Caught in the Crucible of Turtle Island: Native Americans and Africans in America
The documentation of interaction between Native Americans and Africans in America during the European colonization of North America is arguably the least known chapter of this land’s social history. Euro-centric historians summarily dismiss references to the symbiosis of Native Americans and Africans in America as being less than factual, if not outright distortions of historical research. The prevailing narrative about this complicated and layered relationship is simply that most Native American tribes traded in and enslaved African men, women, and children.
There is little disagreement among the academic community that the first known inhabitants of the Western hemisphere were Native Americans. Similarly, the fact that the largest single group of inhabitants, residing in North America from the 16th to the 19th century were enslaved Africans is also uncontested. The coming together of these two peoples, both rich in culture, languages, history, creation stories and concepts of the Creator, predated their fateful collision with Europeans. In 1312, Abu Bakari II, the Muslim king of the Mali empire, set sail across the Atlantic Ocean with hundreds of ships of men and women, and hundreds more filled with supplies, to explore the unknown limits of that vast body of water. Evidentiary findings suggest that they landed on the northeast coast of Brazil and explored this new world into the continent’s interior and followed waterways, including the Amazon River in South America and the Mississippi River in North America.
Archaeological findings of their presence in South and Central America, as well as the United States, have been limited mostly to coinage, mixed gold-tipped arrows, pottery, and the introduction of 14th century Mande and Fula words and expressions into Native languages. On cave walls in the southwestern United States, Native Americans drew very dark-skinned men sitting atop huge animals that bear a striking resemblance to elephants, creatures that are not native to this part of the world. Like many of the South American villages of the Incan Empire, the largest and most sophisticated pre-Columbian empire in the Americas, jungles had overgrown and reclaimed once thriving communities. Similar artifacts were found in the southwest United States and Mexico. According to the entries in the handwritten chronicles of Christopher Columbus in 1493, he observed and heard of very dark-skinned Indians. The misnomer applied to the indigenous people of the Caribbean Islands after Columbus mistakenly believed that he had arrived in the country of India. The men among the dark-skinned people wore colorful shirts and turbans while the women wore long dresses and face veils. He noted that he had seen some of these dark-skinned people traveling in the direction of the African continent in vessels similar to the ships used by the Moors of Spain.
A Nefarious Trade
While celebrated as the founder of America, even though he never set foot on continental North or South America, Columbus was, in fact, a plunderer and initiator of European slavery and genocide against the indigenous population in his self-proclaimed New World. As a businessman and adventurer, he envisioned developing a lucrative trade in the trans-Atlantic transport of Native Americans to Spain to be auctioned off as slaves. His first business venture in the western hemisphere was to capture and send 550 Natives to Spain for this purpose. Because of this nefarious trade in human beings initiated by Columbus, Spain became Europe’s leading slaving power. In the early 1500s, Spain’s monarchs outlawed the practice of enslaving Native Americans except in special circumstances. Around 1531, they mandated by royal decree that no enslaved African Muslims were allowed into the New World under any circumstances. Violation of this offense was punishable by imprisonment or death. This prohibition did not apply to the general African population. The Spanish monarchs were painfully familiar with the near 800-year Muslim rule over much of the Iberian Peninsula. They did not want to be responsible for facilitating a similar phenomenon in the Western lands. By 1542, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella completely prohibited slavery in territories claimed by the Crown. Their royal edict did little to curb the lucrative trafficking of Native American slaves to South America, Cape Verde Islands, and to the Philippines, by unscrupulous Spanish merchants and conquistadores.
Contrary to the popular notion perpetuated today in public schools and institutions of higher learning in the U.S., that the indigenous population was deemed unsuitable for enslavement by the colonizers, the reality was in stark contrast. Even though the enslavement of Native Americans was illegal in many parts of the country, it continued unofficially, from coast to coast, under different names from the 16th to the late 19th century. Western settlers in the United States were surprised to learn that Native Americans were toiling as slaves in the free-state of California in the 1830s and 1840s, and that in 1846, the state legislature had enacted vagrancy laws to arrest and hire out Natives much the same way that free Blacks in Southern states were forced to work against their will through convict leasing. The vagrancy laws made it a crime to be unemployed or even not to be able to show proof of employment.
For Natives encountering Spanish, British, and other European fortune seekers for the first time, few could understand their singular obsession with the yellow metal, gold, found in hills and streams beneath their feet. Columbus and the early conquistadores of the 16th through 19th centuries, with their insatiable thirst for gold, required a submissive labor force to harvest the precious substance. It is, moreover, conservatively estimated that during the centuries following Admiral Columbus’ trans-Atlantic trade of enslaved Native Americans, over five to ten million indigenous people of all ages suffered in the Western hemisphere’s “Other Slavery.”
Into the Crucible
Native Americans and enslaved Africans were inextricably thrown together in the crucible of Turtle Island (Turtle Island is a Native American name for North America). Native American creation stories are replete with animals as primary, if not sole, characters. In creation stories found in the oral myths of numerous indigenous tribes, turtles are significant players. One such myth relates how dirt beneath the waters was placed on the backs of turtles and compacted to form the land mass of North America — hence, Turtle Island. This name for the continent gained popularity in modern times in the 1960s and 1970s because of its frequent use by Native American activists and Gary Snyder, an environmentalist and poet.
