Black Seminoles in the Bahamas
© 2002, Rosalyn Howard. Gainesville: University Press of Florida
Excerpt, Chapter 3
The Promised Land: Andros, Bahamas
At the end of the First Seminole War, the United States annexed the former Spanish territory of Florida and Euroamericans migrated there in accelerated fashion. Their persistent encroachment upon former indigenous lands forced the Seminole Indians and Black Seminoles living there to retreat into marronage, taking refuge in the swamps and hammocks of southern Florida. They were being "driven from their homes and hunted as wild deer” . While the primary concern for the Seminoles was banishment from their homes and removal to Indian Territory in the West, the Black Seminoles feared recapture, which meant either return to enslavement or summary death .
The Seminoles perceived the Bahamas as “a natural refuge for Seminole Negroes”  and themselves because of alliances forged with the British in Florida and long-standing trade relations established with them in the Bahamas. The cordiality of Native American-Bahamian relations was demonstrated in the March 1, 1817 issue of the Bahamas Royal Gazette, which announced “Heeleisaja a chief of the Creek Nation of Indians and his son sailed on the Blucher for London.”
The British had promised to reward the Seminoles with military and economic support in return for their loyalty during the siege of New Orleans. Accordingly, the Florida Seminole leaders, desperate for assistance in their struggle against the Euroamericans, sought to take advantage of the British offer. A consensus was reached that Chief Kenadgie, a tribal elder, should travel “to New Providence [Bahamas] or Jamaica for the purpose of stating their grievances and soliciting assistance” from the British .
Chief Kenadgie arrived at New Providence Island, Bahamas, via dugout canoe on September 29, 1819, accompanied by several others, including an interpreter described as “an Indian of mixed blood.” The interpreter may have been Abraham, a Black Seminole who often negotiated on behalf of the Seminoles with Euroamericans as Chief Micanopy’s personal interpreter. They complained to the British that their people in Florida were being persistently tormented, and that “their greatest enemies [were] the Cowetas … who having made terms with the Americans [were] set upon them to harass and annihilate their tribe” .
When Chief Kenadgie appealed to the British for aid, however, the British reneged on their promises to buttress the Seminoles’ cause. British officials in Nassau, New Providence, advised that because of a recent peace treaty signed with the United States of American, the British nation was not inclined to interfere in the Seminoles’ current dispute . Kenadgie and his fellow travelers were provided with food and shelter on New Providence for one week, and summarily returned to Florida via the British schooner Primrose with their canoe in tow .
Another party of Seminole Indians arrived on New Providence two years later. This time, however, the Seminoles had no express motive for their visit . Ten of them had arrived destitute and in need of food and clothing. In a futile gesture of loyalty, one member of their party proudly displayed his Certificate of Gallantry and Good Conduct, awarded for service with the British troops in Florida during the War of 1812 . Once again, the British leaders offered only provisions to the Seminoles, and then sent them back to Florida.
Several months after the second group of Seminole Indians returned to Florida in 1821, a third group made plans to depart for the Bahamas. This group was much larger and probably consisted mostly of Black Seminoles . After years of struggle to survive the increasingly hostile situation in Florida, they fled to the Bahamas, where they hoped to live as free men and women. They secretly congregated at Cape Florida and embarked in whatever transport they could secure, whether dugout canoes or wreckers. Wreckers were ships that were employed in the searching for and salvaging wrecked cargo vessels – a lucrative business along the Florida coast at that time.
Cargo ships, lacking lighthouse beacons to guide them at night, would crash upon the reefs, spilling their cargoes. These cargoes were salvaged by wrecker captains and crews and sold to Nassau customers. James Mott, a privateer, commanded one of these ships, the Sheerwater, and he reportedly facilitated the escape of a large group of Black Seminoles . Harry A. Kersey, Jr., an ethnohistorian, speculates that most of the journeys that brought this third group of Seminoles to the Bahamas occurred between 1821 and 1837, and that “it is not known just how many perished or survived in this exodus … but it was an epic journey born of desperation which has a modern counterpart in the Haitian and Cuban ‘boat people’” .
The Seminoles’ previous trips to the Bahamas had clearly demonstrated the futility of their efforts to secure aid from the British on New Providence, so they altered their strategy. This time they chose to land not on New Providence, but on the western shore of Andros Island, a large Out Island of the Bahamas approximately 25 miles west of New Providence and 150 miles from the Florida coast. A few landed in the Biminis and on Joulter Cay; many of the latter joined the majority of the Black Seminole and Seminole refugees, who had settled at Red Bays, Andros Island.
