Judges for British Subjects in Spanish East Florida
51 Pages Posted: 7 Jan 2021 Last revised: 8 Jan 2021
Date Written: 2021
Great Britain transferred East Florida with its capital St. Augustine to Spain in 1783. From the early months of 1783 until November 1785, the province experienced overlapping assertions of jurisdiction during a protracted transitional period. Arriving in mid-1784, Spanish Governor Zéspedes encountered a massive British population that did not leave as quickly as imperial authorities or treaty drafters anticipated. Lacking a legal adviser and instructions from Spanish authorities, Zéspedes asserted Spanish sovereignty through various ad hoc legal innovations. This article addresses his creation of “Judges over His Britannic Majesty’s Subjects” resident in Spanish East Florida. The judges appointed were not trained in English law; British subjects resisted their assertions of jurisdiction, the procedures they employed, and their attempts to provide Spanish justice for their British guests. This episode exposes jurisdictional battles tied to sovereignty in a legally plural, imperially liminal place and moment. It reveals gaps in legal understanding between imperial actors and established prejudices between British common law and Spanish colonial law (derecho indiano) in criminal civil, and procedural matters. This distance was exacerbated by a lack of informed legal experts. British residents yearned for a stable place and stable law as they settled their affairs and departed East Florida. The Spanish leadership responded to these desires with assertions of absolute sovereignty and instances of legal ingenuity such as Judges for British Subjects.
Keywords: judges, legal pluralism, empire, sovereignty, criminal law, enslaved humans, derecho indiano
JEL Classification: K10, K14, K40, K41, N41, N46, N91, N96
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation