In 1861, the 1st year of the U.S. Civil War, the Secretary of State for the Confederate States of America Robert Tombs sent John Pickett as his envoy to Mexico City. Since Union forces had blockaded southern ports, Pickett’s mission was to persuade the government of President Benito Juarez to allow slave produced cotton from the U.S. south to be transported overland and loaded onto ships anchored in Mexican ports. The cotton was to eventually be sold to various European countries to help support the Confederate war effort. Despite persistent attempts to gain Mexico’s approval the Mexican government refused and John Pickett’s mission failed. To compound Pickett’s failure and disappointment prior to his return empty handed to the U.S. south, he was thrown into jail in Mexico City after getting into a fist fight with a Union sympathizer there. U.S. rulers have been careful to exclude this event and any acknowledgement of the mutually beneficial history that Mexican and African people share.
The destiny of Africa’s scattered people has been impacted and decided in more countries than popular history has acknowledged. Mainstream history does not reveal how Africans benefited from France’s humiliating defeat at Puebla, Mexico on May 5, 1862. Cinco de Mayo is a fitting and spirited annual celebration which reminds us of Mexico’s heroic, although short-lived victory over Napoleon 3rd’s larger and better-armed forces.
Black people should also celebrate the French army’s defeat at the hands of Mexican forces for two reasons. First, Napoleon’s generals, who commanded the French invaders, supported the slave-holding Confederacy in the U.S. Second, Benito Juárez, the president of Mexico at that time, gave land to anti- colonial Black-Seminoles.
Napoleon had hoped that the Confederacy would quickly win the U.S. Civil War, retain slavery and supply southern cotton to French textile mills. Napoleon was encouraged by the major Confederate victory over union forces at Bull Run. He envisioned an alliance between himself and slaveholding U.S. southerners to guarantee raw materials for French industry. Napoleon was well on his way to satisfying this ambition when the defenders at Puebla, although out- manned and out-gunned, interrupted his imperialist ambitions to conquer and subjugate Mexico’s people, and position himself side by side with those who held Africans in bondage. The French forces, considered to be the best army of that day, were so contemptuous of Mexican forces that they attempted to push right through the center of Puebla’s defenders in their first assault. This tactical error cost the French over a thousand casualties, dead or wounded, strewn on the battlefield. The Mexican army was so heartened by their success that they left their positions and chased the humiliated French troops. The defeat of a Confederate ally such as Napoleon, is a historic event that descendants of enslaved Africans and all others who uphold democracy should celebrate with enthusiasm.
It was President Benito Juárez who gave land to a faction of the Black-Seminole freedom fighters that had carried on a long and courageous war of liberation against Spanish and U.S. colonizers. It was certainly in the interest of Blacks on both sides of the Rio Grande, that the Juárez government which had befriended rebellious slaves, and whose predecessor had outlawed slavery, survive Napoleon’s invasion and continue in office.
The Black Seminoles are a small offshoot of the Gullah who escaped from the rice plantations in South Carolina and Georgia. They built their own settlements on the Florida frontier, fought a series of wars to preserve their freedom, and were scattered across North America. They have played a significant role in American history, but have never received the recognition they deserve.
Some Gullah slaves managed to escape from coastal South Carolina and Georgia south into the Florida peninsula. In the 18th century Florida was a vast tropical wilderness, covered with jungles and malaria-ridden swamps. The Spanish claimed Florida, but they used it only as a buffer between the British Colonies and their own settled territories farther south. They wanted to keep Florida as a dangerous wilderness frontier, so they offered a refuge to escaped slaves and renegade Indians from neighboring South Carolina and Georgia. The Gullahs were establishing their own free settlements in the Florida wilderness by at least the late 1700s. They built separate villages of thatched-roof houses surrounded by fields of corn and swamp rice, and they maintained friendly relations with the mixed population of refugee Indians. In time, the two groups came to view themselves as parts of the same loosely organized tribe, in which blacks held important positions of leadership. The Gullahs adopted Indian clothing, while the Indians acquired a taste for rice and appreciation for Gullah music and folklore. But the Gullahs were physically more suited to the tropical climate and possessed an indispensable knowledge of tropical agriculture; and, without their assistance, the Indians would not have been able to cope effectively with the Florida environment. The two groups led an independent life in the wilderness of northern Florida, rearing several generations of children in freedom—and they recognized the American settlers and slave owners as their common enemy. The Americans called the Florida Indians “Seminoles,” from the Spanish word cimarron, meaning “wild” or “untamed”; and they called the runaway Gullahs “Seminole Negroes” or “Indian Negroes.” Modern historians have called these free Gullah frontiersmen the “Black Seminoles.” The Seminole settlements in Spanish Florida increased as more and more runaway slaves and renegade Indians escaped south—and conflict with the Americans was, sooner or later, inevitable. There were skirmishes in 1812 and 1816. In 1818, General Andrew Jackson led an American army into Florida to claim it for the United States, and war finally erupted. The blacks and Indians fought side-by-side in a desperate struggle to stop the American advance, but they were defeated and driven south into the more remote wilderness of central and southern Florida. General Jackson (later President) referred to this First Seminole War as an “Indian and Negro War.” In 1835, the Second Seminole War broke out, and this full-scale guerrilla war would last for six years and claim the lives of 1,500 American soldiers.
The Black Seminoles waged the fiercest resistance, as they feared that capture or surrender meant death or return to slavery—and they were more adept at living and fighting in the jungles than their Indian comrades. The American commander, General Jesup, informed the War Department that, “This, you may be assured, is a negro and not an Indian war”; and a U.S. Congressman of the period commented that these black fighters were “contending against the whole military power of the United States.” When the Army finally captured the Black Seminoles, officers refused to return them to slavery—fearing that these seasoned warriors, accustomed to their freedom, would wreak havoc on the Southern plantations. In 1842, the Army forcibly removed them, along with their Indian comrades, to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in the unsettled West.
The Black Seminoles, exiled from their Florida strongholds, were forced to continue their struggle for freedom on the Western frontier. In Oklahoma, the Government put them under the authority of the Creek Indians, slave owners who tried to curb their freedom; and white slave traders came at night to kidnap their women and children. In 1850, a group of Black Seminoles and Seminole Indians escaped south across Texas to the desert badlands of northern Mexico. They established a free settlement and, as in Florida, began to attract runaway slaves from across the border. In 1855, a heavily armed band of Texas Rangers rode into Mexico to destroy the Seminole settlement, but the blacks and Indians stopped them and forced them back into the U.S. The Indians soon returned to Oklahoma, but the Black Seminoles remained in Mexico, fighting constantly to protect their settlement from the marauding Comanche and Apache Indians.