American Purgatory: Prison Imperialism and the Rise of Mass Incarceration
by Benjamin Weber
In his new book, American Purgatory: Prison Imperialism and the Rise of Mass Incarceration, historian Benjamin Weber documents how the rise of American prisons is inextricably linked to the expansion of American power around the globe. Weber’s book reveals how “prison imperialism”—the deliberate use of prisons to control restive, subject populations—is written into our national DNA, extending through to our modern era of mass incarceration. In this week’s newsletter, we’re publishing an excerpt from the book, which tells the story of the invasion of the Black Fort.
The Black Fort
Across Florida’s panhandle, at the mouth of the Apalachicola River, lies the obliterated and built-over remains of a less commemorated site, the Black Fort on Prospect Bluff. Since the time when Indigenous people and enslaved Africans first built out posts like the Castillo de San Marcos (1695), runaway refuges and maroon settlements dotted the thickly forested and swampy landscape. The fort itself was originally built under Spanish command. By the 1730s, it became home to a growing band of Black maroons, fugitives from slavery who integrated themselves with the Seminole peoples. It was taken over and occupied as an outpost for the British Colonial Marines in 1763 but returned to the maroons when the British evacuated during the War of 1812. The fort’s Black founders allied themselves with the Seminole, Creek, and Choctaw people in the region and welcomed thousands of fugitives from slavery in Spanish and neighboring U.S.-claimed territories. In these places, Black and Indigenous people evaded, refused, and renegotiated the terms of the European colonial slave system. These sites of Black and Indigenous placemaking existed below, across, and through the Spanish, French, British, and U.S. empires’ claims to jurisdiction, an alternate universe colored over by the deceptively even shading of imperial maps. For a time, the Black Fort, or Negro Fort as it was called, blinked bright as a beacon of freedom.
The Black Fort became an international gathering place. The thousands of people who passed through or settled there spoke West African, Muskogee, Spanish, French, English, and Creole languages. They brought a wide range of backgrounds, skills, and capacities, from soldiering and sailing to domestic and agricultural work, blacksmithing, and carpentry to coop ing and masonry. They had growers, cooks, and washers handling the everyday social reproduction of the community, and shoemakers, seamstresses, and tailors ensuring they were the “best-dressed” fugitives in the history of American slavery. They had shipwrights to build a small fleet and veterans from the Spanish and British Colonial Marines to sail it. They had cultural-knowledge bearers, teachers, and healers who tended the artistic and ceremonial life of the community. While it is impossible to say precisely how many came through the Black Fort over the years, by the early nineteenth century there were 250 to 350 people living in the fort itself, and as many as 700 to 1,000 living and growing crops along the surrounding banks of the Apalachicola River. The Black Fort was led by three formerly enslaved men, a twenty-six-year-old cooper named Cyrus, a twenty-six-year-old master carpenter named Prince, and most of all, a thirty-six-year-old former lieutenant of the British Colonial Marines named Garçon. They had taken control of Isla de Perros (Dog Island), at the entrance to the Apalachicola Bay in the Gulf, and established extensive trading networks and alliances with coastal pirates. Garçon and twenty-five of his soldiers had been spotted stopping Spanish vessels and ordering the crew to remain aboard while they checked their passports. By exercising this military aspect of sovereignty, they posed an explicit challenge both to the profits of slave traders and to rival state powers at the edges of Spanish, British, French, and emerging U.S. empires. Having fled from slavery or having won their freedom, they formed a defiantly antislavery community.
The Black Fort represented a grave threat to the slave system, and news of its existence spread through the fugitive networks enslaved people developed to survive, evade, and plan futures free of slavery’s horrors. Rather than treating the fort as the rival political force it represented, however, slaveholding presidents and policy makers joined prominent newspapers in condemning the Black Fort as a “hornets’ nest” of bandits, outlaws, and pirates. Their sensationalized stories attempted to turn fugitives from slavery into “dangerous criminals,” raising the specter that armed Black militants were on the loose, ready to rampage at a moment’s notice. This form of condemnation revolved around the unspoken assumption that since the fugitives had been brutalized under slavery, it was only a matter of time before they would take revenge. Reports that the Black Fort would syphon enslaved people across the border stoked slaveholders’ fear that they were finding ways to interrupt the expansion of slavery, then carried on by the interregional slave trade, since the transatlantic slave trade had been outlawed, at least officially, in 1808. News that the maroons were “multiplying” further enraged white slaveholders, who were obsessed with racial theories of biological reproduction, with the idea that the fugitive slave community’s free reproduction might outpace their own. To them, it symbolized their loss of control over Black life. Paranoia over Black criminality and race war revealed the moral precariousness of white settler slave society itself.
