Spain squanders an early lead in North America

September 8 is the anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, Florida by admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. It happened in 1565, well before the first settlement that didn’t flee, die or both in what would later be British North America, namely Jamestown in 1607. And Samuel de Champlain’s founding of Quebec City in 1608. So you can see with that head start while Spain’s colonial empire proved the most… um… uh…

Stagnant. That would have to be the word. It might not have felt that way to, say, the Aztecs or Incas whom the Spanish brushed aside and plundered in roaring off to an early lead, bagging the tropical stuff, the spicy stuff and the gold and silver-filled stuff, creating permanent settlements in Central America in the 1490s and leaving everyone else playing catchup, especially the English who were busy with religious upheaval and civil war while Spain was… stagnant.

Yes, stagnant. Superficially impressive, rich and powerful, but lacking in dynamism. Everything was just too well under control. Including its highly bureaucratic empire answerable to an absolute monarch.

Just how stagnant was it, you ask? And rightly so. It was so stagnant that Florida, of which Menéndez de Avilés was also the first governor, had just 4,000 inhabitants of European descent in 1763 when the British bagged it from Spain in return for Havana, by which point the population of British North America was north of 1.5 million and growing fast.

So did the population of Florida once the British got it. With actual freedom to make a new life, people poured in. (And yes, brought slaves with them, both from the Caribbean and from South Carolina and Georgia.)

The Spanish got Florida back in the aftermath of the American revolution, which neither East Florida nor West Florida wanted any part of. It’s funny, in fact, that over many years of studying American history including the Revolution it never occurred to me to wonder what part if any the Floridas played. The short answer is they were too behind all the others, thanks to long Spanish control, to be self-governing societies at that point. They were just British outposts.

As for Spain, it supported the revolution. But quietly at first, given the ominous implications of colonial revolts for its shaky hold on its (mostly South and Central) American possessions. By 1779 it decided to jump in against Britain. And in the Treaty of Paris, a.k.a. the Treaties of Versailles, it got to keep West Florida which it had conquered, and also East Florida in return for the Bahamas.

It was a bum deal. For Florida itself, which stagnated. And for Spain, which lost its whole colonial empire in the 19th century to various revolts, having long since lost its status as a great power by being stagnant. It even lost Florida to the United States, which had been nibbling steadily at it both formally and informally, with hillbillies pouring in in defiance of the authorities, until in 1821 the U.S. went whsst chomp burp.

Since then Florida has done really well despite being on the wrong side in the American Civil War, to which it contributed little and from which it suffered little direct damage.

To this day, St. Augustine celebrates its quaint Spanish heritage. While breathing, very possibly, a quiet sigh of relief that it didn’t last any longer than it did, because the only solid contribution it ever made to prosperity is as a historical tourist attraction.