AN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY COMMUNITY IN EXILE: THE FLORIDANOS IN CUBA
The links between Florida and Cuba are older than written history. Archaeologist Lourdes Dominguez has discovered pre-historic Florida pottery in excavations of Guanabacoa, Cuba, as evidence of pre-Columbian contact and trade.Once Spaniards conquered and settled Cuba in 1511, the Indian populations of the island were decimated by the devastating effects of war, disease, increased work requirements, and dislocation. Some of the desperate Indians sought refuge to the north, among the Florida tribes with whom they already had contact. Bishop Diego Sarmiento complained during his pastoral visit to Cuba in 1544, that Cuba was being drained of Indians. Thereafter, every expedition that departed from Cuba, attempting to explore and conquer Florida, carried more Cuban Indians northward. Descendants of some of those emigrés may have been among the Florida Indians still conducting a lively trade with Cuba in fish, turtle shells, amber, cardinals, and other luxury goods in the late seventeenth century. After St. Augustine was established in 1565, Spanish colonists also travelled back and forth to Cuba frequently, on matters govemmental and personal. Florida and Cuba even shared governors on two occasions -during the service of Hernando de Soto and Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. Coordinated military defense of the Caribbean linked Cuba and Florida and military personnel cycled between the locations routinely. Trade and provisioning networks also connected Florida and Cuba, and families sometimes maintained branches in both locations. Florida’s churchmen reported to their superiors in Cuba and Florida’s missionaries and seculars hoped to retire to Cuba once their difficult service in Florida was done. Elite families from Florida saw Cuba as the place where important social functions should be performed and when they could, they had their children married in important Cuban churches to reinforce the family’s social status. On April 18, 1717, the daughters of Captain Joseph Eligio de la Puente and Don Juan de Hita y Salazar were both married in the church of Espiritu Santo in Havana.
Florida also served as Havana’s backwater - the place it deposited many of its undesirables, such as sentenced military deserters and convicts. When, by the seventeenth century, blacks were 45 percent of Cuba's population, Cuban officials considered sending Havana’s “surplus” free black population to St. Augustine, both to reduce their concentrations and to thereby acquire their urban properties. Thus, humans had traveled the Florida/Cuba circuit for hundreds of years before 1763 and continue to do so today.
The evacuation of 1763, however, was not a matter of choice. Floridians had been struggling for decades to hold the colony despite declining levels of metropolitan support, poverty, and attacks by corsairs and English-sponsored Indians. Life was hard for all, but probably hardest for the colony’s non-white peoples, most of whom were consigned to the dangerous frontiers. In 1752 Florida’s Christian Indians were living clustered nearby the not very effective protection of St. Augustine in five refugee villages: Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe de Tolomato, with a population of twenty-six people; Pocotalaca, with thirty-three; an unnamed village of Costas Indians, with eleven; Palica, with twenty-nine, and Punta with fïftynine. These Indians were the pitiful remnants of once powerful nations such as the Ybaja, Yamassee, Timucuan, Chiluque, Casipuya, Chicasaw, Apalachee, and Costas. The residents of these five towns had already been much shuffled and combined and households often contained people of different nations and language groups. This process of amalgamation due to population loss had been going on since the arrival of the Spanish and Old World pathogens, but was rapidly accelerated after the English arrived in the Southeast in 1670. Thereafter, the missionized Indians of Florida were under ever-increasing pressure from hostile Indian groups allied to the English and at one point Cuban officials attempted to relocate several hundred Calusa Indians to Cuba, but this plan failed.