Federal officials knew firsthand how violence was required to police and maintain the racial inequality of slave society. Among the Black Fort maroons were eight enslaved people who had escaped from U.S. Indian agent Timothy Bernard, five fugitives claimed by U.S. military colonel Benjamin Hawkins, and an African-descended Spanish-speaking corporal who had fled St. Augustine with thirty or forty others. Federal agents like Ber nard and Hawkins complained that their slaves had run away because of the existence of “Negro Fort,” and State Department officials received word that slavery on the southern frontier was not secure. Secretary of state James Monroe blamed the British for creating a hub for the “massive force” of Indians and Black fugitive slaves. Military generals vowed to destroy it. “The destruction of the Fort, and the band of negroes who hold it, is of great and manifest importance to the United States,” Colonel Robert Patterson exclaimed. General Andrew Jackson was obsessed with the settlement, believing he could have forced the Creeks to agree to the terms of the Treaty of Fort Jackson had it not been for Britain’s Black and Indian allies. If they could not pressure the Spanish to destroy it, Jackson planned to take matters into his own hands. Ultimately, slave-owning policy makers’ and the U.S. military’s response was predicated on a doctrine of preemption grounded in a geospatial imaginary that extended from the Deep South to places like revolutionary Haiti, to revolts aboard slave ships in the Caribbean, and across the Atlantic to Africa’s west coast.
In the sweltering summer heat of 1816, U.S. troops, on Andrew Jackson’s orders, invaded Spanish (Seminole) Florida to destroy the Black Fort. When the gunboats opened fire, the fort’s Black maroons and Seminoles stood firm in defense of their free settlement, reputedly shouting “Give me liberty, or give me death!” as they returned fire. U.S. troops shot a cannonball into the Black Fort’s central powder magazine, instantly incinerating 270 people inside. “The scene was horrible beyond description,” the attack’s commander, Edmund P. Gaines, reflected. As the smoke cleared, U.S. troops hunted the survivors, seeking to kill, imprison, transport, or force them into slavery in neighboring Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana territories. Garçon, the Black Fort’s leader, who had somehow survived the explosion, was summarily executed by a firing squad. Other fort inhabit ants who had managed to escape joined forces with the Seminole and prepared for ensuing war.
The invasion of Florida and the bombing of the Black Fort marked the beginning of what was called the First Seminole War. Better understood as a ferocious series of imperial military incursions, Jackson’s Florida campaigns destroyed Black and Indigenous settlements, slaughtering and executing Seminole, Creek, and African-descended peoples. Monroe had officially instructed Jackson to enter Florida “only if pursuing the enemy,” yet his private letters make clear he believed the invasion would increase pressure on Spain to relinquish its territorial claim. Monroe instructed Jackson to “punish” the Red Stick Creeks beyond U.S. borders if necessary. By April of 1818, Jackson’s forces had burned hundreds of Black and Seminole homes in the maroon settlements along Lake Miccosukee and the Apalachicola and Suwannee Rivers. In justifying the Florida campaigns, Monroe, Jackson, and John C. Calhoun all maintained the attack was a matter of national security, to safeguard the “peace and security” of the southern frontier against the threat of “Indian and Negro war.”
By invading Spanish-claimed, Seminole-controlled, and African-inhabited Florida, the United States asserted a new status in the world. These preemptive attacks carried out in a foreign territory had profound diplomatic consequences. Spanish envoy Luis de Onís y González-Vara argued that “civilized nations” did not enter foreign territory to seize people who had taken asylum there. When U.S. representatives refused to discuss the Spanish envoy’s carefully prepared legal documents outlining Spanish territorial claims, González-Vara realized the United States aimed to seize Florida by force. This action was blatantly aimed at establishing U.S. dominion through violence and bloodshed. In fact, U.S. policy makers openly rejected the natural rights theory that all human beings were entitled to certain basic protections. Instead, they drew a sharp line between European-descended and non-European-descended peoples, between “old world” and “new,” calling one “civilized” and the other “savage.” In so doing, federal officials selectively applied international law to dealings with European empires but not with African-descended and Indigenous peoples.
