Series: Fighting for Freedom: African Americans and the War of 1812

Sanctuary in the Spanish Empire: An African American officer earns freedom in Florida

By Gene Allen Smith, Texas Christian University

Though the United States did not officially declare war on Spain, its southern neighbor, during this era of conflict, border problems along the gulf frontier exacerbated tensions and prompted the Patriot War of 1812–13. During this regional conflict, American settlers living in Florida organized an uprising against Spanish rule and coaxed US forces to intervene on their behalf.

St. Augustine had mustered an all-black militia unit as early as 1683, and seven years later King Charles II issued a royal proclamation freeing all slaves who fled to Florida and accepted conversion and baptism.

Handwritten Spanish document declaring fugitive slave Prince Witten free
Prince Witten, a fugitive from slavery, successfully petitioned for citizenship in Spanish Florida

State Archives of Florida

These Florida patriots, fearing the chaos in Spain would leave the peninsula vulnerable to foreign occupation, launched a campaign against St. Augustine and the city’s black troops. Enslaved peoples had fled to Florida from the American colonies since the late 1600s and the Spanish government and military had warmly received them as a means of bolstering isolated segments of their far-flung empire. St. Augustine had mustered an all-black militia unit as early as 1683, and seven years later King Charles II issued a royal proclamation freeing all slaves who fled to Florida and accepted conversion and baptism. This proclamation created an atmosphere of acceptance for blacks and mulattoes, and permitted the Spanish to incorporate them into the community by instilling ideas of civic pride and military obligations. Most of these numerous runaways fought against the American patriots in the attempt to protect their tenuous freedom.

Prince Witten, apparently born about 1756 in South Carolina, had escaped from Georgia to Spanish St. Augustine with his family around 1786, after several previously failed attempts. The skilled carpenter registered in 1798 with Florida Governor Vincent Manuel de Zéspedes as required, and soon hired himself out as a carpenter in the area. By 1801 Witten had become a captain of the Florida black militia when his son-in-law Jorge Jacobo assumed command of the unit. Thereafter, Witten distinguished himself, winning accolades from his Spanish rulers and disdain and contempt from his American enemies. Witten commanded the local black militia when they won the most important engagement of the Patriot War in September 1812, and by doing so, he achieved the distinction of becoming a black officer. But unfortunately, Witten’s local accolades could not alter the changing geopolitics of the Gulf Coast of the postwar period when Americans swept across the region and acquired Florida: Witten and his family, along with most of the other St. Augustine blacks, evacuated to Cuba when the Spanish departed in 1821.

Last updated: August 17, 2018