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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