During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, slaves who escaped from British, Dutch, French, or Danish colonies in the Caribbean often found refuge in Spanish territories. As scholars have shown, if the fugitive slaves claimed the desire to convert to Catholicism as the reason for their escape, then they were entitled to protection by the Church and by colonial officials, and granted the right to stay in the Spanish colony. Enslaved people around the Caribbean not only knew about the possibility opened to them through Spain’s religious sanctuary policy, but also acted on that knowledge to their benefit, often escaping to Spanish colonies. Continued inter-colonial desertions took place from the mid-seventeenth century through most of the eighteenth century. In some cases the fugitives were freed upon baptism, a practice that became institutionalized in King Ferdinand VI’s royal decree of 1750. For Spaniards in places such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, Florida, Santo Domingo, or Tierra Firme, incoming foreign runaways provided extra able bodies that helped develop and settle remote and vulnerable areas of the colonies, simultaneously fulfilling Spain’s mission of evangelizing the non-Christian peoples of the world—the cause upon which the Castilian Crown’s claim to the New World (and the papal support that legitimized it) rested.
Using legal and ecclesiastical records, and diplomatic correspondence, this paper examines these desertions within the framework of empire and competition in the early modern Caribbean. It considers loyalty as a political weapon used by the Spaniards who sought to lure slaves away from their rivals’ plantations with the promise of asylum and freedom. At the same time, it shows how enslaved people benefitted from this rivalry, in turn using loyalty to the Catholic Church and the Spanish monarch to their advantage, in the process clarifying the very contours of the religious sanctuary policy.