Early navigational charts indicate that Andros Island was originally named La Isla de Espiritu Santo by the Spaniards. However, the origin of its current designation has been variously described. It may have been named for Sir Edmund Andros, British commander of the forces in Barbados in 1672 and colonial governor in America from 1674 to 1689, although there is no evidence that he ever set foot on the island. In 1787 the island became the sanctuary for approximately 1,400 Loyalist refugees from the island of San Andres off the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua when Spain took possession of it under the 1783 Treaty of Paris between Spain and Britain – the refugees may have transferred the name of their former home to their new one. It may also be that the island was named after the Greek island of St. Andro: Greek merchants on the island exported sponges harvested from the bountiful sponge beds of the mud flats around Andros Island for almost one hundred years .
The settlement of Red Bays, where the critical mass of Black Seminole descendants reside, is located on the northwestern tip of Andros, one of the Family Islands of the Bahamas. The Family Islands were formerly known as the “Out Islands;” the name was changed after Bahamians gained their independence in 1973, and it refers to all islands other than New Providence, site of the capital city, Nassau.
The largest island in the Bahamian archipelago – 104 miles in length and 40 miles wide – Andros has three sociopolitical divisions, separated by naturally occurring bights and mangrove-bordered creeks. These divisions are North Andros, Central Andros and South Andros . The Grand Bahama Bank borders the island’s western side, while the Tongue of the Ocean, one thousand fathoms deep, borders the eastern coast. A line of reefs runs along the east coast and forms a natural harbor bordering one of the largest reefs in the world, after that in Australia. Andros is also the fifth largest island in the circum-Caribbean region, following Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and Puerto Rico.
Today, the population of Andros includes a small number of white Bahamians and immigrants from various other countries, but approximately 95 percent of the 8,000 Androsians are predominantly or entirely of African descent and are known locally as black Bahamians. Andros Island has the reputation of being the richest repository of African culture in the Bahamas, as demonstrated in its social and economic structures and religious traditions .
The Function of Oral Tradition
The primary objective of my research on Andros Island was to record and analyze the oral history of Black Seminole descendants there. One of the major catalysts for this research was the publications of John Goggin, who worked there in the 1930s and 1940s. Felix MacNeil’s personal narrative, recorded by Goggin in 1937, correlates with the oral tradition of Andros residents whom I interviewed more than fifty years later, in 1996 and 1997.
Oral traditions are “messages transmitted beyond the generation that gave rise to them,” and like personal narratives, they can function as a means to validate one’s life by “making sense of various experiences lived through and, in a sense, created through the narrative” . More than mere testimonies to the past, oral traditions are “of interest as structured aesthetic and personal creations in the present" . Because most if not all of the Black Seminole immigrants were illiterate, the best means of maintaining their family histories was by means of oral tradition. Black Seminoles’ understanding of the past, and their relationship to it, is contextualized in this social memory – the unwritten collective oral accounts passed down through the generations .
The oral tradition of the Black Seminoles in the Bahamas – as related to me by Red Bays residents in my interviews, and publish by Reverend Bertram A. Newton in his pamphlet A History of Red Bays, Andros, Bahamas – broadly conforms to an “account,” something that Jan Vansina defines as a story "fused out of several accounts [that] has acquired a stabilized form,”  and whose content has a precise, yet unobservable function in society. These functions become clear when a causal relationship can be demonstrated, that is, when it can be demonstrated to have benefit to party X or party Y. The detection of the relationship, then, allows us to uncover its purpose.
An accurate perspective of the purpose or function that a particular oral tradition performs in a society requires sociohistorical knowledge of a community, a context within which to make an interpretation. As such, a diachronic analysis of the publication of Bertram Newton’s History reveals that its 1968 release occurred in a critical context of sociopolitical change in Red Bays and the Bahamas in general: 1968 was the year that a logging company cleared a road through the dense pineyard into Red Bays, permitting unprecedented access into, and out of, Red Bays and as a result tremendous new opportunities for commerce and education for its residents; in 1967 the country elected its first black Bahamian prime minister, Sir Lynden Pindling.
Oral Tradition of Bahamian Black Seminoles
Following are excerpts from interviews that I conducted with Andros Island consultants who traced their Seminole Indian heritage. The majority of the narratives included here are from residents of the settlement of Red Bays. Two of the interviews, however, are with persons whose ancestors settled in other areas of Andros Island. The oral tradition is relatively consistent and emphasizes the fundamental courage and tenacity of those Black Seminoles whose journey originated long ago on the plantations of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. Their recreation of identity and culture in the Bahamas was grounded in the synthesis of heritage and adaptation.
Charles Bowleg – Nicholls Town
Charles Bowleg, in his mid to late forties, lives in Nicholls Town and is readily identified by Bahamians as “Indian” because he is “bright” and has high cheekbones. He is a member of the Bowleg family that has long-established roots in Nicholls Town. His niece, Shelley Bowleg, is currently the principal of the Red Bays Primary School. Charles Bowleg told me that he learned the story of the Black Seminole exodus to the Bahamas from his great aunt, Blossom Bowleg:
“She was Blossom Bowleg until she got married to Evans. Her parents came from the west coast of Andros. Her grandparents came from Florida, and they landed on the west coast at a place called Cedar Coppitt. And after a period of time, they was on the west coast, on the back side of Andros. It is very low so a hurricane came through, a very serious hurricane, and it wash out a lot of the land, and they were seeking for higher ground. So several of the younger ones, they get in these small boats, a canoe what they come over in, and they find a narrow passage which they call Bowleg Lake. The mouth of it enter in the northeast side at Stafford Creek, and it goes in right straight through to the western part of the island. Big boats only can go halfway down through there because of the area. Some areas is so narrow that the water is so shallow and you go in probably five miles and then the water’s fresh. And the fresh water and the salt water at times pushes each other back and forth. So they use that as a channel to come through on the north side. Her grandparents told her that after they come over, they find on the north side was a much better place, higher ground. Then they went back and get the family, and come to the north side [Nicholls Town]."
“After they came on the north side, they never went back. Blossom, Felix [are] brothers and sisters. Their father was one of the original people who came over [from the other side of Andros Island]. It was Simon and another one name Scipio, two brothers, Bowleg, and they was the ones what come from the west. And then they migrate from there. They was mostly fishermens and farmers, and they sail all through the Bahamas and they left one or two here and there. So the family scatter all through the Bahamas, but originally Bowlegs all from Nicholls Town. We have some in western Grand Bahama, and we have some in Eleuthera, but not a big amount. The big amount is in between Nassau and Freeport, west end.”
“I never knew my great-grandmother, I never recognize her name, but I heard she was mixed with Indian blood, light-skinned. Some [Bowlegs] were bright and some black. One of the sisters were medium brown, one of the sisters were bright. She was so bright they used to call her “Gold.”
“I used to go to Florida a lot when I was much younger and I run into several people who told me that they bears the same title [the Bowlegs surname], even white ones. I run into a custom officer and he told me “You’s a Bowleg?” I said, “Yeah.” This other gentleman, his title was Bowleg. So he look at me, and he say, “Oh we got black ones too!” So he say, “And I see you from Andros.” Say, “You know we are family?” So I say, “No, I don’t know that.” He said that most of his parents were Indians and they married white women, and that’s how come he was white. But we have real bright girls and boys in our family, and some of them is real black. My mother was very bright and my daddy was light brown. But one thing is that they [Indians] never like boss man too much. The majority of them work for themselves, very short-temper. They rather fight one time and get it all over with. As far as the Indians is concern, they pretty peaceable until you get them out. Then they don’t care about life anymore. That’s the way it is.”
Notes to Chapter 3:
1. Bahamas Royal Gazette, October 2, 1819.
2. Porter 1945:56-60.
3. Porter 1945:53. "
4. Munnings 1819. This may have been an alternative spelling for Chief King Heijah (also known as Koe Hadjo, or Kenhadjo, also know as Coa Hadjo, and also known as Alligator), who was listed as a resident of Negro Town in Florida, occupied primarily by runaway Africans (Swanton 1953; Mykel 1962).
5. Bahamas Royal Gazette 1819.
6. Munnings 1819.
7. Neill 1952:65-66. The Seminoles were skilled at building large dugout canoes that could carry twenty to thirty people and were suitable for crossing wide expanses of sea.
8. Grant 1821.
9. Grant 1821.
10. Goggin 1946.
11. Bethell 1828.
12. Quoted in Flagg 2000.
13. Hursh n.d.
14. Shortly before the March 1997 Bahamian General Elections, the island's political divisions were reduced to two - North Andros and South Andros - but Androsians still maintain the three distinctions.
15. Randolph 1994:243; Saunders 1994 ; Cash, Gordon, and Saunders 1991.
16. Vansina 1985:13.
17. Finnegan 1992:48.
18. Abercrombie 1998.
19. Vansina 1985:17.
Abercrombie, Thomas A. 1998. Pathways of Memory and Power: Ethnography and History Among an Andean People. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Bahamas Royal Gazette, October 2, 1819. In A Guide to Selected Sources for the History of the Seminole Settlements at Red Bays, Andros 1917-1980, by David E. Wood, appendix 3. Nassau, Bahamas: Department of Archives.
Bethel, Winer. 1828. London Duplicate Despatches. In A Guide to Selected Sources for the History of the Seminole Settlements at Red Bays, Andros 1917-1980, by David E. Wood, appendix 10. Nassau, Bahamas: Department of Archives.
