A fight for freedom


July: To appreciate and celebrate our multicultural diversity Isaiah 4:2-6; 60:1-10

Over the course of the last five centuries there have been many different national and cultural groups of Catholics who have settled in the area now known as the state of South Carolina. There have been Catholics of Spanish, English, Scottish, Irish, Lebanese, French, African, Portuguese, and other origins who came to South Carolina. The influence of some of these groups, like the Irish and French may still be found in the modern Diocese of Charleston, while the mark left by others like the Spanish and African has faded into the history of the Church in South Carolina. Nevertheless each group has contributed to the growth of the Roman Catholic Church in our modern Diocese of Charleston.

The earliest Catholics to come to South Carolina were the Spanish explorers and chaplains who traveled with them. It is believed that the first Mass was offered in South Carolina round 1526 by Spanish Dominican priests who traveled with an expedition led by Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon. Over the course of a century and a half, the Spanish established a series of missions along the lower Atlantic coast where they not only attempted to settle permanently, but also to establish the Catholic faith among the native Indian population. By 1670 the English had established the city of Charleston and began to attack and drive out all Spaniards and Catholics. The constant state of tension that already existed between the Spanish and English was heightened by the Spanish policy, begun in 1693, of granting freedom to any slave who fled his English master and came to the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine. This was part of the overall Spanish policy of harassment toward the English presence in the Carolinas and Georgia which attempted to create instability and weaken the English resolve to maintain their presence in the area.

Only a short distance from the town of St. Augustine in Spanish Florida was the small settlement of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, the population being almost entirely composed of freed African slaves. It is known that between 1738 and 1763 the settlement maintained a stable population of about 100 former slaves, a sizable number of whom had escaped from English settlements in the Carolinas. English complaints to the royal governor of the Spanish territories were frequent, as were the demands for the return of escaped slaves.

It is not well known, but perhaps the largest Catholic group to enter the area of South Carolina were not the Spanish, the English, the Irish, or even the French. It was the African slaves who constituted the largest number of Catholics. It is believed that of the 338 recorded cargoes of slaves brought into Charleston between 1720 and 1770 about 30 percent of them were from either Gambia or Congo. The proportion doubled following the American Revolution and as late as the beginning of the 19th century it is estimated that, of the slaves whose port of origin can be determined, nearly 60 percent were natives of the Congo-Angola region of Africa. That particular region of Africa was, and still is, an area with a substantial Catholic population and close ties to the church. Angola and the neighboring Kingdom of Congo maintained independent diplomatic relations with the papacy since 1491 and did not rely on European missionaries to act on their behalf. “The Kongolese were proud of their Christian and Catholic heritage, which they believed made them a distinctive people, and thus the Kongolese slaves would have seen the Spanish offers in terms of freedom of religion … as additionally attractive beyond the promises of freedom in general.” Since the slaves who were Catholic had no rights as slaves they could not practice their religion and most eventually lost the faith over the course of several generations. But some decided to fight not only for their earthly freedom, but also for their spiritual freedom.

On Sunday, Sept. 9, 1739, the slave led Stono Rebellion broke out. The original band of about 20 Angolan slaves were led by a man named Jemmy and over a period of several days grew to a small army of about 100. This slave insurrection is recognized as being one of the largest and most expensive in the history of the United States yet the presence of Catholic slaves among the rebels is something which has not been generally appreciated by historians until recently. Many of these rebels were seeking a religious refuge in Spanish Florida where they could not only be free people, but also practice their faith without hindrance. The greater part of the English colonists were of the opinion, probably rightly, “that the revolt was somehow precipitated by Spanish propaganda and was part of the larger set of tensions that led to war between England and Spain in 1740. English officials reported a number of Spanish vessels acting suspiciously in English waters, and some Spaniards, including priests, were reported to have made surreptitious visits to South Carolina.” Indeed there was a Spanish agent by the name of Colonel Don Miguel Wall, whose real name was John Savy, and who was actually a South Carolinian. In 1737 Wall made a visit to the Spanish court in an attempt to convince them of the vulnerability of the English colonies in the Carolinas and Georgia to Spanish attacks. Catholic involvement in the harassment of English colonial possessions was only emphasized when the Spanish government in Florida would send priests to Charleston “to protest depredations or to negotiate peace in the name of Spain the assembly [of Charleston continually protested] at having to pay the board and lodging of these guests.”

Contemporary accounts of the Stono Rebellion lay the blame on another Spanish agent, a Captain Piedro, who visited the sea islands along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia the year of the rebellion. It was well known that slaves fleeing south to St. Augustine would often seek temporary refuge on these deserted islands as they made their way further south. There were also reports circulating that a priest who was found in the area had been detained for a time under suspicion that he had been somehow involved in inciting the rebellion. Another account of the rebellion seems to lend support to the idea that freedom of religion was at least partly a factor in the Stono Rebellion when it lays blame for the whole affair on the fact that many of the slaves were Angolan and noted that “the Jesuits have a mission and school in that Kingdom [Angola] and many thousands of the Negroes profess the Roman Catholic religion.” Unfortunately this largest group of Catholics was never really free to practice the faith and over several generations most abandoned the Catholic faith. The last records of African Catholics in the Carolinas who were still maintaining their faith disappeared around the second decade of the 19th century  just as the Diocese of Charleston was established.