Thursday, April 4, 2013

Old Roots in the Sunshine State



New Englanders are proud and often knowledgeable about their history but we tend to know little about the colony that was planted long before any of the 13 "originals." After visiting St. Augustine for the first time last month, I'd have to say it's a city with more of the feel, atmosphere, and stuff of the past than anywhere I've been to in New England -- plus all the greenery of that long, luscious growing season. There's a deep back story here.
It takes some mental turning around to appreciate. You're being asked to see things from the Spanish point of view, which doesn't come easy for us Yankees. Spain is often a word for "villain" in our ordinary New England -- note the emphasis on that second word -- account of things American.
Only 20 years after a talented Genoa navigator "discovered" a new world by sailing west in search of the old one, the Spanish Imperial Grand Theft of indigenous American treasures operation was well under way. The biggest haul was gold and other precious metals from the Incan and Aztec lands. They hauled the loot over to an Atlantic harbor and shipped it off on "caravels" that had all the seagoing maneuverability of large bathtubs. The truly gifted sea-thieving nations such as the English caught on quickly and found the Spanish cargo ships easy prey for their own better designed ocean-going vessels.
To protect their treasure ships the Spanish looked to establish strong points along the coast. Ponce de Leon's expedition in 1513 failed in its pop-quiz quest for the fountain of youth. However, or so I have recently read, Spain's poncey Lion had accidentally discovered the powerful Gulf Stream current off Florida waters, promising a quicker trip back to Europe. This combination of factors made Florida of strategic value even though subsequent expeditions into the interior produced nothing but disaster for the natives.
Imperial rivalry dominated the region's fate. The French -- Huguenots, according to the city's official chronicle -- sought to establish a settlement called Fort Caroline on the coast. When word of this gambit reached the desk of emperor Philip II, whose reign saw both the peak and decline of the Spanish Empire (and whose personal resume includes a failed courtship of Queen Elizabeth), he sent a punitive expedition to wipe out the French and establish a permanent Spanish settlement. Every report generated by an official in the far-flung Spanish empire was piled onto that desk for imperial consideration. Who knows, if this one had got lost or kept slipping to the bottom of his inbox Florida's history might have been different.
Philip dispatched his military beast Don Pedro Menendez with 700 soldiers and settlers to deal with a fraction of that number of French. Menendez chased them around and caught them on a place on the coast now named "Mantanzas" -- the place of the "slaughters" -- because that's what happened to the French. He also founded St. Augustine on the Matanzas Bay, a defensible site for a fortress or "presidio" to assist shipping and discourage raiders.
The settlers left behind by Menendez, however, were unprepared in the usual transplanted colonial way to deal with a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and their European crops didn't grow. Half-starved and afraid of the Indians, some of whom with good reason suspected that these newcomers would lead to no good, the settlement limped along until disaster arrived in the person of Sir Francis Drake. Drake dropped by on his way back to England in 1586 and burned down the settlement's village and wooden fort.
All of this, for perspective, happened more than a century before English fortune-hunters tried their hand at Virginia and the generally more admirable Pilgrims "discovered" Plymouth while looking for Virginia, and both colonies began their own the systematic appropriation of the native peoples' land that eventually became the United States.
From the Spanish point of view, the English colonies in Virginia or anywhere in North America were actually part of "La Florida." It was worry over southward expansion by the English that led led to the eventual building of a serious fort in St. Augustine.
In 1668 English privateer Robert Searles ("privateer" meant licensed pirate) paid visit to the rebuilt settlement. Learning that a large shipment of silver was being stored in St. Augustine, Searles sailed into the harbor under cover of night and was mistaken for another supply ship. The raiders slipped into town, massacred 60 residents and committed other depredations before stealing the silver on their way out.
After this a Spanish queen named Mariana -- how is there is no pop star named "Queen Mariana"? -- finally ordered the construction of a stone fort in 1672. It took 23 years to complete, but turned out to be the colony's best econonic development idea because it's still standing today and serves as the town's major tourist attraction. The oldest remaining monument of the so-called Early Spanish Period, the Castillo de Marco is a tribute to the idea of building from a local rock called coquina, a "shell rock" consisting of tiny pieces of shell pressed together by enormous natura forces (yet another confirmation of the powers of deep geological history).
