Dr. Carl Wise related the weird, wacky and sometimes tragic history of the Spanish Empire in Florida during the 16th Century at the latest History Byte. The special edition was held at the Community Center Auditorium, and was well attended.
The 16th Century was a confusing time for Europeans.The Earth was being knocked off of its pedestal at the center of the universe, the Protestant Reformation was raging across Europe, and a man named Columbus had discovered an entire continent that could not exist. Marco Polo’s trek to Asia and back, and his “Il Milione,” one of the earliest travel diaries, was inspiring explorers 200 years on.
One of the inspired was Christoper Columbus. According to the theology of the Church at the time, everyone on the planet was descended from the three sons of Noah. The theory then was that Shem travelled to Asia, Ham to Africa, and Japeth was the progenitor of Europeans. There was no one else alive after the Flood to account for the millions of people who lived in the Americas. To the consternation of scholars these people stubbornly insisted on going about their lives, oblivious to the trouble they were causing the learned men.
Speculation was rampant. Were they cannibals? Did they even have souls? If they did, could they be saved, delivered from the vile heresies that surely condemned them to the deepest Hells? And by the way, where was the gold? The explorers who followed Columbus to the New World found a land of contradictions. Especially mysterious was La Florida, the Land of Flowers. The first reported visit by a European was that of Juan Ponce de Leon, the famed Spanish conquistador.
Though there was no mention of it during his lifetime, later tales claim that he was searching for the Fountain of Youth. Florida was not kind to early European visitors, with entire parties being swallowed by forests and swamps. This meant that when the first histories of Florida were being written, sources were rare. Eighty years after the discovery of Florida, there were only three sources to work from, as opposed to the dozens from other colonies.
Exploration of the peninsula was dangerous. In one case, a crew of 600 sailors searching for water along the Gulf coast was lost. Eventually, four of the crewmembers made their way to Spanish Mexico. In fact, one of the survivors, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, wrote a diary about their nightmare trek that became one of the sources for later histories. It took 50 years from the discovery of Florida before the first colony was founded in the state, and it was promptly blown off of the map by a hurricane. Ships were knocked off course, natives attacked in the night, mosquitos passed on yellow fever. Saint Augustine was founded in 1565 on the site of the current city. It is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States.
Once a toehold was gained, Jesuit missionaries used it as a base of operations for missions across the state. The gradual pacification of La Florida had begun. Over the next century, the Jesuits left and the Franciscans took over. There were pirate attacks, plagues and disruptions of supply lines by natives. The French and British, who held territory north of Florida, began an inexorable push south.
There were wars in Europe that spilled over to the New World. In the 18th Century, Spain ceded their Florida Territory to the British, in order to regain control of Havana. While they would regain control of the colony for a few decades between 1780 and 1820, eventually it was surrendered to the fledgling United States, in return for the US renouncing all claims to Texas.
And centuries of Spanish rule came to an end.
Next week, History Bytes will return to its normal place and time, 11 a.m. at the Johann Fust Community Center. On Wednesday, March 14, Cappy Joiner will share stories of his family on Gasparilla Island.
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