Fort Mose. Where Freed Black Africans Enlisted with the Spanish and Fought Against the British.

We wanted to do something to celebrate what would have been Ronnie James Dio’s 80th birthday, had he not died from stomach cancer in 2010. We decided to go on a road trip with Ronnie James Dio as our soundtrack. Our destination: Fort Mose, St Augustine, FL.

St Augustine is a fascinating place. It is the oldest still existing European city in the United States. Founded in 1565 by Spanish colonizers, St Augustine became the fortified town that served as a bulwark against the British colonies further north. Apart from a brief stint under the British between 1763 and 1783, Florida remained under Spanish rule until 1822 when the former Spanish provinces were formally made territories of the United States. Florida became the 27th state of the union in 1845.

The British and Spanish Empires clashed several times at St Augustine. To recruit soldiers and also as a jab to the British, the Spanish let it be known among the enslaved population of the Carolinas and Georgia that those who managed to escape to Florida and St Augustine would be granted their freedom provided that they swore loyalty to the king of Spain and converted to Catholicism.

The first enslaved Africans to successfully escape arrived in St Augustine in 1687. The group—eight men, two women, and one child—were the first of over a hundred people who made it through. In 1738, they were given their own town just north of St Augustine. It was named Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose. The purpose of the town was to serve as a first defense against British attack from the north. This is why the place is better known as Fort Mose (MOH-see).

Reenactors of the Spanish militia of free Black Africans at Fort Mose.
Source: Fort Mose Historical Society.

Fort Mose developed into a thriving agricultural community where people started families and grew crops on their own farms. Though located outside of St Augustine, life at Fort Mose was deeply connected to the town and to the Native Americans in the area. And even though those who escaped from the British colonies were granted their freedom upon arrival in Florida, this is not to say that slavery did not exist in the Spanish colony. Parts of St Augustine’s and Fort Mose’s populations were enslaved, but under Spanish law, not British. At the same time, there was a population of free Black Africans in St Augustine who had never been enslaved, but who had enlisted with the Spanish in the Mediterranean.

There were two settlements at Fort Mose, today known as Fort Mose I and Fort Mose II. Fort Mose I was destroyed when the British tried to take St Augustine in 1740 and failed. The population of Ft Mose was moved into St Augustine where they remained until 1752 when they were ordered to return to Ft Mose and rebuild it. Ft Mose was abandoned in 1763 when the British temporarily took control of Florida. Knowing that the British would enslave all Black inhabitants of the area, the people of Ft Mose relocated to Cuba.

Today, Fort Mose is a designated Florida Historic Park with a museum and a boardwalk to where the fort used to be. Nothing is visible above ground but extensive archaeological excavations have revealed much about the everyday life there. The museum at the park is small but informative. There is a boardwalk that will take you to an outlook over the area of Fort Moses I and II.

Fort Mose II.
The second settlement at Fort Mose was built on the island straight ahead. During Fort Mose’s existence, the fort was surrounded by agricultural fields and pastures. Today, these are brackish marshes caused by rising sea levels and human interference with Florida’s natural ecosystems.
Photo: Erika Harlitz Kern

Fort Mose is an important part of North American colonial history that speaks of the role that Black Africans played in the early hybrid communities that developed as a result of European imperialism. History is not a monolith, and the more we learn about the complexities of the past, the richer we are for it.

Sources:

Florida State Parks, “History of Fort Mose.”

Fort Mose Historical Society, “The Fort Mose Story.”

Florida Museum, “Fort Mose. America’s Black Colonial Fortress of Freedom.”

Wikipedia, “Fort Mose Historic State Park.”

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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When It’s in the Walls… A Review of Nell Irivin Painter’s THE HISTORY OF WHITE PEOPLE.

From letters of recommendation for college applications to buying insurance, scratch the surface of any American institution and you will find racism, antisemitism, or both. Over the past number of years, voices have been raised in shock over the increase in American society and political discourse of overt White supremacy, the racist belief that White people are superior to all other races. This is not who we are! these voices exclaim. It’s un-American to be a racist! But as Nell Irvin Painter demonstrates in her book The History of White People, being a racist, and being a White supremacist, is as American as apple pie.

Though published already in 2010, Painter’s history of the White race in America is as relevant as ever. Flipping the coin on the historiography of race, Painter, Professor Emerita at Princeton University, puts the White race under the microscope to investigate how the group seen as the default in American culture invented itself.

Painter’s findings are as fascinating as they are revolting. Over and over, Painter demonstrates how scholars, intellectuals, philanthropists, and others turned themselves into intellectual contortionists in order to build pseudo-scientific arguments that prove why they, because of their pale skin and Protestant Christian beliefs, are superior to all other groups, especially Jews and Blacks. Particularly interesting to read is how these labyrinthine discussions over time created a contradictory, yet clear, origin of White Americans in Scandinavia.

As racism turned into race science, scholars made use of eugenics, genealogy, phrenology, anthropology, and history to create an internal hierarchy within the White race in America where Nordics, Anglo-Saxons, and Caucasians are the top three best groups to belong to. These three groups are intellectual products with no connection to reality, either in the United States or Europe, but as we have daily proof, the belief in them and the violence that this belief provokes is very much real. As Painter so convincingly demonstrates, even those of us who refute the ideas of racism and White supremacy can’t escape them, because racism and White supremacy are built into the walls of that shining city on a hill we call America.