The convergence of fortunes (or more aptly— misfortunes) of Native Americans and Africans in North America was nowhere more conspicuous than in the southern Atlantic and mid-Atlantic seaboard states during the 16th through 19th centuries. Spain held the distinction of being the world’s first truly global power. Due in no small part to its mastery of the seas and the fighting capacity of its Spanish Armada, a fleet of warships, Spain was able to dominate early European landgrabs in the so-called New World, especially during the 1500s. While the British concentrated their early colonization efforts in North America on the coastal northeast and mid-Atlantic, Spain extended its hold in South America, Central America, and Mexico into the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. The gradual move towards ethnic cleansing of Native American tribes in British-dominated territories coincided with the rapid influx of enslaved Africans in the southern coastal states, including Virginia. Wolofs, Fulas, and Mandinkas from West Africa, particularly the Senegambia region, were deemed especially valuable to Southern farmers because of their rice-growing and other agricultural skills. Upwards to 90 percent of the captives taken from the Senegambia region in the late 1600s through the early 1800s were Muslim. Among the enslaved Africans were Muslim scholars, imams, teachers; and some suggest that in the next ten years, research will show that as many as 45 to 50 percents of individuals ensnared in the trans-Atlantic trade of enslaved Africans were Muslims.
Native Americans and enslaved Africans were caught in the crosshairs of Britain’s and Spain’s respective quests for social, economic, and political hegemony in North America. As early as 1693, King Charles II of Spain attempted to lure enslaved Africans in British-held territories and Alabama to escape and seek refuge in Spanish-held Florida where they would receive their freedom if they accepted Catholicism. Hence, from the mid-1500s to the mid-1800s, a steady number of enslaved Africans escaped from their immediate places of captivity seeking protection in marshy areas and with Native American tribes. While many remained with the Native American tribes, untold others continued their odyssey through treacherous territory, going further south to the relatively safer environs of Florida. Florida provided the opportunity for those escaping from the chattel slavery of the southern plantations to enter Florida’s armed resistance against the institution of slavery and all its many manifestations.
Trail of Tears
Slave patrols and trackers, predecessors to the modern-day police force, were known to travel thousands of miles to retrieve a single escaped African if the bounty was sizeable enough. Florida became the primary battleground for the two defining issues of the era— resistance against both slavery and Native American removal. The forced relocation and appropriation of the ancestral homelands of Native Americans was not officially carried out until the passage by Congress of the Indian Removal Act in 1830. The federal government then forced Native tribes to walk thousands of miles into permanent exile, from North Carolina to the territory designated by the federal government as Indian Territory. Indian Territory was a dismal and barren reservation in the states of Oklahoma and Arizona. The official removal of Native American tribes started in 1838, culminating in one of the most tragic episodes of American callousness towards First Americans. Aptly labeled the Trail of Tears by the crest-fallen tribes forced on this death march, approximately 20,000 died from starvation, exposure to harsh weather conditions, and disease before reaching their destination.
But not all Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Seminoles, and Chickasaws died on the Trail of Tears or made it to Indian Territory. Hundreds, if not thousands, escaped and returned to their homelands, hiding in the mountains and woodlands. Others sought protection with other tribes, or banded with Native Americans and escaped African slaves to conduct guerrilla-style warfare against plantation owners, slave hunters, and when necessary, other Native Americans who were loyal to the government’s policy of legalized slavery and Native American removal. Florida became the epicenter of resistance against these twin evils long after the 1819 Spanish sale of Florida to the United States for $5 million. Except for 20 years immediately before and during the American Revolution, Florida had been under Spanish authority for nearly 100 years.
Even though the Spanish people living in Florida had demonstrated their general disdain for Native Americans and Africans in America, it was to their strategic advantage to promulgate discord and armed resistance against their continental archenemies, the British. A significant portion of the breakaway tribal members and their Black allies, for the most part, amalgamated with the Seminole tribe once they arrived in the state of Florida, if not before. Seminoles were Lower Creeks who had broken away from the main body of Creeks after arriving in Florida. Around 1738, the governor of Florida approved a settlement for ex-slaves north of St. Augustine. The Black settlement was called Fort Mose, the first known legally-sanctioned free Black town in North America. Black Seminoles played a vital role, along with their Native American and Black allies, against the slavocracy to their north. During this period, Black Seminoles were recognized as the fiercest and most strategic fighters against federal troops and others attempting to force Native Americans out of Florida and onto reservations in Oklahoma, to reimpose slavery on non-Seminole Blacks, as well as on Black Seminoles.
The Seminole Wars
The Seminoles fought three wars against the U.S. government. The First Seminole War started on November 30, 1817 and ended in 1819. The wars were mostly waged against the Seminoles because of the safe-havens they provided to runaway African slaves. Government officials decided that Fort Mose had to be captured by the U.S. army because it symbolized defiance and the promise of freedom for Blacks. At the end of the war, the Seminoles were forced to leave the area of St. Augustine and live on a large reservation in Central Florida. The Second Seminole War lasted from 1835-1842 and was the effort to force the Seminoles to leave Florida and move to Indian Territory.
Eventually, by 1840, the U.S. army killed the majority of Florida’s Seminole population, deceived Seminole Chiefs Osceola and Micanopy into believing that they were negotiating a truce, and then captured them. Those remaining faced disease and near-starvation in the forced relocation to Indian Territory. Many Seminoles broke away from the forced trek to Oklahoma and escaped to Mexico, some marrying Yaqui Indian women. The Third Seminole War was from 1855-1858. It resulted from settler encroachment on Seminole land. As in the Second Seminole War, the brave and defiant Seminole warriors were outmatched by the superior firepower of the United States Army. However, the Seminoles justifiably claim that they are the only indigenous tribe in North America whose hostilities with the U.S. Army ended in a truce and not formal surrender.
The history of the interaction among Africans in America, Native Americans, and Muslims remains an under-researched discipline. There are still undisclosed secrets about the crucible of Turtle Island waiting to be discovered.