British Florida in the Eighteenth Century
by Deborah L. Bauer
In 1763, a triumphant Great Britain signed the Treaty of Paris officially ending the French and Indian War. The Treaty of Paris of 1763 ensured the diplomatic, political, and military supremacy of the British in North America over both the French and Spanish empires. After the British stripped France of all their continental North American holdings, they demanded and received from King Carlos III of Spain the territory called “La Florida”. Later that year, Great Britain added colonies fourteen and fifteen to their growing dominion of North American lands when they partitioned La Florida into East and West Florida. Great Britain remained in control of East and West Florida between 1763 and 1784, until their defeat in the American Revolution resulted in the reversion of the Floridas to the Spanish. During the twenty-one years that Great Britain controlled Florida, a complex microcosm of British frontier society developed.
Lawrence H. Feldman, author of Colonization and Conquest: British Florida in the Eighteenth Century, has compiled a new volume of primary documents relating to one of the most overlooked and briefest eras of Florida history. Feldman’s latest collection of records relating to history of colonial Florida follows his earlier publications, Anglo-Americans in Spanish Archives: Lists of Anglo-American Settlers in the Spanish Colonies of America (Clearfield, 1991) and The Last Days of British St. Augustine, 1784-1785: A Spanish Census of the English Colony of East Florida (Clearfield, 1996). Feldman’s most recent publication includes a varied collection of demographic data and primary source documents pertaining to the British tenure in East and West Florida between 1763 and 1784.
The contents of Colonization and Conquest include documents such as letters from Loyalists to King George III reaffirming their devotion to the crown in 1776 and complaints to the king about various royal governors. Colonization and Conquest also includes transcriptions of petitions from Loyalists refugees, who had fled to East and West Florida from the Carolinas and Georgia during the early years of the American Revolution, to various British and Spanish colonial authorities such as the third British governor of East Florida, Patrick Tonyn, and Spanish governor, Vizente Manuel de Zespedes. Feldman has also included in Colonization and Conquest governmental reports from royal British surveyors, such as Elias Durnford, detailing Florida’s geographic and topographical attributes in an attempt to demonstrate to the British crown the colony’s strategic significance during the American Revolution.
However, the majority of information found in Colonization and Conquest is most accurately described as a hodgepodge of demographic data that Feldman has compiled into a rudimentary census of Loyalists who took refuge in East Florida between 1776 and 1783. Feldman’s concentration on the collection and collation of this demographic data is of particular importance to historians as no official census data exists for the tenure of the British administration in East and West Florida. Prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution, East Florida’s population had been comprised of approximately 3,000 individuals, including both whites and slaves. After the start of the American Revolution, East Florida’s population swelled upwards of 17,000, with Loyalist refugees flooding into the province. Compiling names from several governmental petitions submitted by the newly arrived refugees, Feldman has compiled a fairly detailed profile of the men, women, children, and slaves who lived in East Florida during the final years of the war. Subsequently, the author’s claim that the collection accurately represents the entire British period is invalidated given his focus on post-1776 data sources.
The information present in Colonization and Conquest was collected and transcribed by Feldman from data found on microfilm reels currently in the possession of the Library of Congress. Feldman’s transcription and assessment of these sources is of imminent importance to historians of colonial British Florida. The majority of the records used by Feldman in the creation of Colonization and Conquest are derived from three sources: State Papers of the British Public Records Office/National Archives, Colonial Series, Series 5, Volumes 111, 114, 397, 546, 556, 557, 560, 561, 580, and 635 (PRO/NAP); Papeles Procedentes de Cuba, Seccion XI, Archivo General de Indias, Volumes 1359, 2353, and 2359 (AIG, Cuba); and, Colonial Mobile by Peter Hamilton (1910; reprint, University of Alabama Press, 1976).
The strengths of Feldman’s work are numerous. First, despite the fact that Colonization and Conquest was published by a genealogical press with a target audience of amateur genealogists, Feldman brings into general circulation for the very first time a sampling of the primary sources that historians of colonial British Florida have access to from diverse archives throughout Great Britain, Spain, and the United States. The accessibility of Feldman’s work may act as a starting point for those who are bewildered and intimidated by the scattered diverseness of source material for the British period of Florida History. Second, Colonization and Conquest is the most recent primary source collections compiled about British Florida since William Henry Siebert published his groundbreaking work, Loyalists in East Florida, 1774 to 1785 (Florida State Historical Society, 1929). Third, Feldman includes at the end of his collection a very extensive annotated bibliography and Works Cited page. However, historians will find both portions of the book mislabeled, as Feldman’s so-called annotated bibliography is really a compendium of primary source abstracts related to the Anglo-Spanish War in West Florida between 1779 and 1781. Additionally, his Works Cited page is the book’s true bibliography which contains one of the most recent and up-to-date compendium of citations of secondary source publications on the history of colonial British Florida. Again, Feldman’s Works Cited page is an excellent starting point for historians unfamiliar with the broad scope of colonial history in Florida.
Despite these many strengths, Colonization and Conquest is not without its flaws. First, historians must remember that Feldman’s goals have a primary foundation in genealogical research. Subsequently, Colonization and Conquest is in many ways a demographic and primary source collection of historical documents cloaked as a genealogical aide intended to assist individuals interested in conducting research about their families. While Feldman’s book is an admirable attempt to treat the primary sources of both East and West Florida, he falls short of his goal. The focus of the collection is definitively in favor of West Florida subjects. However, such an unbalanced documentary focus may be the result of the fact that more sources from the British administration have survived in the Public Records Office/National Archives at Kew in London from West Florida than East Florida. Colonization and Conquest also seems to lack a cohesive organization of the primary sources themselves. The early years of the British administration of Florida are severely underrepresented in a collection that more heavily favors the post-1776 period. It is also difficult to tell why Feldman has included the documents he selected in Colonization and Conquest given the author’s few analytical comments that are interspersed throughout the collection. More important, it is almost impossible to tell which documents Feldman has excluded from inclusion in Colonization and Conquest and for what reasons.
Overall, Colonization and Conquest is an excellent starting point to reintroduce colonial British Florida to the public. Hopefully, Feldman’s work will stimulate further scholarly interest and publication opportunities for historians of the British period in Florida history. If for no other reason that historians now have easy access to a straightforward “starting point” in beginning their research in British Florida, a great debt is owed to Feldman for his persistence and research skills in helping to create this readily accessible “jumping off point.” It is now up to other historians to take up the quest where Feldman has left off and expand their efforts in contributing to the larger historiography of colonial British Florida.
Colonization and Conquest: British Florida in the Eighteenth Century. By Lawrence H. Feldman. (Baltimore, Md.: Clearfield, 2007. Pp. iv, 277. $28.50).