Written by Jeremy Ray Jewell
Photo: “‘A Glimpse of one of the Turnbull Canals’, Van de Sande Studio, New Smyrna, Fla.”, from Dr. Andrew Turnbull and the New Smyrna Colony of Florida by Carita Doggett. Drew Press, 1919. Internet Archive & PALMM Florida Heritage Collection.
Pellicer left his home on the Mediterranean island of Minorca in the spring of 1768 as an indentured servant. He boarded a ship in a fleet of eight sailing to the newly acquired British possession of East Florida. Five years before, several thousand of that exotic land’s former occupants up and decided to permanently sojourn in Cuba and the newly-Spanish Louisiana, foolishly leaving their forts and garrisons unguarded against the onslaught of British capital investment. Among those lured to that tropical paradise by the great advertising ruckus which the new stakeholders created was one Scotsman by the name of Dr. Andrew Turnbull.
After acquiring the necessary land, Dr. Turnbull set out to acquire the necessary Protestants to settle it. Fortunately for him, the keepers of the Anglican faith had unilaterally declared the Greek Orthodox faith to be, in fact, Protestant. Between this fact and Ottoman despotism, or perhaps between his Anatolia-born Greek wife and sheer expediency and businesslike calculation, Turnbull set upon his plan. He delegated out the clearing of land and other essentials and set forth to lead around five hundred faithful Hellenic Christians out of the tyranny of Turkish cotton, silk and indigo production and into the contractual freedom of British cotton, silk and indigo production.
The first change in Turnbull’s plan came when he stopped at the port of Mahon on British Minorca, where he caught wind of and decided to collect and contract over a hundred Tuscan men from Livorno. After depositing this cargo back at Mahon and setting sail for Greece, the Scottish doctor found his recruiting efforts there significantly thwarted by officials of the Sultan. But upon returning to Mahon with less than the expected five hundred colonists, he found that the presence of the young Italian men in the city had added to his party nearly a hundred newlywed women, who arrived from elsewhere on the island. Off-setting this surge of Catholic colonists was the unexpected acquisition of two hundred Greeks from Corsica, thus completing the original number of five hundred.
Despite this haphazard success, when word of the colonial enterprise spread throughout Minorca (as these things seemed to do), several hundred more Catholics flocked to escape their crop failures and start afresh in the land of Florida. Turnbull and the English governor of Minorca capitulated, and on April 17, 1768, over fourteen hundred colonists – mostly Catholic – set sail under the flag of the Anglican monarch, with two papist priests shoed-in for good measure. Among the passengers was Don Francisco.
The voyage lasted eighty inhospitable days, with a portion of the Mediterranean passengers finding one or the other of them to be their last. Finally, the colonists sighted land. The long journey was over and having left the familiar sun, rocks, and vines of that ancient marine highway from which they came, they now saw before them the promising land surrounding Mosquito Inlet. It was good on its promise, to the point of malaria. The tangled shoreline of mangroves and swamps was at once impenetrable, teeming and stolid.
In Turnbull’s absence, there had not been enough food gathered nor housing constructed, and an expected delivery of Africans had shipwrecked, leaving much of the land uncleared and undrained. In the absence of slaves and in the presence of non-British indentured servants, it was not long before the colonist’s indenturedness would begin to wear off under the auspices of the under-worked British slave drivers. With little more than the clothes falling apart on his back, Francisco Pellicer proved his worth as a carpenter, if only by his craft with the sharp, green fans of the palmetto bush from which the colony’s neighborhood of huts was to be built.
From the scenic slopes of the rocky Mediterranean coasts, with its stacks of stone edifices and politely subdued environs, the altogether differently scenic flat-to-sunken land and illusory sloping scrub was too ridiculous to be Paradise and too absurd to be Hell. Whatever the manipulations the Scotsman may have utilized to compensate for his project’s misfortunes, or whatever may have been the barrier of power or intelligibility between Francisco and his contractual superiors, he could not stop repeating to himself, “It’s too late to turn back now.” Telling himself that made it feel as though it was his own conclusion.