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'Secrets of Spanish Florida' on America's Earliest Settlers
December 26, 2017  | By David Hinckley

PBS’s new documentary Secrets of Spanish Florida tells a fascinating story and makes a compelling case for serious revision of America’s colonial history.

It does this despite having to build its argument on markedly flawed heroes.

Secrets of Spanish Florida, which airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings) as part of the PBS Secrets of the Dead series, contends that had the Spanish rather than the British secured control of the New World, America’s whole national attitude on matters like race might have turned out radically different.

Specifically, as the story is laid out by narrator Jimmy Smits and a half-dozen archeologists and historians, America might have grown up to be far more tolerant of its own multiculturalism.

Spanish explorers landed in Florida a half century before the British began to settle in Jamestown and Massachusetts.

After fighting off the French and establishing a sort of unspoken truce with the growing number of British settlers to the North, the Spanish divided their turf into East Florida and West Florida, which together stretched to the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Within that territory, old and recently discovered historical texts show, the Spaniards formed cordial and even welcoming relationships with Native American tribes and free blacks.

For years, in fact, Florida was a slave sanctuary. Enslaved Africans who could make their way from plantations in the British colonies to Florida were granted asylum and freedom.

They became part of communities there, particularly the central settlement of St. Augustine, and for a brief time created the first sanctioned free black community on the continent.

Spanish Florida does caution against painting too rosy a picture. The Spaniards kept slaves, too, and anyone who has read what the conquistadors did to the Aztecs and other native Mexicans would not be likely to grant them any medals for benevolence or tolerance.

Spanish slavery does turn out to be slightly less crushing than British slavery. Slaves were legally regarded as persons, not chattel. They could earn money and sue their masters. Marriages were recognized, and families could not be separated.

Slavery is slavery. But Spanish Florida does make a convincing case that the Spanish version of the early American colonies was considerably more tolerant and multicultural than the British colonies.

By the early 18th century, in any case, the British had pretty much forced Spain out of North America. So it was British institutions that took hold, British policies that eventually overrode Spanish attitudes about coexistence and a British line of historians who shaped the story for subsequent generations.  

Spanish Florida suggests the truer story would also examine those earlier Spanish settlements and their rather different view that coexistence might be an alternative to immediate subjugation.

That said, Spanish Florida doesn’t spend two hours preaching. It spends most of its time detailing the ever-shifting landscape of early North American settlements, with the European nations playing their geopolitical chess matches while the colonists struggled with more basic issues like securing food and shelter.

Purely as human drama, against the backdrop of the battle for control of the New World, it’s a good story, very nicely narrated by Smits.

The story itself pretty much wraps up in the 18th century, though descendants of several Native American tribes reflect on how their culture and stories somehow have survived and hold powerful lessons for the present day.

At the very least, Secrets of Spanish Florida spotlights one of the least explored what-ifs from American colonial history.

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