You can see the tiny shell fragments in the stones today. Workers cut the stone "like cheese" into block-size hunks and cemented them into a fortress (or "castillo") that wasn't brittle and didn't fall to pieces under cannon fire. (Shades of the palmetto walls of Charleston's Fort Moultrie for those who know that story.) Another sidebar is the fortress was based on a state of the art design by the clever Italian, Leonardo da Vinci. Many houses in the town have since been built of the same coquina rock; again, the visible shell fragments make the stone easy to spot.
But the city continued to be a pawn in an 18th century "game of thrones." The English pushed south, establishing a Carolina colony close enough to St. Augustine to pose a threat. The two colonies raided each other and, even worse, bribed Indians to do their dirty work. The English enslaved Indians; the Spanish tried to make Catholics out of them. A brief ray of light fell when a Quaker governor of Carolina, John Archdale, brokered an agreement with St.Augustine. The English would return Christian Indians to Florida, and the Spanish give up shipwrecked Englishmen. In fact, St. Augustine residents rescued a large contingent of Quakers during the winter of 1696.
But the English decided to give war a chance and subjected that new stone fortress to a serious trial in 1702, besieging the fort for 50 days while the town's 1,500 residents huddled behind its walls in the courtyard. (Fortunately the fort had its own tidal flush sewer system.)
The Brits failed to destroy the fort and finally contented themselves with burning down the town. As a result, no buildings in the town of St. Augustine date before 1702. To put this episode in perspective, the colony's determined resistance to a great imperial power took place 75 years before New England colonials ever fired a shot in anger against their colonial masters.
Yet St. Augustine's "American" victory over the British merits little attention in our history books, because our Anglo-biased history never forgave this remarkably resilient city its Spanish roots. The Spanish Empire was certainly nothing to celebrate in moral or political terms, but when it comes to "settling" the New World and deposing of its indigenous inhabitants, nobody's hands are clean.
The Spanish rebuilt their town, using cochina stone for the principal buildings. The next attack came in 1740 headed by James Ogelthorpe, who founded the English colony of Georgia as a refuge for debtors from the British Isles but showed less compassion for the Roman Catholics who populated Florida. His ships shot cannon balls at the Castillo de Marcos for 27 days before giving up.
In the end, however, England got in through the back door. After defeating Spain (and France) in the the world-wide Seven Years War, the war that made Canada English, Great Britain cleaned up at the conference table, where peace terms included its acquisition form Spain of all of La Florida. England divided this vast colony into two halves, making St. Augustine the capital of the eastern half.
Then -- perhaps crucially for its image -- St. Augustine's Florida remained loyal to the Brits (don't ask me why, since British rule was a disaster there) during the American Revolution. Had the inhabitants managed to throw in with the revolutionaries, we'd have 14 original colonies and Florida would be indisputably the first "American" colony.
The American Revolution nevertheless cut the deck again. At the Treaty of Paris in 1783, ending the war on handsome terms for the rebelling colonies, Florida was given back to Spain. Spain? Apparently the now enfeebled Castilian state had helped out the Americans a little during the Revolution and earned a reward.
Florida was in bad shape then, according to the city's official history, which blames runaway slaves, Seminole Indians, and pirates. This hardly seems fair. Should slaves not have run away? Should Indians not seek to live on their own land? As for pirates, we have Johnny Depp.
What's called the Second Spanish Period lasted from 1783 to 1821. Few new settlers came from Spain, though the church built its cathedral during this time. You can see it, and its monument to faithful friars giving succor to suffering Catholics, on the corner of St. George Street and Cathedral Place.
For reasons not yet clear to me, the robustly youthful United States of America acquired Florida from Spain in 1821and immediately got into a war with the Seminoles. White settlers poured in from the rest of the states, Indians of course poured out (except for the local prison population), and Florida entered the Union in 1845: As E.B. White once famously remarked, "two cheers for democracy."
A place with a deeply rooted, complex, and too often bloody history -- have I mentioned all that lush, long-growing-season green? -- St. Augustine makes for a hell of a tourist town.