Enslaved Background Image

Stories / María Rafaela Whitten

María Rafaela Whitten

María Rafaela Whitten was a South-Carolina born slave who seized freedom for her family and achieved success in Spanish Florida.

Whitten, originally known as Judy Canty, was referred to as a “country-born” slave, meaning she was born in the Americas (likely locally), and was enslaved as a young adult on William Canty’s plantation near Lake Marion in South Carolina. By 1777 she had formed what would be a lifetime bond with an enslaved African-born man from a nearby plantation named Big Prince Whitten. 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, neighboring Florida was returned to Spain, giving the Whittens new hope. After several failed attempts, they escaped across the St. Marys River into Florida in 1785.

Taking advantage of a religious sanctuary policy (shortly before it ended in 1790), 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. Judy became María Rafaela, Prince took the name Juan Bautista, and the children became Domingo and María Francisca.

The Whittens quickly took full advantage of their new rights as free Spanish subjects. María raised pigs for sale and trained young black girls to be domestics, and the family used the legal system to protect their rights. For example, Prince sued successfully in 1789 for breach of contract when María’s employer forced her to do heavy field work rather than the contracted domestic service. The Whittens’ economic successes and 1798 marriage in the Catholic church helped improve their social status. Also in 1798, María litigated in her own name over physical assault. She sued a white family and asserted that her status and honor as a citizen (she used this term rather than more common descriptors that would mark her as black or a freed person) was at stake. Whitten’s status continued to rise, evidenced by her serving as a godmother for at least thirty-one individuals (members of the local black community).

The family migrated again after Spain sold Florida to the United States in 1821. They went to Matanzas, Cuba, where  Whitten would live the rest of her life.

Read the full, original biography written by Steven Niven for The Root

Online Resources

“Juan Bautista ‘Big Prince’ Whitten” https://enslaved.org/fullStory?kid=16-23-101309

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

Robertson, John. Global Gazetteer of the American Revolution, http://gaz.jrshelby.com/canty.htm

Bibliography

Cusick, James. The Other War of 1812: The Patriot War and the American Invasion of Spanish East Florida. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003.

Landers, Jane. Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolution. Cambridge: Beacon, 2010.

Landers, Jane. Black Society in Spanish Florida. 1999.

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.

Key Events

1777

Judy Whitten forms a relationship with an enslaved African-born man named Big Prince on a 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. A runaway advertisement describes Judy as a “smart, active wench.” They take advantage of a longstanding imperial policy and claim they’ve come to Florida to become Catholics and are accepted as free subjects of the Spanish crown.

1787

Glasgow and Polly and baptized as Catholics, becoming Domingo and María Francisca.

July 20, 1789

Judy gives birth to a boy, Juan Fatio, who dies 9 days later. Shortly after the loss, she is forced her to do fieldwork instead of the agreed upon domestic duties. Prince sues Judy’s employer successfully for breach of contract.

1791

After a longer catechism and language-learning process, the adults are baptized. Judy takes the name María Rafaela and Prince becomes Juan Bautista.

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, Judy and Prince 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. Also in this year, Whitten is beaten by Don José Sánchez for allegedly insulting his wife. She sues for redress, but the case is dismissed.

January 26, 1799

Doming marries María Francisca Fatio.

July 10, 1821

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