Anniversary Post: Slavery in Florida

Welcome to Florida: the SLAVERY StateWhen I started the second year of my anniversary posts, I had promised myself that I was going to make some of them really short. I don’t need to write 500 or 600 words about everything. But it goes totally against my whole conception of having a blog. I hate it when people produce blog posts that are 90% quotes. I understand: readers seem to like this. But to me, it’s just a new form of plagiarism. Just the same, one sentence posts that link somewhere else strike me as lazy. So I find myself forever at least writing a couple hundred words.

When I noticed that on this day back in 1513, Juan Ponce de León first made sight of Florida, I wanted to make a complete post out of one sentence, “On this day in 1513, the slave trade started in Florida.” But I went back and checked what I wrote last year. It was, Anniversary Post: Western Discovery of Florida. But it went along with that great image on the left that I did in Photoshop.

Anyway, here’s some of what I wrote last year, which I think is pretty good:

On this day in 1513, Juan Ponce de León first made sight of what would become the political laughing stock of the United States: Florida!

Ponce was of noble birth. So after there were no more wars to fight at home, he signed up on Columbus’ second voyage to the New World. After about a decade of roaming around spreading disease and probably just outright murdering local peoples, he found himself in Hispaniola where he was put in charge of killing the local people who, for some reason, had a problem with being enslaved. As a result, Ponce got into the slave owner aristocrat business himself.

Anyway, enslaving populations to mine for gold can only keep a man’s attention for so long. So at the urging of the King of Spain, he went off looking for other lands and more people to “exploit.” And that’s how he discovered Florida. The native people they met there seemed to have quickly figured out that Ponce and company were not to be trusted. Hostilities erupted. After eight months of exploring, they returned Puerto Rico. Then Ponce went back to Spain and then back to Puerto Rico. But don’t worry, this story has a happy ending.

In 1521, Ponce put together an expedition of a couple hundred men to go back to Florida to colonize the place. The Calusa people attacked them, leading to Ponce being mortally wounded. The expedition retreated to Cuba, where Ponce died. Of course, it isn’t that happy a story, because eventually the Calusa were wiped out. I’m not saying that they were wonderful people or anything. But at least they didn’t travel all over the world enslaving people.

Today we morn this important moment in the European slave trade.

There really is something wrong with human beings.

4 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Slavery in Florida

  1. The Spanish of that period seem to have sired more than their share of notorious asswipes. Of course the old Calusa apparently kept slaves themselves. On the other hand, they didn’t much care for missionaries, so they must have had some good qualities too.

    People are the dickens, aren’t they? Just when you think you know who to root for, you find out about kapos and Clarence Thomas.

    • As I noted: the Calusa were hardly a lovely people. But I’ve always found the kind of Trojan War slavery more acceptable. It’s: you lost the war, you are now a slave. But with these things, it was the introduction of racism: you are subhuman so you are a slave. The Calusa had the Trojan War kind of slaves. Not that I’m keen on that either.

      I don’t really understand it though. Why not one big orgy rather than slavery? I’ve come to believe that it really is all about the nature of capitalism, even if it wasn’t as advanced as it now is.

  2. As someone who studies North American prehistory for a living, I’m keen to push back on two dichotomous myths regarding native peoples in the Western Hemisphere. The first one is obvious: the whole brooding savages story promulgated by Hollywood westerns since before films had sound. The other one that’s nearly as common, especially nowadays, is the image of First Peoples as totally peaceful egalitarian hippies in equilibrium with the natural environment.

    The region in which I live and work was once the domain of the Haudenosaunee Confederation (better known by their French-contrived pejorative the Iroquois), particularly the Seneca Nation. The Seneca were reknown for their prowess in combat and had a reputation for extreme brutality. That being the case, no native tribe rivaled their European contemporaries in terms of horrific violence, particularly that which was related to warfare.

    This had to do largely with the sociopolitical and economic development of Europe since the collapse of the Roman Empire. It was a backward region, far less advanced than, say, China or the Mideast. Nevertheless, as a patchwork of warring city-states and kingdoms in which trade for valuable Asian goods was largely controlled by the Ottomans and a few Italian middlemen, Europeans were incentivized to explore for routes to new trade opportunities. Furthermore, the fragmented nature of Europe’s political reality produced rapid technological innovation, largely in military hardware, resulting in an arms race. This tumultuous existence contributed to the concept of total warfare and extreme brutality, even toward civilians. Their treatment of natives after coming to dominance within this system comes as no surprise. I don’t think people are inherently bad, but rather the products of the environments they exist in.

    A major point that needs to be made here is that, during the European contact period, tribes, bands, and nations across North America varied enormously. There were hunter-gatherer tribes with cultural stability to such a degree that they still were using atlatls for hunting circa 1600 CE! There were egalitarian horticulturalists, pastoralists, chiefdoms, confederations, patriarchal societies and matrilineal-matrilocal complexes. Their relationship to nature and their ideas of war and issues like slavery were as diverse as the tribes were.

    All that being said, no tribes waged war on the scale or to the degree that Europeans did. Even the Seneca were shocked by some of the things they witnessed the European interlopers do. Native understandings of war and the ways they took part in it were vastly different than the Europeans’. Furthermore, by the time some of the earliest pseudo-ethnographic descriptions and historical accounts of Native Americans were written, Europeans had had a tremendous influence on the native peoples of North America. It must also be pointed out the racist, ethnocentric lens through which such primary sources were framed. They must be taken with a grain of salt.

    The point here is that Native Americans before and around contact (taking into account the vast tribal differences) were neither brutal savages nor peaceful hippies with no environmental impact. They fought plenty of wars for thousands of years before Europeans came around and stirred the pot, and they altered the environment to such a degree that vast areas were deforested and shaped for exploitation. On the other hand, war was different for them. It was not about slaughtering every man, women, and child of an enemy. Often, many tribes would take the women and children of a conquered enemy and integrate them into their community with full status. Some even did this for the men. Many bands and tribes were also very egalitarian, especially before sedentism became the norm with the domestication and dispersal of maize. And even in the most patriarchal Indian societies, women had status beyond that of their contemporaries across the pond. The truth, then is far more complex and grey than people like to believe.

    • Thank you for this; it’s great! I wish you had been around to help out when I was at war with libertarians after I wrote Ayn Rand and Indians. The biggest thing that bothers me about this is the thinking that the existing tribes were one block. What I get from libertarians all the time is, “Indians didn’t believe in property rights so it was okay to steal their land!” First, of course, is the idea of the Indian monolith. It always reminds me of something my high school math teacher said all the time, “All Indians walk in single file; at least the only one I ever saw did!” But the other is that the tribes did very much believe in property rights. If you are farming a piece of land, you do not think it is acceptable for someone to come in at harvest time and take it all away. That’s been seen as theft from at least the neolithic period onward.

      I am, obviously, no kind of expert. But having grown up in an area populated by the Pomo people, I got a broader education. Sadly, most people I run into do either fall into the stereotypes of John Wayne movies and F-Troop, or peyote smoking hippies. Over the last decade, I’ve tried to learn more. It’s never surprised me just how diverse the cultures were. But what did surprise me (it shouldn’t have) was how delicate a lot of the diplomacy was between tribes. And that got all the more complex when westerners came — even when it wasn’t their intent to enslave or kill the people who were already there.

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