SUSAN R. PARKER: Treaties shaped and reshaped St. Augustine

What a gathering of heads of state at the G-20 (Group of 20) meetings in Germany right now. Today’s fast transportation allows for persons who head nations to meet face to face. But in the big picture, these meetings of heads of state are a recent development.


A few centuries ago, monarchs (heads of state) seldom traveled to meet with their “brothers” — as they called each other — of other kingdoms or nations. Unlike today, royal weddings did not draw a crowd of nobility and crowned heads. The nuptials were often quite private. It was not unusual for the bride and groom to be in different countries at the time of the wedding.

This practice of proxy wedding ceremonies led to many disappointments when the spouses finally saw each other in person. Perhaps the most famous of these letdowns was England’s King Henry the VIII’s displeasure when he finally saw his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, in the flesh.

It was usually diplomatic ministers, not heads of state, who gathered to make agreements and treaties. Ministers who gathered in France in the late 1700s made decisions that upended the lives of the residents of St Augustine and the rest of Florida. Their agreements, formalized in treaties, redrew the map of North America and redrew the lives of St. Augustinians.

With the Treaty of Paris of 1763, Spanish Florida was turned over to Great Britain, the victor in the recent war. In the United States, the war best known as the French and Indian War (1756-1763). It is also called the Seven Years’ War.

Spain unwisely declared war against Great Britain late in the war, allying itself with France and the losing side. The ministers of the belligerent countries met in Paris to put together a treaty. Across the Atlantic Ocean, men in wigs made life-changing decisions for others. France was removed from the North American continent, giving up its territories in Canada and in Louisiana. Spain gave up Florida and took over formerly French Louisiana.

Great Britain took possession of French Canada and Spanish Florida. With the changes set forth in the treaty, the entire Atlantic coast of North America came under the control of Great Britain.

St. Augustinians were surely stunned when a representative of the British governor of South Carolina sailed into St. Augustine on March 16, 1763, bearing an account of the ratification of preliminary articles of peace. Official news from Spain had not yet been sent to our city. After more than two centuries, Spain was relinquishing Florida. South Carolinians and Georgians had been trying to oust the Spanish from Florida for decades.

St. Augustine’s first Spanish period was ending and the British period beginning. For St. Augustine’s residents, their lives in the city ended and they evacuated to Spanish Cuba with a few of the evacuees going to Mexico. British citizens moved into the long-time Spanish capital of Florida.

But the American Revolution would send the men in wigs back to the treaty table in a few years. Spain declared war against Great Britain during the War of the America Revolution. And as we all know, Great Britain lost this war and diplomats once again discussed peace terms in Paris.

With the Treaty of Paris of 1783, Great Britain gave up its continental holdings south of Canada. Spain retained Louisiana and returned to a Florida that was smaller than its previous Florida colony. France gained no territory on the continent. Thus ended our city’s British period and the second Spanish period began.

At our local level, it was time for a reversal of roles. Historian J. Leitch Wright observed that “the 1783 peace treated British subjects in the Floridas almost the same way as the 1763 treaty dealt with Spanish subjects — as “conquered populations.” This time, British subjects would be leaving St. Augustine and Florida — or perhaps stay on with permission of the incoming Spanish regime. Spanish citizens and soldiers began to fill the streets and buildings of St. Augustine in 1784.

In St. Augustine, we hear and read the terms “first Spanish period,” “second Spanish period,” or “British period.” The basis for those terms began with the diplomats meeting in Paris.

Susan R. Parker holds a doctorate in colonial history.