Sunday, October 16, 2011

Blog Action Day: Food in St. Augustine, 1784-1821

This year's Blog Action Day has the theme of food. The focus is on any aspect of food, but the imptus behind it is the existence of hunger around the world.  People blog about areas where there is hunger today, or how food is part of their culture.  I am going to blog a little food history, and talk about the food situation in St. Augustine during the Second Spanish Period, my academic area of study.

One of the sources we have that describes the native foods available to residents of East Florida in the late 17th and early 18th centuries is William Bartram's Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, generally referred to simply as Bartram's Travels.  He describes the crops the Indians -- mainly the Seminoles, by that time -- grew, such as corn and pumpkins and beans.  There were fruits such as melons and oranges (which the First Period Spanish had brought with them).  He also describes the fresh- and salt-water fishes and shellfish available for harvest in northeastern Florida waters.  And there is game in his food-roll: deer, squirrel, and other animals.

St. Augustine had all that, but it was not all abundance and feasting.  There were times when St. Augustine faced some very real shortages, though there was not the general, every hardscrabble day starvation some authors in the past have portrayed.  When St. Augustine was subject to siege during invasions such as the "Patriot War" of 1812, the citizens of the town and some from the outlying areas took refuge in the Castillo de San Marcos.   There might be upwards of 1500-2000 civilians packed into the fortress, with food rationing the order of the day.  There was a well in the fort, so the water supply was generally not affected by siege.  During the 1812 siege, the black militia would sortie to forage for supplies, and were generally successful.  Protecting one's family and town was a fine motivator, but for these individuals there was the added incentive of defending the fort to keep from being taken prisoner by the invaders from Georgia and South Carolina and taken back into U.S. territory and a life of slavery.

The critical shortages in St. Augustine at the time were cold hard cash, wheat, and salt meat.  St. Augustine was not an area of vibrant economic growth, though again,the picture was not as dismal as some have painted it.  But the town existed largely on credit, because cash was slow to come in.  There were some wealthy individuals in and around the town, but mostly the town, and especially the garrison at the Castillo, existed on the situado, basically a government subsidy.  There were times when the situado did not arrive.  Governors had to get creative in order to keep the town's soldiers and government workers if not happy, at least pacified.  Credit was one of the strategies the government and private citizens used a great deal. This is evident in the many I.O.U.s found in wills and administrations.

Spain had a mercantilist economic philosophy; that is, goods bought by the colonies had to be bought from Spain or Spanish ports and carried in Spanish ships.  When the situation became urgent in St. Augustine, governors found ways around this policy, which was eventually relaxed to be in tune with the realities of the world.  Part of this mercantilism, however, required that St. Augustine obtain its wheat from Mexico , via Cuba.  It soon became apparent that this wheat was of inferior quality, often spoiled, and when the governor compared prices in Philadelphia and later New York, he found wheat much cheaper, and of superior quality, than what they were getting from Havana.

Many people supplemented their diets with kitchen gardens.  Among the Menorcan population of the town, refugees from Andrew Turnbull's New Smyrna plantation, there were fishermen.  The largest occupation group enumerated in the 1784 census is farmers.  There were some large farming and ranching operations, as well, which grew produce and raised cattle.  In sum, just as with any other frontier colony in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, St. Augustine had much the same relationship with food as many areas of the world today -- enough to get by, most of the time, with periods of definite lack which required emergency action.

The inexcusable thing is that today, in the 21st century, there are areas of the world which are several times worse off, on a day-to-day basis, than St. Augustine ever was at any time in its history.

Further reading:

Bartram, William.  Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida. London: Reprinted for J. Johnson 1792.
Cusick, James G.  The Other War of 1812: The Patriot War and the American Invasion of Spanish East Florida.  Athens:  University of Georgia Press, 2003.
Griffin, Patricia C.  Mullet on the Beach: the Minorcans of Florida, 1768-1788. Jacksonville:  University of North Florida Press, 1991.
Landers, Jane.  Black Society in Spanish Florida.  Urbana:  University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Landers, Jane, ed.  Colonial Plantations and Economy in Florida.  Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 2000.
Tanner, Helen Hornbeck.  Zéspedes in East Florida, 1784-1790.  Jacksonville:  University of North Florida Press, 1989.

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