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British West Florida
February 1763 marks the signing of the Treaty of Paris officially ending the French and Indian (or Seven Year’s) War. By its terms, France ceded Canada and all its possessions east of the Mississippi River to Britain. Spain ceded Florida. Further, France ceded Louisiana west of the Mississippi (and New Orleans) to Spain. In return for getting Florida, Britain returned to Spain its developed colonies (Cuba and the Philippines among others), which Britain had seized during the course of the conflict. Apparently, the trade of Cuba back to Spain, in return for the undeveloped wilds of Florida, caused some consternation among the minority lawmakers in London. But political power was apparently in the right hands. Mother England had a reason for her madness.
On the surface, Florida appeared to be nothing more than an unprofitable liability, but the loss for Spain—and astute British strategists realized it—was disastrous. It was true that Spain had made no money off Florida, but that oceanfront property on the Gulf of Mexico had, for decades, protected Spain’s interests in the Caribbean and Mexico. Up to this point, Spain controlled the Gulf, militarily and commercially. With Britain in control of Florida, that monopoly was broken—and Britain was determined to keep it that way.
Florida was a huge colony. It stretched from the Atlantic to Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi river in the west and, originally north to the 31st parallel and south to the Gulf. It included all of present-day Florida and half (the southern half) of what are now Alabama and Mississippi and that small chunk of Louisiana west of the Pearl River that takes a plug out of Mississippi on the southwest.
Given that any colony is difficult to govern, much less a huge pioneer colony, Britain divided Florida into east and west. The west is what concerns us, and apparently, it was the more interesting half anyway. The eastern boundary of West Florida was originally the Apalachicola River. One year later (1764), Britain extended the northern boundary of West Florida to the mouth of the Yazoo River (32 degrees 28 minutes north, though the actual parallel appeared to be less important in the boundary description than the mouth of the river itself) and east to the Chattahoochee River. Both the Apalachicola and the Chattahoochee farther north form the western boundary of the present state of Georgia. This addition brought Natchez and the fertile land surrounding it under the governor of British West Florida.
Spain’s failure to turn a profit with Florida (which was never its intent we now know) did not deter the new owners. The British had spent the last century and a half establishing new colonies, watching them take hold, grow, then pay their own way, and finally flourish. The British came to the New World for profit, but they came to stay. Britain expected her settlements to succeed. She supported them. Britain’s attitude toward the two Floridas was no different.
The British had a navy to feed, and Florida was a maritime province. The Gulf of Mexico was (and still is) one of the richest fishing areas in the world. Additionally, pine forests blanketed the colony. Their exploitation would ultimately supplement shipbuilding and supply lumber to the British West Indies.
Between 1763 and the demise of British West Florida at the close of the American Revolution in 1781, West Florida had six governors—all British military officers (headquartered at the capitol in Pensacola). That the chief executive was a military man highlights the fact Britain regarded the colony as a vulnerable pioneer settlement. The primary external threat was Spain, right across the Mississippi. The Spaniards also possessed New Orleans. Again, Spain’s primary interest in the region—including Louisiana—was its role as a buffer to protect Spain’s interests in Mexico and the southwest. Colonization was not necessarily discouraged, but it was not encouraged either. (This detrimental attitude would undergo an enlightenment after the end of the American Revolution. But it would prove too little, too late—and encourage the wrong “breed” of immigrants to suit Spain’s best interests. By that, I mean, American.)
Internally, West Florida’s problems were more complex. To begin with, the territory teemed with Indians resentful of encroachment on their hunting grounds. Then, like most frontier areas, the colony attracted a high percentage of, shall we say, immigrant “misfits.” The first chief executive, Governor Johnson, who according to Robin Fabel in The Economy of British West Florida…had a “veritable gift for creating division” himself, referred to this particular species of colonists as “the overflowing scum of empire.”
In addition to angry Indians and Britain’s own refuse threatening the internal security of West Florida, there were the leftover French, whom the British feared would not take kindly to the Union Jack waving over them [That concern proved needless]. Finally, the Brits had political malcontents moving in from the northern and Atlantic coast colonies—this refuse was apparently different from the more criminally-oriented outcasts referenced above.
Remember that by this point, Britain has dealt with unhappy colonists for many decades (probably since the first ones arrived in 1607). This discontent had grown during the French and Indian War with the heavy-handed tactics employed by Britain’s military officers in order to compel the colonists to help fight the French. The French and their excesses helped to keep the colonists in line—but now the French threat is gone—and military rule tends to aggravate political dissention.
But immigrants to British West Florida during this time period did not come for political reasons. Their motivation was the same one that brought them and their ancestors to the New World to begin with—economic betterment: Commerce with Spain, fur trade with the Indians, establishment of farms, production of exotic items not found elsewhere in the colonies, real estate investment, etc. Not until the end of the British period do immigrants flock to the colony for political reasons.
They came to escape the upheaval of the American Revolution, and they were Tory.
For those of you with a special interest in British West Florida, The Dominion of British West Florida, a service organization dressed up as an unrecognized sovereign nation, provides an excellent historical overview on its history page.
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