For all purposes, most of Florida’s peninsula is part of the Caribbean. And because of this location, our history is a rich one of early colonization, Indian wars, pirate legends, Spanish gold and maritime battles; the fact that my little place in the world is the stuff of legends and old sea sagas thrills me.
Florida was in the mix of much of the New World trade goings-on during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The Spanish, English, and French (and even the Dutch later on) were all vying for dominance in the newly discovered West Indies. Who could colonize the islands quickest? Who could strike gold and gems and thus build their wealth? With all the ships traversing through the Florida Straights laden with riches, it’s no wonder pirates also made their mark around the area.
Many a Spanish treasure ship was looted or at least picked as much as possible along the Florida coast. For treasure hunters and enthusiasts, the Treasure Coast of Florida offers a paradise of charted wrecks for recreational dives and tons of beach on which to metal detect. Many ships were lost off the east coast, due to hurricanes, running aground, or being incapacitated during battle. I wonder how many shipwrecks go undiscovered just on the other side of the Intracoastal and A1A. How much gold is still sitting at the bottom of the Atlantic/East Coast Shelf?
But it is not that activity I had planned for my impromptu trip to St. Augustine. I’m in love with the history and the old buildings, the fort, the land and the beaches. And besides, the fam damily was getting stir-crazy being cooped up inside during all the sporadic thunderstorms over the past few weeks, and I thought a trip over to the east coast was warranted… So the Fourth was spent over in Deland, fireworks in Port Orange, then a sightseeing drive up through Flagler to St. Augustine– the oldest European-settled city in the US.
I have always been in love with the St. John’s and coastal St. Augustine areas. It’s a mix of factors that draw me in: the history, the culture, the parks and beaches and the number of nature- and history-based attractions. For being so populated in the city propers of St. Augustine and up to Jacksonville, there’s still a lot of empty property. Land. All around. We love seeing all that expanse.
Inland, in Deland, and northward, it rained just as we had anticipated. It had rained most of the drive over. Thursday late morning had us in plenty of sunshine, though, as we strolled to the entrance into the Castillo de San Marcos.
So the sporadic thunderstorms that had followed us from inland west coast to inland east coast did not bother us as we walked in the heat along the gunwall of the Castillo de San Marcos. But then, Florida has her way of relieving even the worst summer heat–if you can be lucky enough to be on the coast. Her sea breezes are a literal thing– cooling coming off the Atlantic, and much appreciated. And in that heat, it was relieving, though at that point, even the rain would’ve been welcome.
Heat and sweat and all, though, the Castillo never ceases to stir goosebumps out of me. The oldest stone masonry fort in the US, the Castillo is as close as you can get to old European history in America. If walls could speak, indeed. I have a strong want to know. And supposedly, the fort is haunted. I can understand why many would think so.
As for spiritual phenomenon, I can only say I feel as though the movement of bodies, the battles, the events over time, the sheer humanity of this particular place, moves me deeply, like the fort itself is the collective spiritual remnant of everyone and everything that took place here. Greed, it makes me think. So much thrown into the winds so Europeans could make their mark, demonstrate their power and wealth. Anybody can head to Wikipedia and read about the history, but it’s the feel and experience of the place. The physicality of it. The coquina stone that still stands after 450 years of sand and sea, storm and wind. [Mind you, the masonry fort was not present during Menendez’s time in 1565, and construction wouldn’t begin on the Castillo until 1672, over 100 years after Menendez’s founding]
How can that not inspire just a little bit?
The taking of the land from the Timucua is not lost on me, however. The marshlands and coastal plains were theirs before any stone fortress or canonfire or churchbells ringing across the “Place of Slaughter” [Matanzas Bay]. Yet the foreign invaders would build a lasting tell of their landing and subsequent conquering of the wilds that were Florida.
I wonder about the Timucua tribe and how they must have perceived the arrival of Ponce de Leon in 1513, and later Pedro Menendez de Avilés and his crew in 1565. If it was any different than the New England tribes’ interaction with European settlers. I wonder how long it took during that century before European disease and corruption killed them off. I wonder at what Florida would be like if the Spaniards had never ventured upon the Caribbean.
And yet I’m fascinated by the enduring history, the sagas of discovery and expedition, the underlying desperation to control outposts on the fringes of the known world, just to exert power over nations. What kind of world was that? How is ours any different today?