Black History: Special Delivery!!
The “Saltwater Railroad” is the name of the waterway traveled by enslaved persons fleeing from the South to Florida to reach freedom in the British-controlled Bahamas. The Salt Water Railroad was similar to the Underground Railroad that the enslaved used to flee to northern states enroute to Canada. The enslaved fleeing to the Bahamas began around the time that the U.S. invaded Spanish Florida. Spanish Florida had been a location to which many seeking to escape slavery in the South would flee. However, the 1819 Adams-Onis Treaty finalized the U.S. takeover of Florida, making it an unsafe destination for those seeking freedom.
Accessing freedom in the Bahamas via The Saltwater Railroad began as early as 1821 and continued for 40+ years. It was primarily used by the enslaved freeing from Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida.
During this time, those fleeing enslavement in the deep South had few options in terms of escape routes. Accessing freedom in northern states or Canada was difficult with it being so far away. Making it to the Bahamas was a much more viable option. At some of its closest points, the Bahamas is only 154 miles from Florida. Once making it to Florida, those fleeing the South would pay a fare and travel by boat to the Bahamas. Those without money would build their own canoes. Travel to the Bahamas was dangerous as slaves could be recaptured while at sea, and weather conditions on the Atlantic Ocean could also be very dangerous. Free Blacks, making the Bahamas their home, became outspoken advocates against slavery. Free Blacks living in the Bahamas could now own land, marry, and access education.
The British declared in 1825 that anyone who made it to British territory would be considered free regardless of their prior status. In 1834 slavery was abolished in all British territories. Once in the Bahamas, the formerly enslaved made their home among descendants of the enslaved Africans and “Black Seminoles.” The Black Seminoles were formerly enslaved Blacks from the deep South who initially sought refuge among Florida’s Seminole indigenous peoples. Approximately 6,000 enslaved individuals reached freedom in the Bahamas via The Saltwater Railroad by the 1830’s . This led the U.S. Government to demand the return of “fugitive” slaves to the U.S. The British refused the demand to return any of the formerly enslaved to the U.S. However, the British government did agree to compensate slave owners under the British Emancipation Act.