Spain and England in Florida

Louis C. Kleber writes how Florida was ceded to Britain in 1763; retroceded to Spain after the American Revolution, and acquired by the United States in 1819.

When the Spaniards under King Philip’s lieutenant, Don Pedro Menéndez de Aviles, massacred the French Huguenots at Fort Caroline and Matanzas in 1565, the foremost threat to Spanish Florida was removed. A French reprisal raid three years later was no more than that, and Spain was able to turn to the problem of maintaining a permanent presence in Florida.

It must be remembered that at this time ‘La Florida’ in Spanish eyes meant a vast area of North America, extending from the Keys in the south to Canada in the north. A clash with the rising oceanic power of England was inevitable. Florida was the key to protection of the route followed by homeward-bound galleons carrying enormous wealth from Spain’s colonies farther south.

In 1567 Menéndez returned to Spain to give a first-hand report on Florida. Under his energetic leadership, Spain had established tenuous military outposts from Port Royal Sound in Carolina to Tampa on the west coast of Florida. In addition to St. Augustine, a settlement was founded at Santa Elena. All of these were to suffer from a fundamental weakness of Spanish colonization; none was self-sustaining.

Always dependent on outside supply, conditions deteriorated until only St. Augustine survived. The beauty of Florida, with its appearance of a paradise, gave way to a hell where the hungry Spaniards, their clothes in tatters, fought for existence under a broiling sun, harassed by insects and unable to venture into the wilderness for fear of hostile Indians.

St. Augustine’s garrison burned the fort and made ready to leave in a makeshift vessel. Fortunately, a dramatic appeal from San Mateo convinced them to hold on; it came from Don Pedro Menéndez Marques, nephew of Menéndez de Aviles. Supplies were promised and they were given an assurance of transport to Cuba if help did not arrive.

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