Talking History: James Monroe vs. The Spanish American Pirates

Talking History: James Monroe vs. The Spanish American Pirates

On November 9, 2017 David Head from the University of Central Florida talked about privateering and the attack on Amelia Island in the early 19th century. Head began by discussing the 1817 State of the Union letter from Monroe discussing Spain and Spanish America. Then he talks about the attack on Amelia Island and what American’s did about it. Head mentions that the attack on Amelia Island is not very well known about because the Monroe Administration handled it so well, that people forgot about it because they were so successful in dealing with the situation.

Next, Head gave more context on the Spanish American war and Amelia Island attack. He talks about Gregor MacGregor, a British officer who served in the Napoleonic wars. MacGregor claims nobility however there is no record or proof of his official title as “sir.” MacGregor became a general in the Venezuelan service and planned to conquer Amelia, regroup, and then conquer Florida, which at the time was Spanish America. The reason why he wanted Amelia Island was because it was on the border between the United States and Spanish America. Its location was good for smuggling (goods, slaves, etc) across borders, privateering, and was close to the US but outside the jurisdiction of US laws. In 1817 MacGregor successfully conquered the island and renamed it to “La Republica de las Floridas.” Despite this success, MacGregor soon found himself facing some issues. Little privateering was done, and there were smuggling and resupplying problems for the island. Also, at the same time there was rumor/ paranoia of a counter attack from the Spanish.

Then, Head talks about Commodore Louis-Michel Aury. Aury had experience with privateering and accumulated $500,000 in prize goods, was a successful slave trader, and declared himself Chief of the Republic “de las Floridas.” Aury also drafted a constitution for the island. Next, Head talks about US intervention. In spring of 1817, Monroe increases military around the area of Mary’s River which was the US/ Spanish American border. The military enforced custom’s laws which maintained that the US would only intervene if vessels held cargo that weighed more than 10 tons. While this worked to some degree, rowboats could still cross the river without detection carrying some cargo, according to Head.

Monroe finally decided to invade Florida in 1818, due to the violations of U.S laws, neutrality violations, and piracy law (seizing vessels without proper commission). To fight this, MacGregor claims that he was authorized by a commission from Philadelphia to attack Amelia Island, acting on behalf of the Mexican government. However, the commission was illegal. Head continues by explaining a secret law called the “No Transfer Resolution,” which gave the president the authority to use force if there was a threat to Florida of being seized by some other power.  Monroe was convinced that this law was justifiable to this situation and sent the army and navy, who took down Aury’s flag before he fled south to Mexico.

Towards the end of his presentation, Head considers the negative reactions and criticisms of recapturing of Amelia Island. One argument was that the US should not have been policing other countries around the world. Another argument was that the US was defending Amelia Island on behalf of Spain. Either way, Monroe gets support from the congressional committee after their investigation. Head finishes his presentation by stating that Monroe wanted to leave Amelia Island but eventually chose to keep the island to protect US interest in Florida.





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