Part one of a two part series.
The importation of human beings through Old Town Fernandina for slave labor is a story that does not appear in most Amelia Island tourist guides, but the fact remains that most of the treasure brought to the island by pirates was not meant for secret burial, it was meant to be sold. The treasure was, as Gullah-Geechee Nation leader Queen Quet has described it, “black gold.” Thousands of people were captured and brought here – by pirates and businessmen alike – for sale at places like Traders Hill or for forced labor on Amelia Island itself.
A booming business
After the Spanish spent more than a century decimating the estimated 100,000 native Americans they found when they first arrived – killing, fatally infecting, and exporting all but a few thousand – they gave East Florida to Great Britain. By 1763, the British government found crop exports from Amelia Island to be doing well, thanks to the enslaved people brought here to work.
“On visits to Amelia Island in 1773 and 1774, respectively, Lieutenant Governor Moultrie and Frederick Mulcaster recorded (from the Egmont plantation) fields of potatoes, 140 acres of corn and peas, 200 acres of indigo, and a herd of cattle. Plantation fields yielded over 1,000 bushels of corn in 1773 and nearly 2,100 pounds of indigo were shipped from the plantation to England in December 1774,” according to a historical synopsis written in 2007 by Bland & Associates.
But according to Florida History Online, Egmont’s island fortune would not last much longer: “In 1776, following the destruction of Lord Egmont’s Amelia Island Plantation by rebel troops from Georgia, his agent, Stephen Egan, led his family and 100 enslaved men and women through the woods to the protection of British troops in St. Augustine.”
Egmont’s slaves later created Cecilton Plantation at what was known then as Cowford. Cecilton was the fourth East Florida estate developed by Egmont’s slaves, says the website.
As part of the Treaty of Paris, Britain gave Florida back to Spain in 1783 and took their most valuable enslaved people with them, but slavery on Amelia Island continued.
“Samuel Harrison, a prominent planter on Amelia Island, maintained a home at Old Town Fernandina. In the 1790s, Harrison owned seven slaves. ... He moved easily between his town home at Fernandina and his island and mainland plantations,” according to the Bland & Associates report referring to Old Town Fernandina.
A research paper by noted historian Jane Landers titled “Slavery in the Spanish Caribbean” says Harrison bought three more slaves for 1,000 pesos from those brought here in 1800 on the brigantine Ida.
After the U.S. outlawed importation of any more slaves after January 1808, Spanish-held Fernandina became a hot spot for slave smuggling and trading across northeast Florida and southeast Georgia.
Pirates and at least one “prominent firm” saw they could profit quickly in Fernandina from human cargo, and Fernandina overtook St. Augustine as a prime port.
Befitting pirates, it was a cutthroat business – figuratively, if not literally.
The town became the headquarters for a slave trading business owned by Cuban Fernando de la Maza y Arredondo. Until moving on in 1812, Arredondo was directly responsible for importing hundreds of people through Fernandina. At least six ships regularly transported captured people to Fernandina, according to Landers.
Arredendo saw at least one of his own ships captured by pirates as it was en route from Florida to Africa with tobacco and other goods to trade, according to Landers, but the incident did not deter him. In August 1810, Arredondo & Son imported 174 more captured people via the ship Sevilla. Twenty-eight died on the voyage, and 55 of the people who landed in Fernandina were ill, bringing less than his preferred price.
The U.S.-backed Patriot Raid in 1812 “disrupted Fernandina’s nascent port operations and persuaded the prominent firm of Arredondo & Son to relocate their slave importation business from Fernandina to Havana,” according to the Bland report, which adds that “(in) June 1813, a census of Fernandina inventoried 428 free whites and 861 enslaved African Americans.”
The interruption proved temporary. Soon again, it was business as usual for the pirates. Even a former governor of Georgia, David B. Mitchell, took advantage.
After he left office and was appointed as an “Indian agent,” Mitchell “purchased Negroes at or near Fernandina and harbored them at the Indian agency as laborers until they could be sold.” Evidence against Mitchell shows he moved hundreds of slaves this way to supplement his income. People were selling for $175 to $250 at that time, according to a 1967 article in Florida Historical Quarterly by Frances J. Stafford.
In June 1817, an invasion force led by Scotsman Gregor MacGregor raised the Green Cross of Florida and “established a court of admiralty which would, for a fee, condemn the captured vessels and cargo of various Latin American regimes,” according to stateoftheunionhistory.com, but within a few months MacGregor had moved on to the Bahamas and his friend Luis Aury had moved in from Galveston, Texas to take charge of operations on Amelia Island.
Aury’s pirates seemed to like capturing slave ships, especially the illegal ones not protected by their governments, but they took those too from time to time. Stafford wrote, “Aury was able to dispose of more than 1,000 Africans in less than two months.”
Aury was not the only pirate dealing in the importation of human cargo. In 1817, a pirate named Simon Metcalf, a slave-ship specialist, “captured the Spanish slave ship Isabelita near Cuba and took her into Amelia Island,” according to Jonathan M. Bryant, author of Dark Places of the Earth. “Metcalf sold the Isabelita and her cargo of slaves, and the buyer smuggled the slaves through the Creek Nation into Georgia.”
The Portuguese slave vessel Jesus Nazareno bought 95 people in Gambia before being captured by pirates and brought to Amelia Island in 1817, according to a slave trade database, though the name of that pirate leader is not noted.
But the pirate raids on “legitimate” slave ships operating under the flags of their own countries would again be temporarily disrupted. By 1817, the pirates’ free rein on Amelia Island had gained the attention of the president of the United States, James Monroe, and he was determined to regain control of lawless Fernandina, sending military forces to address the problem.
“In his first State of the Union Address on December 3, 1817, Monroe described Amelia Island as ‘a channel for the illicit introduction of slaves from Africa into the United States, an asylum for fugitive slaves from the neighboring States, and a port for smuggling of every kind,’” according to stateoftheunionhistory.com.
The pirates operated with impunity until Madison’s soldiers arrived, and the business of delivering humans to a tragic fate continued. Two days later, another ship, the NS de Monserrate, arrived on Amelia Island with 256 enslaved people surviving out of the 269 it had loaded at an unknown location in Africa.
“On 23 December 1817, 250 federal troops led by Major James Bankhead, 1st Battalion Artillery of the U.S. Army, occupied Amelia Island to help restore order,” according to the Bland report compiled for the city of Fernandina Beach.
But the “misery continued” even after the U.S. military came again to Fernandina, according to Lander’s research. “(Captain John) Elton described African rowers ferrying slaves from ship to shore almost continuously,” Landers says, and the captain described conditions on the ships he did board – as there was a five-ton limit on his orders – as filthy. He was shocked at the inhumanity and suffering he witnessed.
Bankhead’s forces would remain on the island, and after Spain gave the Florida territory to the United States in 1821, the federal government decided yet again to act decisively on Florida, with Congress authorizing Monroe to take possession of the territory, extending federal slave and trade laws to it, and giving judges the power to collect taxes, according to Stafford.
Enslaved people continued to live and work on Amelia Island between 1835 and 1842 during the Second Seminole War, and as U.S. soldiers clashed with the few remaining Native Americans left further down the state and to the west, “Many black slaves fled plantation life to join the Seminoles,” says the Bland report, while “Fernandina provided a safe haven for planters forced to abandon their lands.”
In part two, Yulee’s railroad, refugees, and a new mayor sworn in by the Chief Justice of the United States.