Economic Problems of Florida Governors, 1700-1763
By John J. Tepaske
Part 1 of 4
Many problems plagued the eighteenth-century Florida governor, but none vexed him more than the economic plight of his settlement. Florida was a poverty-stricken military outpost of the Spanish Empire on the northeastern fringe of New Spain.
It was unable to sustain itself with mining or agricultural enterprises and was wholly dependent upon outside aid for its existence. Want, misery, and destitution were the lot of the soldiers and their families living in this unpopular community. Securing money and supplies for them was the governor’s greatest single responsibility; no colonial question received his more devoted attention.
Sole means of support for Florida came from an annual subsidy which before 1702 was paid from the royal treasury in Mexico City. Each year the governor of Florida and his principal military, religious, and political advisers chose an agent to go to New Spain for collection of this subvention. This agent presented the governor’s certified statements of the needs of Florida and bargained with the viceroy for the money and supplies required by its residents. What he obtained was then carried overland to Vera Cruz and put on ships bound for Havana, Cuba. From here the specie and goods were trans-shipped to Saint Augustine and distributed among the garrison there. The number of soldiers and royal officials actually serving in Florida determined the annual grant; by 1700 approximately 350 soldiers, their families, and a few royal officials close to 1,600 people, demanded almost 81,000 pesos a year. Theoretically this subsidy was adequate to maintain Florida had it been properly administered, but in practice many evils cropped up. The viceroy found it profitable to delay payment, often for several consecutive years. He simply turned his back on the governor’s agent until the Florida province absolutely demanded assistance to survive. The august ruler of New Spain then remitted only what was necessary to keep the Saint Augustine garrison alive temporarily while his huge debt to Florida for past subsidies continued to grow. In 1703 this debt amounted to 456,959 pesos.
The complaints and entreaties of the Florida governor did little to eliminate the troublesome delays. Lack of ships in Vera Cruz to carry the subsidy to Florida, lack of exact information on the number of men actually serving there, and lack of money in his own bailiwick to pay the subvention were the viceroy’s principal excuses.
A second abuse developed from these dilatory payments. The inadequacy of the Florida food supply, caused by the viceroy’s procrastination, ultimately forced the governor of Florida to buy goods in Cuba on credit at high rates of interest. Thus when the subsidy was finally released, what little remained in hard money after purchase of supplies in New Spain was quickly gobbled up by usurious Havana merchants. Additional delays in payment then began the same cycle over again. Had the subsidy been remitted regularly, the governor could have avoided these exorbitant interest payments and used the money for the needs of the colony.
Price and quality of supplies furnished to Florida with money from the annual subsidy were other facets of the same problem.
The governor needed specie badly. If his agent could buy supplies at a low price, more money remained to meet his other obligations. Unfortunately, the Florida agent made few bargains. The viceroy, probably in collusion with merchants in Mexico City, bought food for the governor’s representative at outlandish prices, even for inflation-ridden New Spain. In many instances foodstuffs were of inferior quality, and it was not uncommon to find wormy flour and rancid pork among the items destined for Florida.
If these supplies were not contaminated at the time of purchase, a few months on the damp wharves of Vera Cruz considerably abetted the moldering process. The exorbitant cost of the journey by land from Mexico City to the Gulf and by sea from Vera Cruz to Saint Augustine drained still more pesos from the subsidy and added to the governor’s economic woes.
REVISION OF THE SUBSIDY SYSTEM
In 1702 the persistent complaints of the governor of Florida finally brought about a change in the subsidy system. In March, Philip V ordered that the annual Florida grant be paid from the sales taxes of Puebla de los Angeles, situated southeast of Mexico City on the road to Vera Cruz.
Responsibility for the subsidy was taken out of the viceroy’s hands and given to the Bishop of Puebla, who had to disburse the money and buy supplies requested by the governor’s agent. Half of every subsidy had to be in specie.
To avoid the old delays, the king ordered the Florida agent to spend no more than six months in Puebla carrying out his charge. Arrangements were also made to remit annually twenty-five percent in specie over and above the regular subsidy to retire debts owed from past subsidies.
Several advantages apparently accrued to Florida as a result of the change. Since the annual income from the Puebla excise taxes was almost 140,000 pesos and the Florida subsidy was only 80,000 pesos, there was now a reliable source of income to provide the subvention.
Prices of supplies were purportedly lower in Puebla than in Mexico City, and the journey to Vera Cruz was shorter and less costly. Perhaps too, there was hope that a dedicated religious official would administer the subsidy more equitably than the viceroy had done in the past.
Once the new system was finally established in 1708, it was at least a temporary success. For a few years, ships carrying the Puebla subsidy entered Saint Augustine inlet bringing the Florida colony its yearly quota of money and food. Between 1707 and 1716, 912,290 pesos in specie and supplies left New Spain for Florida.
The twenty-five percent payments, in addition to the regular subsidy, retired the governor’s old obligations to his soldiers and to Cuban merchants and eliminated a part of the old debt for past subsidies. In 1709 this debt amounted to 273,479 pesos — five years later it had been cut to 211,290 pesos.
Continued tomorrow …