When the decimated remains of the Black Fort continued to attract maroons and fugitives from slavery, the U.S. military tried to cover the fort by building Fort Gadsden over the top of it. As travelers like William Cooper Nell wrote when visiting the site forty years later, “Its ramparts are now covered with a dense growth of underbrush. [ . . . ] The whole scene is one of gloomy solitude, associated, as it is, with one of the most cruel massacres which ever disgraced American Arms.” Still, Black and Indigenous people in the region would remember the Black Fort and others, like Fort Mose, as a kind of Caribbean-bound Underground Railroad. In turning it into a beacon of Black and Indigenous freedom, the Black Fort’s maroons had managed for a time to invert its intended purpose.
The Battle of Negro Fort was a battle over placemaking. With a deadly preemptive strike in foreign territory, the federal government committed itself to an imperial policy path that would eventually spread forts, bases, and prisons throughout continental North America, across the Pacific, and all over the world. The invasion of Florida targeted the destruction of a powerful symbol of Black and Indigenous freedom. In its place, federal officials laid the groundwork for the Monroe Doctrine, the country’s supremacy in the hemisphere, the national Indian Removal policy, and the infamous Dred Scott Supreme Court ruling, demonstrating that the “allocation of rights, persecution of alleged criminals, and treatment of prisoners” would all be “racially differentiated.” The story of the Black Fort uncovers how understanding the root causes of the contemporary crisis of over-imprisonment is not only about what prisons purported to contain but also about what they covered over: the unrealized possibilities that were caged in, killed off, and otherwise foreclosed.
Copyright © 2023 by Benjamin Weber. This excerpt originally appeared in American Purgatory: Prison Imperialism and the Rise of Mass Incarceration, published by The New Press Reprinted here with permission.
ICYMI — From The Appeal
Pennsylvania prisoners are sent to a solitary confinement unit based on secret evidence, according to a legal complaint filed last week. Plaintiffs say they are locked in their cells for at least 22 hours a day, and many are driven to self-harm and suicide attempts.
In the news
At almost 80 years old, political prisoner Leonard Peltier is incarcerated at the federal prison USP Coleman I, where incarcerated people spend many or most days in 24-hour isolation. [Silja J.A. Talvi / Truthout]
New York Focus published a two-part series on the deteriorating situation at the New York City Jail, Rikers Island. Incarcerated people on Rikers are facing a severe shortage of programs, as Mayor Eric Adams’ administration has slashed funding for nonprofits, and new onerous regulations have made it extremely difficult to recruit volunteers. [Sam Mellins / New York Focus]
Incarcerated writer Khaàliq Shakur describes what it’s like to survive the Texas summers trapped in prison, without air conditioning or even access to cold water. “When it’s blazing outside, it’s even hotter inside our uncooled prisons,” Shakur writes. “This summer, as temperatures climbed, it seemed like our options for cooling down inside dwindled.” [Khaàliq Shakur / The Guardian] From The Appeal: Extreme Heat is Killing People in Prison. What’s Being Done About It?
Tracy McCarter, a Black woman, was charged with murder for defending herself from her abusive estranged husband, who was white. “The mere fact of my arrest on a second-degree murder charge set off a tsunami of consequences,” she wrote for Truthout. “Being arrested equated to being punished; ‘innocence’ was never part of the calculation.” McCarter’s essay is a 2023 Keeley Schenwar Memorial Essay Prize winner. [Tracy McCarter / Truthout]
After Maryland lifted the statute of limitations on civil child sex abuse claims, lawsuits were filed representing 50 people alleging they had been sexually abused while detained in the state’s juvenile detention facilities. [Erin Cox and Steve Thompson / The Washington Post]
Instead of helping poor families access stable housing and resources, Child Protective Services surveils and punishes them, writes Roxanna Asgarian. The system is broken beyond repair. Is abolishing it an idea whose time has come? [Roxanna Asgarian / In These Times]
That’s all for this week. As always, feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to invest in the future of The Appeal, donate here.