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Comparisons And Synthesis Of Slave Systems

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The West Florida frontier area presented both slaves and slaveowners with a unique set of problems as they grappled with an influx of Americans into an area under the legal control of the Spanish. They lived in an area that from 1785-1810 was controlled by the Spanish legal system, but whose population retained many of the sensibilities of American slavery. This dualism created a unique set of assumptions regarding the role of slaves in the social and legal system. At the same time, the American and then French Revolutions spawned slave revolts in Pointe Coupee across the river, St. Domingue, a major trading area for Louisianans, and back in Virginia, from where many of West Florida's residents had migrated. The adult slaves, predominantly African, constituted a foreign population within the borders of West Florida. Between 1785, at the beginning of British Tory migration into West Florida, and 1807, when Louisianans firmly protected slavery through the Black Code and the Act of 1806, the institution of plantation slavery in the southwest was characterized by instability for masters living in a land controlled by a foreign government.

The immigration into and settlement of West Florida by Europeans is perhaps as confusing as the political and geographical wrangling. Spain initiated colonization of this region on a large scale beginning in 1778 when two thousand immigrants arrived and populated lower Louisiana and West Florida[1]. During the same decade the British promoted migration, using the headright system to encourage loyalists and their slaves to enter West Florida en masse[2]. According to one estimate, the entire West Florida area including the area from the Mississippi River in the West, to the Chattahoochee in the East, North to present northern boundary Florida, contained some seven thousand residents. A more general estimate places the population at nearly 60-70% British loyalist refugees from the thirteen American colonies cum states[3]. Feliciana Parish, north of Baton Rouge and part of that city's district, was first permanently settled by Europeans in 1785[4]. A river stop along the Mississippi, served as a waystation for flatboats on their way from Natchez to New Orleans[5]. Plots of land in the district ranged in size from 31 to two thousand arpents. Twenty-one of the plots listed contained no indication of size. Of the 161 plots only thirty-nine, or just under 25%, were larger than the initial 800 arpent limit imposed by Spanish law. One hundred four plots, or 65%, were smaller, and eighteen were exactly 800 arpents[6]. Of the thirty-nine plots above 800 arpents, twenty-two, or 56%, measured exactly one thousand arpents. Women held title to twelve of the 161 plots of land. The largest single landowner was John Turnbull, who held two separate 2000 arpent plots. Although several landholders owned more than one plot of land, only a few managed to accumulate more than 1000 total arpents before 1799. The average plot was 644 arpents, or about 766 acres-large enough to comfortably support plantation slavery and host of products grown in the area between 1785 and 1810 such as cattle, sugar, indigo, cotton, corn and wheat.

The social and legal status of slaves in the Baton Rouge district under the Spanish presents historians with something of a conundrum. The Spanish government operated under the aegis of the Siete Partidas as administered by the King's agents in the New World[7]. Yet those laws did not include derecho indiano, or law of the Indies, which came about as a result of the need for a strong body of law formulated to apply only to the New World[8]. While derecho indiano allowed New World laws to diverge from Iberian Spanish Law, the Partidas remained the foundation of the Spanish legal system in the New World, and informed Spanish legal and social relations with their slaves[9]. A body of law that protected slaves, the Partidas, recognized the slave as a human being with some rights, provided for the removal of slaves from cruel masters, and tried to protect the slave family from abuse at the hands of either the master or any other freeman[10]. For example, myriad laws existed that governed the ways in which slaves might become free. However, coartaciуn, the right of self-purchase, was perhaps the most important example of the differences between the American and Spanish systems. By Spanish law, any slave who so desired could purchase themselves out of slavery using what we might call an installment plan. In short, slavery under the Spanish system functioned as something of a contractual arrangement where the state could function as an intermediary between master and slave. The implications for African slavery in Louisiana under the Spanish are varied, but for the Spanish slavery did not carry quite the same stigma as it did for the Americans, and at the same time, for the Spanish "freedom" was the natural state for all people-slavery was not.

In this case the flexible legal system begat a social system that might have been considered at best excessively permissive and at worst almost sacrilegious by American standards. Because the law did not firmly define race and ethnic status with regard to slavery, the social status of persons of color in the Spanish empire, from an American standpoint, was similarly flexible. The Spanish social system that created and maintained slavery and race relations was characterized by fluid racial lines, and a slave system that acted not as much as a system of racial control but rather a more purely economic system that could be exploited by black, white, mulatto or Indian, as long as the slaveowner adhered to the social mores, and abided by the forms of the Siete Partidas. In practice, the Partidas, and the social system it gave rise to, could not mitigate the essential brutality of the system of slavery, which, like all other slave systems in the New World, relied on abuse and punishment as a means of control in the mines, cane and cotton fields, as well as other jobs in which slaves found themselves. But the process engendered by the Partidas, and the basis they formed for the derecho indio places the Baton Rouge district, and by extension the whole of Spanish Florida, in something of an exceptional position with regard to American history.

When the United States took control of Louisiana in 1803, it tried to institute Spanish law in the territory, and may have assumed that the American forms of race relations would follow, although the fear among inhabitants was that Jefferson would ban slavery in the new territories, citing as precedent the actions of the Continental Congress with regard to the Northwest Territories[11]. Indeed, the United States had banned new slave importations into the Louisiana territory, and Jefferson endorsed closing the foreign trade into Louisiana altogether. The 1808 slave law for the most part was based on the more stringent

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