Review: The Cana Sanctuary
Frank Marotti. The Cana Sanctuary: History, Diplomacy, and Black Catholic Marriage in Antebellum St. Augustine, Florida. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012. x + 230 pp. ISBN 978-0-8173-1747-8.
In the continuous debate over American slavery, historians differ over the impact it had on black marriage and the family. Some argued that these nuptial rites posed no real threat to the master’s control; however, historian Frank Marotti strongly disagrees, at least in regards to slave marriages in antebellum St. Augustine. In this ancient city, “an island of Catholicism in a growing sea of Protestantism, sacramental slave weddings posed an insidious threat to chattel slavery” (3). Marotti follows in the academic footsteps of Virginia Gould for he quotes her saying that “an overwhelming majority” of people of color descended from the Spanish era of the South “adhered to Catholicism which in turn reinforced their group identity and thus their status” after the United States acquired the region (4).
When Spain ceded East Florida to the U.S., the treaty stipulated that all former Spanish subjects, including free blacks, were to receive American citizenship. That free blacks were given such status undermined laws in the slave states of the South. Free blacks from the second Spanish period in Florida, and some white settlers, sought to settle some financial scores from the Patriot War of 1812–1813. In that conflict, southern filibusters invaded East Florida to spark a rebellion there to set up a republic, which could then be annexed to the U.S. (This tactic was used in 1810 in areas of West Florida, which were then added to the future state of Louisiana in 1811.) The invaders failed to successfully instigate a rebellion and never captured St. Augustine. East Florida remained for a few more years as part of the Spanish empire, yet its prosperity was gravely damaged. By 1834, Congress authorized the Federal courts to compensate settlers for damages caused by the U.S. invasions of 1812 and 1818.
What makes this study significant is Marotti’s archival discovery of over two hundred Patriot War claims cases, previously thought to have been lost in a nineteenth-century fire in the Treasury Department. The author does not adjudicate the veracity of the claims. Instead, he examines what these witnesses reveal about the lives of “African Americans, Hispanics, the elderly, the youth, and the impoverished as they protested U.S. foreign policy” (6). The litigants were trying to obtain as much financial compensation as possible, so their claims must be understood in that light. However, their testimonies stemmed from the1830s forward, giving documentary evidence of life during the second Spanish period and the Patriot War. The sources reveal many African Americans and Hispanics who regarded the Spanish era quite fondly.
Certainly, as Marotti explains, “skeptics” might dismiss the old inhabitants’ accounts “as a fictitious stew of nostalgia for lost youth, time-corroded memories, and a conspiratorial plot to hoodwink the U.S. Treasury Department” (26). But federal officials apparently believed many of the witnesses in these legal proceedings. Apparently, Marotti does as well since these litigants and their claims form at least two thirds of the narrative. Only in the last two chapters does Marotti change the discussion to the escape of Andrew Gue in 1843 and then finally to marriage laws of the Catholic Church and free blacks.
While a quarter of the biracial children of the Spanish era received baptism, antebellum Florida, like much of the antebellum South, did not recognize slave marriages. Due to the influence of Roman Catholicism, the “Spaniards had acknowledged the matrimonial rights of the enslaved” (144). Yet the church’s presence in the ancient city of St. Augustine was spotty at best until 1836 when the bishop from Mobile assigned a priest there. By mid-century, the parish at St. Augustine belonged to the Diocese of Savannah until Augustin Verot was made the first Catholic shepherd of the vicariate of St. Augustine in 1858. (St. Augustine was not made a Catholic diocese until 1870.) Marotti notes that from 1821to 1862, there were eight hundred black Catholic baptisms at the parish in Florida’s oldest community, about half of that of the second Spanish era (153). Yet the author maintains that when couples of color marched down the aisle at the old Spanish church or had their children baptized, “they were reminding whites that they had denied them their historical prominence, while reminding themselves what future freedom held in store” (157). On the eve of the Civil War, Verot denounced abolitionism and defended slavery as an acceptable social system. Yet he also condemned the slave trade and the institution’s degradation of black marriages and the family. Marotti certainly believes that the church’s insistence of certain sacraments provided some respect for the humanity of African Americans. He writes, “within the hallowed confines of the Ancient’s City’s historic Spanish-era house of worship, this Catholic militancy produced the antebellum Cana Sanctuary” (164).
One might quibble that the author has relied too heavily on his archival records, and that complaint has some justification in this reviewer’s opinion. However, Marotti has undeniably produced a nicely written, well researched account of people who have been largely lost from history. In addition, he reminds us that while antebellum Catholicism in the South did not attack slavery head on, its insistence on baptism and the sanctity of marriage for even people of color needs to be acknowledged.