The British loss of West Florida in 1781 ushered in a new era for the region, an era dominated by Spanish rule. For some, like the many Spanish officers who orchestrated the capture of the colony, the loss brought about much celebration and promotion. For others, like the British inhabitants of the territory, this transition of power dislodged them from their homes and forced them to relocate to other British-controlled areas. One inhabitant wrote an account outlining information surrounding the evacuation of West Florida along with other details about the military and political climate of the Gulf of Mexico, most notably the Spanish position in Havana.
James Bruce was a warrant officer in the Royal Navy during the Seven Years’ War. Following this service, fortune favored Bruce. By luck, he became the customs collector in Pensacola. At the same time, he acquired vast tracts of land and he became a member of the provincial council. By the time the American Revolution came about, Bruce was a man of importance in the colony. Unfortunately for him, his position came to an end following the Siege of Pensacola in 1781, when the colony fell to Spanish dominion.
The most thorough biography of James Bruce overlooks two letters that he penned on the 22nd of January and the 25th of March, 1782, to the British secretary of state for the American colonies, Lord George Germain. They illuminate both his story and that of West Florida after its fall to the Spanish, offering tidbits of information Bruce found prudent to write about. The first letter was written from Charlestown (Charleston), South Carolina. He began with a comment on the hostility of the Indians towards the Spaniards. Bruce wrote, “they remain implacable in their hatred to the Spanish in so much that sometime before I came away they could not go out of the Garrison a mile to Cut Wood without a party of Armed Men to Protect the Wood Cutters.” Bruce went on to discuss the Spanish Forces present in West Florida and New Orleans:
The number of [Spanish] Troops [at Pensacola] in Garrison, Fort George, the advanced redoubt, and the Navy Redoubt at the Red Cliffs do not exceed Four Hundred Men, And their Naval Force was only One Sloop of Twelve three Pounders. At Mobile their Garrison did not exceed One Hundred and Fifty Men And even at New Orleans they had not above One Hundred Regular Troops.
After the colony’s evacuation, it appears that the relocating inhabitants were detained in Havana for forty-six days. There, Bruce learned of a plan to attack Jamaica, a British-held province, by a joint Franco-Spanish force. He also learned of the Spanish Force present at Havana, numbering, as his letter recalled, 4000 men, 6 line of battle ships, four frigates, and numerous vessels of “Smaller Force.” In addition to this information, Bruce mentioned trade being conducted at Havana with several “Rebel Vessels . . . all Armed . . . daily Arrivals . . . from America.” The letter read:
Having only arrived here a few days ago in the St. Joseph last from the Havanah with a number of the Inhabitants of West Florida as mentioned in my letter of the 1st of November. I think it my duty to mention to Your Lordship the situation of that Country after its Reduction And also to Submit to your Lordship the observations I made during my Stay in the Havannah.
In my Letter of the 1st of November I mentioned to Your Lordship that the Indians considering every Man to be in the Interest of Spain who remained on their Plantations had drove them all into the Town of Pensacola, and I have the Pleasure to Observe that they remain implacable in their hatred to the Spaniards in so much that sometime before I came away they could not go out of the Garrison a mile to Cut Wood without a party of Armed Men to Protect the Wood Cutters.
With respect to the Spanish Force on the Province at the time I left it, it was verry trifling, Nor had they been able to Procure sufficient Materials to repair the fortifications. The number of Troops In Garrison, Fort George, the advanced redoubt, and the Navy Redoubt at the Red Cliffs do not exceed Four Hundred Men, And their Naval Force was only One Sloop of Twelve three Pounders. At Mobile their Garrison did not exceed One Hundred and Fifty Men And even at New Orleans they had not above One Hundred Regular Troops, nor could they have much dependent on their Militia, who are most of them ruined by their General in his different Expeditions, who in return for their Services has loaded them with verry heavy Imports.
After arriving at the Havannah we were detained Forty Six days by an Embargo which had been laid on Nearly two Months before our arrival, [the reason being], that the Commander in Chief Don Bernardo de Galvez was Preparing Expeditions against some of our Settlements; New Providence and St. Augustine were the Ostensible places, But I had the best information that Neither of them were the places intended; But that their Force were collected in raidings to Cooperate with the French after their return from America in a grand attack on Jamaica, a Circumstance confirming my information, was Dispatches from Court for Don Galvez and Don Solano having arrived a few days before I left the Havanah derected for them at Cape Francois.
Sometime before I arrived at the Havannah Two Batle Ships and two Frigates Sailed from thence with Transports having on Board Two Thousand Troops said to be bound to Puerto Rico, and their Force remaining at the Havannah was Four Thousand Field Troops, Six Battle Ships four only then fit for Sea, Four Frigates of Thirty Eight Guns each, besides Several Vessels of Smaller Force.
