to Spain at the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783.6 The establishment of a slaveholding U.S. republic did not reduce national rivalries and guaranteed the continuation of self-liberation. During the War self-emancipators across north america 23 of 1812, international conflict between the United States and Great Britain facilitated the southward escape of slaves to Spanish Florida. Self-emancipators continued to flee the plantations and farms of the southeastern seaboard, with mixed results. Some obtained and retained their freedom by mixing with the Seminole Indians and fought in two major wars (the First and...


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