Susan Parker: St. Augustine, Cuba ties go back many years

Susan Parker: St. Augustine, Cuba ties go back many years

The potential of a changing relationship with Cuba has been big news. St. Augustine is the U.S. city that has the oldest relationship with Cuba — since our town’s very beginning.

It was the arrival in Cuba in 1564 of deserters from Fort Caroline that revealed the French settlement in the Spanish claimed territory of La Florida. The news changed plans for a settlement in North America by Spain and Pedro Menendez de Aviles and sped up the timeline for it to happen.

St. Augustine was linked to Cuba, especially Havana, from the start. St. Augustine’s founder, Pedro Menendez, went to Cuba soon after establishing our town intending to get more supplies to bring back to the residents of this infant settlement.

Cuba became the hub for funds, supplies and news for St. Augustine. Ships did not sail directly from Spain to St. Augustine. In fact, few vessels that departed from Spain came to St. Augustine. They stopped in Veracruz (Mexico) and Cuba and unloaded money, supplies, news and instructions. Smaller boats then carried the cargoes to St. Augustine.

When Spanish St. Augustine faced attacks and invasions, messages requesting help went to Cuba. Florida’s governors would send numerous and repeated letters via different couriers over several days in hope that at least one of the pleas for help would reach the captain-general or governor in Cuba. On Oct. 27, 1702, Florida Gov. Jose de Zuniga learned that English troops from Carolina were headed to attack St. Augustine. Four days later, on Nov. 1, he wrote a letter to the governor and royal officials in Havana to be carried by a Spanish royal frigate to that Cuban port. He pleaded that his immediate need was reinforcement troops to defend St. Augustine.

An English blockade stymied the departure of the frigate “La Gloria” through the St. Augustine Inlet. So she sailed south to Matanzas Inlet and there headed out to sea and for Havana. As all fighting men were needed, Gov. Zuniga sent Sebastian Groso, senior sacristan of the parish church, on the frigate to deliver the dire message in Havana.

As La Gloria sailed south, the Carolinians took over our town while St. Augustine residents hunkered down inside Castillo de San Marcos, hoping to outlast the English.

During the afternoon of Dec. 26, four powerful Spanish men-of-war arrived from Havana. Although events did not go smoothly with the relief fleet, which almost returned to Havana without fighting, their presence was enough to convince the English occupying St. Augustine to leave and retreat to Carolina.

Not quite 40 years later, events would play out in a fairly similar way between the attacking British troops and St. Augustinians, who looked to Cuba for help. Troops from Georgia and South Carolina under the command of Gen. James Oglethorpe began shelling St. Augustine on June 13, 1740, from artillery placed near today’s Camachee Cove and on Anastasia Island. The guns did little damage and once again the real fear was that food for St. Augustine would run out and force a surrender. Oglethorpe had assembled a formidable force of frigates, schooners and longboats that blockaded the St. Augustine and Matanzas inlets.

Florida Gov. Manuel de Montiano sent canoes or other shallow-draft boats southward along tidal creeks with messages for officials in Cuba to send help to the beleaguered Floridians. The messengers were instructed to head to sea at whatever inlet offered escape, possibly Mosquito Inlet (now called Ponce de Leon Inlet) or even further south.

Seven relief vessels from Cuba appeared off St. Augustine on July 4 and Oglethorpe began evacuating his men.

Florida’s governor would again send a plea to Cuba for help during a siege in 1812. This time the invaders were U.S. troops, militia and some hangers-on. During April of 1812, invading troops surrounded St. Augustine while the rest of white-settled East Florida was already occupied by hostile forces. Importantly the interlopers had not blocked St. Augustine’s inlet.

Again food shortage was the big concern, especially as many residents from farms had fled into St. Augustine for protection as the American expeditionaries threated rural homes. There were even more mouths in our city than usual.

Gov. Sebastian Kindelan repeated the tactic from the previous century of sending word via today’s Intracoastal Waterway. In August 1812, Kindelan dispatched Jaime Martinelly with the “send help” note. KIndelan instructed Martinelly to make his way even to the Florida Keys if necessary to get the word to the captain-general in Cuba.

In 1812, the Sept. 11 ambush of American troops in Twelve Mile Swamp by St. Augustine’s black militia is what really broke the siege. Nevertheless, a message did reach Havana and in October fresh troops from Cuba and two-months of food sailed into St. Augustine’s harbor.

The contact between St. Augustine and Cuba was constant for about two and a half centuries, not just during sieges.