I cannot omit Mentioning to your Lordship that the day I sailed from the Havannah there sailed from thence One Ship of 74 Guns, one of 38, two of 20, one of 10, and two Sloops, Also a Frigate of 20 Guns belonging to Congress. The destination of this Force was to Cruize between the Havannah and the Tortuga Bank in order to interrupt a Convoy from Jamaica said to be Escorted only by three Frigates; I sincerely wish they may be mistaken in their intelligence altho’ I’m sorry to say that I have good reason to believe that an intercourse is carried on between the two Islands verry detrimental to the Interest of Great Britain.
The Port was opened three days before I left the Havannah without any Expulsion having taken place, various were the conjectures but the Prevailing one was that they had received recent Information from their prosession on the Continent which induced them to adopt other Measures for the Present. I cannot conclude without acquainting Your Lordship that less than Forty Six Rebell Vessels from 70 to 200 Tons Burthen Sailed out of the Harbour, all Armed, on the 28th of December, having on board Dollars and Sugar in return for their Cargoes of Flour and other Provisions, and there were daily Arrivals of these Vesells from America.
I have the Honor to be with the greatest respect
Your Lordships Most Humble And most Obedient Servant
The second letter, dated March 25, 1782, was also written from Charleston. This one offered more detailed accounts of the expulsion of the British from Pensacola. In it, Bruce lamented to Germain that the less fortunate colonists cost the Crown some money in their reliance on the government for support. He further informed Germain of the “Eighty Loyal Inhabitants” who were left behind during the evacuation of West Florida and who, according to Bruce, were forced to decide between “the Cruel alternative of either becoming Subjects of Spain or Starving.” The rest of the letter discussed expense reports and their alleged mismanagement, resulting in additional, rather unnecessary, expenses to the Crown during the evacuation process of the colony. The letter said:
Having had the Honor of writing Your Lordship on the 1st of November from Pensacola And 22nd of January last from this Place, Copeys of both which I have the Honor to enclose And referr to, I have now to mention my extreme Sorrow at being under the Necessity of [informing] Your Lordship that by the detention of the Vessel at the Havannah for so long a time as Forty Six Days An Additional expense of Provisions for the Poor was unavoidably incurred, and the family’s who had barely sufficient to have paid for their passage when they left Pensacola, became by the destination Necessitated to be put on the Poors Lent for their Freight. They were both Carpenters who had been Employed in the Kings works at Pensacola for upwards of Two Years before its reduction.
Your Lordship will Perhaps think that the Expenses of Freight Provisions and other Necessary Charges on this occasion have been great, But when it is considered that it was unavoidable on any other terms than that of Leaving upwards of Eighty Loyal Inhabitants (Men Women And children) to the Cruel alternative of either becoming Subjects of Spain or Starving, more especially as most of them had come to West Florida as to an Asylum, And as the Strictest Attention has been paid to Frugality in the Management, I hope Your Lordship will rather approve than condemn the measure. I am however Sory to be under the Necessity of mentioning that some considerable expenses have been incurred on the Same Account Since any departure from West florida, a great part of which might have been avoided, had the Records been put on board the Vessel with me agreable to my repealed desire, and the Public Officers which remained at that time had Embraced the opportunity Provided for them.
I have the Honor to inclose for Your Lordships Inspection An Abstract of the expenses incurred since the 2nd of November Last the Amount of which I have been under the Necessity of Drawing Bills for, on the Provincial Agent which I hope Your Lordship will be pleased to order may be duly honored. I have likewise been under the Necessity of drawing Bills on the Provincial Agent for a . . . Sallary as Senior Counsellor And Commander in Chief Agreeable to His Majestys Royal Instructions & Commission, from the departure of Governor Chester to the time of my Arrival here . . .
I have the Honor to be with the greatest Respect and deference.
Your Lordships Most Obedient And Most Humble Servant
James Bruce did not remain in Charleston. He emigrated back to England in 1783 where he petitioned for one year’s back pay along with compensation for the losses of his vast property holdings in West Florida. It is unknown whether Bruce received his back pay, but as for his property compensation, his claims as a Loyalist were rejected. As for West Florida, following its fall to the Spanish in 1781 with the capture of its two largest population centers, its transfer was made official with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. James Bruce’s letters provide insight into the history of British West Florida, and also bridge a gap in existing scholarship addressing the life story of this Loyalist British government official.
Luisa Martin-Meras, “The Capture of Pensacola through Maps, 1781,” Legacy: Spain and the United States in the Age of Independence, 1763-1848 (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2007).
Robin F. A. Fabel (1988). “Ordeal by Siege: James Bruce in Pensacola, 1780-1781,” The Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 66 No. 3, (1988), 280.
James Bruce to Lord George Germain, January 22, 1782, Documents of the British Possessions of East and West Florida 1762-1801, Florida State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives.
James Bruce to Lord George Germain, March 25, 1782, Documents of the British Possessions of East and West Florida 1762-1801, Florida State University Libraries Special Collections & Archives.
I recently read ‘Independence Lost’, by Kathleen Duval. A fascinating account on the loss of the Florida colonies and the interactions of individuals, including James Bruce, in this part of the continent during the Revolutionary War.
Independence Lost won the JAR Book Award in 2015; see our announcement here: