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Juan Bautista Whitten

Juan Bautista Whitten (sometimes spelled Witten) was a sergeant in the free black militia who helped defend Spanish Florida from various threats. He spent perhaps the first twenty years of his life in Guinea, the next ten in South Carolina, another thirty-five in Spanish Florida, and ended his days in Matanzas, Cuba.

Whitten estimated he was born around 1756 in Guinea, West Africa. In the 1770s he was carried across the Atlantic by slave traders to Sullivan's Island, South Carolina. Charleston planter Peter Whitten purchased Whitten and named him Big Prince, perhaps in reference to his great size. Big Prince became a carpenter on Whitten's plantation and by 1777 he had formed what would be a lifetime bond with an enslaved “county-born” woman named Judy on a neighboring plantation. Within two years Judy and Prince had a son named Glasgow and a daughter named Polly.

In the tumultuous period of the American Revolution, the Whitten family was seized and moved to Georgia by a loyalist commander. At the end of the war, Florida was returned to Spain, giving the Whittens new hope. After several failed attempts, they escaped across the St. Marys River into Spanish Florida in 1785.

Taking advantage of a religious sanctuary policy, the Whittens and other escaped slaves stated that they fled to Florida to become Catholics and were accepted into the colony as free subjects of the Spanish Crown. All the Whittens were baptized. Prince became Juan Bautista, Judy took the name María, and the children became Domingo and María Francisca.

The Whittens quickly took full advantage of their new free status and their rights as Spanish subjects. Francisco opened a shoemaking shop and trained black apprentices while María raised pigs for sale and trained girls to be domestics. Both used the legal system to protect their rights. The Whittens’ economic successes and 1798 marriage in the Catholic church helped improve their social status.

Prince Whitten joined the militia and saw frequent service against invading French and American forces, as well as local Native Americans. He received a land grant from the Spanish government as reward. Spanish sovereignty in Florida ended on July 10, 1821. Anticipating a shift in racial politics, Whitten led most of Florida's polyglot free black community into exile in Cuba where once again they remade their lives.

Whitten died in Cuba sometime before 1835, when his estate was awarded compensation by the U.S. government for losses during the “Patriot War” in Florida.

Read the full, original biography by Jane Landers in the African American National Biography.

View complete story (pdf)

Online Resources

María Rafaela Whitten https://enslaved.org/fullStory?kid=16-23-101316 Jane Landers Eccelsiastical records.

Niven, Steven. “Proud and Free in Spanish Fla.: Juan Bautista Whitten Led a Black Militia.” The Root, February 29, 2016. https://www.theroot.com/proud-and-free-in-spanish-fla-juan-bautista-whitten-l-1790854425

Bibliography

Cusick, James G. The Other War of 1812: The Patriot War and the American Invasion of Spanish East Florida. New Perspectives on the History of the South. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003.


Landers, Jane. Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2010.


Landers, Jane. Black Society in Spanish Florida. Blacks in the New World. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
 

Landers, Jane G.. "Whitten, Juan Bautista “Big Prince”." African American National Biography, edited by Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr.. , edited by and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. . Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0001/e4122 (accessed Tue Sep 10 13:50:31 EDT 2019).
 

Landers, Jane. "Whitten, Juan Bautista “Big Prince”." Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography , edited by Ed. Franklin W. Knight. , edited by and Henry Louis Gates Jr.. . Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t456/e2202 (accessed Tue Sep 10 14:00:30 EDT 2019).

Adapted by

James Almeida and Steven J. Niven

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.

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Key Events

c. 1758

Born in Guinea, on the West African coast.

Early 1770s

Whitten is carried across the Atlantic by slave traders and unloaded at Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. Charleston planter Peter Whitten purchases him and names him “Big Prince Whitten,” likely because of his stature.

1777

Whitten forms a relationship with an enslaved “county-born” woman named Judy on William Canty’s neighboring plantation.

1778

Judy and Prince have a son named Glasgow.

1779

Judy and Prince have a daughter named Polly.

1781-2

In the tumult of the American Revolution, the Whitten family is taken as spoils of war by Loyalist Colonel William Young. Young moves the family first to Savannah and then to Point Petre, Georgia, just across the St. Marys River from Florida.

1785

After several failed attempts, the Whitten family escapes across the river to Spanish Florida. They take advantage of a longstanding imperial policy and claim they’ve come to Florida to become Catholics. They are baptized into the church and accepted as free subjects of the Spanish crown. Prince becomes Juan Bautista, Judy takes the name María Rafaela, and the children become Domingo (Francisco Domingo Mariano) and María Francisca.

Summer 1795

Whitten, as a militia leader, helps defend the colony from the Revolutionary Legion of the Floridas, a mercenary force sponsored by the French Republic's first minister to the United States, Edmond Charles Genet, to “liberate” Florida from the Spanish monarchy.

1796

María Francisca marries Jorge Jacobo, a rebel slave from Saint Domingue who had taken up residence in St. Augustine only three months earlier. The marriage unites some of the most important free black families in the colony.

1798

After twenty-one years living as man and wife, Prince and Judy formalize their relationship by marrying in the Catholic church in St. Augustine. Their elite neighbor and patron serves as their marriage sponsor, and in turn the Whittens became favored godparents for many other free black families.

January 26, 1799

Doming marries María Francisca Fatio.

1800–1803

Whitten, his son, and his son-in-law fight Mikasuki Indians in the Indian Wars. Whitten receives a land grant from the Spanish government as a reward and soon builds a prosperous homestead.

1812

Whitten leads black and Indian troops to successfully repel an invading militia from Georgia (backed by U.S. marines), in a clash known as the Patriot War. His homestead is burned by the Georgian invaders.

July 10, 1821

Spain transfers sovereignty over Florida to the United States in a sale agreement. Mistrusting of the U.S. guarantees, Whitten leads most of Florida's polyglot free black community into exile in Cuba.

June 26, 1835

The U.S. government awards Whitten’s estate (he had died in Cuba at an unknown date) half of his requested $2706 claim for losses in the Patriot War.