Thanks to the COVID-19 related shut down, I have made great progress on my latest book project which is a narrative about Colonial Florida and the influence the English/British had on it.
Florida was only under British rule for two decades from 1763 to 1783. However, the English then the British (after the 1707 Act of Union) impacted just about everything that took place within the boundaries of Florida from 1585 onward until the 1820’s when the territory was part of the United States.
For much of the period Britain ruled the seas and the areas directly to Florida’s north and east. Command of the seas made Peninsular Florida, and its most important settlement, St Augustine, a locale under constant pressure from the English/British. English and British-aligned pirate ships ruled the waters off the coast of Florida for a large portion of Florida’s first Spanish period.
Florida was prosperous in the 1600’s, probably more economically advanced and self-sufficient than the English colonies to the north. However, the 1670 founding of Charles Town (now Charleston) fundamentally reshaped Spanish Florida and would ultimately result in St Augustine becoming more militarized and the economy of Florida spiraling downward. Florida’s prosperity and geographic location made it a constant English target.
Queen Anne’s War proved the end of Florida’s golden period as a Spanish Colony. During the war, the English invaded Florida in 1702, again in 1704 and finally in 1707. The Spanish held on to Florida but the result was a far less prosperous colony than Spain had governed in the 1600’s. Florida’s population plunged, missions were abandoned and the colony was militarized.
Spain now saw Florida more strategically as a bulwark against possible British expansion in Caribbean. The English had captured Jamaica in 1655 leading to an era of unmatched piracy in the region. Florida was a regular target of these pirates as was Cuba, a colony Spain deeply valued economically.
Another attempt to capture Florida was made in 1740 by the British. By this time, colonists in Britain’s southernmost North American settlements had a thriving plantation culture and Spain’s willingness to harbor runaway slaves and give them freedom in Florida had become a major problem for the British.
In 1763, the British assumed control of Florida after the Treaty of Paris. Feeling the colony was too large to govern as a single unit, East and West Florida were formed. West Florida, with its capital at Pensacola, absorbed British territory all the way west to the Mississippi River. The colony swelled with new arrivals during the period of British rule. The Spanish recaptured West Florida as an ally of the United States during the Revolutionary War.
East Florida, with its capital at St Augustine was of much more strategic interest to the British. St Augustine was expanded and New Smyrna Beach was founded. The East Florida Society of London became a powerful group which included some of the most prominent merchants of the era. East Florida along with Nova Scotia, recently acquired from the French became key military posts of the British defense.
The population of St Augustine swelled even further when loyalists from the Carolinas and Georgia fled to the city during the American Revolution. The British gave generous land grants to move colonists from further north into Florida.
Multiple Revolutionary War battles were fought in Florida, and the newly Independent United States attempted to invade East Florida on three separate occasions. All three attempts were repulsed. This history has hardly been told – in fact East Florida was critical in the British thinking of a “Southern Strategy” and is thought by some scholars to have been important in George Washington’s strategic thinking.
Many loyalists had fled to East Florida during the war assuming the colony would remain in British hands. But in 1783, after a change in government at Westminster, Whigs anxious to pull back from the region ceded East and West Florida to the Spanish. Loyalists either relocated to the Bahamas or returned to Britain.
The Second Spanish Period saw an increase in activities around runaway slaves. These African-Americans as well as Native Americans allied with the British during the War of 1812. The British in 1814 occupied Pensacola, which was under Spanish control. In December of that year, the United States Andrew Jackson attacked Pensacola and liberated the city from British control with Spanish help.
However, this alliance did not hold as the Spanish continued to harbor runaway slaves in its territory. The Americans eventually invaded Florida leading to the First Seminole War. During that war, multiple individual British officers aided the Seminole and Free African-American cause. Following the war, Spain ceded Florida to the United States and British influence on Florida disappeared almost overnight.
In this work, I will endeavor to tie together the events that motivated English and British to view Florida so strategically. We will also look extensively at the institution of slavery and how it impacted British interaction with Florida throughout the period.
Florida’s shape and identity by the time it became part of the United States largely owed itself to the impacts of the British.