The History of White People is essential reading to understanding racism, antisemitism, and White Supremacy in the United States today.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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History Judges But Who Is Presiding Part 2: Joan Wallach Scott’s ON THE JUDGMENT OF HISTORY

In 2014, I wrote a post here on The Boomerang about a phrase I kept hearing and which puzzled me, “History will judge…” Pundits and politicians alike were throwing this phrase around as if there in the future existed a panel of historians expected to pass judgment on humanity based on our actions (or in-actions).

Since I wrote that blog post six years ago, this phrase has come into even heavier rotation as chaos and morally ambiguous behavior became the norm on behalf of members of our executive branch, and, to some extent, our legislative branch as well.

I am not alone in thinking about the use of this phrase. Historian and Professor Emerita Joan Wallach Scott became puzzled by it in 2019 when a friend of hers commented on the anti-climax of the Mueller Report by saying that history would judge those who worked to corrupt the democracy of the United States.

This exchange sent Wallach Scott on an investigative journey to find the origins and the meaning of the concept of history as an agent of judgment. The result of that journey is the book, On the Judgment of History (Columbia University Press, 2020).

To investigate the meaning of this concept, Wallach Scott presents three case studies–the Nuremberg Trials following World War II, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa following the dismantling of Apartheid, and the movement for Reparations in the United States. What binds these case studies together is that they “explore the different ways in which the idea of the state as the embodiment and enactment of history operated.” (p. xx). Moreover, they engage directly with the nation state as the telos of history; they highlight the connection between nation states and racism; and they demonstrate the use of the nation state as the impetus for what the people involved intend to achieve. In the case of the Nuremberg trials, the goal is the conviction of the war criminals who perpetrated the Holocaust. In the case of South Africa’s TRC, a path forward out of Apartheid. In the case of the Reparations Movement, a reckoning with the United States’ original sin, slavery.

The case studies are based on extensive and impeccable research, as would be expected of a historian of Wallach Scott’s caliber. It raises several important questions, explicitly (“Could the nation state exist without racism at its core?” (p. xxii)) and implicitly (What is the purpose of history?) In her case studies, Wallach Scott demonstrates how history has been utilized (Nuremberg), deferred (South Africa), and challenged (the US). In the end, however, the case studies only partially succeed in addressing the issue at hand, namely why we today refer to history as an impartial, moral judge.

Wallach Scott shows us where the idea of History as Judge comes from by stating that it “is associated with the Enlightenment belief that there is but one History, which moves in an ever-improving direction: forward, upward, cumulatively positive.” (p. xv) Because of its origins in the Enlightenment, this One History of forward-moving positivity is inherently European, male, white, colonial, Christian (Protestant, to be exact), intrinsically intertwined with the development of the nation state, and the view of the nation state as the culmination of human civilization (or the nation state as telos).

To answer the question of why this phrase has caught on the way it has, Wallach Scott states that in an increasingly secular age, History has become the “righteous Judge of the Universe.” (p. 76) That is to say, where people used to turn to God on Judgment Day for the separation of sheep and goats, we now turn to History in a future deferred.

These conclusions have led me to the following conclusions of my own.

First, as Wallach Scott concludes, the idea of History as a moral judge is an expression of increased secularism in the United States. But, it is also an expression of the normalization of Apocalyptic Christianity in the American mainstream. Writes Wallach Scott, “The unveiling of the role of race in the economic history of the United States explodes long-standing, congratulatory progressive histories as myth. [—] This acknowledgment is a form of restitution and it opens the possibility for reclaiming the lost promise of justice, the messianic hope of the judgment of history.” (My italics.) Wallach Scott’s decision not to delve deeper into this view of history is the book’s lost opportunity.

Second, there is a conspiracy at the heart of American history and the argument over what that conspiracy is, is the reason for the seemingly irreconcilable polarization in American society today. I agree with Wallach Scott’s conclusion that “appeals to the judgment of history […] function more as consolatory polemic in the present than as evidence of deep confidence in the future.” (p. 82) There is no doubt that American society is in crisis. Until we can start having a constructive conversation about the buried secrets of our past, we will continue to be a society in crisis. History will not save us, because, as Wallach Scott also states, History with a capital H is written by a group of highly trained and specialized professionals known as historians. It is not a force of its own.

Finally, the idea of History as a Moral Judge of Good and Evil is an American idea and based on American values, which in the mainstream are Christian (Protestant, to be exact) values. Of the three case studies that Wallach Scott presents, two use history to pass judgment and one does not. It is not a coincidence that the two in question (Nuremberg, Reparations) involve Americans in leading roles. The third (the TRC) was an internal South African affair. As a historian trained and educated entirely outside of the American educational system, I reacted to the use of the phrase “History will judge” already in 2014 because the idea that such a notion is even possible was (and is) completely alien to me.

On the Judgment of History by Joan Wallach Scott is a thought-provoking book that opens up for discussion on the role of history and what history is and can be. Ultimately, the book misses its mark because in its choice of case studies, it becomes a demonstration of the belief that the internal concerns of the United States are also the concerns of the world.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Quirky History: The American Revolution According to William Blake

This year I celebrated Independence Day with Quirk Books and William Blake.

Enjoy!

Quirky History: The American Revolution According to William Blake

The American Revolution was all about a bunch of freedom-loving guys with names like George, Benjamin, Alexander, and Thomas kicking out the British and declaring independence on July 4. Right?

Not if you ask English poet William Blake (1757–1827).

America a Prophecy front page

If you would like to read the entire post, please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.