New Smyrna Beach

John & Susan Simpson
Fri 10 Jun 2022 17:31
I’ve been reading a series of books recently by an author named Sandra Clayton.  Sandra and her husband sail their boat from the UK across the Atlantic to the Caribbean - you might spot a similarity there! - and her books beautifully describe their experience of life afloat and the places they visit.  It’s been interesting to compare their experiences with our own.  Their plan for the Hurricane season was to sail north from the Caribbean to the USA and they spent a summer exploring America’s Intra-Coastal Waterway (ICW), a system of connected rivers, lakes and ocean inlets just inland of the Atlantic coast stretching 1200 miles from Florida to Virginia.  That Hurricane avoidance plan wasn’t available to us as the water is too shallow and the bridges too low for Casamara to make the trip, but the story of their voyage was fascinating and I loved hearing about the history of the places they visited. I came to realise how little I knew about British colonialism on the North American continent, particularly in Florida, and how skirmishes between European powers on the East coast of the US fitted into American history.  Whilst I knew about the voyage of the Mayflower in 1620 and had vague recollections of studying the American War of Independence when I was at school, it became apparent that there was a whole period of British-related history that I knew nothing about at all, including that Florida had been a British colony (or rather two colonies as it was separated into East and West).

Having left Casamara stored ashore in Grenada until November, John and I embarked on a five-week jaunt in the USA and decided we would use the first couple of weeks to visit some of the places Sandra had described which had a British colonial connection.  We were interested to know more about the people who left British shores for the unknown.  Having made the journey ourselves with all the conveniences of modern life, we were full of admiration for those who had travelled centuries ago.  

Once you start to plan a trip like this you realise just what a vast country the USA is. There were dozens of places we could have visited but we picked out just three places as our centres of exploration, two in Florida and one in Georgia, otherwise we would have spent all our time driving and no time finding anything out!  These three places were also on the ICW so we would at least be able to look at it, even if we couldn’t sail on it.

Coincidentally, our first day in Florida was 24th May, which marked British Empire Day in the Commonwealth between 1902 and 1958.  It seemed very appropriate to be setting off to discover what had happened to early British colonies on that day. First stop was New Smyrna Beach, Florida, (a 250 mile drive north from Miami where we’d flown to) with its 17 mile stretch of white sandy beach solid enough for cars to drive and park along its length.  New Smyrna Beach is a surfing centre but also has a reputation for being the shark bite capital of the world.  I would have thought the latter would put people off getting into the water to go surfing, but clearly Floridians are made of stronger stuff!
New Smyrna Beach car lane

Britain acquired Florida from Spain by treaty in 1763 and was keen to develop the land for crops to be exported to Britain in order to reduce dependence on imports from foreign countries.  Tracts of land were offered to wealthy British prospective plantation owners if they were prepared to grow crops for export to Britain.  A plan was made to develop a large settlement of c.100,000 acres in East Florida with one of the principal business partners, Dr Andrew Turnbull (a Scottish physician), serving as on-site plantation manager.  The settlement was named New Smyrna after Mrs Turnbull’s birthplace, Smyrna in Greece.  Whilst other plantations in East Florida had a workforce of African slaves, Turnbull’s vision was to use an indentured workforce who would ultimately own a portion of the land themselves once they had given their labour to establish a productive plantation.

Turnbull had lived and worked in Egypt and Turkey and believed Mediterranean workers would be more successful in Florida than Britons due to the climate.  He gave instructions for an advance party to construct housing for 600 people in the area that is now New Smyrna Beach and set off for the Mediterranean to recruit settlers.  The same treaty by which Spain had given Florida to Britain had also transferred ownership of the island of Minorca and it happened that by the time Turnbull’s ships arrived in Minorca there had been a three year period of crop failure on the island.  Turnbull found many Minorcans were prepared to try their luck elsewhere and his ships eventually arrived in East Florida in 1768 with 710 Minorcans, 110 Italians, 590 Greeks and a handful of people of other nations.

The settlement of New Smyrna was beset with problems from the start.  It was built in swampy terrain along the banks of a river (now part of the ICW) and the settlers battled against mosquitoes and water-borne disease as well as the intense heat, humidity and the odd hurricane.  When the settlers first arrived the housing and food stocks in place to support 600 people were immediately strained with the arrival of more than twice that number.  Settlers had not fully understood that they would receive no benefits themselves until after the costs of establishing the settlement had been recovered from plantation profits, leading to an early mutiny.  Creating a settlement of people from several different cultures and speaking several different languages didn’t help either.  

In 1777, 11 years later, a group of disgruntled settlers left and walked to St. Augustine, a well-established British settlement 65 miles north, where they complained to the Governor of East Florida.  Unfortunately, Dr Turnbull had fallen out with the Governor and he took the settlers side against Turnbull.  As Dr Turnbull’s British backers were also unhappy with the amount of investment the settlement was needing for support this latest turn of events marked the end of his dream.  Dr Turnbull moved his family north to Charleston where he practiced medicine until his death.   

Florida was again exchanged by treaty in 1783 when Britain returned the two colonies to Spain in exchange for Bermuda.  Land grants were issued by the Spanish to a few remaining Minorcans and British settlers still in New Smyrna at that time and their descendants still live in the area today.

Whilst much of this story is known through written accounts and records there is very little to see today of New Smyrna’s history.  The climate is such that wooden buildings would only have survived a few years and there wasn’t the administrative infrastructure in place to record much in the way of social history.  Dr Turnbull designed a series of man-made canals to drain the land for cultivation and some of these are still in existence.  The foundations of the quayside can be seen at low tide and the low walls of a stone structure are visible in Old Fort Park.  There are conflicting accounts of what this building might have been.  It’s certainly well-placed to be a fort as it faced the curve in the river where enemy vessels might approach but other records describe it as a house and as a hotel.  Maybe it was all of those things over time.
Old Fort, New Smyrna Beach

We visited the town’s museum and were fascinated by the early navigational charts of the area.  The outline of the coastline and placement of the off-lying islands looks remarkably accurate in comparison with today’s charts and the footnotes give a fascinating insight into the mindset of the navigators who were charting the waters for others to follow.  Instructions such as ’area not to be approached, even in a canoe’ and notes about the nature of the sea bed in an anchorage would have been invaluable to future visitors, as indeed they are for us today.
Notes on early chart of East Florida

We left New Smyrna Beach to drive 200 miles further north.  We were heading for Saint Simon’s Island and Fort Frederica, where we would discover another British colonial story.