Any reference to Florida’s role in the American revolution must be parenthetical, like, (Meanwhile, down in Florida) …
Our story begins on the night of July 4, 1776, in the colony of Pennsylvania. In his print shop in Philadelphia, John Dunlap is hurriedly setting the type for the Declaration of Independence, which he will run off as broadsides to be distributed throughout the city and to 13 of the 15 colonies the next day. He works late into the night because he’s nervous and excited and keeps making mistakes and having to correct them.
None of the broadsides will be distributed to the colonies of East and West Florida. They were not invited to send delegates to the Continental Congress. To understand why, it is helpful to compare war to a game of marbles.
War is like the marbles game of keepsies, in which the winner gets to keep the loser’s marbles. For instance, after the French and Indian War (1756-1763), which ended 13 years before the American revolution, Great Britain was the winner. Great Britain, therefore, got to keep Florida and Louisiana, formerly belonging to her opponents, Spain and France (respectively). But the whole point of winning marbles is to have marbles to swap for marbles you like better. So when the players sat down in Paris to swap marbles after the war (also known as “making a treaty”), Great Britain gave Louisiana to Spain and swapped Cuba for Florida with Spain. You see, during the war games, Britain had shot the prize Havana marble out of the ring and pocketed it. When this particular game of marbles was over, Spain seriously wanted Cuba back so Britain swapped Florida for it. So now the Spanish are back in Havana, a Spanish count is the new governor of Louisiana, and the British are moving their stuff into the Castillo de San Marco in St. Augustine.
(Don’t worry if this is confusing. It gets crazier.)
The Fourteen and Fifteenth Colonies
As soon as the Brits added Florida to their American possessions, they divided it into 2 colonies; from the Mississippi to the Apalachicola River was West Florida, and everything else was East Florida. Pensacola was the capitol of the colony of East Florida and St. Augustine the capital of West Florida. With that done, they got busy, as Brits will, organizing the colonies’ governing and administrative staffs and channeling settlers into the new territories with the offer of land grants. England had a real problem at home with urban crime, so as a way of cleaning out their overcrowded jails and giving a sort of jump start to settlement in the Floridas, they dumped a lot of petty criminals into them. These involuntary and bewildered “pioneers” were used to picking pockets, not peas, so they were not happy.
In fact, when the pushing and shoving between loyalists and rebels began in the 13 colonies up north, the struggling settlers in the Floridas were too busy wiping the sweat out of their eyes and scratching insect bites to get all hot and bothered about revolution. Besides, any help or protection they got in this pioneering business came from England, not those hot heads in Philadelphia. Anybody from the other colonies who felt the same way were welcome to come to Florida. And thus, after 1776, the population of British-garrisoned St. Augustine began to swell with loyalist refugees. Among these refugee immigrants wandered a few American patriots. The Brits captured 3 of the signers of that absurd declaration of independence (Thomas Heyward, Jr., Arthur Middleton, and Edward Rutledge) and escorted them into prison at St. Augustine. However, the Brits let most of their French and American prisoners rent places in town and live as they pleased, so the captives may have taken tea and played whist with their captors.
(Meanwhile, down in the southern wilderness of East Florida, Cuban fishermen were going about their business undisturbed by all the commotion up north. Camped out on the barrier islands off the Gulf coast, they cast their nets over the warm, sparkling water by day and in the evenings, relaxed around their fires, smoking fish and drinking rum. It made no difference to them who was in charge up in St. Augustine. Perhaps, on a trip to Havana for supplies, they will learn that the American colonies up north have declared their independence from Great Britain. The response to such news might be no more than an amused “Buena suerte,” (“Good luck”). The fishermen are philosophical. They shrug in agreement that life is changeable. All that really matters is the fish. And the rum.)
A Saddened Monarch
Nearly 4 months after 13 of the 15 English colonies in America declare emphatically that they really “ought to be free and independent states,” His Most Gracious Majesty, King George III, addresses both houses of Parliament on the subject of this declaration. He blames the rebellion of the people upon their “tyrannical leaders,” who have no interest in the welfare of the people but are motivated to treason only by a greed for power. The King is saddened that “My unhappy People [are not] recovered from their Delusion, [and have not] delivered themselves from the Oppression of their Leaders.”
And it must be said that the King is not a little vexed at the whole affair. “No people ever enjoyed more Happiness, or lived under a milder Government, than those now revolted Provinces…My Desire is to restore to them the Blessings of Law and Liberty, equally enjoyed by every British Subject, which they have fatally and desperately exchanged for all the Calamities of War, and the arbitrary Tyranny of their Chiefs.”
Like anything in life, it’s all just a matter of one’s point of view.
(Meanwhile, down in the colony of East Florida, the fisherman at Punta Rasca are asleep, snoring softly. Pine sap in the log on the dying fire pops, shooting a little shower of sparks into the darkness.)
In shooting marbles on the ground, you want to “knuckle down” to shoot. During the course of the war that ensued over the disagreement concerning colonial independence, some new players lined up to shoot. France and Spain were old enemies of Great Britain, so naturally they offered to knuckle down with the rebels. If they could drive the Brits out of the land-grab game in the Americas, they might pick up some pretty new marbles.
It may be instructive to know that King Charles III of Spain and the King Louis XVI of France were cousins. Family is family, after all.
France sent money, arms, an army and finally a naval fleet to make sure the rebels didn’t lose. Spain also put troops in the field, sending them up out of Louisiana to capture British-held forts in the Mississippi Valley.
Spanish troops laid siege to Pensacola in 1781, capturing the city and pocketing a new marble, the colony of West Florida, for Spain. Throughout the war, Count Gálvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, and the Gardoqui trading family in Spain provisioned the Continental Army with money, weapons, uniforms, and other supplies, including thousands of tents. The rebel victory at Yorktown, which effectively ended the war, was heavily financed by Spain. The general in command of French forces, acting through a Spanish agent, raised ½ million pesos in 24 hours in Havana not only to supply the Continental Army but to pay its wages during the siege.
(Meanwhile, down in south Florida, while kings and revolutionaries up north are shooting high stakes games of keepsies, the Cuban fishermen out at Punta Rasca are shooting a dice game called “cubilete.” The dice rattle in the cup. The men exclaim over each throw, their oaths and laughter carrying over the dark, lapping water.)
The British have lost the war. All the players head back to Paris to divide up their winnings. There’s haggling and secret negotiations. The United States is newborn, but not in the least naïve. They know where their long-term interests lie and deal with Great Britain as opposed to their allies in drawing up the new boundaries in North America. After all, they are a chip off the old block, and when all is said and done, family is family.
France goes home with empty pockets.
Oh, and Florida is tossed back to Spain. “Here, you can have this. We don’t want it.”
(So, on their next trip to Havana for more black beans and rice and rum, the fishermen at Punta Rasca may learn that La Florída belongs, once again, to Spain. The probable response will be shrugs and amused head shaking. The fishermen are philosophical. Who knows? Maybe someday the United States will want La Florida back. The world is changeable. All that matters are the fish by day and the rum by night. And waking to sunshine so bright on the water, it hurts your eyes to look at it. And the birds. So white against the sky, they bring tears.)