The following is a brief excerpt from my forthcoming book Albion Florida. The book should be complete later this year.
The British colony of Georgia was founded by James Oglethorpe in 1733 as a buffer state against Spanish Florida. Florida had continued to be a haven for runaway slaves and St Augustine had by this time become a heavily fortified town that was a threat to British holdings in the region. Before the Florida-Georgia rivalry of NCAA Football fame, was almost a century of armed conflicts between Georgia and Florida.
King Charles II of Spain in 1693 issued a proclamation “giving liberty to all” runaway slaves provided they converted to Catholicism. It was effectively the response from Spain to England’s foundation of Charles Town. For several years prior to the proclamation the Governors of Florida had actively pursued a policy of harboring runaway slaves. But now official crown policy sanctioned and encouraged what Florida administrators were already doing on their own.
After being destroyed in Queen Anne’s War, St Augustine was rebuilt. Once Georgia was founded, Spanish Florida redoubled its efforts to attract runaway slaves. As more runaways came to Florida, the more important they became in the colony’s defense, as we will learn in our discussion of Fort Mose.
Spanish authorities learned forcing Catholic conversion was little obstacle for runaways who were fearful of being returned to their masters. Almost universally, runways slaves converted and were integrated into Florida’s society and defense.
Regularly between Georgia’s founding in 1733 and Florida’s ceding to the United States in 1819, armed conflicts took place near or along the border.
During the American Revolution, the region was beset by fighting, a historical fact often forgotten in modern teaching of that period. In fact, as we will learn later, Florida proved to be an important front in the Revolutionary War, one George Washington expressed concern about. Florida’s Catholicism proved a major part of why the American rebels weren’t popular in St Augustine. That is another subject we will explore when we get to that era.
The British initially founded Georgia as a colony to be a strategic hedge against Spanish Florida. Georgia was to be a white-only colony. This was done to avoid the threat of runaway slaves to Florida. History has recorded Georgia as being founded as a penal colony – this is true to an extent but the motivation for Georgia’s creation was without question down to Florida’s growing militarization of the era and the Spanish colony’s increasing role as a haven for runaway slaves.
Within a decade of Georgia’s founding, the colonies of Florida and Georgia would effectively be at war. But seeds of the conflict were sown two years before Oglethorpe founded Georgia of the Florida coast.
In April 1731, Spanish boat La Familia captained by Juan de León Fandiño stopped the British frigate Rebecca. On board Rebecca was Robert Jenkins, the ship’s Captain whom the Spanish accused of smuggling. Accounts vary as to why it happened or who on the Spanish side committed the act, but Jenkins’ ear was severed as a consequence of the encounter. Thus the coming war which would begin in 1739 earned its name.
The Spanish boarding of the Rebecca was legal under the terms of the 1729 Treaty of Seville. However, tensions really didn’t boil over until it became clear that the founding of Georgia represented a threat to the security of Florida. As we have discussed previously, Florida was vital to Spanish shipping lanes between Latin America and the mother country.
Moreover, much of the territory claimed by the British in Georgia was also claimed by the Spanish as part of Florida. The Treaty of Madrid signed in 1670 essentially fixed the Florida-South Carolina border near present day Savannah. But the British disregarded the treaty. As we’ve noted before Spain either had missions or outright settlements during the 1500’s and 1600’s in areas that by 1735 had been colonized by the British.
Oglethorpe spent the first few years of Georgia’s existence creating coastal fortifications including in 1736, the building of Fort St George near the mouth of the St Johns River, in territory that was at least in theory an undisputed part of Spanish Florida.
Georgia’s founding was critical to preventing further Spanish success in destabilizing the growing slave-based economy in the Carolina’s. Spanish agents were in this period found as far north as New York tempting African’s to escape to freedom in Florida.
Similarly, the Spanish could not tolerate British encroachment on territory previously agreed by a treaty to be part of Florida. War was coming. Soon.