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The 1740 English Seige

Palmer's bold foray to the very gates of St. Augustine foreshadowed a new move southward by the English, beginning with Savannah in 1732. With his eye on Florida, James Oglethorpe landed at St. Simons Island in 1736, built Fort Frederica, and nurtured it into a strong military post. From Frederica he pushed his Georgia boundary southward al the way to the St. Johns River-a scant 35 miles from St. Augustine. Meanwhile, Castillo de San Marcos began to show its half-century age and the palisades were rotting. That capable engineer and frontier diplomat, Antonio de Arrendondo, came from Habana to sound out the Georgians, inspect Florida's defenses, and make recommendations. Backed by Arredondo's expertise, Governor Manuel de Montiano put all the cards on the table in a letter to the governor of Cuba, who had been made responsible for Florida's security: "Your Excellency must know that this castle, the only defense here, has no bombproofs for the protection of the garrison, that the counterscarp is too low, that there is no covered way, that the curtains are without demilunes, that there are no other exterior works to give them time for a long defense; we are as bare outside as we are without life inside, for there are no guns that could last 24 hours and if there were, we have no artillerymen to serve them."

Map showing the advancement of British forces.

Cuba's governor was a resourceful administrator eager to meet his responsibility. He sent guns, soldiers, artisans, convicts, provisions and money. The walls would be heightened five feet and masonry vaults, to withstand English bombs, would replace the rotting beams of old rooms in the Castillo. Stronger outworks would be built. To supervise the project, Engineer Pedro Ruiz de Olano came from Venezuela. The work began in April 1738 rather inauspiciously. The master of construction, one Cantillo, was a syphilitic too sick to earn his 16-real daily wage. Much of his work fell to his assistant, a 12-real master mason. All six stonecutters were Negroes. One was an invalid, and none of them as yet had much skill with coquina. For moving stone, there was but one oxcart. The labor gang-52 convicts-was too small. Nevertheless, quarry and kiln hummed with activity, and in the Castillo the crash of demolition echoed as the convicts pulled down old rooms and began trenching for the new bombproofs. The start was on the east, because this side faced the inlet, where enemy action was likely to come first.

As usual, misfortunes beset the work. Cantillo's gálico worsened and Blas de Ortega came from Habana to replace him. Eight convicts on the limekiln deserted. Engineer Ruiz pulled off a crew of carpenters, sawyers, and axemen to rebuild a blockhouse where the trail to Apalache crossed the St. Johns.

Showing planned seige on St. Augustine

The oxcart driver broke his arm. Quarrying and stonecutting dragged. The old quarry played out. Luckily, a new one was found and opened, even though farther away. And Habana sent two more carts and more stonecutters and convicts. It was well into October before the carpenters began setting the forms for the vaults, but the masons soon moved in and finished the first of the massive, round-arched bombproofs before the year ended. By the next October all eight vaults, side by side along the east curtain, were done. Each one spanned a 17- by 34-foot area, and had its own door to the courtyard. Windows above and beside the door let in light and air.

The End of an Era

The tops of the ponderous vaults were leveled off with a fill of coquina chips and sand. Tabby mortar was poured onto the surface, and tampers beat the mixture smooth. After the first layer set, another and another were added until the pavement was six inches thick. The whole roof was thus made into a gun deck, and cannon were no longer restricted to the bastions alone. For unlike the old raftered roof, the new terreplein was buttressed by construction that could take tremendous weight and terrific shock; and masonry four feet thick protected the rooms underneath from bombardment. In San Carlos bastion, by mid-January of 1740, they had finished the tall watchtower and the new parapet.

It was English progress in Georgia that had spurred all this activity. In fact, Spain's plan for recovery of Georgia and other Spanish-claimed land was well past the first stages. Troops were assembling in Habana and a reinforcement of 400 had already come to Florida. Actually, Florida-Georgia was only part of the knotty problem growing out of Spain's traditional policy: Spanish colonies shall trade only with Spanish ships. No foreigners! But if the Hispanic supply system broke down (as it often did), needy Spaniards welcomed foreign "aid", legal or not. Even after 1713, when Spain reluctantly gave England a trade concession, the quota was so small and the market so large that honest traders often became smugglers. Deciding who was honest was up to the coast guard. Since coast guard captures usually meant impressments of the crews and court condemnation of the vessels, Spain touched England in two tender places-pride and pocketbook.

The man who sparked the war was Captain Robert Jenkins of the Rebecca. Jenkins told Parliament he was boarded off Florida, his ear sliced off and handed back by a Spanish officer who said: "Carry it to your King and tell his majesty that if he were present I would serve him in the same manner."

Pope, the couplet maker, smiled and said "the Spaniards did a waggish thing/Who cropped our ears and sent them to the King." But others were not amused, and England and Spain declared war in 1739. It was called, of course, the War of Jenkins' Ear.

England's main target was the Caribbean, with Habana at center and Porto Bello, Cartagena and St. Augustine on the perimeter. Admiral Vernon quickly won fame by his capture of Porto Bello (1739). James Oglethorpe would try to emulate him in Florida. Already he had probed the St. Johns River approaches, and St. Augustine would be next. Was the Castillo ready?

One English spy reported respectfully that "there is 22. pieces of Cannon well mounted on the Bastions from 6 pound'rs. To 36. they are very Cautious of the English & will not let them go on the lines, there is a guard of a Lieutenant a Serjeant & 2. Corporals & 30 Soldiers here who is relieved Every Day. There is one Lieutentant a Serjeant & 12. Gunners who is reliev'd once a Week, there is 5 Centries on ye lines at a time all Night, ye Man that is at the Bell Strikes it every 3. or 4. Minutes the Centry's Calling from one to the other there is a Mote Round it of 30. foot wide & a draw Bridge of about 15 foot long, they draw every Night & Lett it down in the Morning..."

Interior changes to the Fort
Key: 1-sally port. 2-guardroom. 3-prision. 4-latrine. 5-smithy. 6-overseer. 7-provisions. 8-kitchen. 9-ordnance supplies. 10-ration distribution. 11-subsidy supplies from New Spain. 12-magazine. 13-ship supplies. 14-arms. 15-commandant quarters. 16-chapel.17-sacristy. 18-wells. 19-ramps. A-sally port. B-guardrooms and kitchens. C-prison. D-gunners' quarters. E-ordnance supplies. F-treasury. G-accountant. H-chapel. J-magazines. K-officers' quarters. L-well. M-ramp. N-latrines. Others: storerooms.

Governor Montiano, however, was fully aware of weaknesses. "Considering that 21 months have been spent on a bastion and eight arches," he pointed out, "we need at least eight years for rehabilitation of the Castillo." Of course, in making his case the governor did not see fit to mention that the crew had also built much of the Arrendondo-designed covered way and strengthened the earth wall from the Castillo west to the San Sebastian River.

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