Slavery & Exodus, Redux et Redux et Redux

The whole Slavery and Exodus thing could almost be the theme of history. Or is that too radical? History working out as the gospel does?

Right now I'm reading Our Land Before We Die: The Proud History of the Seminole Negro, by Jeff Guinn. Before biting into the book I had been under the misapprehension that the Seminole Negro (apparently that's what they call themselves even today, pronouncing Negro as if it were Spanish, neh-gro) had been almost completely assimilated into the Seminole tribes they ran to from Georgia and the Carolinas.

But according to Guinn, this wasn't so, and so the book tells the story of the Seminole Negro as bound up with the Seminole story, but not the same. I know something of the Seminole Wars here in Florida, and I knew that after their second and third peace settlements the last Seminole were either in Oklahoma or hidden in tiny bands deep in the swamps at the southern end of the state. I knew that the Seminole were used as scouts and soldiers to fight Indians still hostile to the Federal government/white settlement, especially the Apache.

As I read the body of the book I'm still reading through the Second Seminole War, but I've already found out a whole bunch I didn't know: that the Seminole Negro left Oklahoma on a seven-hundred mile exodus into Mexico, and fought Indians for the Mexican government; that they were asked by the U.S. government to come into Texas to bring the Apache to bay; that they helped do just that; and that they still conceive of themselves as a separate people, most of them living in the small Texas town of Bracketville.

One of the more interesting ideas addressed, but never head-on, is that of the different conceptions/definitions of slavery in operation. The Seminole (various etymologies for the name, the most romantic, and therefore favorite of mine, is people of the distant fire) hadn't been in Florida for long before the Seminole Wars erupted. The native-to-Florida Timucuan Indian tribes had been decimated by the Spanish and English, mostly due to disease, and left nearly empty land for the losers of Creek civil wars (here's a synopsis of Creek history) to occupy. The "Seminole" began to take in runaway slaves, but did not assimilate them; the Seminole considered the runaways their own slaves and put them in separate villages. Black men were generally prohibited from marrying Seminole women, although there were some exceptions (and some famous exceptions). Seminole slavery basically consisted of taxation. The runaways were told to build villages near the Seminole villages and were given starting seed and sometimes livestock, and made to give a percentage of their produce to the Seminole. They were also expected to fight Seminole enemies. Guinn suggests that it was the exilic nature of Seminole society that made their form of slavery relatively benevolent: the Creek were not at all so merciful, and generally worked any blacks they captured to death. And of course, American southern slavery had been, in that post-Seven Years' War-Louisiana Purchase timeframe, turning into pure chattel slavery.

The number of escaped slaves in Florida in the first decades of the nineteenth century was not as great as some Southerners feared, but their presence there was definitely part of Andrew Jackson's agenda as he extended the Creek Wars into the First Seminole War. There were some hundreds of them. Could it be that these black men in the U.S. were willing to go from slavery to slavery because they were moving to something that was a little more like...dare I say it...biblical slavery? Slavery on the hebraic model? Slavery on the earlier English model of indentured service?

Chattel (cattle) slavery defines the man as property. Perhaps it's fair to say that biblical slavery would call the man's labor, the man's duty, the property.

Of course, Seminole culture was in absolute turmoil at the time, having to redefine itself first as non-Creek, then having to deal in policy and trade with the Spanish and English and Americans, then fighting wars with U.S., in a span of thirty years. Their slave-owning customs were surely more a factor of circumstance than of morality...definitely something worth looking into, though. As it turns out, some of the Seminole seemed to have screwed the Seminole Negro, even if not as badly as many others have throughout history. And when the whole Seminole kit n' caboodle were shipped out to the Creek lands now in Oklahoma, it seems the Creek set the tone in pure-Indian relations with the Seminole Negro. So, once again, history fails to provide laboratory-quality isolated experiments, but what a tantalizing hint of we have here: slavery worked out as "tenant farming" (famously, abusive tenant farming was an Afrikaner ploy to have slavery without "slavery" in early 20th century South Africa), or what is effectively taxation (consider: what makes one a slave to the state?), and the very tiny beginnings of racial assimilation.

Now that could have been really embarrassing to the Christian South.

P.S. Caveat: Our Land Before We Die is a pop/oral history, not at all footnoted, so that I end up saying "according to Guinn" a lot. I don't know much about the topic I just went on and on about.