Cash, Phillip, Shirley Gordon, and Gail Saunders. 1991. Sources of Bahamian History. London: MacMillan.
Finnegan, Ruth H. 1992. Oral Traditions and the Verbal Arts: A Guide to Research Practices. London: Routledge Press.
Flagg, Harold. 2000. Black Indians of Red Bays. In Bahamas Notebook. Nassau, Bahamas: Etienne Dupuch, Jr., Publications.
Goggin, John M. 1946. "The Seminole Negroes of Andros Island, Bahamas." Florida Historical Quarterly 24:201-6.
Grant, Sir Lewis. CO23/70/5 (April 19, 1821). Microfilm. Nassau, Bahamas: Bahamas Department of Archives.
Hursh, Cyndi. n.d. Andos Island. Unpublished manuscript.
Munnings, William V. 1819. Governor's Dispatches 1818-1825. In A Guide to Selected Sources for the History of the Seminole Settlements at Red Bays, Andros 1917-1980, by David E. Wood, appendix 5 (September 30). Nassau, Bahamas: Department of Archives.
Mykel, Nancy. 1962. The Seminole Towns - A Compilation Prepared for Sociology 630 under Dr. John M. Goggin. Gainesville: University of Florida.
Neill, Wilfred T. 1952. Florida's Seminole Indians. Florida Anthropologist (January).
Porter, Kenneth W. 1945. "Notes on Seminole Negroes in the Bahamas," Florida Historical Quarterly 24:56-60.
Randolph, Logan R. 1994. An Ethnobiological Investigation of Andros Island, Bahamas. Ph.D. diss. Miami University.
Saunders, Gail. 1994 . Bahamian Society after Emancipation. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers.
Swanton, John Reed. 1998 . Early History of the Creek Indians and Their Neighbors. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Vansina, Jan. 1985. Oral Tradition as History. London: James Curry.
Please Note: This excerpt appears by special permission of the author and publisher and may not be presented elsewhere without permission of the copyright holders.
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Looking for Angola: Resources for Teachers
We've scoured the Internet to bring you links to resources and free lesson plans that will help you bring the excitement of Looking for Angola into your classroom.
Below you will find links and resources for teaching students about Africans and Native Americans in Colonial Florida, runaway slaves, maroon communities, and archaeology’s role in rediscovering the past:
LESSON PLANS AND THEMATIC UNITS:
AFRICANS AND NATIVE AMERICANS IN FLORIDA:
Seminoles and Slaves: Florida's Freedom Seekers By Jean West: from Slavery In America, this lesson plan examines the intertwined histories of Africans and Native Americans in Colonial Florida.
Living on the Fringe Lesson Plan: Maroon Communities from the Schomburg Center's website In Motion: The African American Migration Experience, this lesson plan for grades 9-12 explores maroon communities in Florida.
Africans in Colonial Florida by Scott Fields: brought to you by the Polk County, Florida Public School System. Here students will learn about the contributions made by enslaved and free Africans to the development of colonial Florida under Spanish and British rulers. They will also discuss the differences in attitudes toward slavery among the Spanish and the British. Finally, students will then create a timeline. Students should know after completion of this lesson that slavery was, and still is, a horrible wrong inflicted on many different groups of people in the past. With that said, the institution of slavery in Spanish Florida was very different from the English view, which later became the view of the American South.
Intertwined History of Native and African Americans by Lori Hall and Piper Mislovic, R. Bruce Wagner Elementary School: Another fine lesson plan brought to you by the Polk County, Florida Public School System. This lesson plan will help students understand the history of the Underground Railroad beginning in the South, as well as the historical significance of the people of African descent among the Seminoles.
RUNAWAY SLAVES AND MAROON COMMUNITIES:
Roads to Freedom Lesson Plan: Getting Free in the South By Stephanie Kaufman: from the Slavery in America website, students will experience the Roads to Freedom and use the information as a starting point for further research. Using tools from the National Archives education site, students will learn in more depth about the various roads through the use of primary source documents.
Creativity and Resistance: Maroon Cultures in the Americas from the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institution: Designed to serve a broad audience of museum visitors, teachers, and students, this guide offers interdisciplinary activities for history, visual arts, social studies, creative writing, and music education. The materials can be adapted for all ages, from kindergarten students to adults.
Runaway Journeys from the Schomberg Center's "In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience," here are ten resource-rich lesson plans for grades 6 to 12.
Revolution: brought to you by PBS. The Teacher's Guide on the Web is an enhanced version of the print guide that accompanies the Africans in America video series. Each unit consists of two lessons: a general lesson that explores each 90-minute program and its companion Web content, and a focused lesson that highlights a short program segment and provides links to related primary sources.